While on vacation, I had the pleasure and honor of sitting down with Jeffery Roberson, award winning actor, writer, and performer best known for creating his alter-ego "Varla Jean Merman," after seeing his new show "Book of Merman" at The Art House in Provincetown, MA (click here for my review). From film to television to live shows, Jeffery has performed around the world! He shared Outfest Film Festival "Best Actor" Award and the Aspen HBO Film Festival "Best Actress" Award with his co-stars Jack Plotnick and Clinton Leupp for his featured performance in "Girls Will Be Girls" (Sundance 2003).
As "Varla Jean Merman," Jeffery starred in his one person shows "Varla Jean Merman Loves A Foreign Tongue," "Anatomically Incorrect," "I'm Not Paying For This," "Girl With A Pearl Necklace; An Act Of Love, Under A Big Top," "Holiday Ham!," "All Washed Up!" and "The Very Worst of Varla Jean Merman" at concert halls and cabarets across the world including the Syndey Opera House, Carnegie Hall, the New York Public Theater, London’s Soho Theatre, LA's Renberg Theatre, and San Francisco's Victoria Theatre.
Jeffery made his network television debut on ABC's "All My Children" in the recurring role of "lady of the evening Rosemary Chicken." For the launch of MTV's Logo network, Jeffery wrote and starred in the short "Improve Your History with Varla Jean: Stonewall." He was the opening act at Vienna's LifeBall, Europe's largest fundraiser for AIDS research, where he performed on the same bill with Sharon Stone, Catherine Deneuve and Naomi Campbell.
On Broadway, Jeffery starred in the revival of "Chicago" as "Mary Sunshine." He won rave reviews as both director and star of "Shut Up Sweet Charlotte!" at Le Petit Theatre in New Orleans. The production won three Big Easy Awards including Best Comedy and Best Direction. He appeared at the Long Wharf Theatre in Hartford Stage's production of "The Mystery of Irma Vep" directed by Michael Wilson performing the roles originally made famous by Charles Ludlam. Jeffery has appeared in many TWEED Fraktured Classiks productions in New York City, including "The Mailman Always Comes Twice," "Screen Door" and "CAGED!" with Lily Tomlin, Joan Rivers and Isabella Rossellini, "Lypsinka is Harriet Craig," "The Miracle Worker" (with Charles Busch) and "Varla Jean Merman is The Bad Seedling."
Jeffery has opened for Jennifer Holliday and has also shared the stage with Betty Buckley, fulfilling his utmost gay fantasy, singing excerpts from the notorious Broadway flop "Carrie" as part of Ms. Buckley's cabaret act at the Bottom Line.
1. Who or what inspired you to become a performer? I always wanted to be a performer when I was younger. My parents were Southern Baptist, so there was no dancing, no drinking, no anything in our house. I went to an arts, math, and science boarding school in Natchitoches, Louisiana (where "Steel Magnolias" took place) where I was studying to become a chemist or some science related field, but I really wanted to perform. One day the choir teacher heard me talking in the hall, and my voice was very high back then, and she was like, "Can you sing? I need a singer. I need a tenor." I said, "I would love to do the choir. I was never allowed to at home." It was from there that I started singing and then I thought I wanted to be a singer, but operatic singing wasn't right for me. I didn't have the voice for it. I started doing drag right out of high school with my friend Timo and we just made videos in a very kind John Waters style. That was at the time when they just started playing videos in bars (that's how long ago all of this was) and they would play our videos in the background over the dance music. If I never went to that school in Louisiana, I would have never got into performing, so that to me, definitely says a lot about arts education. If you are educated and people point you in that direction, you can find out you like it and that you are good it.
2. How did you come up with your alter ego "Varla Jean Merman"? There was a talent show at a bar in Louisiana and I had just read Ethel Merman's autobiography and there was a whole chapter about her marriage to Ernest Borgnine where you turn the page and there was a blank page, which I thought was just so delicious. Then I thought if she had had a kid with him, she would have given it away, and the kid would be Varla Jean Merman, but at the same time, that's probably not even the truth, which is a big part of my show, that I'm making that whole thing up just to give myself some famous lineage. My first few shows were so autobiographical to that story, but then I thought Liza Minelli didn't talk about Judy Garland every minute, so then I started to put that story aside and used subtext instead. My show style of me performing live, showing some video, then performing live again has been there since those early days.
Me: Ohhh. I saw you about 4 or 5 years ago at The Post Office Cabaret in Ptown, then "Lucky Guy" in NY, and now "Book of Merman" here at the Art House in Ptown, so from what I've seen, I think what you do now is great. I don't have anything to compare it to from your early days.
