Martha Graham Cracker (Dito van Reigersberg) is having a CD-release party in conjunction with her show, “Lashed But Not Leashed,” premiering one night only at the Perelman Theater at the Kimmel Center on Dec. 12, at 8 p.m.
The performance, which features 11 original songs, began as a songwriting residency. The production might have been suitable for van Reigersberg himself to sing, but as the performer indicated in a recent email exchange, “As we wrote, the idea that Martha could sing all these songs — and that the songs could be placed into a kind of dramaturgical structure about her dream of becoming a librarian — emerged.”
So, will “Lashed But Not Leashed” be Miss Martha Graham Cracker’s final public performance after 14 years of entertaining? PGN chatted with van Reigersberg to find out.
You perform original songs in “Lashed But Not Leashed,” which is riskier than performing covers as Martha usually does. Can you talk about making that leap?
It feels more vulnerable to sing originals, for sure. A lot of the songs I cover normally as Martha are songs that are already popular, so I can count on the fact that the audience already knows and loves them. Introducing the audience to a song you’ve written is like letting them read your diary. But then they really do get to know you more. And the line between Martha and Dito, which is already blurry, becomes even more so. The character becomes even more of a vehicle to express the things that I myself care about.
You always perform different musical genres. Your cabaret shows are described as “mash-ups.” How do you approach performing a song?
That is one of my favorite things about what I do — to put a new spin on songs you know, or thought you knew. I often gravitate toward songs that have great lyrics. Sometimes the trick is to change the tempo or make them feel more extreme. I like to sing “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” as this kind of tango lament, which makes the familiar lyrics new again and makes the mood of the song more predatory and desperate.
The Perelman Theater is a new venue for you. What can you say about playing in a larger space versus the intimacy of a nightclub?
I do aim to keep things intimate as I “graduate” to the new and grand space of the Perelman. There are many ways to penetrate the fourth wall and to make the audience feel involved, and I won’t give up until I’ve tried them all! I think we have cooked up a plan for me to make my way into the audience several times, so no one should lean back and think they’re safe. It’s funny, the Perelman is a big tall space but it’s very well-designed, even the back row of the second balcony feels close to the action.
Can you talk about how you keep things fresh as Martha?
I don’t ever feel bored by Martha, because it’s always me performing on my edge. And I can really tailor the show to what my mind is chewing on at any given moment — politics, the trials of love, existential angst, a recent trip to the vet — and it asks a lot of me improvisationally, mentally, vocally, athletically, and in terms of audience interaction. If I haven’t hit a high note in the pigeon yoga pose while seducing a man by explicating my favorite poem by William Blake, it’s not a Martha show.
Drag has become more mainstream these days. What observations do you have about the way drag has changed and grown over the years?
I think Martha was always a little different because she is hairy and because she sings with a band. Both of those things are unusual for drag queens. Now I have nothing but total admiration for drag queens who lipsynch, that is a total art when done well. But singing is different, more organic maybe or more exposed. I was telling someone the other day that one thing about singing as opposed to lipsynching is that it’s less of a fantasy, and it’s more vulnerable, I think; using your voice reveals your humanity, no matter how much of a fantasy the glamorous trappings of drag allow you to indulge.
What can folks expect from your costumes and makeup?
I can’t tell you what I’ll be wearing! But I can tell you that my usual comrade-in-glamour, Max Brown, will be styling and dressing me, so I know that I will be glammed to the nines.
Fess up, is Martha Graham Cracker really going off to become a librarian? Are you hanging up the dress?
Oh well, that’s a secret. But if you come see the show, all will be revealed to you.