July 19, 2021
After Pandemic Hiatus, Cabaret's Nicolas King is Back on Fast Track
John Amodeo READ TIME: 9 MIN.
"I've never had any downtime since I was four," notes jazz and cabaret crooner Nicolas King, who has been singing professionally since that tender age, having won Regional and National Talent America Contests as a young tot. Since then, he's been constantly in demand, from three Broadway shows, including a nine-month run as Chip in "Beauty and the Beast" opposite Andrea McArdle, to appearing on Jerry Lewis Telethons, to touring with Liza Minnelli as her opening act, all by the age of 15.
At 19, he released his breakout recording, "Nineteen," with the renowned Mike Renzi as his musical director, firmly establishing him as an emerging jazz and swing vocalist to be reckoned with. Stephen Holden of the New York Times proclaimed King to be "a precociously polished pop/jazz crooner." And Stephen Sorokoff of the Time Square Chronicles said of "the musical tour-de-force that is Nicolas King... His shows are always a dazzling display of vocal proficiency funneled through his god-given luxurious and distinctive voice."
Now 29, King reflects on the one period he wasn't working – the first four months of the pandemic in 2020 – and how it felt to get back in front of an audience again when he performed outdoors at the Forestburgh Playhouse in the Catskills in July 2020. "I was so nervous. I know it sounds melodramatic to say that. But I was a little shaky the first few songs because I hadn't sung in front of people for so long because of lockdown. But the audience was so happy to have live entertainment that after the first few songs, I relaxed into it."
Thereafter, King was back in the saddle, performing concerts, mostly outdoors, including CabaretFest Provincetown 2020, and some concerts in Florida this past winter.
After receiving the COVID vaccine early on in order for him to get back into the nightclubs (like Manhattan's Birdland and 54 Below, where he frequently performs), King has not stopped. Even speaking to EDGE from his home in NYC, he was getting ready to head to Don't Tell Mama, another Manhattan boîte, to be a guest artist in the cabaret show of a friend of his. "New York hasn't skipped a beat," exclaims King, and neither has he. With the pandemic mostly in the rear-view mirror, at least in New York, he's off and running. Direct from his recent gigs at Manhattan's Green Room 42, and Theatre by the Sea in his home state of Rhode Island, King will be performing his newest cabaret show, "Hindsight 2020," at the Napoleon Room at the Club Café in Boston, MA on Tuesday, July 27, and then at The Art House, Provincetown, MA on Thursday, August 26, both with Mike Renzi at the piano.
Back in February, when performances were still virtual, King participated in a virtual live-streamed gala celebration of Liza Minnelli's 75th birthday, with such stage and screen glitterati as Joel Grey, Lily Tomlin, Chita Rivera, Ben Vereen, Lea Delaria, Nathan Lane, Mario Cantone, Andrea Martin, John Kander, Lorna Luft, Jonathan Groff, Michael Feinstein, Melissa Manchester, and Michele Lee. "I was the only person on that list that I didn't know!" quipped King. But if anyone had a right to be there, it was King. "I've known her since I was 11 and she has been my real-life Auntie Mame," King imparts.
After an initial backstage introduction when he was appearing on Broadway opposite Tom Selleck in "A Thousand Clowns" at the age of nine, King got to know Minnelli even better a couple of years later when his grandmother, Angela Bacari, a singer and vocal coach, began helping Minnelli with vocal problems. Bacari became Minnelli's longtime vocal coach and King was around for much of that time, soaking up Minnelli's encouragement and advice. "She did for me what Fred Ebb did for her," cites King, noting that Minnelli always came to him. "I never had to seek her out," explains King. "She offered to help me, directing my first cabaret show when I was 11." That help included asking King to serve as her opening act, which he did on and off for over a decade. "That was frightening," King admits, "because people came to see her. But I had more fun doing those shows, because she was such a cheerleader, clapping and cheering from the wings."
King is not the first or only performer to acknowledge Minnelli's willingness to help her fellow performers. "Kathy Najimy paid her the best tribute [at the 75th Birthday Celebration] when she said Liza was so generous, and that is how Liza should be thought of," asserts King. "People think of her as all sequins and jazz hands, but there is this generous side that most people don't know."
