Actress, singer, author, comedian, social commentator personality Sandra Bernhard is back for her annual holiday engagement at Joe's Pub, and at the risk of earning her derision, I'm bursting with gratitude for the chance to see her newest solo show. In reference to social media's preponderance of saccharine sentiment, this act is called Sandra Bernhard Is #Blessed (that's pronounced "hashtag blessed" for the twitter-illiterate or illitwerate…). There are two performances per night Dec. 26-31.
In her customary, almost ambiguously sarcastic (or is it sincere?) style, Bernhard refrains from cultural critique, instead embodying the trend in a way that underlines its absurdity, while simultaneously drawing us into its appeal.
Longtime fans may recall Bernhard's initial reluctance to embrace electronic technology in her work of 15-20 years ago. Of her decision to get online, she says, "You gotta keep up with the times, you gotta reach out to your audience – and audiences evolve. It's a whole new crop of people every ten years, and even your solid fans go with the times."
With hundreds of thousands of Twitter and Facebook followers, Bernhard's formidable Internet presence continues to grow as she navigates the treacherous turf of being outspoken in the chaos of social media. "I try to keep it a little bit further away from [laughs] how I really feel about certain things. Any time I really busted out about political things, it's counterproductive. There are too many people out there just waiting to take you down. It's just not worth it, because you just get people's ire raised, and I don't want to fight on social media. No, thank you. I can't stomach it. I don't want to make enemies and I don't want all this mishegas going on, so I just try to keep it a little bit light." There may be crazies out there, but Bernhard has nothing but respect for her fans. "Most of my audience members are people who are, I think, a cut above." She acknowledges the advantage of the ongoing online conversation between herself and them. "If you can't keep it a little bit personal and, you know, a little bit, like, fun and insider-y – then what's the point of social media?"
But none of this is a substitute for the live experience, which is different every time. "They come to see you live because they wanna be in the room with you, and that's the beautiful thing. I really try to come from where I am that night. Some nights you're super up and you're jazzed, and other nights you're a little bit more introspective, so you've gotta be able to be in the moment, like any good actor has to be."
In the range of Sandra Bernhard live performances, there have been dark, introspective times like her powerful performances post-September 11, but this year happily is a more "up" time, particularly the New Year's Eve performances in this annual Joe's Pub residency. "People at Joe's, it's not really – they're not that crazy," she says. "If they want to be some place and going nuts, they'll be at a party, but we definitely make it fun and festive."
Bernhard always tailors her performance to the size and vibe of the gig she's playing, but Joe's Pub audiences have the added treat of seeing her freshest material, as she may perform older pieces on the road in cities that haven't yet seen her previous act.
"So it makes it a little bit harder – a little more challenging – because some years are really, you know, full of gems, personal stuff. I find that some years, there are crazy stories, but topically, there's always stuff going on. And I draw from the absurd in the smaller topics, too. Sometimes I think that everything's been covered, you know? So I hone material from my observations, little side roads, places I've been, that I find interesting and moving."
While Bernhard writes her Joe's Pub shows, she simultaneously comes up with songs to include, although that aspect of her work tends to be in flux until the last minute. "I have a lot of, like, pop, a lot of rock, a lot of soul, and other stuff in the show and I was gonna open it with something I've done before, but it was too 80s rock. And I'm gonna go in a different direction. I won't tell you what the opening song is, but it's from a musical and it's kind of perfect. The song kicks it off in a different direction. Then everything else will be more surprising."
Dipping her toes in musical theatre is nothing new for Bernhard. In impresario Daniel Nardicio's recent "An Intimate Evening with Carol Channing and Justin Vivian Bond," Bernhard extolled Channing's influence on her, having seen her in Hello, Dolly! when she was eight years old.
Fans of 1988's landmark Off-Broadway hit, Sandra Bernhard: Without You, I'm Nothing, will recall a hilarious opening number, "The Commitment," in which she portrayed a needy New York actress and singer, which culminated in a medley of tunes from Funny Girl, Fiddler On The Roof and Cabaret.
"I built the whole thing around a party I'd been at up at one of my manager's houses – it was Jonathan Krane, who was married to Sally Kellerman. Maybe I embellished it…"
Speaking of Funny Girl, Bernhard once came close to starring in a Broadway revival of the show. "This is, like, going back to, like, 1989/90 – I actually auditioned for a remake of Funny Girl on Broadway, but it never came to fruition. That would've been the right time for me to do that, but they never ended up doing it. They kind of can't, really –you end up finding someone who's just doing a paltry imitation."
Years later, she had another brush with filling the heels of another musical diva. "They wanted me to do Hedwig after John Cameron Mitchell left, but I thought, 'What's the point of me doing this, you know?'" Bernhard would be much more game to star in something original, "something really kind of daring and fun," she says. "I would like to do something Broadway-oriented that was not my own work." She recently enjoyed A Delicate Balance and would love to come back to Broadway in both plays and musicals.
For the meantime, New Yorkers have her back at Joe's Pub, with her longtime musical director Mitch Kaplan, and two young local musicians, Kevin Andreas and John Badamo, in Sandra Bernhard Is #Blessed. Even just in this small production, she conjures as much excitement as many of the great, big Broadway musicals.