Mark Nadler and I are the only diners in the otherwise closed second floor at Sardi’s this quiet, weekday afternoon. Greeting manager and waiters by name, he leads me to a corner table and requests the Actor’s Menu. Familiarity and comfort are evident. Years ago, this was “his” bailiwick, a stop on an unquestioned trajectory.
Hovering while his older sister practiced piano and imitating records, four year old Mark plunked out melodies and sang with fledgling brio. He performed solo for the Waterloo, Iowa Kiwanis Club a year later, began to act and sing in musicals and opera at The University of Iowa when six, and started his first professional (paid) engagement at ten. Most boys that age wanted to be cowboys, firemen, or astronauts.
Mark’s brother, Craig, played the violin, his brother David, the cello. Forcing them to practice was a trial Mark’s mother vowed not to repeat with her youngest child. The six year old prodigy took matters into his own hands. Cast in a local production of The King and I, he asked the accompanist/conductor whether she’d give him piano lessons. “I only teach college students at the university,” she explained gently. Pressing for an opinion, he performed a Bach two part invention learned by watching his sister, Jody. Imagine the conductor’s expression. He started piano lessons, acted, sang in productions, and hung out observing and learning.
At ten, Mark was sent to The National Music Camp in upper Michigan. Summer would’ve been heaven but for “required athletics, the smell of the showers, and open toilets…Even though I was raised in Iowa, I’m still Jewish!” Mark laughs, audibly raising an eyebrow. He learned about the institution’s four year boarding high school, Interlochen Arts Academy, and resolved to go. Not only would it be an extraordinary opportunity, but he would finally escape being regularly beat up at his own school. The triple whammy of fame-eliciting jealousy, (“What else was there to write about in Waterloo!?”) being gay, and being Jewish in a place where “not only did they believe we killed Jesus Christ, but the entire community was dependent on a plant packing pork they just knew we didn’t eat” made him a regular target for bullies.
The Nadlers would have three kids in college by the time Mark was ready to go. Once again acting independently, he finagled an impromptu audition at The Long Straw Saloon (left) in Cedar Falls by excusing himself to go to the men’s room and, instead, giving a spontaneous performance at the piano. The surprised proprietor offered him a professional engagement. The next 6 years, Mark accompanied both himself and performing waitresses weekends, summers, and scheduled nights. Saving every penny, he underwrote his own way through four years of Interlochen.
First trimester, the new student was required to play before a faculty jury assessing talent. His piano teacher, assuming correctly that Mark wouldn’t practice, assigned “this stupid little piece of Beethoven more appropriate to a beginner…and I thought, I’m not gonna play it; so I added jazz chords and flourishes, whatever I thought might be an improvement.” At the end of the piece, he executed a big glissando, threw himself off the piano bench and landed on his knees, arms open, at the feet of the jurors. Picture Al Jolson performing “Swanee.” He was summarily transferred from the Music Department to that of Drama where he happily spent the rest of his tenure with a minor in piano, gleefully substituting PE for dance classes.
A senior year semester spent in a Manhattan cold water flat with the tub in the kitchen, toilet in a closet, and crumbling sheetrock walls did nothing to diminish Marks ambitions to return to the Big Apple. He made a beeline back after graduation. Like any young, aspiring performer, he juggled a multitude of jobs—apprenticing at The Writer’s Theater out of Manhattan Plaza, ushering at The Playhouse Theater (long gone), playing the occasional cabaret gig, and accompanying ABT dance classes. When he saw Lena Horne: the Lady and Her Music, Mark had an epiphany: he wanted to do shows that he created, “what we now know as cabaret.” He went back three times.
Mark was house Master of Ceremonies at The West Bank Cabaret (now The Laurie Beechman Theater) when he met his first partner, Joe Holloway, a director/choreographer. Next came a job at The Five Oaks in the Village. Some nights, he worked at Marie’s Crisis. “That was a trip! 6 hours-one break and no microphone! It was filled to the rafters. (Marie’s Crisis is a one-room, raise-the-roof sing-along bar on Grove Street). The real money was in tips so I had to sing louder and put a twist on things.”
His first cabaret show was presented at The Ballroom. “It was just songs. I remember hearing how everybody was doing these theme shows and thinking how tiresome that was.” Don’t Tell Mama, Arci’s, The Triad, and Maxim’s were some additional venues. Only in his twenties, he’d developed a following and a substantial mailing list.
With professional dates in Europe on his calendar, Mark decided to learn some French. He’d been taught as a child entertainer not to sing one word without knowing what it meant—English or otherwise. Rachel Corkidi became his teacher and then dear friend. “She’d come to a show and sit with white, pink, and green filing cards. “Anytime I said or sang a word I didn’t know in French, Rachel would write it on a card. White cards were for plain words, pink special, poetic phrases, green for slang. Then she’d go home and put the translations on the back. These were my flash cards.”
In 1991, KT Sullivan went to see Mark perform at Adam’s Rib on the Upper East Side. After the show, she told him she felt like she’d been hit by a train. “I took that as a compliment. Since she’d come to see me, I went to see her perform and was blown away by her abilities both as a singer and as an actress.” Mark told his partner, who was booking Adam’s Rib, he’d be very sorry if he didn’t engage her. “I was the house M.C., the house “act”, and the musical director. Anyone playing there could use me as their accompanist without separate payment because the club paid me. KT decided to do that. And we started working together.” And working and working and working.
His first Broadway show, The Sheik of Avenue B, a revue of vaudeville songs “none of them hits” was a flop. (The second was to be Dame Edna, the Royal Tour). Mark got a rave in The New York Post and signed with a new agent, but was convinced by a manager to relocate to Los Angeles to audition for sitcoms.
