Suicide, guns, and song: how Jack Bartholet crafts cabaret from family tragedy—and his own fury
The Daily Beast
June 19, 2019
Jack Bartholet sings and tells stories beautifully in ‘Lady With a Song.’ But the heart of the show, he reveals, is dark and personal. As he puts it, ‘F*ck guns, and f*ck suicide.’
Three weeks before we met, Jack Bartholet turned 30. When he spoke to his grandmother Nellie by phone that morning, she said, “Happy 30th birthday, Jack, we’re just going to the funeral.”
Bartholet’s cousin, Nellie’s grandson (whom he declined to name), had shot himself. Two of Nellie’s children, Jack’s uncle Mark and aunt Susan, had also died by suicide; both had also used guns.
In Bartholet’s excellent, hour-long cabaret show, Lady With a Song, he speaks (and sings) of his fury at guns and the havoc and trauma they have helped cause him and his family.
This is a show—performed at Pangea, a cozy neighborhood restaurant in New York City’s East Village; next show, June 27—of many moods. You will laugh as well as cry, smile as well as grimace, as you hear about the circumstances of his aunt’s and uncle’s deaths (he is still mulling whether to speak about his cousin on stage), his views on firearms, the travails of growing up gay in northeast Ohio, and a young performer-in-the-making’s dreams of making it big.
Bartholet wears a suit. He also wears heels. He also wears a frock. He shimmers. He looks raw. And, throughout his beguiling play with gender, tone, and persona, he sings—standards ranging from the Weimar Republic to Lizzo—beautifully.
At a diner in Hell’s Kitchen one recent evening, Bartholet ordered a roast beef and Swiss cheese sandwich. Just as on stage, his earnest voice is an excellent comic camouflage for well-aimed zingers. He talked about Uniontown, where he grew up, and where he recalled farmers’ tractors and the horses and buggies of nearby Mennonite communities. His father, Perry, was a painter; his mother, Kathleen, a paralegal.
Bartholet is the youngest of three children (his older siblings are named Brian and Lauren), and his parents divorced when he was 7 or 8. “I didn’t take it that hard, although you work through those things later with a cognitive behavior therapist.”
He was close to his mother, “who was classically maternal in a lot of ways. She was very protective, very communicative.” His father worked nights, so Bartholet rarely saw him. When his parents sat the children down to inform them of their decision to separate, “it made sense. I think I said I’d seen an apartment on the street dad could rent.”
Even as a young child, Bartholet would dress up in costumes and put on shows for his family. His sister indulged him ordering her about. He mostly liked to sing. Aged 5 or 6, his mother took him to a now-closed dinner theater in Akron where he saw a holiday spectacular with a crooner and chorus girls. “And that was completely it, that’s when I knew what I wanted to do. OK, I’m in showbiz now.”
At 9, he saw a Rodgers and Hammerstein revue. “There were snippets and vignettes from classics, and so much glamour and comedy and heart in all the songs.”
Day after day afterward, he recalled, he sat on the stairs next to the bathroom, regaling his mother about his favorite moments until she said, “I know you really liked it, you have talked about it for one full week. You might want to talk about something else.”
As he grew older, Bartholet’s grandmother and aunt “thrust” movie classics at him: “Old movie musicals, black and white films, The Wizard of Oz, The King and I, Hello, Dolly!, South Pacific, and My Fair Lady.
His mother worked during the day; any domestic emergencies were handled by his grandmother. So one day, he knew that when he presented himself to the school nurse’s office allegedly feeling sick, his grandmother would come pick him up. In anticipation of this desired outcome, he had already packed some things to entertain himself with in the hours ahead.
“When I was with the nurse, I pulled out this VHS of Life With Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows, the ABC miniseries of a book written by [Garland’s daughter] Lorna Luft. ‘Have you seen this?’ I said to the nurse.”
From 9 to 18 Bartholet spent “an insane amount of time” at the Canton Cultural Center for the Arts, where he joined the children’s chorus. At 12, he successfully auditioned for a role in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. A year or so later his father felt concerned about him being around older people at the theater, “which was true, I was”—Bartholet’s friends were 17, 18, 30.
“Maybe it was some protective thing around these older gay guys at the theater and a young kid growing up too fast. But he wasn’t homophobic. Both him and my mother were fine about me being gay.”
His parents have since remarried, and Bartholet has grown closer to his father after the latter retired and “became more chill.”
Besides the stage the only other ambition Bartholet had—to be a chef—was really another extension of his desire to perform. “At home I would set up a table and say, ‘This is my boutique restaurant, Jack’s Fresh Foods.’”
