Meet Varla Jean Merman

by Michael Barbieri
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Varla Jean Merman the international singing sensation, actress and chanteuse, is a star of stage, screen, and cabaret - as well as the product of the 32-day marriage of Ethel Merman and Ernest Borgnine. She’s appeared on Broadway in Chicago, Off-Broadway in Lucky Guy, opposite Leslie Jordan, in the feature film Girls Will Be Girls, and on television shows like Ugly Betty, Project Runway, All My Children, and HBO’s documentary Dragtime.

On Friday, May 4th, the always fabulous Varla Jean will be back in New York, appearing at The Green Room 42, in her show, Wonder Merman. In the show, Varla Jean pays tribute to the inspiring women who have inspired her to think about becoming inspirational.

I spoke to Jeffery Roberson - the man behind Varla Jean - about Wonder Merman, Varla’s days in cabaret, aging, and singing while eating spray cheese:

Michael Barbieri: Hi, Jeffery. I don’t know if you’ll remember me, but I know you from your cabaret days in the 1980‘s, when you appeared at Eighty Eights.

Jeffery Roberson: Yeah, I recognized your name. I’ve been around a long time, if you can say you remember me from Eighty Eights!

(Both laugh)

MB: Oh, I’ve been around a long time, too! Here’s the thing, though. You never get any older. You always look fabulous! I’ve gotten old and grey!

JR: Oh, you’ve probably seen photos of me that have been oil painted!

(More laughter)

MB: So...tell me about the show! Tell me about Wonder Merman!

JR: Well, I was sitting in my house, around election time, before “that day” happened! I was thinking “Oh my God, it would be so great to do a female empowerment show, and talk about my female role models, culminating in the election of the first female President,” and, well, we saw how that turned out! But instead of throwing the show out, I figured it’s more important than ever to celebrate female empowerment and, you know, like leaders like Angela Merkel, and how other places, like this country, haven’t caught up, because I guess it just wasn’t time. But I thought, I’m not going to throw the show out; I’m not going to start over. I’ll still do that show, but with a different slant. it’ll be about female role models, real-life heroines and fictional heroines.

MB: My thought was “Hey, here comes Wonder Merman to save us all from the evils that be!”

JR: Exactly! I do a whole ‘damsel in distress’ bit at the beginning. You know? Like where the girl is strapped to the train tracks, but nobody comes to save her. She has to save herself!

MB: “The Perils of Pauline!”

JR: Exactly! It’s actually called “The Violation of Varla!”

(Both laugh)

MB: Perfect, perfect, perfect!

JR: We do it in a little short film at the beginning: the girl in the blue dress, and Snidely Whiplash!

MB: Blue gingham?

JR: Yes! And then I turn into Wonder Merman and save the day!

MB: That’s fabulous! (Changing subjects) So, you must’ve seen the club already...

JR: No, I actually haven’t, yet. Can you believe it?

MB: I can believe it. You’re always busy, running around and doing gigs.

JR: (laughing) Ive heard it’s really cute, though!

MB: Yeah! I’ve been there several times now, and it’s a really nice room! The only thing that’s a little different is that the stage is in a corner.

JR: Okay...Don’t put Baby in a corner!

(Both laugh)

MB: Don’t put Varla in a corner!! (More laughter) But, uh, there are blue curtains at the back of the stage, and there’s a piano up there. I’ve seen shows that use a full band, so it’s a good-sized stage! it’s a very nice room; very comfortable. And they serve food...

JR: Oh, nice!

MB: And it’s a big room, too, which is great.

JR: Oh, cool!

MB: Yeah. why only one night? Was that all you had?

JR: (Laughing) That’s all the energy I had! I need a week to recover! No, but these guys booked me in 4 cities, you know? I had planned on coming to New York anyway, but in NY, you have to hustle yourself, Baby! So they thought I’d be perfect for New York, so I’m doing Philadelphia on Thursday, then New York, Friday. Saturday I’m doing Rosendale, in the Hudson Valley...It’s a little mini-tour!

MB: So, I was wondering: being that Varla...and Jeffery are both active in the Bear community, will Wonder Merman turn up in Provincetown during Bear Week, to save the Bears?

JR: (Laughing) Ah, well, you know I do this whole thing about Jane Goodall - about how she spent her life in service to chimps, but I’ve spent a lifetime trying to service the Bears!

MB: (Laughing) Good, good, good. That’s great!

JR: It’s my Jane Goodall tribute!

MB: Now, you were talking about the show and the women who inspired you. You mentioned Angela Merkel. Who else?

JR: In the show, I do a thing about Amelia Earhart, Harriet Tubman, Gloria Steinem, uh, you know, but Varla gets Judge Judy and Sandra Day O’Connor! (Both laugh) I do a whole thing about Josephine Baker and what she did for Civil Rights, and Doris Day and her Animal Rights activism. Oh, what else is in the show?! Oh! I do! Gone with the Wind; the whole thing in 4 minutes! (Laughter) There’s an Effie White tribute, too!