His tone of voice grows darker speaking of the period. There were few auditions and no television work. He produced a series of highly successful, though not, for him remunerative, variety entertainments at what was then The Cinegrill (above), in the Hollywood Roosevelt. There were a few theatrical parts. With only two cabaret rooms in LA, work was extremely spare. Joe, diagnosed with HIV in New York, was increasingly ill. Out of town bookings were not a consideration. Agreeing with Truman Capote’s declaration that “to die in Los Angeles is redundant,” Mark’s sole motivation was to get back to New York.
The visiting KT Sullivan overheard him on the phone with the owner of a piano bar. Apparently the budget allowed for either the performer or a janitor. Mark volunteered to do both. Sullivan took immediate action. Hiring him as her accompanist wherever she was booked, she magnanimously gave him half of what she earned. “That’s how Joe and I were able to get back to New York. That’s KT.”
Determined to do whatever it took to ease and brighten Joe’s remaining time, Mark got Maxim’s to rehire him only to fall victim to the extraordinary outcome of drawing so many people, the club had insufficient staff and ran out of food…for which he was fired! “While I was away those 4 years people missed me. When I showed up, they came -with friends.” The memory elicits a still somewhat astonished pause.
“So here I am in New York with a dying lover, an expensive sublet and no job. I needed to make a splash and pay the bills.” It was Mark’s idea to create the kind of variety show he’d produced in Los Angeles. It never occurred to him to approach the Algonquin or The Carlyle because of the kind of act he was doing. Instead, he asked producer Louise Westergaard whether she knew anyone at Sardi’s. Westergaard introduced him to Max Klimivicius, who still holds the helm steady.
Mark offered to hire the publicist, rent the piano, take care of lighting, sound, and get the talent if the restaurant would give him 100% of the cover charge. Minimum and anything over would belong to the house. “I packed the joint; four-hour shows with no break. My bladder control has been favorably reviewed in Backstage.” Once a week, over the course of almost three years, he hosted The Broadway Hootnanny upstairs at Sardi’s, garnering yearly MAC Awards for the tenure of the show. Most importantly, he was able to take superior, loving care of Joe until he died. “It was a privilege.” They’d been together 18 years.
In 2000, KT Sullivan and Mark Nadler created and presented American Rhapsody, a salute to George Gershwin, at The Triad Theater. Stephen Holden of The New York Times praised the show. In his very first review of Mark, he wrote “Mr.Nadler…is a madly extroverted contemporary vaudevillian …” It was the beginning of the emphatically symbiotic partnership (KT and Mark) that has midwifed seven deftly crafted shows and counting.
The seed for arguably one of his most memorable solo shows (seven so far,) Tschaikowsky (and Other Russians)* – with the spelling used by Ira Gershwin—was sown backstage at “American Rhapsody.” KT remarked that lyricist Ira Gershwin must’ve made up most of the 49 Russian composers listed in the 1941 song that made Danny Kaye an overnight star. Mark’s curiosity was piqued. He and his new partner, Dominic Meiman, a classical pianist, decamped to The Lincoln Center Library for the Performing Arts, and found every one of the 49 composers but Khvoschinsky, whom Dominic later unearthed by accident.
“One thing I learned early on from an acting teacher is that you always have a secret. There’s something you don’t tell an audience, but it’s an underlying thread affecting every choice you make. I realized this was potentially a show whose secret was the nature of fame. Why do we remember the names we remember? Is it the quality of work, the way they behaved?” The show exploded onto the cabaret scene in 2003. In his glowing review for The New York Observer, Rex Reed called it “…an amazing feat of research and chutzpah… cheeky… original…filled with mad joy.”
About two and a half years ago during a brief lull, Mark was looking to volunteer somewhere, Googled “volunteer” and found ArtStart. Most Tuesday nights he goes to a homeless shelter under the Manhattan Bridge in order to teach music to kids. “They have little electric pianos, guitars and drums. We encourage them to communicate however they can through music…helping the kids actually play chords, rhythms, even melodies. After each session, all the instruments are brought together. It’s a mishmash but it’s self expression and it’s fun!” www.artstart.org
In addition to cabaret, Mark performs concerts with symphony orchestras all over the world. He loooooves being on a big stage into which he can expand and looks forward to much more of this kind of work. “I’m a big performer.” To say the least. Surprisingly, he neither practices nor vocalizes unless working on a show. Acting, singing, and playing are all of a piece to him. They use the same emotional and intellectual muscles. “For me it’s all about what I’m doing at the moment. “I’m a happy guy, happy doing what I’m doing. I have no plans for the future except to keep growing. Hopefully my audience will grow as well.”
Mark Nadler turns 50 October 14, but no gifts, please! He “owns more than enough chachkas and has a closet full of clothes.” Karen Lotman, whose uber-responsiveness to a 2005 show grew into their becoming best friends, is, at his request, underwriting a benefit for ArtStart instead of giving him something in a box. On October 13, 2011, Mark will be joined at Town Hall by Chita Rivera and Bill Cosby for an evening’s entertainment whose entire proceeds will go to ArtStart. Reread that last sentence. Its content is an anomaly.
* performed at The Oak Room Supper Club and The Firebird Café in New York, around the U.S., in Edinburgh, London, and Adelaide; recorded at Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall.
** ArtStart is a twenty year old, nationally recognized program whose volunteer teaching artists help transform the lives of kids “living in shelters, on the streets, involved in court cases, or surviving with parents in crisis.” Guidance, nurturing, and exposure are available at no cost to at-risk kids from 5-21 who are encouraged to express themselves through the arts. Kids are helped to open up, gain confidence, learn responsibility and commitment, direct their creative energies, and, most importantly, to believe in second chances.