Musicals were his passion. Bartholet recalled coming to New York City for the first time, aged 13. His regional theater, he said, was one of the first to do a production of Les Misérables, and they had come to New York City to see it.
“I had a digital camera, and took pictures of the steam rising up from the street, pigeons, delis with big turkey sandwiches, and diners. At the production of Les Miz there was a talkback with the cast. ‘These are my people,’” thought Bartholet. “It was so exciting, and it wasn’t Uniontown, Ohio.”
Back home he did more shows, and then, at 15, summer stock, performing in shows as various as Babes in Arms, Jane Eyre, Big River, Titanic, and Footloose.
Bartholet won a place at the Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University, and his love of cabaret began when a friend sent a recording to him of Kiki and Herb, Justin Vivian Bond and Kenny Mellman’s drag cabaret duo. Bartholet recalled thinking, delighted and amazed, “Well, this isn’t musical theater and it’s not popular music. What is this?”
In his senior year, he took a cabaret class, and when he was in New York saw Bond perform. At the time, his dream was to perform on Broadway, and he “got close” to roles in The Book of Mormon, Big Fish, and Chicago.
“Only a small percentage of people make it on Broadway. It takes so much work and so much rejection,” Bartholet said. “And you realize sometimes not the most talented people get the jobs, it’s about who you know.”
In 2014, Bartholet decided to hone his cabaret talents: “I wasn’t saying Broadway could fuck off forever, but it could fuck off for now.”
He knew people seemed to like his voice, and he could be the master of his own destiny. His first cabaret show, LSD, was inspired by driving on Lake Shore Drive in Chicago, and singing his heart out while waiting at a red light, and looking up and seeing a neighboring driver agog at this impromptu performance.
Bartholet sang backup in shows for artists like Our Lady J and Lady Rizo. To supplement his nighttime income, his day jobs included cater-waiting, bartending, and a brief period as Rufus Wainwright’s personal assistant.
His next show at the Duplex in 2015 was called Two Drink Minimum, borrowing from a typical cabaret evening’s alcohol pre-requisite for attendees. Those in the business suggested Bartholet work into his shows a central theme, which became facing down “his inner saboteur.”
There were also some funny anecdotes, such as the time in 2014, aged 25, he was arrested for peeing against a tree after disembarking the subway near his home. The fine was $50.
A few months later he was fined after he was observed with his feet on the seats of a subway train. It turned out his $50 payment had not yet been processed and so he was jailed for 18 hours.
“I was very stubborn when the cops asked if I wanted to make a phone call. I said no. My cellmates called me Turquoise Cocksucker, because I was wearing a turquoise bracelet. I took a nap, woke up. My defense attorney thought it was total lunacy.”
After that, Bartholet went with his dearest childhood friend to California to hike, meditate, and sing backup for Our Lady J. A residency at the Orchard Project followed, where he thought he would no longer “keep things suitable for grandma” in his act. It took a year to confront what he wanted to center his show around: guns.
“Because I hate them,” Bartholet said, with feeling, his tangy wit suddenly evaporated. “There are so many reasons. We see mass shootings happen every day, they’re terrible. And aside from that, I hate them because of what has happened in my family. My grandma, my mother’s mother, had nine children. Two of those children, and now one of her grandchildren, have died by suicide.”
Bartholet wasn’t born when Mark, then 18, died, but he was a freshman in college when Susan, 45, died. He recalled that she was obsessed with Judy Garland. The young Bartholet and Susan had spent lots of time together. Both were gay.
Bartholet wanted to know what losing her children had been like for his grandmother. Last year, he visited Nellie and began to ask, very gently, about her feelings.
Of Mark, Nellie said there had been drug-related issues and that she had detected “an unhappy quietness” in him. With Susan, “there had been a lot of alcohol and self-medicating and cries for help.”
His grandmother, Bartholet felt, had constructed “a necessary coat of armor”; Mark, she said, “was with the wrong people.” Before Susan came out, she had tried, said Bartholet, to live “a heteronormative life. She had been engaged to a man. I sensed from her—and I was only 14—she saw so much of the bullshit in the world.”
Bartholet recalled going to his grandmother’s house after Susan’s death, and she noting plainly of her daughter’s suicide, “Yeah, the same way as Mark.”
Bartholet’s anger and upset is visible. His voice clotted up. “Three weeks ago, on my 30th birthday, it was the funeral of my mom’s sister’s son. My cousin shot himself. It’s so sad. I really struggled with not going to the funeral, but I didn’t want to sit in a funeral parlor on my 30th birthday.
