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Interview: Mark Nadler of HART'S DESIRE at The Laurie Beechman Theatre, Opening PRIDE Weekend

"I am challenging myself to do something I've never done before."

Interview: Mark Nadler of HART'S DESIRE at The Laurie Beechman Theatre, Opening PRIDE Weekend

Years ago, Mark Nadler cracked the cabaret code. Early in his career, the singing, dancing, piano-playing storyteller found his voice and his place as a cabaret artist and he has been shining from that place, ever since. Respected for his energy, skill, and individuality, Mark Nadler has been hailed as one of the cabaret greats, and as an entertainer who always digs deep and delivers the goods.

With his new show HART'S DESIRE, Mark Nadler has gone out on a limb, doing something he has never done before: create an entirely brand-new musical, using only dialogue and songs written by Misters Moss and Larry Hart (no relation). This show, opening on the Saturday of Gay Pride in New York City, is Nadler's exploration on what life might have been like for the two legendary theater creatives, had they been allowed to by society to live in the light as members of the LGBTQIA+ community. The new musical uses dialogue from one Hart's plays and songs from the other Hart's canon to give Larry and Moss a voice that they never had before. With Hart's Desire, Mark Nadler has, essentially, given Lorenz and Moss the artistic freedom and authenticity that the world denied them, during their lives.

As the days of the month of June pass us by and PRIDE weekend approaches, Mark Nadler sat down to chat with Broadway World about Hart's Desire, about the rewards that come with creating art from an authentic place, and why he never, ever, had to live in the closet.

This interview has been edited for space and content.

Mark Nadler! Welcome to Broadway World.

Thank you, Stephen!

You are one of the most unique voices in the industry, and I wonder how you found your artistic voice as a cabaret performer. How did you create the Mark Nadler brand?

Interview: Mark Nadler of HART'S DESIRE at The Laurie Beechman Theatre, Opening PRIDE Weekend (Laughing) Well, I'm flattered to pieces by what you've said here, but I didn't consciously create anything. I just chose the songs that I wanted to sing and sang them in the ways I wanted to sing them. And, also, the more I read about the people I admired, the more I wanted to emulate what they did: for example, the great songwriters and creators of shows, like Richard Rogers and Cole Porter and Gershwin and Stephen Sondheim, consciously, always tried to do something new within a show, particularly not so much Cole Porter or the Gershwins but certainly, Rodgers did, and Sondheim... and I thought that's an appealing idea. I never wanted to do the same show twice, just for the fun of it, just for the growth of it, you know? That took me into new territory. (Laughing)

Was your path to cabaret a straight one?

Nothing in my life is straight.

(Laughter all around)

Here's how I got involved with cabaret. I came to New York, like everybody else, at the age of 17, and wanted to be a star in musical theater, and I kept getting hired in piano bars. So I never had to wait tables, that was my version of waiting tables - piano bars. And the places that I'm talking about, some of them were gay bars, like a place called Bogarts, and there was a hustler bar called Rounds, but there was the Five Oaks and there was Marie's Crisis, and this was my training ground. And because I had been playing in bars and saloons since I was 10 years old, that's where I felt at home and where I got work easily. I found that I developed a following, so I could put together a cabaret show and fill the room very easily.

Interview: Mark Nadler of HART'S DESIRE at The Laurie Beechman Theatre, Opening PRIDE Weekend
Mark Nadler in a play by Camus called "The Just Assassins" at the Interlochen Arts Academy.

Importantly, the other thing is (that) I went to see cabaret shows and I found them so exciting and inspiring. When I saw Julie Wilson at the Oak Room at the Algonquin, it completely changed my life. And likewise seeing Lena Horne on Broadway do The Lady And Her Music - that was a cabaret show. It was a two-hour cabaret show, and I thought I really would much rather do this than sing Rum Tum Tugger eight times a week. It also became impractical for me to take jobs in the theater because I was making so much money as a cabaret performer. You know, when you accompany yourself and you are your own director, and if you fill the house, you make a nice chunk of change. I had a manager who was booking me all over the place and I was making good money, and somebody would offer me a job in a theater for $500 a week. Well, geez, I was making a lot more than that per night. So it just became an issue of practicality.

So, the practicality of it, the business side of it, the income side of it took a front seat, and you never missed the artistic side of acting.

Well, I made it my job because I wanted to make my shows as theatrical as I possibly could, and to use all of my knowledge about acting and all of the studying I had done about acting, and use it in my presentation of the songs, and of my shows.

I think it's fair to say you have a big personality.

(Mark Laughs)

Do you think that, at a teenage age, getting to see Julie Wilson and Lena Horne, women who had big personalities did that?

