BY Advocate Contributors
December 04 2009 1:50 PM ET
Someone at Peter’s said, “You know, they have open mike at Palsson’s tonight.” So we picked ourselves up, walked over to Palsson’s in our evening wear, and asked if we could do our material. One of the men in Aaron’s New School workshop was there that night, and he knew Sella Palsson, the owner, pretty well. He told her, “You should let them get up and do these songs. They’re very funny.”
Nora, Pete, and I performed for about forty minutes, and it went so well that the Palsson’s people asked if we’d like to be booked there for a full evening or two that summer. I thought it was a great idea, but I couldn’t agree to do it when they wanted because I was set to do summer stock. So they booked us for two nights in November, and I went off to play Curly in Oklahoma! at Keene Summer Theatre.
Laura Linney played “fall-down girl” in that production; I think she was about fourteen and I was twenty-three. At the time, I was also working furiously on a musical version of Scaramouche, and I kept telling Laura about this great new show I had. When we met again years later, after she had become a film and theatre star, she told me: “I remember how you said you were writing a show that was going to be a big hit when you got back to New York. The next thing I knew, I was reading about Forbidden Broadway. That was so encouraging to me as a young artist.” And I said, “Well, great, but that wasn’t the show I meant.”
In the fall, we got ready to do Forbidden Broadway at Palsson’s. They had cabaret shows in the upstairs room, performed on a tiny stage in front of a Mylar curtain that seemed oddly appropriate for our “glamorous but trashy” take on contemporary Broadway. I was still working as a waiter and host at the Avery Fisher Hall restaurant; that’s how I first met people like Leonard Bernstein, Comden and Green, and Beverly Sills, but I wasn’t talking to them about music, theatre, or the arts. My conversations with these luminaries never went far beyond “Dear boy, could you get me a few more of those delicious buffalo chicken wings?”
I was concerned that my singing and acting career was stuck in neutral. Perhaps I was even angry. But nothing feeds comedy like a little anger, and I was ready to blow off some steam. One day, I was bitching to Peter Brash, who had gotten a job as a gofer for the soap opera The Doctors. (He’s now an Emmy Award–winning soap writer.) Peter said, “Don’t you have a show at Palsson’s next week? Is anybody coming? I’d better help you print up some flyers and programs.” (Don’t tell anyone at NBC, but we used one of their copy machines to do just that.)
Then Pete Blue came to me and said, “I can’t play the show at Palsson’s because I have to play Whorehouse.” I naively thought, “Well, we’ll just get another pianist.” I approached a friend of mine at BMI, but we didn’t have any of the music written out, and he couldn’t handle it. I thought, “Oh, my God! I have a show in thirty-six hours and no pianist. But I can’t think about that now; I’ll think about it tomorrow.”
The next morning, I called Nora and asked her, “Do you know any pianists? At this point, anyone will do.” She said, “Yeah, I know a great one: Fred Barton.” We brought the lyrics to Fred, with no music at all. He looked at the lyrics, and he knew the melodies and arrangements of the songs so well that he played everything perfectly from memory. Instant chemistry!
So Nora and Fred and I did the show at Palsson’s for two nights — and, to this day, I have no idea where the audience came from. I had invited a few people, Nora’s husband was there, Fred had asked a few friends. As I said, we had printed up some flyers, but I had forgotten to give most of them out. Still, the room was completely packed for both performances. Even Hugh Fordin from DRG Records was there. Word had somehow gotten out that the material was fun and Nora’s performance was something special.