“Fuck guns and fuck suicide, and fuck not getting the help when you need it. To know that my grandma has lived through the suicide of two of her children and one of her grandchildren committed suicide…” His voiced trailed off. “Fucking hell.”
Bartholet has support: His sister works as a mental health professional, and he and his mom talk candidly about what has happened in their family.
“My mom hates guns as much as I do. But my brother is a Marine and is a very proud gun owner and not necessarily sensitive to the fact that my grandma can’t abandon these memories and pain.
“He has eight guns, and over text message after my cousin died told me: ‘You’ll never have to worry about me doing that.’ I said I was glad to hear him say that. He’s very aggressive, possesses a lot of toxic masculinity, and never felt it was OK to cry or be weak, whereas I was always like, ‘I have written a poem about my feelings.’”
His brother told Bartholet that he was “saving his guns and bullets for a home invader.”
Last winter, Bartholet visited his brother in his suburban Ohio home, accompanied by his sister and his husband, Joe Roy.
“We don’t speak on a regular basis, and when I got there the first thing he did before offering me water, coffee, or tea, was to say he wanted to show me his guns. He keeps them in a downstairs den in a closet.
“Joe said to him, ‘Jack doesn’t care about your guns.’ I can’t think of anything more phallic and powerful. His guns say, ‘I am strong. I served in the military. I am stronger than you. I possess more masculinity and strength than you. I have more fight in me, more life experience than you can ever have.’”
His brother’s lack of sensitivity upset Bartholet. He said that he absolutely comprehends the “mental illness component” of understanding suicide—Bartholet, “a pretty happy person,” has also “always struggled with depression and anxiety”—but the availability and easy access to guns in so many American homes seems “insane” to Bartholet. “It makes everything so easy in the worst possible way.”
Joe’s parents are both police officers and have guns in their home, which makes him uncomfortable.
In his show Bartholet sings Cheryl Wheeler’s “If It Were Up to Me,” which Wheeler wrote after the Jonesboro Massacre and which returned to public attention after Columbine.
But the show is one of many shades; after this comes some “Ethel Merman dazzle.” He also sings and talks about toxic masculinity, being gay, abortion, drugs, alcohol, sex, coming out, and the present administration. None of the standards are written by Bartholet, yet they all fit perfectly in the multi-hued piece.
A standout moment comes with Kurt Schwabach’s “The Lavender Song” (“Das lila Lied”), a Weimar Republic-era song, and surely one of the earliest to overtly reference LGBT liberation (sample lyric: “And still most of us are proud, / to be cut from different cloth!”).
Joe’s grandmother Jane came to see the show and told Bartholet to make it dirtier, leading him to put jokes in about “glory holes, poppers, and sucking dick in the park.”
“A Lady With a Song” itself is Bartholet’s moment of “high tenor escape.” Another song, Nellie McKay’s “Mother of Pearl” is conducted in two polarized voices (one feminist, one anti-feminist).
The most fun Bartholet has, he said, is with his final number, Lizzo’s “Coconut Oil,” a beautiful tribute, he feels, to self-care and soothing.
The show is understandably “quite emotional” for his mother. “She was also like, ‘You have something you want to say, I’m glad you are saying it.’” And that big central theme, for Bartholet, is what would it mean “if we could dismiss all the toxic masculinity from the world.”
At his shows, Bartholet said he hoped to connect with his audience (he certainly did when this author saw the show a few months ago; there were tears, laughs, and rapt silence). “When I think of cabaret, it means cigarettes and martinis in a basement or attic where you are forced to drink,” said Bartholet. “It’s a fabulous art form.”
Bartholet and Roy, a corporate lawyer, married in September, having been together five years (they met, one night, at upscale Mexican joint Añejo in Hell’s Kitchen). It’s “lovely” for both of them, said Bartholet, knowing that the one was there for the other. His husband loves seeing him transformed on stage.
Bartholet’s Broadway dream has not fully receded, he said. “Now I want to sing my way to it on my own terms,” said Bartholet. “I don’t want to learn dance combinations. I don’t yet have the number of Instagram followers necessary to play King George in Hamilton.”
Before Broadway, he has started doing guest spots in friends’ cabaret shows; this Thursday at Green Room 42 he will be part of a group of singers paying homage to Linda Ronstadt.
Joe’s Pub is Bartholet’s next aspired-to-venue. But right now, as Pride approaches in New York City, he said, “Truthfully, I love the space at Pangea: the art on the walls, the candles, the people, and atmosphere.” Here Bartholet can tell his truths, perfect his voices, and make you both shiver and smile as you down your two-drink minimum.