I didn't see them until I was in my twenties but who I did see... when I was a young teenager, I got my first big gulp of Bette Midler. This was not in person, but her Live At Last recording, the one in Cleveland, I listened to that over and over and over and over and over again - I was addicted to that recording and I was stealing the jokes.. (Laughing) That recording showed me what a cabaret show could be and what a great entertainer could be. Every time I could see Midler do anything on TV (eventually in person), that totally opened my eyes as to what a great entertainer could be.

You and I both grew up in a time when being ourselves could be dangerous. How were you able to take your love of these original individual women and allow it to inform your artistry?

Interview: Mark Nadler of HART'S DESIRE at The Laurie Beechman Theatre, Opening PRIDE Weekend
Mark Nadler at The Long Straw Saloon at age fourteen.

You know, Stephen, for me, it was never dangerous. I grew up in Iowa, yes, but I started working in this saloon when I was 10 years old; I had done community theater. So I was using that background in those performances, and I wasn't doing anything that was outwardly gay - I mean, I certainly was a big personality as a young kid, and I was doing outrageous things. The piano at the saloon was a player piano, and when nobody was looking, I would put the piano roll in for the song Charleston, and I would put my fingers on the keys as the keys were going down, so it looked like I was playing... and then at one moment I would just stand up and start dancing the Charleston. This is not an Iowa football player sort of thing to do (Laughing) so I'm sure there was no question in anybody's mind that this little Jew was gay (Laughing) but they didn't think of it that way. The woman who cleaned our house was this wonderful salt of the earth woman, and when it came out that Liberace had AIDS, she said, "Can you believe what they're saying about this nice man?" Nobody... if they didn't wanna believe someone was gay, they just simply didn't believe it. That's how that town was. But when I came out - I went to the Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan for my high school education. That was from the years of being 14 to 18. At an arts high school, I was out from the moment I got there. So it was never an issue of anything being dangerous or difficult - and this was 1976 to 1980, so, the sexual revolution was well on, and I was living it out.

You have always lived in the light.

I have. I'm very proud to say that my parents... well, my dad had a little bit of an issue, but he got over it pretty fast. My mother never really had an issue because I raised myself. They were busy with three other kids. I was working, I got myself out of that town to go to high school in an arts high school, and so it was just never an issue for them. So it was never an issue for me.

What kind of thoughts, what kind of feelings do you have about the way the times have changed, So that young gay LGBT people can absolutely be whomever they want to be, and put that all in the spotlight of their nightclub acts.

Interview: Mark Nadler of HART'S DESIRE at The Laurie Beechman Theatre, Opening PRIDE Weekend
Mark Nadler with husband Dominic and Figaro.

Well, of course I have a whole lot of opinions about that. I am so grateful that we have come this far. There were drag Queens when I was coming up, and there were people who were just simply considered odd who would probably be gender fluid now. But it existed then. It was presented in a different light. But the fact that people can actually openly discuss and play with and have fun with their sexuality on stage: I'm so proud of how far we've come and frankly, I'm so frightened that we're all gonna be going right back to the closet, any day now, as you know, with the Supreme Court the way that it is, it's a very scary situation for people like us. And I worry that our children are gonna be shoved back into self-hatred. I never suffered from self-hatred. I didn't have that problem, but I certainly know a lot of people who did, and I knew a lot of people who did. I have friends who committed suicide. I certainly lost a lot of people to AIDS. That self-loathing that, frankly, the church demands is so dangerous and so evil, and I do worry that we're going back to it. But I'm amazed at how far we've come and so proud of how far we've come, and so grateful to my predecessors in the gay community who made it possible for us to be where we are.

I think that's why it's important for (if you will) older gay men like you and me to set good examples, to build friendships with young queer people, to hold hands with our husbands when we walk in the street so that the queer youth can see representation.

Yeah. And Harvey Fierstein said something on television once that I never forgot: please let's stop sleeping with our children. Let's just stop doing that. You know, be age-appropriate with your partners, and you'll find a lot of happiness and satisfaction in that.

And on the topic of the gay lifestyle, you have deliberately brought it into your latest show, which is about Larry Hart and Moss Hart and their sexuality.

Well, it's not actually about that. It's sort of despite that; Moss Hart was bisexual and Larry Hart was gay. Both of them were, by necessity, in the closet in the thirties, forties, and fifties when they wrote (well, Larry Hart didn't write in the fifties, he didn't live that long). These men were very deeply in the closet, Moss Hart, particularly. And, so, I thought, wouldn't it be great if these guys could just have the benefit of living today in a society where writers are openly writing about their sexuality, wouldn't it be fun to let Larry Hart and Moss Hart have that opportunity? So I poured through every Moss Hart play I could get my hands on, and every lyric ever written by Larry Hart, and I searched and pieced together a fantasy musical that is my idea of what I think they would have written if they had been out of the closet. And it has gay characters and bisexual characters. It's a two-act musical with an intermission, completely integrated, eight characters, I play all the parts, so it's that kind of a tour-de-force, as an actor, and takes me into a whole new area. But the idea is that it's a real full-out musical that they could have written, and every word of it is written by them.

