EVEN AS A TEENAGER Nick Garrison seemed larger than life, a pocket-size Piaf who could galvanize a room with his outsize charisma and chameleon’s gift to become whatever song he sings. At 15, he began studying voice at Emilie Berne’s Queen Anne studio, showing up for 90-minute sessions of physical stretching, vocal warm-ups, and practice on a particular song. Though Berne has taught many students over 40 years in her profession, the little guy with the overpowering ability to connect with a crowd remains foremost in her memory. “I always teach that the audience should hear you singing and say, Oh, I’ve been there too,” says Berne, who took Garrison under her wing in the early 1990s. “And Nick could do that.”
A song, Berne impresses on her pupils, is a personal act of communication, one that should be approached as something intended to be spoken. “I usually teach the song first as a monologue,” she explains. “And I teach them to type out their lyrics as monologues, and to tape themselves, and listen to where they slow down and speed up, or elongate words—because the rhythm of songs is usually based on speech.”
Every now and then, a pupil would cancel for one reason or another, allowing Berne and Garrison a three-hour window to play. One of those times, during the holiday season, Berne turned Garrison loose on Kurt Weill’s brooding melody “Lonely House” from the 1947 musical Street Scene. To create the proper ambience, Berne turned off all the lights to leave Garrison in the glow of the studio’s Christmas tree. “And he sang…” Berne recalls, choking up all these years later. Garrison dove into Langston Hughes’s lyrical melancholy: “Lonely house, lonely me / Funny with so many neighbors / How lonely it can be.” Bursting from his modest frame, Garrison’s vocal instrument was preternatural, a trumpet as Chet Baker might have played it—warm, breezy but penetrating, pitched high, not quite masculine, but too intensely firm in its embrace of each note to call it feminine.
“It still brings tears to my eyes,” Berne says. “He always was miles ahead of his peers. He had a real mature artistic understanding. He’s had an interesting background, and that probably helped him grow up maybe sooner than other kids. But even when he was in high school it was like teaching an associate rather than teaching a child.”
She’s kept a poem pinned to her bulletin board that Garrison wrote himself and scribbled down for her on a piece of paper:
Remember child to knock and pray
And hear the tune you can’t forget
Your mother taught you well to sing
And what you sing might save you
“I would describe him as someone whose brain is on fire all the time,” says Berne. “It’s always clicking.” It’s still clicking now, as he wraps his brain around a well-known role in a musical-theater classic at one of the city’s major venues. Garrison appears through April 13 as the Master of Ceremonies in Cabaret at the 5th Avenue Theatre. He knows what he’s up against. Joel Grey won a Tony playing the Emcee as a sinuous sly fox in the original 1966 Broadway production, and his performance in the 1972 film earned an Oscar. Alan Cumming upped the sexual wattage to become a star with his insolent charm in the 1998 Broadway revival; a Tony came his way too. Garrison won’t let those memorable characterizations stand in his way. “This role is great because, obviously, it’s a star turn,” he says, “but also because there’s a lot going on with it. There’s a lot I can bring to it.” However he settles on playing the Emcee, Cabaret offers Garrison a chance to show Seattle what Berne saw that winter’s day in her studio. It’s a significant turn in the career of a Seattle performer who’s developed a cult following but deserves wider recognition.