In the summer of 2005 a farm boy from Maryland named Marti Gould Cummings moved to New York City to pursue his passion for musical theater. Soon he was hosting shows at the Duplex, a cabaret bar in Greenwich Village, in beautiful dresses and heels -- while still looking very much like a man.
Two years ago, after Proposition 8 passed in California, Cummings felt it was time to give people in the theater community an opportunity to speak out for equality and created Broadway Speaks OUT, an online talk show in support of the LGBT rights movement. Liza, Bette, and Rosie are just a few of the performers who've already chatted with Cummings. Now at 23, after being featured on 30 Rock and in the off-Broadway musical Twist, Cummings is preparing to perform There's Nothing Like a Dame, his solo debut concert at the Duplex, which is being billed as the songs of Rodgers and Hammerstein, but with a twist.
Out caught up with Cummings to talk about his new show, the woman he'd go straight for, and what he'd say to Michelle Obama if he were given the chance.
Out: In your solo debut show you will be performing Rodgers and Hammerstein songs, but with a twist. Why did you pick Rodgers and Hammerstein?
Marti Gould Cummings: I picked them because I feel a lot of the shows that I've seen recently are all so contemporary. It's pop and rock and hip-hop and all sorts of things. I think it's amazing because it's showing how progressive the theater world is, but I think it's fun to give a throw back to the people who really revolutionized musical theater to begin with, which I think are Rodgers and Hammerstein and the Gershwins.
Then what's the twist?
I do androgynous and gender-bending. Not full drag. I thought it would be funny and kind of different to do a different interpretation of the songs. When I sing 'There's Nothing Like a Dame,' it's not me singing about a girl; I'm singing about me.
If you don't do drag, what would you call it when you go on stage in a dress?
I guess the best description of [me] is gender nonconformist. Sometimes in my real life when I'm not performing I like to put on a pair of heels for fun. I think clothing is a man-made material and object, so I don't think it should be limited to gender. If I like it, I wear it. When I perform I feel more comfortable in a glittery dress than I do a tie.
You are taking your act on the road. How do you think it will go over in Columbus, Ohio?
Oh my god, I hope it goes over well! I've done national tours and performed in musical theater productions, but I was playing a character. Now I'm going to be an alter ego -- a heightened version of myself -- a boy in a dress. I don't know what Columbus will be like. I hope it's a positive experience, but if not, it will be a learning experience.
Who are your inspirations?
Performance-wise, Justin Bond is my greatest influence. I kind of model myself a lot after Justin. Now we know each other, which is fantastic. I'm always like, 'Hi, I need advice.'
Is he a Facebook friend?
He is a Facebook friend! Of course he is!
Who else inspires you?
My inspiration for my LGBT activism would be Yetta Kurland. She ran for city council in 2009 in New York. She's really influenced my political side.
Recently you did a photo shoot in the middle of Times Square wearing a ball gown. What was that experience like?
[Laughs] It was something! I felt like a Real Housewife of New Jersey. This dress is like a mix between Scarlett O' Hara and an '80s prom dress. I got it at a Goodwill in Delaware. It's wrinkly and faded, but I think it's beautiful. Some people were saying some derogatory things and other people were fascinated or scared. Kids were staring. They had never seen anything like it. Some people came up and asked to take pictures with me. I was like, 'Yes! Yes! Take my picture! Do it! I'll be on your Facebook page!'
What is the biggest misconception about you?
Ah! I don't know. I think most people who aren't my close friends only see me when I'm in my version of drag and because I don't wear wigs or do a lot of makeup, it's really heightened, but downplayed at the same time. I think the biggest misconception is that people are confused as to what I am. A lot of people ask me if I'm transitioning. I have many transgender friends, but that's not the case for me. I just love what I wear.
Michael Musto said you are the love child of Liza Minnelli and Johnny Weir. What do you think of that statement?
I loved it! I love Johnny Weir, but anytime I'm compared to Liza Minnelli, my heart swoons. If I wasn't the love child of Liza, I'd settle for Lorna Luft.
You once said you'd go straight for Lorna.
I would! I live for Lorna Luft.
She's famous, but not a lot of people know her. She's like the secret of the Garland family. Her voice is, like, stupid. It's so good. It's my goal in life to do a concert with Lorna or have her guest in concert.
What were you like as a little boy growing up in Maryland?
I grew up on a farm. I have the two coolest parents. They are very hippie and very liberal. My brothers are real Republicans, but I love them to bits and pieces. They are so supportive. My one brother owned a comic book store when I was younger. My other brother wears camouflage and goes hunting. Then there's me wearing a sarong and seashells as a bra.
