Sean Patrick Murtagh — Concert pays tribute to Sondheim's divas

  • by David-Elijah Nahmod
  • Tuesday June 11, 2024
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Sean Patrick Murtagh (photo: Conor Weiss)
Sean Patrick Murtagh (photo: Conor Weiss)

On June 22 Bay Area native Sean Patrick Murtagh returns to San Francisco to perform his critically acclaimed show "Beautiful Girls: A Tribute to Sondheim's Divas." Murtagh has become a favorite of Bay Area cabaret audiences with his annual Christmas show at Martuni's and his 2022 tribute to the late, great 1950s tenor Mario Lanza.

This time Murtagh brings his powerful pipes to Feinstein's at the Nikko for an evening of stories and songs made famous by the divas who gave life to Stephen Sondheim's beautiful lyrics. In an interview with the Bay Area Reporter, Murtagh offered his own unique take on exactly what a diva is.

Sean Patrick Murtagh  

"A diva is feminine energy spirit in human form," Murtagh said. "The diva is electric and magnetic and draws us to her to fuel our passion and inspire us. Divas exist in all art forms and disciplines. They raise the bar on what greatness is and in doing so they push us to experience our own greatness."

Murtagh shared that there are many divas which touch his soul, but the one that stands head and shoulders above all for him is the late Tina Turner. He recalls that Turner changed his life when he was a child, and he even did his first book report on her when he was in elementary school. He recalls literally coming to life whenever he saw Turner on TV or listened to one of her albums.

"And though you wouldn't know it from my sound as a singer, she remains a major influence on me and my career," he said.

Fabulous selves
Murtagh noted that many gay men feel a strong attachment to their divas. He feels that this is because gay men are often not allowed to be themselves. He's lucky to have had supportive parents, but if it's not the parents then its society telling us who to be, how to be, and what not to be.

"Young gay and queer men are taught to repress their feminine side, to act a certain way, to draw attention by being different," he said. "These divas represent everything we're told to repress. It we cannot be our most authentic fierce and fabulous selves, we can at least experience vicariously through these magical women. They were beacons of light guiding us through dark times, until we could find our own life. They gave us life and in many ways they save lives."

He won't be afraid to express his feminine side when he graces the stage at Feinstein's, as Murtagh will be dressed in what he calls his "soft drag." He'll be wearing a caftan, heels and a turban. This style of dress began at his home. He recalls throwing parties for Selena's birthday, for Cinco De Mayo, for award show season, for "Game of Thrones," for the Super Bowl, for "RuPaul's Drag Race," and for any other reason he could think of to throw a party.

"I got tired of going out all the time," he said. "So I started having people over for nachos and margaritas, which grew into full spreads and themed cocktails. I felt like a fabulous Susie Homemaker, so I began entertaining in heels, frilly aprons, and turbans. Before I knew it my closet became overrun with flowing dresses and caftans. My inner gay child was living his best life."

Murtagh feels that this style of dress also pays tribute to his "abuelita" and "tias," his grandmother and her sisters from El Salvador. They were always dressed to the nines, wearing lipstick and costume jewelry, and they loved getting together with family.

"Without a doubt those women were my first divas," he recalled. "Fabulous women who helped shape me into the person I am today."

Murtagh's admiration for Sondheim runs deep, though he admits that it's no easy task to express what the composer means to him.

"The man reinvented the way we look at and experience musical theater," he said. "He allowed us to explore and experience aspects of life and humanity you don't usually get on stage. Uncomfortable topics, dark themes and uneasy truths we may try to avoid in self-reflection are presented to us in song and story that articulated perfectly for us to accept and comprehend. I am moved and grateful for his exploration of the human experience and how it reassures us, the audience, that we are not alone in the things and ideas that we may be too afraid to address."

When he pays tribute to Sondheim's divas on the 22nd, Murtagh will not be talking about which divas he's paying tribute to. He feels that it's enough to sing these iconic songs and allow the audience to reflect on their favorite diva who sung the song or played the role.

"In the end it's not who inspires us that matters," he said. "Just that we are inspired is enough. We each have our own divas for our own reasons and that's wonderful. I think, especially with this theme in particular, in celebrating one diva, I am celebrating them all. And that is what the audience can expect, a celebration of Stephen Sondheim's music and powerhouse women who are forever entwined in his legacy. I sing songs, I share stories, and I hope to touch your heart sprinkled with a few laughs."

Sean Patrick Murtagh's 'Beautiful Girls: a Tribute to Sondheim's Divas,' June 22, 8pm, Feinstein's at the Nikko, 222 Mason Street, $51

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