Mark Nadler is crazy for 1961

Cabaret dazzler Mark Nadler is on the road both literally and figuratively. He and his partner, a classical pianist, are in the car heading back to New York from a gig in Louisville, Ky. Not to worry, he’s on the phone, but he’s hands free (“Unlike my love life,” he quips). The time in Louisville was great because, as he quips again, he got his “two lips around a julep.”
Mark Nadler Photo
In the figurative sense, Nadler is on the road to the past in his new show. That shouldn’t be a surprise for a singing-and-piano-playing raconteur like Nadler, who mines the Great American Songbook for all it’s worth. The surprise is that Nadler is not heading back quite as far this time. He’s reaching back to 1961, his birth year, in Crazy 1961, which make its San Francisco debut at The Rrazz Room on Aug. 31 and Sept. 1.

Think about 1961 for a minute. In addition to Nadler’s arrival on the planet (along with Barack Obama, George Clooney and Scott Baio), the year saw movie releases such as The Parent Trap, West Side Story and Breakfast at Tiffany’s. In world events, the Vietnam War started, construction began on the Berlin Wall, President John F. Kennedy signed the Peace Corps into being and the Bay of Pigs incident nearly turned the Cold War atomic hot. That’s an eventful year.

It’s all covered in Nadler’s show, which he began researching as his 50th birthday loomed. Once he started delving into his birth year, he was hooked.

“It’s a fascinating year both historically and musically,” he says. “Musically it sits right on the cusp of the Golden Age of musical theater and rock and roll. Gypsy and The Music Man both closed that year, and Bob Dylan and The Beatles made their first performances in public. Everything was teetering on the brink. Judy Garland did her big comeback concert at Carnegie Hall. Barbra Streisand made her first TV appearance. The Supremes were signed to Motown and Patsy Cline recorded ‘Crazy’ on my birthday.”

Because he’s covering such a wide range of music, Nadler, who usually accompanies himself, is backed by a full band – bass, drums, guitar and horns. And Nadler proudly writes all of his own arrangements and orchestrations, which are not always what you might expect. For instance, he does Noël Coward’s “Sail Away” (from the show of the same name), but he doesn’t do it a la Coward. He does it as a hard-driving rock song that’s about heading to Vietnam. And he doesn’t do “Crazy” the way Cline did it. Because 1961 was also the year that Ray Charles swept the Grammy Awards, he re-imagines the song as if Charles were doing it.

Nadler is still his charming, high-energy self in this show, but this outing really does showcase another side of the performer. He doesn’t tap dance this time around, but he does do The Twist.

“The response to this show is the strongest I’ve ever gotten,” he says. “I have loyal, generous audiences who have liked my work, but I’ve never seen so many people coming back to see it again and again. I guess the more you see it, the more you get out of it.”

Perhaps the repeat business has something to do with the colossal medley Nadler put together of the Top 50 songs of 1961 (including “Moon River,” “Stand by Me,” “Calendar Girl,” “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” to name a few). That’s 50 songs in eight minutes (see below for a sneak peek).

“What was fun for me in the medley was making it make sense,” Nadler says. “I liked making liaisons, like the last word in one sentence also being the first word in the next song. Or doing things like joining the theme from ‘Mr. Ed’ with Chubby Checker’s ‘The Pony.’ Opportunities like that don’t come along every day.” And let’s not even mention the song “Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavor (On the Bedpost Overnight)?”

Given the success of Crazy 1961, it might be understandable if Nadler became the King of Chronology, doing different shows based on different years. But that’s not likely to happen.

“I have this game I play with myself when I put together shows,” he says. “I have to do something I’ve never done before. I can’t see myself wanting to do a show based on another year. Richard Rodgers and Stephen Sondheim agreed that the greats really try to forge new territory. I’m not saying I’m Rodgers or Sondheim, but when I learned that’s what they did as a modus operandi, I decided to take on that game as well.”

[bonus video sneak peek]
Mark Nadler performs a “fast and furious” medley of the top 50 hits of 1961.

Mark Nadler’s Crazy 1961 is at 9:15pm Friday, Aug. 31 and Saturday, Sept. 1 at the Rrazz Room in the Hotel Nikko, 222 Mason St., San Francisco, Tickets are $35 plus a two-drink minimum. Call 800-380-3095 or visit

Review: `Russian on the Side’

Opened Oct. 21, 2008

Mark Nadler educates and entertains in his 100-minute Russian on the Side, an aspiring Broadway show now at San Francisco’s Marines Memorial Theatre. Photo by Michael Brosilow


Nadler serves up Tschaikowsky and others in madcap `Russian’

Ever see a man tap dance, sing and play the piano all at the same time?

