Entertainment » Theatre

Varla Jean Merman Takes Us For A Ride

by Roger Walker-Dack
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Wednesday Aug 2, 2017

No trip to Provincetown in the summer would be complete without at least one trip to see the wonderfully talented performer Varla Jean Merman, the alter ego of Jeff Roberson, and the tallest red-headed dame you will ever see in a sparkly dress. In her very successful career, Varla has wowed audiences on Broadway, the Sydney Opera House and the Soho Theater in London to name but a few, but every July she is back in her adopted hometown on the tip of Cape Cod. Her brand new hilarious show that she writes and performs herself with her dazzling operatic voice is always one of the hottest tickets in town, and this year it looks like the sold-out signs will be going up even more frequently.

It's become quite the custom that we take our annual ride with Miss Merman around town just before she goes on stage so that we can catch up, and she can throw us some shade.

About heroines

EDGE: I'm loving the new look, and the jeep, and the woman driver. Is this by chance your tribute to Ptown's Splash Week?

Varla Jean Merman: It's to girls in general, because my whole show this year is about heroines and a salute to girl power, so believe it or not this is perfect being dressed as Wonder Woman and in a jeep with a lesbian.

EDGE: So let's talk about the new show.

Varla Jean Merman: I had this great idea last October and I was going to do a show about girl power celebrating female role models in honor of our first female President. Well, (cackling) I had a change of plans, but then I wasn't the only one right? So if you see Hillary working make sure you tip her that extra 20 percent.

The crazy thing is that it actually worked out fine as I decided to keep the theme as I do believe there are some amazing wonder women in politics coming up. Which I thought was great because the whole thing is about heroines .....and my show is called 'Bad Heroines' .....with an 'e' ....

What makes a heroine is the fact that they never ever give up even in defeat, they have their cause and that is what they fight for. I do fictional and real heroines and I thought it was actually made even better that Hillary Clinton lost. THANK GOD Trump won!

EDGE: So this is all new material?

Varla Jean Merman: I actually have one thing in the show that I used previously because it works so well. I had something else but it was terrible and I had another new show opening so I just had to use something old, but I am going to replace with something new. It's just one thing out of 18 numbers that has been 'pre-viewed,' but we don't call it old, as it is a 'Varla classic.'

Cutthroat ladies

EDGE: I was sitting in a bar last night when you came out of your show ....

Varla Jean Merman: You're always sitting in a bar!

EDGE: (laughing) It seemed like every other entertainer in the Town had been in your audience.

Varla Jean Merman:The reason that I do a show on a Tuesday is because nobody else does. It's really a great night for me as nearly everybody in town came to see my show. There is such a great community here in Provincetown, but it did not always be that way with entertainers in the early 90s, when there were quite a lot of cutthroat ladies. However now everyone does their own thing and everybody is very supportive of each other, and that's why it really is an amazing place to be.

I'm not just saying that to blow smoke up your ass... it's true. People are very supportive and also we all push each other to do better because you can't come here with the same assed show year after year and get away with it like they cold in the old days.

EDGE: You're back to your old tricks. Every year when you and I have a conversation you emphatically say to me 'I'm NEVER doing another Ryan Landru show again.'

Varla Jean Merman: I know (cackling). I will say this Ryan is a perfectionist of a writer and he doesn't want to see his script changed at all. I however am a very creative person and like to constantly change things even if I don't write it, so there are times when we butt heads. The rehearsal process can be stressful, as anyone who has done a show with Ryan can testify, then when the actual play is up running, doing it is such a joy that I always forget that the rehearsal process was a nightmare and gave me shingles.

EDGE: You've forgotten to mention the name of the play?

Varla Jean Merman: It's called '5 - 9.' True story, but my favorite movie when I was a kid was '9-5.' For years after if I went to see any other movie I would say ...'Oh, it was no 9-5.' Of course Ryan has re-written it and it's now about three secretaries who work for Trump and take him down.

It's a sensitive topic to have Trump get accidentally killed and things like that. I tend to be a worrier and basically Ryan is punk rock ....I think that is what you would you call him. We sometimes have our creative differences but the thing is that we are dear friends and we work it out, but I do love him and I constantly work with him, so we must be doing something right.

The hardest thing

EDGE: Who do you play in this?

Varla Jean Merman: I play the Dolly Parton part. (cackling) I thought I would be the Jane Fonda, but I've got the wrong build for her.