MB: Oh, God!

JR: Yeah! Everybody loves a white girl singing “And I Am Telling You..!”

MB: Especially in a really bad beauty pageant! I’m guessing you’ve seen that hilariously bad YouTube clip!

JR: I have! That’s why I’m doing it! I mean, there’s nothing like a skinny white girl singing that song! I also do a Disney Princess thing, about how the princesses through the years used to be dependent on men. Snow White was dependent on seven men!

MB: (Laughs) And is there a Wonder Merman theme song?

JR: Of course! With the explosion and everything!

MB: And is there music in the show? Will you be singing?

JR: Oh, yeah! I think there are like 16 songs!

MB: Fantastic!

JR: You know, it’s funny how times have changed. When I was at Eighty Eights, I could do a 5 or 6-minute song and be fine. Now, if you do anything longer than 2 minutes, people check out! even videos! I did a video, once, about my trip to Japan, and it was about 6 minutes long, but now, if I try that, people are gone!

MB: And what about spray cheese?

JR: I do NOT do spray cheese anymore! (Both laugh) yeah, I’m lactose intolerant now. Welcome to aging! I wrestled with putting that bit in my new show, which is a 20th Anniversary show, but I just can’t sing that high anymore!

MB: Oh, I know! When I sang as part of Scott Barbarino & the Bev-Naps, I had a great falsetto, but now it’s gone!

JR: That’s the thing! I mean, name an old counter tenor! There are none! That's what goes first! You know, I’ve listened to old tapes of myself, and I used to think I sucked. Now I think “Ugh! If only I could suck that well again!”

(Both laugh)

MB: Now, the last time I saw you here in New York, you were doing Lucky Guy, Off-Broadway. Was that the last time you appeared here in town?

JR: Well, I had done some shows at 54 Below, but the last big play I did was Lucky Guy...

MB: Which I saw! I was in the front row for the last - or maybe second-to-last performance.

JR: ...which was SO much fun!

MB: So much fun! Oh, God! I mean, the sight of you careening around the stage in a rolling denim hoop skirt is one of the funniest things I’ve seen in my life!

JR: Do you remember that?!! It was insane, and William Ivey Long did the costumes. The director wanted that and he just made it happen! I had a fiberglass base, which I’d never had in my whole life!

MB: It was SO funny!

JR: And I had another outfit underneath it, and I stepped out of it like Dot, in Sunday in the Park With George! I was in, like, a gold bustier and pants!

MB: Yeah! My husband and I just loved that show!

JR: And I hit a high E at the end of that song! Like a soprano E; like above high C! Do you remember that?! And I hit it every night! I couldn’t believe it!

MB: Okay, so one more sort of major question: A lot of my readers will remember you from the cabaret scene in the West Village. What was your takeaway on that time?

JR: You know, I really learned so much, watching all the cabaret shows. I would see everything! You’d learn what you like and what you didn’t like, what worked, what didn’t work. And what to make fun of! I mean cabaret is such a distinct style, and there are so many who are so good at it. But there’s a lot of bad cabarets, too! So that can be fun! So, I’m trying to recreate that style of cabaret; I like exhausting, insane stuff!

(Both laugh)

MB: You know who is also a big fan of bad entertainment, in general? I just saw him a few nights ago...

JR: Yeah...?

MB: Ricky Ritzel!

JR: Oh, my God! I learned from the best! Ricky Ritzel is the best teacher I could’ve ever had! I think of Ricky all the time. He taught me how to approach a song differently - how to make it funny. He’s a genius!

MB: He really is!

JR: I learned so much from Ricky!

MB: Okay, so you said you’re doing this mini-tour. But what’s next for Wonder Merman?

JR: Well, I always start a new show in June, and end it in May, so I have a few more of these, and I think the last one’s in Ogunquit, maine, and then I start the new show. we go!

MB: Okay!

(Both laugh)

JR: But then I’m also doing a version of The Shining in Provincetown. It’s about 2 queens who spend the entire winter in P-town. it’s called “The Whining!”

MB: Is it a musical?!

(Jeffery laughs)

JR: Well, it’ll be a play...with music.

MB: Okay, well thank you so much for your time. I’m looking forward to seeing Wonder Merman on May 4th. I’ve been chatting it up on Social Media - sharing your promotional video where you put a towel on your head and become Princess Leia, saying “May the 4th be with you.”

JR: Oh, God! I’ve been doing that since I was a kid. Like when I was 7 or 8 years old. It was so gay!

MB: But yeah, I’ll be there at The Green Room 42, to see you. I can’t wait!

JR: It’ll be great to see you. You’ll be impressed by my low notes!


MB: I’m really happy that you’re coming back to New York...even if it is for only one night. Thanks again for your time.

JR: Thank you! I really appreciate it!