Sunday, December 29, 2019

Berlin: 1999

As we near the end of another decade, I am reminded that it was 20 years ago this month that I saw in the Millennium in the fascinating city of Berlin, and in the guise of one of Berlin's most famous native daughters: Marlene Dietrich.

Black Market Marlene
I had been impersonating Dietrich for about five years at that point.  My first act, Queen of the World: Marlene Dietrich in Concert, had been followed by Black Market Marlene: a Dietrich Cabaret, my most successful endeavor with the screen siren. The act had been commissioned by the late impresario, Erv Raible, who invited me to create an original show for his legendary club, Eighty Eights.

I conceived a sung-through piece presenting Marlene in her gender-bending signature look of top hat and tails, incorporating pieces she sang in male drag as well as lots of her early film and recorded songs in German, French and English.  Accompanied by brilliant musical director and arranger David Maiocco, accordionist Tony Lauria and drummer Mary Rodriquez, I insinuated myself through the intimate club, weaving an illusion of a bygone Berlin cabaret suffused with smoke and mystery. For a glimpse of my Dietrich work at that time, enjoy Rick McKay's short film on me, Illusions.

The show was a big success, garnering rave reviews and launching a series of tour dates in cities like New Orleans and San Francisco, as well as gay hot spots Fire Island and Provincetown.  A Berlin cabaret promoter, Klaus "Mabel" Ascheneller, who represented several drag acts which he'd had success with in Germany (including drag opera diva Shequida), saw the piece and decided to pitch it to the BKA, an edgy cabaret venue.  Impressed with my rave New York reviews, and the images of me as Marlene, the BKA booked me to perform through the '99 Christmas season, the Millennium festivities and into 2000.  

Thank heaven David Maiocco was hired to come with me, and off we flew to Berlin.  To call the first few days we were there a whirlwind would be an understatement.  The producers at BKA barely spoke any English, and neither David nor I spoke enough German to get by.  We were introduced to our two musicians, neither of whom had much if any English: a female French classical accordionist and a German drummer.  David spoke the language of music to these talented musicians, and set to work getting them up to speed.

Meantime my schedule had been arranged for me, with interviews and press events, culminating in a segment for Berlin Public Television which had me followed around the city by a camera crew to various places significant to Dietrich, including her grave site.  There was a controversy over the giant posters of me plastered all over town: the Dietrich Estate, administered by Marlene's daughter, Maria Riva, insisted that the photo of me used on the posters was of the actual Dietrich and was being used without license.  Staving off their cease-and-desist order, my German agent had to put them in touch with my NYC photographer, Stephen Mosher, who provided proof that the shot was of me.  It was rather flattering in a way, but added to the overall stress of the situation.

The Public TV segment was shot the day of my opening performance.  The concept of preview performances was unknown to the BKA, and unbeknownst to us, they'd invited every television and radio station in Berlin, as well as the national press, to cover my first performance.  Despite the Germans' ambivalent attitude toward Dietrich (she's rather like Joan Crawford to them--simultaneously reviled and celebrated), an American drag performer playing the siren garnered a great deal of interest.

To add to the pressure of the moment, the camera crew whisking me around Berlin got me to the club without enough time for me to do the 90 minutes of makeup required to transform into Marlene.  This meant that my performance went up 45 minutes late.  By the time I emerged on stage to begin the show, a cranky full house of dignitaries and Berlin cognoscenti had been smoking (and fuming) for over an hour.  My first entrance was like something out of Fellini.  The room was thick with cigarette smoke. A row of television cameras in the back was staring me in the face. In the front row, Germany's top drag performers, in full regalia, were seated alongside the German Minister of Culture.  Arms folded, they peered at this drag arriviste American with all the warmth of a firing squad.

The performance happened.  At the end, the audience stamped its feet and demanded encores.  I learned afterward that Germans are very persnickety about genre.  My show was promoted as a cabaret, but the German idea of what a cabaret was bore little resemblance to what I was doing--they expected political humor, satire, improvisation, riffing off the audience.  I was doing a sung-through art piece with virtually no patter. To them, this was a concert and they were going to teach this upstart American a lesson.  My show incorporated no encores.  The audience applauded and stamped until I was forced to roll out three encores of songs I had already performed.  Finally, sweating and exhausted, I was allowed to leave the stage.

