For Mark Nadler, the title of his latest cabaret show, I’m a Stranger Here Myself, pulls double duty. In addition to being a nod to Kurt Weill, the German Jewish composer whose music is prominently featured in the show, Nadler says it neatly sums up the story of his own life.
“I have always felt myself to be an outsider,” says the 52-year-old Nadler, who will be performing at the Prince Music Theater in Philadelphia through April 12. “It goes back to being a Jewish gay boy in Iowa. I also am a stranger in this world. It’s something you become conditioned to be. It simply made me who I am.”
If you are a habitué of New York cabaret and musical revues of the American Songbook canon, then you already know who Nadler is. His interpretations of the oeuvres of composers like the Gershwins, Stephen Sondheim and Irving Berlin have earned him awards from the Manhattan Association of Cabarets as well as nominations for both Drama Desk and Lucille Lortel awards during his 30-plus years of singing, playing piano and acting in New York City.
He has also been honored in his home state, cementing his legacy there with handprints in the sidewalk outside the Long Straw Saloon in Cedar Falls, where he would play the piano as a 10-year-old amid the saloon girls. The ceremony was one of the rare times he has returned to Iowa. “I just never was a fit there,” he says. “Everyone thought I was a New Yorker, even when I was growing up.”
Nadler says he knew from the time he was very young — “the minute I came out of the womb!” he quips — that Iowa wasn’t for him. He recalls climbing to the top of the yellow swing set in his back yard to try to see the Empire State Building.
As the son of Eastern European immigrants, Nadler had no choice in where he was born and raised. “When you come to this country, you go to where you’re sponsored,” he says by way of explanation as to how a Jewish family came to reside in Waterloo, the home of the Rath Packing Company, one of the country’s main pork suppliers.
Despite being far from the cultural centers on the coasts, Nadler found plenty of inspiration through the Mahalia Jackson records his parents, who were both civil rights activists, would play. He also cites Danny Kaye, the Marx Brothers and Bugs Bunny as major influences. “I started playing piano when I was 4, and one of the things that inspired me to do so was Bugs Bunny cartoons — I didn’t know it was beyond the realm of possibility” that humans could do the same things as a cartoon rabbit, he explains with a laugh.
That would help explain why so many descriptions of his performances include adjectives like “animated” and “kinetic.” Nadler says that the connection he has to I’m a Stranger Here Myself — Weill’s song of the title was first heard in the 1943 Broadway musical, One Touch of Venus, with lyrics by Ogden Nash — has caused him to stretch his craft. “I tend to be a comedian, and although the show has comic elements, it goes to a deep and emotional place — something I haven’t done onstage before.”
By using the music of Weimar Republic-era composers like Weill, Friedrich Hollaender and Bertolt Brecht, Nadler is able to weave a musical history of Germany between World War I and World War II. The first democratically elected parliamentary government in the country’s history was the official manifestation of the freedom Germans felt after the fall of Kaiser Wilhelm. Socially and culturally, that freedom expressed itself through radical changes in sexual mores, music, art and virtually all forms of culture.
Nadler says that through his research on this period, “I found that it was a time full of people who carried my particular issue: The people who created the songs, the literature, the art of the Weimar, tended to be either Jewish or gay. It was a reaction to the oppression of the Kaiser — all of that freedom caused people to become outrageously open, especially in Berlin.”
For a small-town boy from the Midwest who left for New York City at age 17, this paradigm shift had resonance. “I did feel that same sort of incredible freeing of the spirit when I moved to New York and could be exactly who I was, loudly and brazenly, without fear of repercussions,” he recalls.
It was this reaffirmation of the liberating power of the arts that has led Nadler to become involved in his longest-running production to date — as a board member of ArtStart, the nationally recognized nonprofit organization that brings artists from all disciplines to teach children who, according to the organization’s literature, “are living in shelters, on the streets, involved in court cases or surviving with parents in crisis.” Nadler works with high school-age teens who have been placed in programs that provide an alternative to incarceration. He says that his time there is a more than fair quid pro quo: “I work with them on their poetry and turn it into music” and in exchange, “these kids have given me hip hop. Before this, if someone told me the name of a famous hip hop artist, I would meet them with a blank stare!” He expresses as much pride in discussing ArtStart’s involvement in getting these kids to graduate high school as with any of his own artistic accomplishments.
Ever the social historian, Nadler notes that he is continuing a time-honored Jewish American tradition of using music to change lives. “I always point out in regard to ArtStart that George Gershwin was hanging out with thugs, and he would have likely become a thug himself if he didn’t discover music. Why shouldn’t every kid be given the opportunity to find his or her method of self-expression?”
IF YOU GO
I’m a Stranger Here Myself
Through April 12
at the Prince Music Theater
1412 Chestnut St., Philadelphia