But curated by you.

Yeah. I took two lines from one play and pieced them together with a speech from another play, and put a song from Larry Hart to take it off in a whole other direction. It is completely compiled by me, but I can't take credit for any of the writing, just the jigsaw puzzling.

How long did it take you to piece it together?

(Heavy sigh) About six months - first there was all the reading and then, to actually do the piecing together, and I'm still fine-tuning it. I'm gonna open it on Saturday the 25th, but I'm still fine-tuning it. It took a long time to find exactly the right words to take the plot in the direction that I wanted it to go in, and to make the songs feel like they were written for those characters and coming out of that dialogue so that it's completely integrated, and to have the songs advance the plot as much as possible.

But you put this kind of detail into every project that you do.

I do, but they're all different. This is the first time I've actually created an out-and=out musical.

So how do you feel?

Interview: Mark Nadler of HART'S DESIRE at The Laurie Beechman Theatre, Opening PRIDE Weekend (Big laugh)I feel really excited. I did four performances of it in San Francisco and it went great; the audiences were sort of thrilled by i.t and kind of astonished that somebody could do what I'm doing... and I always like that. (Laughing) Cause, you know, I'm accompanying myself, as well, while I'm doing all of this, and I'm tap dancing, and I'm playing all the parts, and it's just sort of like this crazy thing of one person doing it all. It's also an opportunity for me to be the musical comedy performer that I always wanted to be. I'm just loving doing all of that. I'm very eager for a New York audience.

And in the process, you're innovating the art form of cabaret.

Maybe - it's not my intention, it doesn't need innovating in my opinion, but I am challenging myself to do something I've never done before.

It is always exciting when an artist creates something that comes so deeply from within them, that it's completely new.

If it artistically succeeds, It's not so exciting if it fails. (Laughing) It succeeded in San Francisco, I'll give you that. I've done some rewriting since then.

So, you're ahead of the curve.

Exactly.

You've been directing quite a little bit.

Oh, I've been directing for a long time,

What I have really loved about your directing work is that you, as an individual, stand-alone and you help your clients to find that light where they can stand alone. How did you develop such trust with your clients, that they are able to take these leaps into the unknown with you?

Interview: Mark Nadler of HART'S DESIRE at The Laurie Beechman Theatre, Opening PRIDE Weekend Well, first of all, thank you for saying that. People do not hire me to direct their show unless they want what it is that I have to offer it. What I have to offer is I will insist on them stretching with things they hadn't done before. I am very big on it all being about the acting and the lyrics. I am a musician, and when I direct, I usually do the arrangements with the music director, I don't just let the music director do the arrangements, but the reason I do that is because I insist on doing arrangements that will flesh out the lyrics, so the audience can hear the lyrics more clearly. It's all about the lyric and the acting, and acting a song - as Julie Wilson taught me - is about fully expressing yourself in the lyrics. So as a director, my job is to get to know the client and to help them to bring out parts of their personality that makes for good entertainment, whether it's serious or funny,

I studied acting with some of the greats, I really did. Charles Nelson Reilly was my acting teacher - I really studied with some incredible teachers and I really know acting technique, and when you apply that to singing and to songs, it does help an artist to bring themselves forward in the lyric.

It's paramount.

The other thing that's paramount (and anybody who hires me expects this) is it's got to be entertaining. It's got to be something that the audience enjoys sitting through and gets wrapped up in. I'm very conscious of never letting a show be pedantic or boring: the entertainment part of it is very important to me, and hopefully in my shows, as well,

You have chosen the 25th to open your new show. It is the weekend of New York Pride. Was that done on purpose?

Absolutely. My show is the show that these two closeted men would have written, had they been out of the closet. For me, that is the ultimate celebration of gay pride, celebrating how far we've come, apropos to our earlier conversation.

You're a gay rights activist in tap shoes.

(Laughing heartily) You mean there's a gay rights activist who's not in tap shoes?

Me. I don't tap, I don't know how.

Well, it's not too late to learn, Stephen.

Mark. I'm so grateful to you for sharing this story with us today. I can't wait to see the show.

I can't wait for you to see it. I can't wait for everybody to come see it.

Mark Nadler HART'S DESIRE plays The Laurie Beechman Theatre on June 25th, July 20th, and August 24th at 7 pm (all performances). For information and reservations, visit the Laurie Beechman Theatre website HERE.

THIS is the Mark Nadler website.

Mark Nadler's headshots are by Helane Blumfield. All other photos are from the Mark Nadler Collection.

Interview: Mark Nadler of HART'S DESIRE at The Laurie Beechman Theatre, Opening PRIDE Weekend


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