Few interpretive theater singers and players have the integrity and innovative wiles of Mark Nadler.
Along with juggling the pioneering tradition and often-coded lyricism of the greats, the pianist and vocalist finds modern twists and elegant nuance in every song he performs. Don’t believe me? See Nadler at Dino’s Backstage April 27-28 (as a music historian, he’s unparalleled, plus he does a mean Jimmy Durante impression).
“Different songwriters ‘coded’ in different ways; certainly the gay songwriters, such as Cole Porter and Larry Hart,” said Nadler. “Of course, I relate strongly to the work of both of those guys. But, also, Irving Berlin claimed that he wrote but one autobiographical song: that being ‘When I Lost You,’ which he wrote when his first wife died just after they wed.”
Ever the historian, Nadler goes on to include little-known background about Berlin’s most famous song: He and his second wife, Ellin Mackay, lost their first son to crib death on Christmas morning. “Every Christmas morning, Irving and Ellin would sneak out of the house, while their three daughters slept, and went to visit their son’s grave,” said Nadler. Because Berlin went to work in Hollywood, then, this makes the verse to “White Christmas” unmistakably autobiographical: “The sun is shining, the grass is green, the orange and palm trees sway. There’s never been such a day in Beverly Hills, L.A. But it’s December the 24th and I’m longing to be up North …”
Nadler’s reverence for the greats doesn’t preclude a soft spot for the classicists of theater and cabaret. Along with crafting an album dedicated to 1961, the year he was born, the singer is performing a potpourri of newer standards at an improvisational monthly night in Manhattan. No, he’s not singing Rihanna stuff, but rather the likes of David Yazbek and Pasek and Paul, whose melodic display is radically different from theater songs of yore.
How is it that Nadler has merely toyed with the sort-of standard-bearing success of Harry Connick Jr. and Michael Bublé? Once upon a time, word came down from the on-high of showbiz that Nadler was set to be the next big thing. There may be an edge — or at least sharp angles — that keep him from the mainstream. How does he resist the temptation to dance with Ellen or judge a singing contest?
“That’s an easy one to answer: I’ve never been asked to dance with Ellen or judge a singing contest. That said, I’m sure if I did do one of those things, I would figure out a way to be fired,” Nadler said, adding that he doesn’t see himself as having an edge. “I just do my level best to sing the songs as honestly as I can. If I’m telling the absolute truth, without glossing over the ugly or uncomfortable or embarrassing, then I feel that I’m best serving the song.”
Edge or no edge, where Nadler belongs is in the pantheon of entertainers who have stirred the sonic senses and tickled all bones, funny and otherwise (think Danny Kaye and Bette Midler), as well as loving the fact that he can talk openly on stage about being gay and “not worry that I’m going to be beat up after the show.” It is important, though, to let the audience have their experience, he said.
“When it comes time to choose a pronoun in a love song, I’ll choose something neutral. I almost never sing ‘I love him’ or ‘I love her.’ I’ll generally opt for ‘I love you,’ and ‘you’ can be whomever the audience wants to imagine.”
Mark Nadler, 7:30 p.m. April 27-28, at The Celebrity Room at Dino’s Backstage, 287 North Keswick Avenue. For more information and tickets, call 215-884-2000, or visit dinosbackstage.com.