Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 8 / 22 February 2018

Pianist revelations


Mark Nadler brings 'Russian on the Side' to SF

Performer Mark Nadler. Photo: Michael Brosilow
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Mark Nadler met his Waterloo on the day he was born, and soon he was hatching a battle plan to escape, rather than conquer, his Iowa hometown, where the Silos & Smokestacks Heritage Area is a big tourist draw.

"The doctor didn't have to slap me when I came out of the womb because I was already crying," the performer said. By age 10, he was playing piano professionally in a saloon in nearby Cedar Rapids, and had started a savings account that eventually let him attend boarding school at the Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan. "I was a gay Jew in Iowa," he said. "I was definitely an ugly duckling."

The ugly-duckling metaphor plays a big part in Russian on the Side, his new solo show beginning a pre-Broadway run on Oct. 16 at Marines Memorial Theatre. It's a considerably revised version of his show Tschaikowsky (and Other Russians) that played at ACT in 2004.

"It's not an entirely new show," he said. "40% of the score is exactly the same, but now it's a book musical. It has a story. It's about a person - it could be any person, but it happens to be me - who knew when he was 8 years old that he wanted to be a composer, because composers live forever. But, of course, most of them don't live forever, and that path is what the show is really about."

Nadler was talking in a showroom surrounded by dozens of Steinway pianos, before he set out to choose one for his run here. "I look for a piano that is an extension of my personality as a musician," he said. "I play with a very wide dynamic range, and I have to find a piano that can accommodate that, because they're all different. I check to see if it can take what I give. It's like a first date."

At the heart of both the earlier cabaret show and the new stage creation is the song "Tschaikowsky," written by Ira Gershwin and Kurt Weill for the 1941 musical Lady in the Dark. A tongue-twisting melange of Russian composers' names, it made young Danny Kaye an overnight star.

Nadler performs the song, and then sets out to explore the lives and careers of the more than four dozen composers mentioned in the lyrics. Of some, actually little or nothing is known, but this provides Nadler with opportunities to discuss the nature of fame and artistic legacy, while others open the door to American popular songs, cultural musings, and even some tap-dancing and acrobatics.

"Every song in this show is about me, about my dreams and fears," Nadler said. "But the great paradox of show business is that the more personal you make it, the more universal it becomes."

After graduating from Interlochen in 1981, he moved directly to New York, where he spent the next 15 years playing in piano bars. "You learn very quickly how to keep people's attention, because if you don't, you don't make tips. The salary is no good. And you have to have a huge repertoire, so you're always learning new songs." He put those experiences to use in various cabaret shows, and began building a name for himself in New York.

He's also helped pay the bills by playing dates in small towns across America, and he recalls visits to such places as Coos Bay, Oregon; White Fish, Montana; and Salmon, Idaho. "I choose material I know they will get," he said. "I'm not an idiot."

But Russian on the Side, he said, is intended for "people who go to the theater to think and interact thought-wise. It's not so much for the people who go to Mary Poppins and The Little Mermaid ."

Before arriving in San Francisco, Nadler played Russian on the Side for four weeks in Chicago. "We made a lot of changes in Chicago, and a few more after we closed. We're doing the show in San Francisco to make sure it plays perfectly to a sophisticated audience before we go to Broadway."

It helps, he said, if there are at least a few gays and Jews in the audience. "I did Tschaikowsky for a month at the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh, and I was not attracting my audience. It was a month of agony."

There is gay content in the show, though he doesn't necessarily point a finger at himself and say, "I am gay." "I'm just up there being me, and I donŐt think there's any question that I'm gay when I'm on stage. I don't know many straight boys who behave the way I do. I subscribe to the old school of being gay, where you take pride in being different. I don't think it's a bad thing to be an ugly duckling."

Nadler does perform Frank Loesser's "Ugly Duckling," a song from the movie Hans Christian Andersen, and finds a new interpretation to the song's central conceit. "Fame is like evolution," he said. "It's the mutants who survive. The ugly ducklings propel us forward."

And yet there is always the lure of being the beautiful swan. "There are times, especially in this show, when I really get to soar," Nadler said, "and if that ain't being a swan, I don't know what is."

Russian on the Side will run at Marines Memorial Theatre through Nov. 16. Tickets are $29-$49. Call 771-6900 or go to

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