Sunday, April 20, 2014

Mark Nadler: A Cabaret about Cabaret

What makes a Cabaret a Cabaret? Is it drinks and music, or is it spending time with a performer who invites you into his world? Mark Nadler tells us a story about his world and the dark past of cabaret in Weimar Germany. 

The word cabaret  conjures up for me a dark room with people crowded around uncomfortably small tables only half listening to a singer who tries to hold their attention while waiters serve and diners drink and dine. Some of my favorite singers are strongly associated with the smell of smoke and the clink of glasses in a dimly lit space with poor ventilation. The word also brings to mind the dark, daring world of the film Cabaret where a struggling young singer tries to survive in a Germany fast being taken over by the Nazis. 

What happens when the two experiences combine, the intimate setting around food and drink, and an audience watching a performance from the distance of a stage? That was the challenge facing Mark Nadler in his recent show I’m A Stranger Here Myself at the Prince Music Theater in Philadelphia—how to make the audience sitting in a large theater space feel that they are a part of the show as well as observers of it—and with no food or drink to distract or engage us.

What draws us into the cabaret or nightclub instead of a traditional show is precisely that intimacy. We want a nice dinner out with friends and don’t want to have to go to the theater afterwards, or we want to hear a particular singer, or the club is known for the kind of musicians who perform there, and we’ll go no matter what.

Nadler, here too, had to work against circumstances. He’s not that well known in Philadelphia, so his name isn’t quite the draw it might be in Manhattan, where he’s more of an institution. And Philly, while a strong music scene, is not a town of cabarets. To counteract that, he’s combined a bit of both worlds by creating a show around a theme—even if we don’t know the singer, we’ll go for the songs because they’re familiar, or, as in this case, not familiar. Before seeing this show, I had little idea of the music of the Weimar Republic, although I had heard of many of the writers, musicians, and composers of the time, like Kurt Weill, and Lotte Lenya, and Marlene Dietrich—mainly because once they left Germany and came to the US, they built careers here and their later work is identified with American music and theater.

Nadler’s entrance from a platform above and to the left of the stage was a part of creating that sense of participation, and his stepping down into the audience to sing to and interact with the front rows, also tried to draw us into the experience. Wearing a tailored, striped suit with a large yellow boutonniere, reminiscent of the identification of the Jews by a yellow star, he conjured up the period, while behind him, images of the people he spoke about appeared on the walls of the cozy room that hinted at a cabaret space with a grand piano on stage.

The Weimar Republic of Germany, that period between the fall of the Kaiser and the rise of Hitler, was apparently an exciting time in Germany. What most of us know of it comes from the play and, more likely, movie, Cabaret, but most of us who saw them have only dim memories of them by now and young people probably haven’t seen them at all. Interestingly, although Nadler has was familiar with the music of that period, and identified with the repressed classes (Jews and homosexuals) who were given unprecedented freedom for such a short time—Nadler himself is a Jewish homosexual raised in Iowa—he was not the one who instigated the show. “The truth is,” said Nadler, “I put the show together because of a booking at CafĂ© Sebarsky at Neue Galerie in Manhattan in conjunction with an exhibit they were having of paintings from the Weimer Republic.” Already fascinated by period, he added, “it was thrilling to create a show composed of the songs of that time.”

The anthem of the show, the recurring theme, “I don’t know whom I belong to, I believe I belong to myself alone,” by Frederick Hollander and Robert Lichtman resonated with Nadler in his own life. When he was 14 he left home to go to an arts boarding school, the Interlochen Academy in Michigan. From there he went on to Manhattan where he worked in nightclubs and cabarets, as well as with symphony orchestras, learning his trade. Images from his own life also appeared behind him and we could see a young boy just beginning his career while we listened to the man that young boy has grown into tell us his story.

Accompanied by a violin (Vena Johnson, with a blond bob and a tailored suit) and accordion (Rosie Langabeer in fishnet stockings and boots), and backed up by a set on which were shown the people and places he talked about, Nadler tried to recreate a sense of that lost world as well as his own personal history.

Nadler’s charm transcended some of the material. We were indignant with him about the injustice of the stories he told, we rejoiced with him that for a period of time the arts flourished in Germany before they were squelched.  

The show was a mixture of history—made personal through stories of individuals, some known, like Weill, some not—music—mostly unfamiliar, even if the writers of the songs wrote more familiar music later on—and humor—which sometimes made us laugh, and, unfortunately, sometimes made us cringe. An attempt to engage with a couple in the front row led to some awkward moments as well as awkward positions, the use of the goose step and Nazi salute to make a point, just made me uncomfortable, though others laughed where I could not. There were also moments of pathos, sadness that so much life and beauty was ruthlessly destroyed. And also hope—that artists and outsiders like Nadler himself, and his family, could survive and continue to create.

Nadler is a busy man. As well as performing in this show, he recently appeared with KT Sullivan in A Swell Party -- RSVP Cole Porter, and he is preparing  his next show Runnin’ Wild: Songs and Scandals of the Roaring 20s at 54 Below in NYC.

I’m a Stranger Here Myself, Mark Nadler, at the Prince Music Theatre, 1412 Chestnut St., Philadelphia, PA.  April 2-12, 2014.  (215) 972-1000 or

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