Jeffery: Right. Oh Thank You. Well, I actually moved to NY because of the way I performed my shows. I was doing these videos down in New Orleans and a lot of the drag there was lyp-synching and impressions and I had a friend who went to school with me and he moved to NY and he called me one day to tell me he just saw this drag queen do a monologue to Wagner's "Liebestod" and I was like what is going on in NYC. Well, it turns out that drag queen was Miss Coco Peru. I just thought at the time, I could never do something like that in a bar in Louisiana because that is just not what the drag scene was like, so I moved to NY to try pursue my career further, but never thought it would become a career, so while I was pursuing my drag career, I took at job in advertising at Ogilve & Mather as an art director. As I was doing drag, I finally met Miss Coco at a benefit and he was so nice to me. He introduced me to people and then I went to see his cabaret show and I was so inspired by that, I wanted to do my own thing, but not what he does. He's a monologuest and I don't do that, I could never do that. He really helped me out...he set up me up with a piano player and was just really wonderful. He's just so genuine. I now realize in my career now that ones who are farther along than you and do help you out, are really confident in their career, while the others who don't help you out are not as confident. He was very pivotal in showing me that you can do whatever you want to do in drag that hasn't be done before and to this day, we remain good friends. It's not that I've done anything so different, but I don't lyp-sync to a Mariah Carey tune.
Me: The fact that you sing live, really sets you apart from so many of the other drag queens.
3. How did you come up with the title and concept for "The Book of Merman?" Well, I just stole it to try to get people in...hahaha. It worked amazingly well...hahaha. Seriously, my friend Ricky had the idea. I was in NY doing "Lucky Guy" when "Book of Mormon" opened and you just couldn't get away from it. I saw it, of course, it's an amazing show. I did have a bit in "Book of Merman," but took it out, about why I named my show "Book of Merman." When I was in the New York Times for the review of "Lucky Guy," they ran a photo of Leslie Jordan and me. And right below that review was a huge ad for "Book of Mormon." And then when I was on the cover of the New York Times for the follow up article "Lucky Guy loses it's $2 million dollars," right below that there was another ad for "Book of Mormon," so every time I was in the New York Times, there was "Book of Mormon" right below me, so it seemed fitting to title my show "Book of Merman."
4. What do you hope audiences come away with after seeing "Book of Merman" and your shows in general? I've done many shows with a point in it, but this show is a complete diversion, I just want people to laugh as much as they can.
5. You've performed all over the world, what makes you keep coming back to Provincetown and what do you love about performing here? There are so many people here, so you get a wide variety of people coming to see your show. Thank goodness that over the years, people who come here have been trained to go to shows. I mean if you go to Fire Island, people there are not going to shows everynight. The people who come here to Provincetown, go to 2 or 3 shows a week. There is a lot of great entertainment here and room for everyone. It's lifted the standard to have all these great acts here. You can't just come here and coast, you have to really work it. It used to be that people would do the same show year after year and add one or two bits, but now, you have to have a fresh new show every year to keep up with the competition.
The other aspect of performing here that I love is that it's just so relaxing. When I was in NY, I did 8 shows a week, and midtown is not relaxing. Here, I can workout on the beach, go running, ride the bike trails. I can go out at night if I want. It's just a great place to be.
6. Who's the one person you haven't worked with that you would like to? Carol Burnet. One of the main reasons I do comedy is because of her. She's pure genius. I love Andrea Martin and just got to meet her after my show, while she was here in Provincetown.
Costume wise, I would love to work with Bob Mackie, I mean who wouldn't? I would love to work with William Ivey Long again. He was just fantastic, treated me like a real star. He would show me sketches of my costumes and asked me what I thought about them and he actually researched what I've worn before and designed things I wore that he thought I would look good in. It was fascinating. He deserves everything he's ever gotten.
I would also love to work with Charles Busch again. He is just amazing. It would be fun to do something big with him again. Me: You are going to be doing "The Divine Sister." Jeffery: Right. Me: Are you going to be doing that as Jeff or as "Varla"? Jeffery: Well, it's something in between. People ask me this all the time. It's not "Varla" per say, but it is a female version of me playing the role, which is not "Varla", it's really the character in "Divine Sister," but it looks like "Varla" got cast. I mean it will be a version of her. When they hired me for "Lucky Guy," they didn't want me to do a complete departure from "Varla," they wanted "Varla" playing the role of "Gina Janine." I've played other parts that are a complete departure. It plays at the Speakeasy Stage in Boston Oct. 21-Nov. 19.
7. What excites you most about performing "The Divine Sister" and what have you learned from working with Charles Busch? I saw the show and I just loved the storyline and the cleaverness of it. Charles Busch was so great! He took every nun movie you've ever seen, mixed them in a blender, and added his own spin to it. It's such a funny show. The part of "Divine Sister" I love is that the character I play doesn't know where he's from or who his mother is and I can identify with that because I created a character ("Varla") who doesn't have a relationship with his mother. Years ago, Charles and I did "The Miracle Worker" together at TWEED, a theater company in NY. TWEED would take a play, keep the dialogue the same, but change it up with their creative casting. Charles played "Annie Sullivan" and I played "Helen Keller." We also did "Caged" at Town Hall which also starred Joan Rivers, Lily Tomlin, Isabella Rosselllini. We've worked together a lot. Charles was here, in Ptown, in July and he showed a clip from "The Miracle Worker" and I didn't even know anyone taped, so I'd love to see it.
