Mr. Personalities

Actor Nick Garrison finds his own voice and discovers that life is a Cabaret.

By Steve Wiecking January 4, 2009 Published in the April 2008 issue of Seattle Met

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.

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Garrison, now 34, has moved in and out of Seattle over the last decade, but most of the time he lives with his mother in Broadmoor. “Every time I start thinking of getting an apartment,” he admits, “I can’t bring myself to do it.” It’s a big place, plush and quiet and comforting. He offers a tour of rooms filled with soft pillows and family photos. Here’s a picture of a sister who died at 21 due to complications from spina bifida. Over there a shot of Garrison’s father—a commercial fisherman whose travels led the family from Alaska, where Nick was born, to Hawaii and then the Northwest. He died in a car accident when Nick was 21. In one old picture, mom and dad sit together at a table on a happy night out sometime before their separation. “Mary and Larry Garrison,” their son says, sing-songing the names by way of mock introduction. His mother has a glass of wine, a knowing smile, and very big hair. “That,” he cracks, “was such a ’70s moment.”

In conversation, Garrison can be as much of a showstopper as he is on stage. For a small guy—his shaved head and scruffy beard only accentuate his puckishness—he’s got an unexpectedly solid build. And he uses all of it when he talks: His hands grab the air for emphasis, his eyes widen in faux exasperation or sparkle with passion, and his voice—ever that piercing Chet Baker trumpet—jumps from note to note with breakneck phrasing. He whizzes through pop-culture references, latching onto sudden inspirations, then bopping back onto whatever subject is at hand. Mary Garrison “was like Maria von Trapp” when Nick and his siblings were growing up. “She’d come into our rooms,” he remembers, “opening up windows and singing.” She exposed them to the whole range of popular music, from Rodgers and Hart’s musicals to Joni Mitchell’s confessions. “I think it’s important to grow up with people singing at you,” he says, then deadpans: “Shockingly, I’m gay.” Mary also exerted a major influence on his sensibilities; she took him to the Billie Holiday biopic Lady Sings the Blues when he was still a baby in her arms. Mary saw nothing odd in the notion of a toddler seeing Diana Ross spiral into heroin addiction—it may, in fact, have been more family friendly than some of the other filmic sights spurring the young boy’s imagination. “She always says, ‘Oh, it was the ’70s!’” he says, imitating the dismissive wave of his mother’s hand. “I remember seeing Looking for Mr. Goodbar but not knowing what was going on.”

"I had this voice teacher in Paris who was constantly telling me ’You’re never going to be an opera singer!’"

Although he doesn’t recall knocking “Lonely House” right out of the ballpark in her studio, Garrison does recollect studying with Emilie Berne after moving to Seattle. “I remember being in rehearsal and singing ‘I Remember April,’ this kind of cheesy standard, and I just remember her bursting into tears and saying, ‘You found your voice!’” he says. “I finally wasn’t trying to sound like somebody else. And I knew what she meant. Everyone should have someone like that. It was like therapy.”

He experienced theater, initially, behind the scenes in high school. “I was funny and people liked me backstage,” he recalls, “so that gave me confidence. I always thought I was going to be a playwright or director.” He then landed the role of Adam in the Northwest School’s production of the Garden of Eden musical The Apple Tree. “My mom talks about seeing that and crying because she didn’t realize that I could sing.” He catches himself, a little embarrassed at being moved by the memory. “I didn’t think I’d have anything to say today,” he says, settling into a leather chair with a wry smirk. “Clearly that’s not the case.”

Graduating early from high school so he could pursue acting, he went to Europe with money set aside for college—a scandal in the family. “And then I had this voice teacher in Paris who was like a Nazi. She was constantly telling me, ‘You’re never going to be an opera singer!’” There was something else he was never going to be: a married commercial fisherman. “My father took me out to lunch one day when I was in sixth or seventh grade and asked me if I wanted to start working summers out on the boat like my brother did to make money for college,” he explains. “And I said no. And, somehow, that was it. There was never pressure after that. I got involved in the arts very early, and it was never an issue. So my parents knew. I never really had to ‘come out.’ It all felt very natural.”

