Fourteen years ago, a drag queen was born, fully formed at 6-foot-2. Since then, Martha Graham Cracker, portrayed by Dito van Reigersberg, has become a celebrated cabaret performer in Philadelphia and beyond.
She has just dropped her first album, with help from the Kimmel Center.
“Lashed But Not Leashed” is a concept album, presented as Martha Graham Cracker’s swan song: After years of life in the theater, the drag character considers giving it all up and becoming a librarian.
“There are dichotomies that are exciting in everyone. We’re oxymorons,” said van Reigersberg. “I’ve always had a strong pull to be an extreme extrovert and an extreme introvert.”
At home, van Reigersberg greets a visitor at the door in T-shirt and jeans, barefoot. He lives in a modest South Philly rowhouse, decorated sparingly for the holidays with a trimmed tree in the corner.
When he’s not entertaining nightclub audiences as Martha, dressed in a wig, gown and heels, van Reigersberg said, he’s a bookworm. He really likes libraries.
“Libraries come from a very egalitarian impulse to give everyone access to knowledge,” he said. “I worry — now, this is Dito talking — I worry about a general ignorance that might come out of our crumbling education system. You see that writ large in terms of who gets elected and who speaks for us.”
Yeah, it gets political. But not before it gets funky.
The cycle of songs in “Lashed But Not Leashed” rides high and low, lunging from diva rock a la Aretha Franklin, to pensive songs inspired by Joni Mitchel, to funky R&B, to novelty lyrics like “Drag Queen with a Very Large Vocabulary.”
The album was written while van Reigersberg was an artist-in-residence at the Kimmel Center. As Martha Graham Cracker, he always performed cover songs. He had never written original songs for his alter ego.
“I was offered this songwriting residency, and I didn’t know exactly what that would be like,” he said. “But I was wise in that, if you surround yourself with good people, you’re going to be OK.”
Van Reigersberg calls them “the Dream Team:” Eliza Hardy Jones, Vincent Federici, and Dave Sweeney (aka Johnny Showcase). They not only wrote songs, but also a whole story about the offstage life of Martha Graham Cracker. She never had her own story.
In “Lashed,” Martha is having a crisis over deciding whether it’s a good idea to leave the performing life that has brought her adoring fans in favor of a quiet, anonymous life of books.
“The bottom drops out and a love story is revealed, a heartbreak at the center of it,” said van Reigersberg. “The heartbreak is both a romantic heartbreak and a communal heartbreak. Who does America think she is? What’s going on in America?
Martha Graham Cracker sings in “Comfort of a Book:”
I’ll build a cocoon out of wood pulp and vodka,
Just me and Franz Kafka,
Safely inside my favorite easy chair
In the comfort a book
I’ll make myself a little nook.
You can’t see me in a book.
A book doesn’t talk back.
Put on a little Bacharach,
I’ll never fall in love again.
“If Martha Graham Cracker is wondering if she should quit show business and become a librarian and preach the gospel of reading, that’s in response to a general battle over truth and reality we’re engaged in right now,” said van Reigersberg, getting political.
“What are the facts? What does the word `fact’ even mean in this day and age?” he asked. “I think there’s political bent to Martha leaving the stage and going into the library.”
Van Reigersberg and the band performed “Lashed But Not Leashed” at the Perelman Theater of the Kimmel Center last week, as an album release party.
The show ends with the song “Farewell,” Martha Graham Cracker’s final bow. But in reality, van Reigersberg hopes to put the band back together again and take the show on the road.