The next day, the press lambasted me. From the national newspaper Die Welt on down, the reviews were in and they were vicious.  You see, also unbeknownst to me, there had just been a highly successful Berlin run of Pam Gems' play Marlene starring a famous German television star, who had received raves. I didn't realize that my engagement was a thumb in the eye of this lady's success--and by a Yank, no less!  The press sharpened their knives and drew blood. 

With brilliant musical director, David Maiocco
Funnily enough--although my producers were freaking out, and I was devastated by the notices--I learned another perverse thing about the German public: they love controversy.  Far from dissuading people from coming to the show, the bad reviews made them want to see for themselves and make up their own minds about it.  The run sold out.  Audiences loved it.  People from Marlene's past started showing up and greeting me after performances-- including a little old lady in a babushka who threw herself, weeping, into my arms.  She'd been Marlene's dresser in the early 60s when she'd brought her act to Berlin, amidst controversy far more dramatic than what I was experiencing.

The BKA contracted me to host their New Year's Eve event, a varieté program--sort of like a vaudeville--with me as Marlene doing a few numbers and introducing the various acts, which included a belly dancer, a snake charmer, and my partner Damien--who was a dancer with Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo--performing The Dying Swan, en pointe.  It was surreal and sublime to find myself in this strange Weimar-style fun house as the 90s came to a close.

We toasted each other with champagne as midnight struck, people taking to the streets firing guns into the air, as fireworks exploded over the Siegessäule. David Maiocco dubbed our Berlin adventure The Marlennium Tour.  It certainly was a trip.  Twenty years ago.  Seems like another life, and certainly another career.  

Ich hab' noch einen Koffer in Berlin...

Monday, December 23, 2019

A New Decade Approaches

Well, here we are, about to start a new decade.  One thing I know for sure--the older I get, the faster time seems to fly.  Having already posted a sort of recap of my various ventures and creative projects of the year, I am taking this opportunity to reflect on the decade past and some home truths I have come to embrace.

I've been cobbling together ideas and notes for a memoir I am considering writing.  For inspiration, I recently read the wonderful and hilarious autobiography of Eric Idle, "Always Look On the Bright Side of Life." It reminded me that the decade that is coming to a close started for me with the finale of the First National Tour of Eric and John DuPrez's Tony-winning Best Musical Spamalot.

It was my most prestigious and most lucrative acting job to date. In October 2009, we gave our last show in Costa Mesa, CA.  By then I had been on the road for 22 months, played 62 city stops in North America, and turned in over 680 performances as Sir Robin.  I had starred opposite my idol Gary Beach, as well as greats Richard Chamberlain, Jonathan Hadary, and John O'Hurley.

I can't deny that I expected, as I returned to New York with a nice bank account, fancy LA head shots and a brand new agent, that my next step would be: BROADWAY.  From the age of 11, my dearest held aspiration, The Great White Way.  And having played a leading role in a hugely successful tour, I hoped and anticipated that doors in that hallowed echelon of the business would open for me.

Well, a decade has passed and Broadway remains elusive.  Virtually every other principal actor I worked with on the tour has done multiple Broadway shows and made big inroads into film and television in the past ten years.  While I often counsel my coaching clients and acting students not to compare their relative success and failure to that of others, it is sometimes impossible not to go down that rabbit hole of doubt and self-pity myself.  

As I've been putting together anecdotes about those halcyon days on the road, one story continues to creep up on me and rankles like no other.  Spamalot was directed by Mike Nichols and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw.  This was certainly the show that put Casey on the map as a major force. The Book of Mormon and his many other successes were yet to come, and of course now he is, arguably, the most significant director on Broadway.

Casey came to see the tour in February of 2008 when we were playing Huntsville, AL.  It was the first time I had met him; I had already been in the show for well over a year.  At our note session, Casey was over the moon about my performance and gave me nothing but positive feedback.  I was elated.

A month later, we were in Wilmington, DE rehearsing John O'Hurley into our company in anticipation of our West Coast tour, which would take us to San Francisco for two months and then to LA and the Ahmanson Theatre for nine weeks. Casey came to see the show and, knowing he was in the house, I was probably pushing a bit in my performance; the overall mandate for Spamalot was a very low key, almost deadpan performance style.  Anyway, the next day we had a work session with Casey.

