Listen, the pandemic has been hard for all of us. As live events pick up steam and more venues open to (thankfully) vaccinated houses, there’s a fine line to walk in acknowledging the struggle. How much should an artist let quarantine infiltrate their work? How honest should you be about what a shit show it was mentally, emotionally, physically? How transparent can you get without tumbling into a despair spiral?
Emily Skinner has some ideas. In her show, A Broad with a Broad Broad Mind, at Feinstein’s/54 Below, Skinner decides to eschew pleasantries and be as forthright as possible about how difficult it was to be alone with her cat for months on end. And she’s also open about how hard it is to leave the apartment, step onto a stage, and be expected to entertain people. Skinner had an engagement set at 54 Below just before the first lockdown. She had toured with her musical director, John Fischer, shaping the material for its New York debut, but, as she says in A Broad Broad Mind, it just didn’t feel right to do that same show having lived through what we lived through. Instead, she sings a brand new set, straight from the heart and the gut. The results are mixed, but it’s raw and truthful; it’s sometimes shabby at the edges, but sometimes revelatory in the center.
There are a couple songs where the “broad” part of the title is in the spotlight. Skinner first comes on stage in blinged-out glasses to perform Elton John’s “The Bitch is Back” and later takes on the innuendo-laden Mae West tune “That’s All Brother.” She has a longstanding obsession with West and their sensibilities line up. Skinner, like West, delights in being a little naughty, in mouthing a dirty phrase with a smirk and a twinkle. Her admiration for West’s lyrics comes through when every rhyme completes itself. They are hilarious word pairings and it’s clear nobody enjoys them more than Skinner.
Of course, I was vaguely aware that the room was full of gay men when I sat down (my partner and I adding two more to the pile), but when Skinner took the stage in her John-inspired eyewear, the place erupted in a way that defined just what kind of show this would be. She spent the rest of the evening engaging with and responding to the audience, thriving on the particular homosexual-to-diva energy that is often attempted, but rarely achieved. There is a give and take required, an acknowledgment of each other, and she absolutely had it with us that evening.
Skinner talks about gaining weight during the pandemic and asked us all to clap if we did, too (no comment). The song that follows begins as an ode to the pleasures of plant-based eating, but quickly devolves into a wild-eyed screed about how delicious bacon is and how she would do anything to get it. I don’t, personally, find bacon jokes that funny, but I acknowledge it’s a brand of humor that appeals to a lot of people. Though the song feels slightly out of place at first, it eventually comes to seem exactly like the kind of quarantine-brain choice that would end up on this set list. This over-the-top energy comes back in her rendition of “As We Stumble Along” from The Drowsy Chaperone, a role Skinner has played before: one in a long line of alcoholics, even though she does not drink. It’s the only song from a show she’s been in and its positioning is somewhat out of sync with the other pieces.
The show succeeds most when Skinner is able to strip the artifice down. It’s affecting when she can connect to a song and really show us what she’s made of. She first sings Bonnie Raitt’s “Not ‘Cause I Wanted To”, which caught her ear because it is a breakup song not from the perspective of a jilted lover, but from the one who decided to leave. Skinner captures the regret, but the ultimate necessity of the situation and her voice folds into the melody. Later, she talks about the many alternate lyrics Lorenz Hart wrote for “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered” and says she’s going to sing “the most erotic verses”. It becomes a perfect horny quarantine anthem that leans more towards aching than desperation.
The pinnacle of the evening comes later, when Skinner talks openly about how hard it was for her to weather those months by herself. She mentions that she was asked several times to sing for benefit performances on Zoom, but they always wanted her to “sing inspirational songs” and she couldn’t bring herself to do it. She says she considered leaving New York, leaving the theatre, and doing something else with her life. It is a powerful, relatable moment – when everything knowable is unknown, where do you go to find something you recognize? She sings Billy Barnes’ “(Have I Stayed) Too Long at the Fair”, a quiet song about outstaying your welcome, and it’s like looking directly into her soul. It is very brave of her to admit the things she does and to let us –complete strangers – in that close to her. The combination of this song, this artist, and this moment results in a truly exceptional experience.
Skinner takes us out with the theme from The Golden Girls (did I mention there were gays?) and then offers, as her encore, “something to think about in the week ahead.” She sings a Susan Werner song that asks, “May I suggest this is the best part of your life?” It’s a cathartic moment, having gone through what we did with her that evening, hearing about her pandemic struggles and having those stories jog the not-too-distant memories of our own. It brings a note of cautious hope into the room. I climbed the steps up and out into the night feeling both overwhelmed by the shared trauma of the past year and feeling strangely lightened by knowing that Emily Skinner feels the same way. Like she said, there is no way to sing the old songs and ignore what’s happened. I’ve got to hand it to her for letting it all come out as boldly as it did.