The amazing thing about working with Charles Busch is that he's a great actor. The great thing about Charles' work is that while his material may have a camp element to it, underneath it all, the is really a lot of heart to it.
8. What's your favorite part of the creative process in putting a show together? I love the initial writing and figuring things out. I love, love, love cutting and editing it afterward. Even in "Lucky Guy" I was asking to have my lines cut and my songs shortened. What I do hate is realizing when something doesn't work. On paper or with friends, it seems very funny, but then you do it on stage and you're like "Oh my gosh, all this work, and this isn't going to work." In the end, something either works really well or it doesn't.
There were quite a few songs I cut for "Book of Merman," but one song that stayed in that Mark, my manger, wanted me to cut, was "The Swing Song." I love the song. It's influenced by a B-Lily song and my friend Ricky Gram said, the song would work really great if you can get a swing set up. The original song heavily refers to gardens and fairies and whatnot, and I thought for Provincetown, I needed to make it a little more edgy, so I did. Me: I love that you tie in a reference to "Spiderman." Unfortunately it's gotten the rap that it's gotten, but everyone can relate to it. Jeffery: Well, that joke has a lot to do with why Mark wanted me to cut it. This is probably not what happened in "Spiderman," but I thought I could rig the swing myself because I couldn't get anyone to help me rig it. So I got up on a ladder, put the rope on the swing what I thought was the right way (my manager couldn't even be in the room while hanging) and during tech rehearsal, I am singing the song and the swing broke and I went flying flat on my face. So Mark was like, "You have to cut this song." But, I eventually found somebody to show me how to rig it properly and now we check it every few days.
9. What have you learned about yourself from being a performer? One thing I've learned was that people can tell when things in your life are not going well because it comes through in your performance, no matter how much you think you've masked it. That happened to me one time in a previous show. Someone came up to me after that show and said, "You're really unhappy, aren't you?" I just burst into tears because I was going through such a rough time. It really made think about this and notice it in other performers.
Now, before a show, I take a few minutes to empty my mind out, so any issues I'm having are not right there in the forefront. I just go into the bathroom, run some water, and just listen to the water run. It's like a zen fountain, but it really works.
10. What's the best advice you've ever received? You don't know it's funny. There are times I can laugh at a joke because I know it's funny, but a lot of times you can't be aware that something is funny. If you have an internal dialogue with yourself that a joke didn't work well, you are not giving a good show because you are not there, you are not present. I have an internal dialogue with myself all the time, so I have to really fight with myself not to think. Jack Plotnick has the best website ever on comedy advice. I've used a lot of the advice he's given. The other piece of advice I've gotten is never Google yourself. If you are feeling really good about yourself, all you have to do is Google yourself and you'll be brought down immediately. There are so many people out there who post mean things and no one censors what they say, so I try not to Google myself as much anymore.
11. If you could dream about anyone while you sleep, who would it be? Now, it's Kyle Dean Massey, but not even in a sexual way. He's just so beautiful and so talented and such a nice, nice person. He's really the whole package.
12. Favorite way to spend your day off? I love to run here. I run 10 miles. I have to do something. I'm not the kind of person to relax. I also do these cross-fit classes here.
13. Favorite way to stay in shape? I love running.
14. Boxers or Briefs? I wear briefs because when you travel all the time, you sort of have to travel what you wear and I have to wear briefs because I have to hide things for when I go on stage.
15. Favorite website? I should say yours...hahaha. A new one that I'm sort of obsessed with is Style Rookie, she's a 15-year-old girl, who's a fashionista. They just did a cool layout on her in the New York Times. You should really check it out.
16. Superman or Wonder Woman? Wonder Women of course! Are you kidding me?? No contest. Lynda Carter to this day...oh my gosh that waist is still amazing!
17. What was the best part about working with fellow "Adaumbelle's Quest" participants Jenn Colella, Leslie Jordan, and Zak Resnik in "Lucky Guy"? First of all, the voices on these kids in the show (and I do call them kids because Leslie and I were like the old ladies in the show...hahaha) were outrageous. Zak is the nicest guy. Leslie Jordan is the funniest guy on earth. What's even better about Leslie is that he is like Mamma Cougar and anytime there was tension, Leslie would go to bat for them to defend them until it was worked out. He was like the den mother. He will defend you to his death. Jenn is just so talented. That voice alone...she can sing anything!
18. What advice would you give a budding drag queen? Try to figure out what you want to do. You can be inspired by somebody, but you have to have your own gimmick.