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In the spring of 1993, when Garrison was 19, Annex Theatre, one of Seattle’s leading fringe companies, held an open call for a musical titled Radio Pirates. The composer, Chris Jeffries, remembers Berne’s star pupil walking into the audition. “In comes this little kid,” Jeffries says, “who starts singing ‘Mood Indigo,’ a cappella, at the top of his lungs, belting in the middle of the room. I felt like one of those Busby Berkeley producers going, ‘Kid, I’m gonna make you a star!’ I was just like, Who is this kid?!”

Garrison’s rendition of the Duke Ellington standard—“’Cause there’s nobody who cares about me / I’m just a soul who’s bluer than blue can be”—also floored director Allison Narver. “He was just a baby,” she gushes. “And he came in wearing tiny little shorts and platform shoes. And we couldn’t believe this huge voice was coming from that body.” Jeffries and Narver didn’t cast him; it seemed a little dicey to toss a teenager into a scrappy fringe production. “But I never forgot him,” says Narver. “That voice came from the bottom of his feet.”

The kid bounced around looking for things to do. But there are only so many prospects for a small gay guy with a voice better suited for Blanche DuBois than Stanley Kowalski. He appeared in Seattle fringe shows, slaying audiences with his subtle wit, often performing in drag. Crowds howled at his spoof of upper-class maleficence as the mother in Re-bar’s 1999 parody Deflowered in the Attic, calmly poisoning his children, a daffy toss of the head here, an absurd giggle there. But he left for New York, picking up voice-over work with no intention of returning to town. And then he was tempted back for the role that would change his life.
Meanwhile, John Cameron Mitchell—another performer who’d spent years searching for a way to exploit his singularity—caught off-Broadway off guard. In the musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch he created an East Berlin performance artist left incomplete in body and soul by a botched sex-change operation. The travails of his raging, wounded, magnificent heroine soon turned out to be a Rocky Horror Picture Show for the new century—a visceral rock salutation to individuality and nonconformity.

Mitchell’s invention solidified into Garrison’s defining moment. When Re-bar was getting ready to mount Hedwig in 2000, the director called Garrison in New York. Garrison leapt. As the corrosive yet tender transgender, he made it hard to tell where Mitchell’s script ended and his own funny, feverish riffs began. To Hedwig’s punk poses and sneering sarcasm he brought a comic timing that milked several punch lines out of every joke, and more importantly, a comprehension that her humor was the last, fierce resource against tears. Those early days with Berne had paid off. In celebrating everything unique about himself he allowed audiences a cathartic celebration of everything unique about _them_selves. Then there was his voice, Garrison’s trumpet meeting the rock blare of the score to reach heights of secular uplift. “Someone told me it was like church,” he says.

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Even after Mitchell’s 2001 movie version brought the show to wider audiences, Garrison’s hold on the role remained firm. He played the part in Chicago and later toured several cities around southern England. By 2004, when the show returned for a second Seattle run, people were lining up around the block.

Still, it takes imaginative directors to find roles that spotlight a man who makes a great leading lady. Allison Narver was one. “Obviously, here’s a major talent,” says Narver. “But what do you do with this talent? He’s just one of those guys—you just want to watch and see what he’s going to do next. I think he’s coming into his own. I think he’s beginning to figure out that power of his—that Hedwig magic—and where to put it. Every time I see him sing on stage, and it sounds so corny, I completely fall in love with him.”

Narver had held onto the memory of that kid wailing “Mood Indigo,” and when she became artistic director of the now defunct Empty Space Theatre she also became Garrison’s most important collaborator. In 2002, she cast him as a drug-addled vixen in the Empty Space’s adaptation of Valley of the Dolls, then guided him through an elegantly edgy portrait of Oscar Wilde in Chris Jeffries’s musical Vera Wilde. The same year, Craig Lucas (now best known for writing the Tony winner The Light in the Piazza) cast Garrison in the female role of Nurse Fay in the Intiman’s staging of Joe Orton’s anarchic farce Loot. “It was real,” Lucas says. “He
wasn’t doing a caricature. He didn’t flounce. He didn’t lisp.”

"What do you do with this talent? He’s just one of those guys—you just want to see what he’s going to do next."

Female roles have become a trademark for Garrison. “Charles Ludlam is somebody I look to as an inspiration,” he says, citing the late genius of New York’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company. “He got a chance to do so many things. He played Hedda Gabler at one point. And that’s the thing about women’s roles and why I don’t mind getting typecast in that way—they tend to be so much more fascinating to me than men’s roles in terms of where they go emotionally. I mean, I like men’s roles as well, but there is something I really relate to in women’s roles.”

