O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Back from a stint on Broadway, John Kelly returns to his roots in a new piece at P.S. 122.
"I like to venture through as many doors as I can," says John Kelly. A writer, choreographer, director, singer, and performer, Kelly is one of the most versatile artists in the business. He's perhaps best known for his uncanny impersonation of folk rock legend Joni Mitchell, although it would be a mistake to think of him as just another drag queen. His credits include performances at Carnegie Hall, the Joyce, BAM, Lincoln Center, and even Broadway, where he recently originated the role of the tenor Bartell Darcy in James Joyce's The Dead. His latest project, Brother, is a dramatic song cycle for countertenor and piano, composed by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Del Tredici.
THEATERMANIA: How did this collaboration between you and Del Tredici come about?
JOHN KELLY: I was doing my Joni Mitchell show, Paved Paradise, at Westbeth about three years ago. David came to see it. He introduced himself and said, "I'd love you to sing my music." I certainly knew who he was, but I had never met him. So, I went over to his place sometime later and he played me some music, and I thought it was really amazing. The following summer, we both wound up at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire. On a lark, I just gave him a bunch of my poems; next thing I knew, he started setting them to music. He wrote a song cycle to my poetry. Brother is made up of those songs, and also four others that David had written to the work of other poets including Paul Monette, Jamie Manrique, Allen Ginsberg, and Lewis Carroll.
TM: What kind of subjects does your poetry address?
JK: Looking for love. There's a song about back rooms. There's a song about having found love. There's a song about the end of an affair. And there's a song called "Brother," which is about meeting somebody. It was inspired by someone I met in San Francisco; I connected with him and then had to leave. So, it's the notion of hooking up with somebody but then having to vacate that part of the world, and the frustrations and hopes that exist in that. That poem goes back to 1994. I would write these things in my journal, and at one point I realized I was writing poetry.
TM: That piece provided the title for the show?
JK: Yeah, because it just seemed to include a lot of possibilities. There's a Matthew Shepard poem and a song about standing by the grave of a dead lover. The show winds up being vignettes from a gay man's life and experience. But it's hopefully a universal experience, so that it's not for a "gay audience." I happen to think that a gay audience is pretty limited in its likes and dislikes.
TM: Are you the only performer in this piece?
JK: David's at the piano, so it's a duet, in a way. But in terms of stage action, it's a solo. There's a video component, which is mostly abstracted. There are some literal images like men's faces but, aside from that, it's all objects and drawings.
TM: To switch topics a bit: I hear you have a solo CD coming out later this year.
JK: Yeah, I'm making it right now. I don't know when it'll be out.
TM: Does it contain any of the songs from your show at the Westbeth in 1997? I remember seeing that and wishing there was a CD version.
JK: It's actually pretty close to that. The idea behind it is to have that kind of a mix between Brian Wilson, Tom Waits, maybe a Joni Mitchell song, and Italian art songs--some things written for me and covers of '60s and '70s tunes. In my mind, the good ones are like art songs.
TM: I loved your rendition of "In My Room" by the Beach Boys. I had never heard it quite like that before, and it was just so phenomenal.
JK: That's such a beautiful song. I never really knew it, so it was kind of new for me, as well.
TM: You mentioned possibly doing at least one Joni Mitchell song on the CD. You're well-known for your impersonation of her. Obviously, you're an accomplished artist in a number of fields, so do you find it odd that a lot of people know you just from that?
JK: Yeah, especially when they haven't even seen the show. "Oh, you do the Joni Mitchell stuff." "Do you like it?" "Well, I never really saw it." From my point of view, it says more about the public: The current cultural climate is varied and, sometimes, a large portion of it seems tied to media fame and mediocrity. So, I trudge along. I'm the artist that I am, and certain things penetrate the membrane of what we call popular culture and some things don't. That's just the way it is.
TM: The other thing you're known for--recently, at least--is James Joyce's The Dead. Was that your Broadway debut?
JK: It was my commercial theater debut! I normally just do my own work, but I got tired of being in debt and I thought it would be a good thing to do. It's so funny: Nobody in that show had ever seen any of my work.
TM: Oh, really?
JK: Stephen Spinella, I think maybe he had seen me do Joni. But the rest of the cast didn't have a clue. You know, it's such a divide. What people do is, they steal from the avant-garde. I don't mean to sound cynical and jaded, but you know our culture and our impulse as Americans is to separate and pigeonhole things. And when things cross over borders--I don't know, maybe we don't trust that. I'm one of those artists who do a lot of different things because that's just the way I am. Why do dogs lick their balls? Because they can. Why do I do these things? Because I can, and it satisfies different parts of my psyche. So, The Dead was a great experience. It was interesting to see how that world works, and it's quite a conservative world. At the same time, the stakes are higher; there's more money and more potential for a certain kind of fame. For some people, that's their destination, but it was never my destination at all. I think the unions cripple Broadway, for instance, because of the expense of doing things. Producers are so seldom willing to take chances. But I thought The Dead was a pretty risky show, a really successful show, and a good piece of work. I was proud to be a part of it.
TM: But now you're back "downtown," as it were.
JK: I'm happy to be at P.S. 122; it's my tribe. And I'm making visual art again, having tangible things to send out to the world.
TM: What are your future upcoming projects, aside from the CD?