Martha Graham Cracker: Philly’s Favorite Drag Queen Tells All
The Martha Graham Cracker Cabaret is an in-your-face rock and roll drag cabaret starring Pig Iron Theatre Company co-founder Dito van Reigersberg as Miss Martha Graham Cracker, the world’s tallest and hairiest drag queen. For more than 14 years, Martha has entertained audiences in Philly, New York, Vegas, and elsewhere with her high-energy and hilarious shows that are unlike anything you’ve ever seen. Tomorrow, Martha celebrates a gigantic milestone—her first studio album: Lashed But Not Leashed. To mark the occasion, a special one-night-only performance is taking place at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts. My wife and I will be in attendance for this show, and we can’t wait. After buying a ticket to what promises to be an epic evening, read my interview below with the greatest drag queen you will ever see: Martha Graham Cracker.
Congratulations on your first studio album, Lashed But Not Leashed. It’s fabulous, and I’m very happy for you. What made you decide to record and release your debut album at this point in your career?
Thank you! It’s my first real recording of an album. I did a song here or there, but this is my first time doing a whole album of original material—which is a whole different beast. An album takes time to record and finish. This album took anywhere from eight months to a year to complete.
I got a residency at the Kimmel Center, which started the whole thing. I was asked if I wanted to do this residency. It’s, sort of, a residency for songwriters and cabaret artists from Philadelphia and New York. I said, “Yes, I would.” I had written a few songs for my company, Pig Iron, here and there but Martha is mainly a cover girl. (laughs) So, I’ve never really written songs for her. But that’s always been an idea brewing as I went into the residency. But I wasn’t sure if they’d be songs for Dito to sing or for Martha to sing.
We wrote the songs without much of a structure, so we had a really fun time with it. We wrote songs we really liked. Then we started creating the container for those songs. Very soon, it became clear that these were songs for Martha. I don’t know how many songs we wrote in the first pass—maybe five or six. Then we did another residency to write the rest, and there are a total of 11 songs on the album. There were only two or three songs that ended up in the waste-paper basket (laughs) or on the shelf. We wrote them at the Kimmel in this small but homey practice room, which was next to Yannick’s office. I’d always say, “May the power of Yannick transfer through the wall and inspire us.” (laughs) So, maybe some of that Canadian magic came through.
We were writing the lines—the text that would set up each song. Then, eventually, Kimmel said to us that this project was creating its own momentum and why don’t we record the album. So, they really helped me to finally realize this dream I’ve had for many years but haven’t done—to record my own album. It’s a big deal.What was the songwriting process like for this album?
Since I know Martha the best, I’d take a little bit of the lead on lyrics. For example, I’d say something like, “OK, guys. This song should be about this.” We’d also listen to songs that inspired us and wound up being templates for what we wanted to do with our songs, and those would take us down a road. It wasn’t like, “And now you write the next line.” (laughs) I was probably more leading the lyrical charge, but everyone was involved in that. And then, I’d say, the other guys who are more like musicians than I am lead the musical charge. They’d say, “That chorus should sound like this.” There was a beautiful synergy between us. It was very easy to collaborate with everyone and feel like we all had our hands in it. I think one of my favorite things about collaborating in general is when you don’t remember whose idea something was. There’s no beginning or ending or people being territorial about parts of a song. It’s a non-egotistical back-and-forth.
What was it like to record these songs in the studio and see them come to life?
Oh, so hard. (laughs) I don’t know if you’ve ever recorded a song in a studio. If you’re used to singing a song live with this wonderful group of people creating the song together—the drums, the guitar, the keyboard—it’s all happening at the same time and you can be swept up in the moment that the group is making. When you record an album, it’s usually broken up into segments. The drums and the bass play their parts first, alone. Then you add on guitars, and then keys. Once you have the full package of what the instrumentation is like, it’s time to add the singing on top of that. You’re, sort of, alone. So, you have to work to recreate what that song should feel like if it were live. It involves a bit of acting. You have to imagine that it’s 10 at night, not 10 in the morning, and imagine how you’d sing it to a room of people. It’s an artificial environment, and, of course, you’re also listening to and critiquing your own voice (laughs) over and over again. You can’t get away from it. It’s like auditory claustrophobia mixed with the loneliness of singing by myself when I’m used to singing with my whole band.
Did anyone from your live band, like Victor Fiorillo, contribute to this album?
I have my regular band that performs with me as part of the Martha Graham Cracker Cabaret. This was a side project that was instigated by the residency. The people who were involved in the songwriting played the music live. That meant that Eliza was on keys. That was not because there were any hard feelings. It’s just the way that particular project developed. Victor and I are still playing together. In fact, we have a show next Monday.
What can fans expect from your Kimmel Center performance tomorrow night?
I hope a rollercoaster of emotions. A real good time, and someone who is completely overwhelmed by how large the venue is—that would be me. (laughs) I think it’s a 500-seater. It’s well designed so I can see every seat. It’s not that scary, but it’s a pretty big venue for us. It will be the biggest incarnation for this show, and it’s one-night-only. And I hope it will inspire people to pick up a copy of the album, which is debuting tomorrow as well. This show also provides Martha’s emotional journey about whether to leave show business or not to become a librarian and what else it makes her think about. It answers lots of questions. Is she going to make this big change? Is she excited? Is she afraid? Is she hiding from something. I think it’s an exploration of what’s going on in Martha’s head and heart.
