03/26/2013 05:04 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Varla Jean Merman: An Appreciation From Upstage Right

When I first considered profiling drag performer Varla Jean Merman, I imagined a thoughtful interview-with-the-artist piece. But she wouldn't answer my texts. Undaunted, it occurred to me that as her sometimes-accompanist, I have a unique perspective to offer. I won't try to describe Varla's material; it's too evanescent to convey through prose. Even YouTube clips are pale carbons of the live experience. So this will be a subjective look; an appreciation of her artistry from my perch at the piano, upstage right.

First, some history: I've known Jeffery Roberson (that's Varla out of drag) for many years, but before 2010 hadn't worked with him. That summer Jeff decided Varla's new Provincetown extravaganza should have live music rather than tracks. Enter me. I played the show that season, and the next, and then decided two summers in Provincetown was enough. (There's two kinds of folks in this world: those who adore Provincetown and... the rest of us.)

Happily, we've had occasion since then to play a gig here and there, so our relationship continues.

For those not familiar with Varla Jean Merman, her look is that of Jayne Mansfield crossed with Mad Men's Joan Harris. Curvaceous lines, exaggerated femininity, towering tresses. The face: broad, strong features; a prominent jaw with a slight underbite. Think Birgit Nilsson if she had been a drag queen. (Insert "but Birgit Nilsson was a drag queen" joke here.) The surprise, though, is that Varla also sings in that diva's range, and with as much power. Jeff is a deceptively skilled musician.

I pride myself in being adept in the art of accompanying. What is rarely remarked upon, however, is the art of being accompanied. A confident singer plows on ahead if the team gets out of sync, trusting that the pianist will land back in the groove. But a truly facile musician is also able to convey to her accompanist, by telepathic means, when a change in tempo is desired or a passage is to be extended or a verse is to be cut. Varla is capable of all these subtle directives while simultaneously performing choreography, executing onstage costume changes, ingesting entire cans of squeeze cheese or racing up the aisle dragging the foreskin of a 6' phallus. (Don't ask.)

She claims to be the illegitimate daughter of Ethel Merman and Ernest Borgnine; I think of Varla more as a child of Burlesque. Not the tarted-up strippers, though. No -- I see her as the descendant of those baggy pants comics for whom no pun was too corny, no gag too low to stoop for. Varla may be a creature of glamor, an idol to her multitude of fans, an unattainable goddess, but -- and it's a big butt -- it's all in her head; usually she winds up the object of her own joke. She's the smug prom queen with lipstick smeared on her teeth, the society matron swanning haughtily from the powder room with toilet paper stuck to her heel.

But she can play the audience like a fish on a string. No two performances are alike. People frequently remark that I seem to enjoy the show as much as the audience -- and I do! Accompanists are notorious for sitting stone-faced, undermining the performer with their phlegmatic demeanor; that's not possible with Varla. Of course, the bulk of a Varla show is set, but every night something appears on the fly that sets me off. Her ability to ad lib is magical. And that she can ask someone their name at the top of the show and recall it an hour later for the finale fills me with awe.

As for Mr. Roberson himself? Most drag queens I know are heightened versions of their offstage personalities. Not Jeff. He's shy. He'll hate this article. He's also quite handsome and in great shape. If I had a nickel for every time I overheard "he's really hot out of drag," I'd have, well, a heck of a lot of nickels. Watching Parade's End on HBO, Benedict Cumberbatch kept reminding me of Jeff. Something about the set of the mouth, the almond eyes, the slight disconnect in manner. I always get the impression Jeff is three steps ahead in the conversation, probably mentally writing a parody lyric simultaneously. The wheels just never stop turning.

We played a gig in Pittsburgh last week. Somehow, one of Jeff's suitcases disappeared en route. The one with her makeup as well as some foam rubber body appliances. There was a moment of panic and then contingencies were evaluated and methodically put into operation. The Varla that the crowd that night saw was a little less hippy than usual and the bosoms were makeshift, but the face was all there and -- more important -- so was the sass. During our first set the audience seemed a bit chilly. Jeff briefly considered making cuts to the second half but then, drawing himself up like a de-wigged Helen Lawson in the ladies' room, declared that -- dammit! -- they were getting the show he'd rehearsed.

During Act II Varla willed the audience into loving her. She played 'em like fish and by the end of the show had a netful of wriggling, gasping, adoring fans.

Didn't surprise me in the least.