In 2006, Garrison examined that relationship in his flawed but memorable work-in-progress cabaret, What You Sing Might Save You; the poem he’d jotted down for his former voice teacher had become something of a mantra. The show complemented Garrison’s childhood fixation with the sexual melodramatics of Looking for Mr. Goodbar with his love for songs such as Rodgers and Hart’s “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered.” He saw himself, and the audience got to see him, as the doomed Diane Keaton of the movie and as the lovelorn crooners of American standards, lending a tart perspective to lyrics like “I’ll sing to him / Each spring to him / And worship the trousers that cling to him,” and evoking the way a young gay man develops a view of romance in a heterosexual world.

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“You know, I had my moments when I was not all that wild about being gay,” Garrison says. His eyebrows furrow and he shrugs: “I’m still not all that wild about being gay. I think what I do,” he explains, “is not so much about being gay but about sexuality. It’s way more a gender thing.” He reconsiders: “I mean, I joke about not being wild about being gay, but it’s such a huge part of who I am, and there’s no denying that. I don’t think you can be a very good anything, certainly not an artist, without acknowledging and being comfortable with that.”

Garrison’s comfort with his own idiosyncrasies is a big part of why Cabaret director Bill Berry thinks he’s got the right man for the job—one whose definition of being a man is very fluid. Other actors who wanted the part couldn’t quite articulate the hair’s-breadth difference between outlandish and off-putting. “The thing about Nick,” Berry explains, “is that he’s a little off, but then he’s so charming that you want to spend time with him. A lot of people came into the audition and were really freaky. That was interesting, but then you realized that you wouldn’t want to be in their company for two hours. Nick strikes the balance between pushing the envelope and still being entertaining, making you love him and want to be around him.” And Garrison once again bends gender. “Nick has this thing,” adds Berry. “_Androgynous_ isn’t the right word. His sexuality is all over the map, and that’s perfect for the Emcee.”

Though most stagings suggest that the insouciant, pansexual performers of the Kit Kat Klub are responsible for the degradation of Europe, Garrison believes those Berlin nightclubs provided a final flowering of unconventional talent. “I like the dark beauty of it,” he says. “You see it disintegrate and be compromised. But initially it’s something you should freak out that you’re able to see. I hate when it’s presented from the beginning as something so fucked up you’d never want to see it.”

He’s found insight for his current role through extensive reading: Linda Mizejewski’s Divine Decadence, which analyzes the shifting sexual politics behind Cabaret heroine Sally Bowles’s appeal, and Mel Gordon’s expansively detailed Voluptuous Panic: The Erotic World of Weimar Berlin, which chronicles the relationship between androgynous artists Anita Berber and Sebastian Droste. “Sebastian Droste is a huge inspiration to me,” Garrison says. “He made a lot of stuff happen in Weimar Berlin in terms of performance and art but he was a total con artist. He totally reinvented himself. He called himself a baron, but he wasn’t. He invented this character and got rather far on very little talent.”

"I’m fascinated by this idea of people not being all that talented but being really charismatic."

Perhaps, he supposes, that’s the way into interpreting the Emcee. “I’m fascinated by this idea of people not being all that talented but being really charismatic. And that’s just a thought. Who knows how that can work in theory? But there’s something in there that interests me. Not just nailing the number, but how much harder someone has to work—I mean, I can dance but I’m not a classically trained dancer. I’m not Joel Grey.

“It’s something about that idea of someone who is really self-made with very little to back it up. Which seems right for the Emcee, in a way. He seems like someone you can kind of bat for. He’s running the show, but he’s probably got syphilis. It’s so typical to see him as some heroin addict, but more likely he’s an amphetamine freak.” A punctuating laugh. “I don’t know many heroin addicts who could get through an entire show.”

This current production of Cabaret played at the American Musical Theatre of San Jose before opening in Seattle, and will move on from here to the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts in St. Paul, Minnesota. It will bring Garrison not only a substantial paycheck but a whole new audience. From the solace of his family home, Garrison feels the wind shifting in his future. “I do think something’s changing this year,” he says, though he’s not entirely undaunted: “I am kind of scared with Cabaret. Everybody feels like they own Cabaret in a way. They know the movie or they’ve seen it on stage or on Broadway.” What they don’t know, or haven’t yet seen, is something else altogether—the force of a one-of-a-kind performer who’s found his voice.

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