What inspired you to create Marty Graham Cracker more than 14 years ago?
When I was in acting school in New York in the mid-1990s, I’d go see these drag queens at night—these singing drag queens. There’s something about acting school that’s great. But you’re doing scene work and it can feel very straight. I wanted to know what it was like to do singing and interact with an audience.
Victor Fiorillo had a band and I’d perform with them as a guest star. Then there was this moment, which was a crucial moment, where the owner of L’Etage said to me, “I’ve seen you do Martha Graham Cracker. Would you like to do a monthly gig here at L’Etage?” I was like, “Oh my god! I’m scared, but yeah!” I knew it would give me the chance to experiment and try things. It’s unbelievable to me. We’ve had our rough patches, but we’ve done that show every month for more than 14 years. And it’s expanded to us doing shows at Joe’s Pub and other places around the city. It was a really important moment for me.
In terms of the character, I studied at the Martha Graham School of Dance. So, I was aware of the legend of Martha Graham herself. I was also inspired by Norma Desmond and women who had this delusion of how important they were—a 1940s’ glamour that was beautiful, elegant, and crazy. When my Dad finally saw my show he said, “Oh, that’s just your Grandmother.” (laughs) It might just be my Grandmother possessing me. My interactions with the audience and the kind of music that we play developed over time. As I played with the band, we came up with ways to play songs in a way that people don’t expect. For example, we do a whole Beatles medley where all of the songs are flipped on their head. I sing an angry “Let It Be” and a slow, mournful “Ticket To Ride.” Part of cabaret is making people hear songs differently. The shows are also just a chance for my brain to go on this crazy ride. It’s an in-the-moment art form. The cabaret is the most responsive of the art forms. You don’t ignore what happens around you. You talk about it.The first time I saw you was on a date. The date was boring, but you weren’t. That relationship only lasted one date, but I’ve come back to see you several times since then and you never disappoint. How do you continue to keep things fresh for both you and your audience?
(Laughs) That’s great! I should have that printed on a shirt. Come to Martha Graham Cracker Cabaret. Your date might be boring, but Martha’s not! (laughs) That makes me very happy. I’m sorry about the date because a boring date is torture. Because it is structured improvisation, it never gets old. I have the opportunity to respond to what’s happening in the room and what’s happening in the world. Sometimes it feels like I’m giving little mini-sermons in my cabaret church. Then it feels like I’m being racy, sexy, and dirty. Sometimes I’m telling my ridiculous shaggy dog tales, or the band is making fun of me or I’m making fun of them. It never gets old because there’s so much going on.
Your voice is incredibly powerful and soulful. What singers do you draw the most inspiration from when signing?
I would say Aretha Franklin is number one. I also love Erykah Badu and Patti LaBelle. I love Glen Campbell, (laughs) and I do love Barry Manilow as well. I saw Barry live in Vegas once. As a songwriter, he’s a genius. Is there a better song than “Weekend in New England” or “Daybreak”? He’s cheesy but I love him. I also love Andrew Gold, who wrote “Thank You For Being A Friend.” He was a backup singer for Linda Ronstadt, who was also a great singer. Dolly Parton, of course. And I can’t forget Prince.
You’ve performed in many places, but Philadelphia continues to be your home base. What makes Philadelphia a special place for you?
I think Philadelphia is a place where people are both open and honest. I’m originally from the Washington, D.C. area. People there are more transient and strategic about how they talk and who they talk to. There much more of a game being played there. One of the things I love about Philly is, I don’t think it’s a place for games. People are honest, maybe even to a fault. People tell you what they think, and they are open to new things. Sometimes when I go up to New York, it’s hard to know where the community is. New York has become more corporate. I hope Philly can resist that trend. I live in South Philly and own my little row home. I love it here. It’s a place where I feel like life moves at a quick enough pace that it’s exciting but not so fast that you feel like a rat in a laboratory test.
In 2016 you played an important role in the Arden Theater production of The Legend of Georgia McBride. I saw the show and thought you were great in it. What was that experience like?
It was super fun. Very different. Most drag queens are lip-syncing, and that’s a skill I don’t really have. I had to study and learn a lot about what makes lip-syncing exciting in order to do that show. It’s so different than singing. It’s theatrical in a much bigger way. I loved my costumes. It was a small theater, but it was a really fun and heartwarming show. It’s a story that defies belief. These people are in a miserable place and by the end everything is hunky-dory. Wow! How’d they do that. It’s a lovely tale. I loved my castmates so much in that.
Is there anything you’ve yet to accomplish that you’d like to do?
That’s such a huge question. I’ve never been in a movie. I’ve never really made a music video for any of these songs. I’d love to be in a musical. There’s a musical form of storytelling that I’m excited about. Who knows—maybe I’ll get to be Dolly in Hello, Dolly! (laughs) I’d also love to do more choral and harmonic singing, whether it be as Dito or Martha, because it brings me such joy.