Everyone gathered on stage and Casey arrived to begin rehearsal.  To my surprise, he singled me out and began to dress me down, demanding to know what had happened to me and how my work could have become so awful--and that I had ruined the previous night's performance.  To this day, I find it hard to believe that in just a few short weeks I could have gone from brilliant in his estimation to ruining the show.  But in the moment, I was stunned.  And the worst thing you can do to a person who was ridiculed, bullied and brutalized for the first 10 years of his life in public school is to ridicule and bully him in front of his peers.  Casey could have taken me privately aside and told me I had been pushing and I needed to pull my performance back.  But he didn't. And so, feeling attacked, I stood up for myself.  

What transpired was a heated five minute squabble between me and Casey, witnessed by all, which left me shaking and furious.  But I took his notes, gave a better performance that night, and was told by his assistant that Casey left Wilmington happy with my work.  But the bad taste remained with me.  One of the dysfunctions of show business is that things happen, or don't happen, in one's career and one never knows why (or why not).  I have always wondered if that five minutes in which I quarreled with Casey hurt my chances of making inroads into Broadway.

But, of course, this way madness lies.  I will say that a year later, I got into an elevator at 42nd Street Studios in New York and stood right next to Casey.  I said hi, and he acted like he didn't know me.  My mind reeled.  As I said: madness.

Which brings me back to Eric.  Because these stories we hold on to--particularly the negative ones, the moments we actors think ruined forever our dreams of success and fame--can overshadow the really affirming, amazing moments we've experienced.  So, in the aftermath of this negative moment with Casey, we made our way out west.

One night, at the Ahmanson in LA, I was doing my big number, "You Won't Succeed on Broadway," and I looked out and there was Eric Idle sitting in the third row along with his gorgeous wife Tania, and next to them, Billy Crystal and his wife Janice.  Throughout my song, Billy was howling with laughter and having the time of his life.  It was surreal.

After the show,  I'm leaving my dressing room and heading home.  I open the door, and who is standing outside my room waiting for me to come out but Eric, Tania, Janice, and Billy--who points at me and shouts: "YOU!!  YOU ARE HILARIOUS!"  He then leaps forward and takes me into a huge embrace, lifting me off the floor. Eric steps forward and pats me on the back and says to Billy, "Didn't I tell you he was great?"  I'm thinking--what is happening here?  Whose life is this?  I spent the next ten minutes with these two comedy legends as they and their wives gushed over me.  I only wish in 2009 we'd had phones equipped with cameras and video. 

Anyway, you see where I'm going with this?  The most important director-to-be on Broadway gave me a negative set of notes in front of my fellow actors and I thought my career irreparably damaged... and a few weeks later, the show's writer, one of the Pythons, the entire reason for Spamalot existing, the ORIGINAL Sir Robin-- and his buddy, one of the greatest and most successful actor/comedians of all time-- told me I was brilliant.  What better vote of confidence could I have?

And yeah... Broadway hasn't happened.  Yet.  But I've learned that holding on so strongly and desperately to a desired goal can make one unappreciative--almost unaware-- of the great things one is already achieving and has achieved.  So, no, the decade past didn't bring my Broadway debut.  What did it bring?  Relatively consistent employment as an actor at some of our finest theaters, and more and more great parts.  I've gotten to play a handful of my all time dream roles: Thénardier, John Adams, Nathan Detroit, Captain Hook. I've developed new musicals and worked with more legends: Jerry Lewis, Marvin Hamlisch, Sally Struthers, Valerie Harper. I've developed great relationships with directors and theaters  who've invited me back numerous times.  I've broken through with small bits on great TV shows: Law & Order: SVU  and Succession.  

So, have I achieved my ultimate dream? Not yet.  But I have probably achieved the ultimate dreams of many in my profession who continue to strive toward opportunities I have been fortunate enough to have had.  As 2020 approaches, I have concluded that no matter what the future brings, we must embrace the good in our lives, give ourselves credit for our hard work, and just keep moving forward with as much optimism as possible.