How do your parents react to your style?
They come to all of my shows. Every time I'm in any kind of article, they frame it and tell all their friends.
Is this going to be framed?
It sure is!
Tell us more about your childhood.
Growing up I didn't have a lot of friends. I was playing with Barbie, and my parents would let me. So, I went to school with a My Little Pony and a Polly Pocket and then I'd sit in the corner and sing Disney princess songs. Now I get to sing Disney princess songs, play with Barbie and be Barbie and nobody cares. I feel like I have the last laugh now.
Did you have to milk cows?
No! It's still a working farm. It's been in my family since 1792. There are a couple houses on it. My brother lives in one and my parents live in the other. Then there's the old manor house we rent out for weddings. We rent the farm out to an actual farmer because Lord knows none of us are getting on a tractor. Well, my brother might, but my mother gets manis and pedis, and my dad is probably out smoking pot or something! Oh, he'll be mad that I said that, but he'll love it!
Then at 17 you moved to New York City. Did you know anyone?
I didn't know a soul. I moved two weeks after high school -- June 23, 2005. Then I went to AMDA [American Musical & Dramatic Academy], which is a little performing arts conservatory on the Upper West Side. I was really scared.
Was it a struggle?
Adjusting from farm life where all you heard were crickets to living in the city was. I remember the first time I walked Chelsea or Hell's Kitchen and I thought, 'There are people gayer than I am!' I loved it!
What would you have thought if you had just arrived in New York and saw a man in a ball gown in the middle of Times Square?
If that would've happened to me I probably would have been taken a back a little. Then I probably would've gone up to him and asked him how does he do it, why does he do it and can he teach me!
Tell us about Broadway Speaks OUT.
My ex-partner and I thought of it together after Proposition 8. My ex was on Broadway, so we knew a lot of performers. I had wanted to do a YouTube show anyway and then Proposition 8 happened and he said, 'Why don't you make your show about this and interview our friends on Broadway?' Then I got the idea to put our friends on stage and raise money for the causes. We benefit a lot of organizations, but we mainly benefit the Ali Forney Center for homeless LGBT youth.
One person you said you'd like to interview is Michelle Obama. What would you ask the First Lady?
I would ask her why the hell hasn't her husband helped us more. I deeply respect and admire Michelle, as I do Barack. I feel they both believe in gay marriage, but I think politically he won't say it until he's reelected. That sucks, but politics is a dirty game. I would ask Michelle why morally she just wouldn't you push for it. I know they have a lot of gay friends and are gay-friendly. I'd ask, "What would you do if one of your daughters turned out to be lesbian and wanted to get married?" Then I would ask her how she gets her hair blown out because it looks amazing!
You are currently single. What do you look for in a man?
Honesty. I don't think I really have a type. Well, I do -- I have two types. He would have to be a fun, dirty hippie or a buttoned-up man in a suit. Total opposites and I don't want anything in the middle. The key thing is monogamy and trust.
So you're an old-fashioned guy?
I'm single now, so I'm having fun. I'm not saying I'm a prude, honey. I'm having some fun right now, but safely. If I'm in a relationship, it has to be monogamous.
Do you watch Glee?
I live for it! It's my dirty secret.
Well, it's out now! They are going to be doing a tribute to Britney Spears. Who else should they do a tribute to?
Oh, gosh. Gosh. Oh, this is so gay of me, but maybe a Judy Garland episode. They could do that "clang, clang went the trolley" thing.
And Lorna could guest star.
Lorna -- not Liza. [Liza] was in Sex and the City and already had her fun. Lorna could do it. She could play the substitute teacher.
What did you think of Liza in Sex and the City?
Are you kidding? I think Beyonc' has some competition. I think she needs to watch her weave. Liza is coming for her!
You just turned 23. What are your hopes for this next year?
I want to see Broadway Speaks OUT grow more. I also want to be doing more in other parts of the country to spread my performance.
After all you've done, what are you the most proud of?
I just got an email the other day on Facebook from this young girl who grew up in North Carolina. I've gotten several emails like this. She was asking me how to come out. That's what I'm the most proud of -- being able to reach out to people. If you can help somebody, that's where it's at. My parents gave me that love, and I am happy to give that love to other people.
Marti's show There's Nothing Like a Dame plays August 16 from 9:30-11:00 p.m. at the Duplex in New York City (61 Christopher St.). To make a reservation, click here.