EDGE: There is a new smash hit revival of 'Chicago' in Ptown this year. You were once in a Broadway production of this, so you weren't tempted to join in again for your third job this summer?

Varla Jean Merman: I was in the Broadway company as an understudy and I went on to play the part for a month when someone went on vacation, Then I was in the first national touring company and I really loved the show. However let me tell you, it was the hardest thing I did in my life. Mary Sunshine who I played has to run up a flight of stairs and sing a high B flat which would be hard for any woman soprano to hit.

Every night I would have terrible stage fright. My palms would get sweaty and my heart would start racing every time I heard the lines before I came out. It was horrible. I worried because it's not just like my act when I can just laugh it off or do a comedy bit. There's a standard to its as its operatic singing when people know what it is, and how it should sound.

Back then I could do those high notes, but that is a young girl's game let me tell you, and you just don't get to see a lot of older counter tenors. When I became 40 I went from a soprano to a bass, but so did Joni Mitchell (cackling) and I don't even smoke. Not yet, but I'm going to start tonight so that I can get one.... (to driver) Have you got a cigarette honey?

EDGE: Talking of Broadway, we have just interviewed one of your biggest and shortest fans .... Leslie Jordan .... who is so in love with you.

Varla Jean Merman: I love Leslie, let me tell you though he's like Mommy Cougar too. When I did the off Broadway show 'Lucky Guy' he was so much fun, but also he was so protective of me and any of the cast members, or anyone who was being wronged or not being treated correctly. He would rise up and defend anyone. He's very generous on stage, even though he is such a scene stealer.

Last time I worked with him, I opened for him in McAlester Oklahoma which is a very strange place. There are signs on all the roads saying Do Not Pick Up Hitchhikers as they are Probably Escaped Prisoners. I thought how many people are escaping from this prison, but of course Leslie had to pull over so we could take a picture under the sign pretending to hitch hike.

Picky Mrs. Danvers

EDGE: Did you know that Big Freeda is the Grand Marshal of the P.Town Carnival Parade and that her claim to fame is that she invented 'twerking?'

Varla Jean Merman: Yes, and bounce music, as she is from New Orleans my hometown. She is amazing and although she is trans, she appears in all these straight black clubs, and the girls all LOVE her music. It's wonderful how successful she has become.

EDGE: Do you know that whilst she is here, she will be leading a big Twerk Off on the beach? Do you think you will be taking part?

Varla Jean Merman: Twerk like no-one is watching? I don't think anyone wants to see that.

EDGE: This summer you and I are neighbors and all I can hear you sing in the house is 'All The Single Ladies' does that mean you haven't found a stepdad for Mrs. Danvers yet ?

Varla Jean Merman: I've been searching for one.

EDGE: Is it Mrs. Danvers who is picky or you?

Varla Jean Merman: Oh Mrs Danvers is very picky. I had an amazing relationship but it turned out that we weren't quite right for each other, but we are still great friends. But now I have my fingers in a few pies ......

Broadway songs, New Orleans style

EDGE: When the summer is over, what plans do you have?

Varla Jean Merman: I'm going to perform at the Oasis in S.F. after here, then I am back home in New Orleans doing a new show singing Broadway songs, but in a New Orleans style. Then Palm Springs, San Diego and then there is my Christmas Show in New Orleans called 'Steel Poinsettias' which is a kind of a version of 'Steel Magnolias' but it's set in North Pole with Mrs. Claus as a hairstylist.

EDGE: Am I right, thinking this is your 19th consecutive summer here in Ptown?

Varla Jean Merman: Next year will be my 20th Year , which I know looking at me, doesn't seem to be humanly possible! I'm not going to cop out and do a Greatest Hits show because I've done that already for my 10th year and I don't think I've had that many big hits since then... oh God! Who knows what I will do, I'll have to figure it out.

EDGE: Will you ever be tempted to revive 'Classical Varla'?

Varla Jean Merman: My voice has dropped so much I'm not kidding you. I used to sing so high now I'm singing very low and have a very deep voice (goes all butch) I don't know what happened.

EDGE: So we've got you to the Theater in time for show.

Varla Jean Merman:Oh why can't you just take me away to Hyannis and we can escape to Dairy Queen, or Starbucks at least, I need one soooo bad.

EDGE: Thank you for the loan of the car. What will we be driving next year for our annual excursion?

Varla Jean Merman:How about a bale of hair in the back of a truck?

(She's cackling away but we know that she could just be serious.)

For all things Varla, including information about her current Provincetown shows, visit Varla Jean Merman's website.


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