One example of that is the advice she's given King over the years. "She gave me such a gusto for wanting to get out there and do a good job and make a new fan," recalls King. "What she meant was you can't just walk in with your set list that you have under your belt. That's not enough. You can't go out there and rest on your laurels. You have to get out there and prove yourself. In my generation, there is a sense of entitlement, and Liza's advice was 'Stay curious, stay humble, never stop learning.' "
That advice came in handy when King, who started out as a Broadway baby, hit an unexpected roadblock in his teens and early twenties. "I couldn't get a job in the theater," King laments. "I was Connie in 'A Chorus Line.' I never sprouted past 5'2". I couldn't work on Broadway because castings were always looking for taller men. I was a Joel Grey/Mickey Rooney type, and there weren't many of those parts around."
But taking Minnelli's advice to heart, King explored other art forms where he could use his singing. "I thought if I couldn't sing on Broadway, let me get a gig to sing somewhere. I got a gig at a restaurant in Cranston, RI. I started with show tunes, but when I met Mike Renzi, he opened me up to singers of standards, and I've been doing that ever since," recounts King. Stay curious, stay humble, never stop learning.
Meeting Renzi was indeed serendipitous for King. Renzi, who was Mel Tormé's longtime musical director, but also the musical director for Peggy Lee, Maureen McGovern, Lena Horne, Tony Bennett, and Lady Gaga (among others), was, you might imagine from that list, rather discriminating about whom he would work with. And King caught his ear.
"I met Mike in Newport, RI about 13 years ago. We were both attending a gig of a mutual friend of ours," King remembers. "I was asked to get up and sing a song, and I was so nervous to sing with Mike, and we went to a pizza place afterwards, and Mike told me if I 'ever wanted a piano player....' So, I called his bluff. I got a gig that paid $100, no food, and he had to bring his own keyboard. He took the gig! A few weeks later, we had him over for dinner and he told me, 'You know Nicolas you've got to get out of Rhode Island.' And we did! We've been all over the world together. It's such a joy to work with someone who understands what I do. And we learn and we have mutual love and respect for this craft. We have such synchronicity."
That synchronicity will be on display at The Napoleon Room when King and Renzi present "Hindsight 2020," King's contemplative show about what we all went through during our months of isolation during lockdown. "This is not to recount the events of 2020, but to talk about the emotional journey we've all been on," declares King. "Like it or not, this thing happened without our permission, and we had to get through riots, and racism, and tweets. How did we get through it? What put a smile on our face? Some Broadway, some standards, some jazz.... The arc is the journey we went on. A show of survival."
Next month, King and Renzi will bring the show to The Art House in Provincetown, King's first time as part of the Summer Art House Series, which includes many of Broadway's top stars, such as Kelli O'Hara, Kristin Chenoweth, Liz Callaway, Stephanie J. Block, and Lillias White. "I was scheduled to play last year, but the pandemic got in the way," notes King. "What I love about the P-Town crowd and The Art House is that everyone in the room wants to be there, and you know you are in a room full of family."
One thing that King did to survive lockdown was to make a recording, which he released this past February, called "Act One: Celebrating 25 Years of Recording." Putting out a 25-year retrospective when you are not yet 29 takes chutzpah, which King has in abundance, but he also has the body of work to back it up. King notes that this indeed covers his 25-year recording history, "including my first recording at 4-1/2, plus recordings that have never been heard before. Liza, Jane Monheit, Norm Lewis, and even Tom Selleck in his singing debut appear on this recording. It is like a scrapbook. Anyone who needs to learn all about me can get this."
The album was a labor of love for King and took some time, but that didn't faze King, who followed the advice another lion of the entertainment world gave him when he was only ten years old and eager to make his mark on the world. The advice came from the director of "Hollywood Arms," in which King was starring on Broadway opposite Linda Lavin. "Hal Prince's advice to me was 'Take your time,' " recalls King. "I didn't understand what he meant at the time, but his point was there is nothing that needs to be rushed. There is no such thing as a deadline when it comes to getting it right."
Nicolas King will perform "Hindsight 2020" on Tuesday, July 27, 2021, 7 PM at The Napoleon Room at Club Café, 209 Columbus Avenue, Boston, MA 02116. No cover but reservations strongly recommended. For reservations, visit: https://www.clubcafe.com/club-events/nicolas-king-with-mike-renzi/?instance_id=12813 and on Thursday, August 26, 2021, 7:30 PM at The Art House, 214 Commercial Street, Provincetown, MA 02657. Tickets $40-$65. For reservations, visit https://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/4546923
Watch Nicolas King and Norm Lewis sing "Wonderful World."
John Amodeo is a free lance writer living in the Boston streetcar suburb of Dorchester with his husband of 23 years. He has covered cabaret for Bay Windows and Theatermania.com, and is the Boston correspondent for Cabaret Scenes Magazine.