I’m finally on the Cape! YES! James, Juli, and I decided to take a last-minute trip to our beloved Provincetown. I thought I’d give a little history on how it all began and why the town means so much to us. Back in 1999, I was working as a comedy writer on The Rosie O’Donnell Show and we got six delicious weeks off every summer. My boyfriend at the time, Aaron, and I decided to visit Provincetown, which we had heard a lot about for years. The internet existed, but I don’t know how much I used it in those days. I think I literally got a book from Barnes and Noble about Provincetown and found a lovely Bed and Breakfast. We could get a nice room or there was an actual 2-bedroom house in the back that we could rent for the week that was super cheap. This was right before Provincetown became a destination for the very fancy. I cannot imagine how much it would cost now!!!
We rented it for a week and, a few days before we left, I had brunch with my friend Mark Cortale (who I met through my friend, Jessica Stone). I told him we were about to vacation in Provincetown and he mentioned that he’d always wanted to go, but, because he was an opera singer without an opera gig at that point, he didn’t have money that summer to get a hotel room. We told him that our place had an entire extra bedroom and he should come along for free! What the hell else would we do with it? He said YES and we set out in a rented car with printed directions from Mapquest (anybody? Late 90s?). Every time we stopped for gas, Mark kept offering to “pay” by waving a credit card that wasn’t actually a credit card…I think it was a ‘friends and family” discount card from JC PENNEY. It was hilarious.
We saw shows and went out to eat all the time, but looking back, we barely covered anything Ptown has to offer. The main drag of Ptown is called Commercial Street and there are tons of shops, restaurants, candy/ice cream stores, art galleries, book stores, coffee places etc. It’s divided into the East and West side…we saw around 50 percent of just the east side. I used to think “Well, we didn’t have a friend in town telling us where to go…but I also don’t know why we literally didn’t just continue walking—considering Commerical Street is a straight line. Why did we pick a point and refuse to go any further? Still a #mystery.
Anyhoo… the main thing that happened is we took Mark to see Varla Jean Merman (real name Jeff Roberson). Jeff created the character of Varla, who claims to be the result of Ethel Merman’s extremely short marriage to Ernest Borgnine. The show was, of course, brilliant. Jeff is such an amazing writer and performer. Here’s one of his videos, based on the video of Lionel Ritchie’s “Hello” (starring me as the blind girl…but a boy).
I had first seen Jeff aka Varla when I was an audience member at Wigstock and soon pursued him to perform in my variety show at Rose’s Turn. I knew Mark and Aaron would love the show in Ptown so we all got tickets. Well, Mark sure did love it….and Jeff. As a matter of fact, they immediately began dating! The next summer, Aaron and I went back and now Mark and Jeff were an item…and soon Mark began helping Jeff with booking his shows and his contracts. In the long run, they didn’t remain a couple, but Mark became his manager. One of the unique (and kind of headache-y) things about Ptown is, there are SO many performers/shows every night, that everyone has to hawk their shows on the street. Every day! There are various creative ways to do it. Miss Richfield 1981 rides her scooter up and down Commercial Street waving and yelling…check it out.
Miss Richfield 1981, if you don’t know, is a hilarious character that uses her beauty title (and year) as her name. She’s from Minnesota where, as she says, “Butter is a spice and gravy is a beverage.” She always talks about how much she loves it here in “Providencetown.” During the show, she talks to random people in the audience, and I loved that I got to see this happen on one of the many nights we’ve seen her show:
MISS RICHFIELD 1981: Hi! Where ya from?
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Providence.
MISS RICHFIELD 1981: Oh! From here in town? Wonderful!
Back to hawking: Back in the early 2010s, Varla would put on an amazing outfit, parade down Commercial Street and Mark would hand out flyers. Well, one night Mark had to go out of town, so I said I would flyer. Varla was walking a little ahead of me and nodding to passersby as I handed out flyers and suddenly a couple stopped and told me that they listened to my radio show all the time and they were huge fans. Varla stood nearby and smiled but as soon as they walked away, she angrily whirled around and barked, “You’re fired!” Subtext: How dare you take any attention away from me!?!?
James Juli and I went to see Varla last night perform with Judy Gold and Varla did a segment where she said, “Recently, I woke up naked in my kitchen. Completely hungover. I had been drinking heavily, feeling depressed, feeling hopeless. Not leaving my house for months.… And then the pandemic hit.” I literally LOL’d so hard.
More history: A few years after that 1999 summer, Varla and Mark decided to put on a big concert called “Classical Varla” where Mark, Varla, and their brilliant friends Nell Snaidas and Marisol Montalvo (who are both incredible opera singers) would perform classical music. Aaron was getting his degree in classical piano at Mannes at the time, so he was their pianist. Right at the end of the show, I came up and played one of Varla’s non-classical pieces. It may have been the hilarious Schoolhouse Rock Medley:
But Varla also really sang classical music and continued the concert for a few summers. Here’s a clip from a later version (without Aaron at the piano) featuring Varla and Nell Snaidas singing the Lachme duet:
After a while, Mark and Jeff broke up, Aaron and I broke up (he’s now married to a great guy named Tom and we have virtual game nights every week) and I met and married James. Mark really found his calling as a full time manager for various artists and as a producer and wound up not having any more time to pursue opera. Here’s one of the groups he co-created who now perform everywhere: “Well-Strung” consists of four sexy male string players who sing while they’re playing. Here they are on Seth Speaks, my SiriusXM talk show:
I took James and Juli to Provincetown for the first time in 2007 (when Juli was six) and we come here every year…usually multiple times. Juli learned how to ride a bike here, as a matter of fact. I’ll never forget that “fun” day. She was around 11 and she had just learned how to balance on a two-wheeler. James immediately took her for a ride up to the hills next to the beach…it began to rain, the bikes broke and they had to walk them all the way home. Juli’s first day of bike riding ended with her loudly proclaiming “I never want to ride a bike again!” The good news is, she now bike rides all the time and so have so many of the celebs who perform here with me. Here’s me and Audra pre- bike ride!
Back to Mark: In 2011, he asked me to do my show Deconstructing Broadway at a new venue in town called The Art House (which used to be a small movie theatre), where he just started the position of Artistic Producer. He also thought that we could have a Broadway performer come up and join me twice a week for a concert. As for the style, I’ve always hated scripted patter so the show was formatted to have great singing and, instead of the awkward/fully scripted/memorized “This song has always meant a lot of me” I would instead interview the stars between songs which would make each show different. The series (which now sometimes plays the larger Ptown Town Hall) became a Provincetown tradition and we’ve hosted stars like Patti LuPone, Christine Ebersole, Stephanie J. Block, Gavin Creel, Vanessa Williams, Matthew Broderick/Sarah Jessica Parker, Audra McDonald and so many more! It then went on to become a regular series in London, Ft. Lauderdale, San Francisco, L.A., Chicago, Scottsdale, The Town Hall (in NYC)…and now, because they’ve been postponed everywhere, we’re online every Sunday at 8PM ET (and then repeated Monday’s at 3PM ET).
Coming up this Sunday is Karen Olivo and then Jeremy Jordan! Get $25 tickets at TheSethConcertSeries.com. I’m freaking out because it’s going to be my very first concert with Karen! I first became obsessed with her in Brooklyn and you all know my deep love of In The Heights! Here she is recreating one of her signature moments with Lin-Manuel Miranda and Chris Jackson outside the Richard Rodgers Theatre at Hamilton.
Peace out! And happy September!