Cabaret singer dishes out gossip, comedy and Slavic irreverence

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

Mark Nadler claims he can trace a musical link between “Volga Boatmen” and “Showboat,” between “Swan Lake” and “Swanee.”

To prove it, the New York-based cabaret singer brings to San Francisco’s Geary Theater his new show “Tchaikowsky (and Other Russians),” a frothy evening of music, comedy and Slavic irreverence. Nadler’s show opens Sunday, Feb. 29, part of ACT’s “Evenings at Geary” series.

Just call him a Red Square peg in a round hole.

Nadler’s breathless survey of Russian music was inspired by the Kurt Weill/Ira Gershwin classic song that cleverly runs down a long list of tongue-twisting Russian names. Sample lyric:

“There’s Glinka, Winkler, Bortnyansky, Rebikoff, Ilyinsky/There’s Medtner, Balikirev, Zolotarev and Kvoschinsky.”

That’s one alphabet soup that Nadler swears is mmm, mmm, good.

“I thought it would be fun to do a number based on this patter song from ‘Lady in the Dark,'” he says of the show’s origins, “and explain who each one is while I played the music. It turned out to be a whole show, not a number.”

In the course of his 90-minute performance, Nadler plays a few bars by all 48 composers named in the song … and then some. He also throws in songs by Gershwin, Carol Hall, Mary Rodgers and others.

Interestingly, as he points out, though it was virulently anti-Semitic, 19th-century Russia did see the emergence of a number of notable Jewish composers. Several are represented in Nadler’s show.

Among them is David Nowakowsky, who is today considered one of the world’s foremost composers of Jewish liturgical music. “The music we sing in temple today is different because of what he did,” says Nadler, “and yet not one Jew has heard his name.”

Others saluted include Joseph Rumshinsky, a Russian American composer of music for the Yiddish theater and Vladimir Dukelsky, aka Vernon Duke, writer of such standards as “April in Paris” and “Autumn in New York.”

“The secret about this show,” says Nadler, “is that even though it’s funny it has a serious message. The show is an examination of fame: why we remember who we remember, and why we forget who we forget.”

Nadler contends that the music by these men was secondary to their ability to generate good dish, be it Tchaikovsky’s homosexuality or Mikhail Glinka’s abandonment of his aristocratic heritage to live the bohemian life of a composer.

“We put a lot of value on fame,” says Nadler. “The best way to achieve it is to achieve gossip. So a lot of this show is telling the gossipy elements of their lives.”

Among his credits, Nadler wrote and starred in an off-Broadway Gershwin revue, “American Rhapsody”; he served as accompanist for Dame Edna (also known as Barry Humphries); and he performed in numerous shows on and off-Broadway. He also won several MAC Awards (Manhattan Association of Cabarets).

Preparing “Tchaikowsky (and Other Russians)” turned him into a super-sleuth, haunting the Lincoln Center Library for months. “I felt like Sherlock Holmes,” says Nadler. “Once I started researching, I found there were myriad fascinating lives and a lot of great music that has been thoroughly forgotten.”

Though he calls himself “a bad Jew” for his impious ways, Nadler nevertheless remains a proud of history’s great Jewish composers with whom he identifies.

“So many of the composers of our music — Kern, Gershwin, Rodgers — is Jewish, and most were of Russian descent,” he says. “Our theater music came directly out of this tradition. Once you hear a whole evening of this, you can really hear the connection.”

And as for his love of cabaret, that remains equally ardent. “Everyone always thinks it’s going to die this year,” says Nadler, “but it never does. It’s a fabulous invalid.”

Mark Nadler’s “Tchaikowsky (and Other Russians),” runs 8 p.m. Feb. 29, March 1, 7, 8 and 14, at the Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., S.F. Tickets, $14 -$40. Information: (415) 749-2228 or www.act-sf.org.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.