Once again, Mark Nadler delivers the unexpected with a show that explores the lives and provocative, gay allusions in the songs of Cole Porter, Noel Coward, Larry Hart, and Billy Strayhorn “who meant what you think they meant.” Three of the four were deeply closeted. The entertainment is smart, empathetic, a display of high craft and imbued with deep feeling.
An emphatic version of Cole Porter’s “You’re the Top” with piano running ahead of vocal prefaces Nadler’s introduction. “…I read every word these men wrote …they were giving winks and nods to one another as if a club. Coward and Porter were both slender, sophisticated socialites. Larry Hart, in a different category, was coarse, brash and barely five feet tall… Over 25 years of writing together, collaborator Richard Rodgers never once acknowledged Hart’s homosexuality, even when the lyricist showed up to rehearsal with signs he’d been beaten up by a hustler the night before.”
The artist notes that Porter married Linda Lee Thomas, “who introduced him to every influential and important lesbian on the continent.” He points out there are nods to distaff gays in the songwriter’s work as well. Quoting the droll, bitchier side of Coward leads to a flamboyant version of “Let’s Do It” used by Coward in Las Vegas. A captivating “Mad About the Boy” follows. Speculation as to the identity of the boy included Cary Grant, Ramon Novarro, and Ivor Novello.
Porter, Nadler tells us, “wrote a similar cautionary tale from the guy’s point of view.” “Gigolo” arrives verse first. From what other artist would we hear this song? “I’m a flower that blooms in the winter/Sinking deeper and deeper in snow/I’m a baby who has no mother but jazz/ I’m a gigolo … Ev’ry morning, when labor is over/To my sweet-scented lodgings I go…” Here’s the actor. With a shrug of insouciance and crossed purple-socked ankles, the gently seared rendition lands perfectly. From here to the end of the evening, Nadler’s exercise of reticence, his gravity, add immeasurably.
Perhaps the most famous gigolo in musical theater was Joey Evens from Rogers and Hart’s Pal Joey whose sentiments were expressed by Hart. The lyricist himself is described as “a brilliant talent, generous to a fault, loved but also the single loneliest person who walked the earth.” He drank himself to death at 48. “I’m Talking to My Pal,” Joey’s last song in the show, is pungent. Similarities between Porter and Coward’s life are raised. “What can you expect when every gay character in literature, theater and film is the butt of a joke or comes to an unhappy end. …society couldn’t accept it…Now that we can marry and raise kids if we want, we tend to forget that it was not that long ago when two men having sex was against the law.”
Prior to 1962, all 50 states criminalized same-sex sexual activity. Statutes prohibiting sodomy existed in the penal codes of many of them for more than 100 years, criminalizing this sexual behavior. On December 26, 2013, President Barack Obama signed into law the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2014, which repealed the ban on consensual sodomy. 2013!
A medley of “Nobody’s Heart Belongs to Me” (Rodgers/Hart), “If Love Were All” (Coward) and “Just One of Those Things” (Porter) is just beautiful. Poignant and pearly with a slight tremor in the vocal, it affects. The last song, which often arrives brassy and swinging, is here disarmingly melancholy and brave. Phrasing is impeccable.
Billy Strayhorn was Duke Ellington’s composer and arranger. Perhaps because of the Duke’s admiration and support the musician, nicknamed “Sweet Pea,” was unabashedly “out.” Strayhorn didn’t include winks and nods in his songs, perhaps, Nadler theorizes, because he didn’t feel he had to. Burrowing deep, “Something to Live For,” emerges among waves of lush, romantic longing. Feel the room go still around you.
“But it really was Cole who tried to make the whole thing merge.” We close with Porter’s “Experiment”- buoyant and meaningful and “Anything Goes”- a light tap segueing into swagger, closing with a demonstrative, lift-off “ANYTHING GOOOOOOOOES!
Commissioned by Theatre Rhinoceros: The Longest-Running Queer Theatre in the World
Executive Director John Fisher; Development Director Joseph Tally
As Gay As They Say – Conceived and Performed by Mark Nadler
Tonight a benefit. Later, coming to a club near you.