Mark Nadler practically does that – OK, when he tap dances, he’s not actually playing the piano – among many other things in his wild and wonderful one-man show Russian on the Side now at San Francisco’s Marines Memorial Theatre.

Take an entire vaudeville show, from the signers to the dancers to the comedians to the specialty acts, and cram them into one body and you begin to imagine the force that is Nadler, a 47-year-old star of the New York cabaret scene.

In March of 2004, Bay Area audiences saw Nadler perform his cabaret show Tschaikowsky (and Other Russians) at the Geary Theater as a bonus in the American Conservatory Theater season back when they did such things.

Russian on the Side is a version of that show, but it’s no longer a cabaret act. It’s a full-on theatrical experience with its eye on Broadway, and the San Francisco run is serving as the out-of-town tryout (after a previous tryout earlier this year at Chicago’s Royal George Theatre).

This time out, Nadler has a set (by David Korins) that sets his grand piano against an ornate tilted wall that captures Keith Parham’s lights beautifully. The intimate Marines Memorial is a much cozier spot than the gargantuan Geary, and Nadler’s outsize energy is something to marvel at in a more contained environment.

The premise of Russian is much as it was four years ago. At the top of the show Nadler sings the tongue-twisting list of composers in “Tschaikowsky (and Other Russians),” a song with lyrics by Ira Gershwin and music by Kurt Weill from the musical Lady in the Dark.

The song, originally introduced by Danny Kaye (an idol of Nadler’s) lists more than four dozen Russian (and Polish) composers, and then for the next 100 minutes or so, Nadler aims to teach us the song by telling us something about each composer and exposing us to some of their music.

Along the way, he also reveals a few biographical details (not nearly enough to make the show anything more than offhandedly personal). We learn he grew up in Iowa, the son of immigrant Jewish parents and everything he learned, he learned from show tunes. “I don’t play Chopin. I play show tunes.”

Other than being a lively showcase for Nadler’s tremendous talents, Russian on the Side ponders posterity, the stuff of legend and legacy. Why do we remember certain artists – such as Tschaikowsky or Prokofieff or Rimsky-Korsakov – and forget so many of the others (wherefore Korestchenko, Karganov and Sapelnikoff)?

And is a lasting legacy and being played in perpetuity really the ultimate goal? Or is the act of creation the most important thing? Legend, Nadler tells us, is nothing more than a congenital and social mishap.

Amusing and engaging, Nadler’s Russian Composers 101 class is the best – and funniest — music appreciation course you’ll ever take. And while his journey through Russia’s classical music, under the direction of Mark Waldrop, provides structure for the evening, he veers off into the realm of show tunes – or showy tunes — whenever he gets the chance.

His version of Frank Loesser’s “The Ugly Duckling” is as fetching as it was four years ago, and his take on Rachmaninoff’s Prelude Opus 3, No. 2 in C-sharp Minor is a shimmering concert moment.

On numbers such as his tribute to Jelly Roll Morton (“The Creole Way/The Whole World Is Waitin’ to Sing Your Song/In My Day”) and Adam Guettel’s “Icarus,” he pushes awfully hard and strain his voice to the breaking point.
But in a medley of Irving Berlin’s “There’s No Business Like Show Business” and “Stranger in Paradise” (from Kismet and based on themes of the Russian composer Alexander Borodin), he’s perfectly modulated.

The tap dancing and all-around grandstanding comes with “Taking a Chance on Love,” and while it might seem Nadler is overdoing it, he’s really at his best, flouncing around the stage, singing and dancing with abandon and embodying the sheer joy of performance.

Nadler is hard to resist, and why try? He’s a teacher, an entertainer and all around dazzler. If he pushes too hard, it’s only in service of showing us a good time. And how do you not love a man who calls a nosy Russian neighbor Gladys Kravitznya?


Russian on the Side continues through Nov. 16 at the Marines Memorial Theatre, 609 Sutter St., San Francisco. Tickets are $39-$49. Call 415-771-6900 or visit, or

Here’s Nadler performing the Gershwins’ ‘I Got Rhythm” at what looks to be Sardi’s: