The fashion world has always had an element of showmanship, but Isaac Mizrahi is an actual showman. Though most widely known for his work in fashion, Mizrahi has a wide-ranging career on stage, TV and film, as well as behind the scenes as a producer and director.
He has appeared in numerous TV shows and movies, as an actor and as himself, including "Ugly Betty" and as a judge on all seven seasons of "Project Runway All-Stars."
Before Mizrahi became a big name on the runway, he planned on a career as a performer and attended a performing arts high school — he even had a small role in the film "Fame" about a New York City high school for the arts. He has directed productions for the Opera Theatre of St. Louis, and directs and narrates his own annual production of "Peter and the Wolf" at New York's Guggenheim Museum.
Mizrahi was both a subject and a co-creator of "Unzipped," a documentary that chronicled the creation of his fall 1994 collection and he hosted his own talk show, "The Isaac Mizrahi Show," for seven years. He also has own production company, through which he's developing several projects for TV, stage and literature.
And for about 20 years, Mizrahi has performed in cabaret-style shows that bring together singing and dancing, accompanied by a live band, with storytelling and humor. The shows' home base is Mizrahi's hometown, New York City, where he has a longstanding residency at the Carlyle Hotel.
Local audiences will have a chance to check out Mizrahi's theatrical chops when his latest show, "Moderate to Severe," comes to the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto on May 15. (The show has been delayed several times by the pandemic.)
His shows are in the cabaret style, but Mizrahi points out that they are more like concerts — they typically don't take place in a small, smoky lounge that the word "cabaret" might evoke. Instead it's the laid-back atmosphere and often spontaneous dialogue that can bring a cabaret feel to a larger venue.
The Palo Alto Weekly spoke with Mizrahi about "Moderate to Severe," his best shows ever and the secret to performing that he learned from Liza Minnelli. This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Palo Alto Weekly
Your background is in performing arts. What drew you to the cabaret format?
"Cabaret" is just the idea that lends itself to what I like to do the best, which is not necessarily only done in a cabaret … It just means that all the preparation I do, a lot of it is from the hip, a lot of it takes place extemporaneously. And that's the thing that makes it different from other shows that people do.
I had a show off-Broadway for about two years called "Les MIZrahi" — it was a great show. It was all written. I had it memorized. It was workshopped and it had a bunch of lines and cues and it was really good. But then I realized that I was better at just showing up. So I ended up doing this hybrid thing, whereby I prepared a lot of music, and I prepared a shape for the show — the show needs to have a shape, it needs to be about something. But once you do that, for me anyway, I like it better when I can just present it very, very fresh. …
I have notes with me on stage and that's how I work. It's so much more interesting, I think, for an audience to watch. I've done shows for really big audiences in theaters. … I work in small theaters a lot, and I really like it. It's more like a concert, as opposed to a cabaret.
But you know, my best shows, I think in my entire life, were in front of about 1000 people at I think it was called the McCarter Center in Princeton. I did a couple of shows there which were divine.
Palo Alto Weekly:
What made those the best shows?
I always say it has mostly to do with the audience and how they listen and how they respond — how they make you feel somehow pre-accepted or loved or something like that, so that you feel like you can open up even further.
It's so funny. I had this old friend of mine come to see my show at the Carlyle, and this friend of mine said "Oh, I didn't realize your show was so louche. It's so risque." And I said "Darling, do we know each other?" The show is always slightly revealing and a little bit louche — it just is because I say what's on my mind, and a lot of times my mind, you know, is in the gutter.
Palo Alto Weekly:
What inspired the title "Moderate to Severe"?
I kept thinking about the past few years that I was going through. And it's on the packages of medicine, or the conditions that you hear about on TV: The remedies are for "moderate to severe arthritis," or "moderate to severe depression" or "moderate or severe insanity" or something, and I feel like what's happened to me, which I imagine (also) happened to a lot of people over the past two years, is that it went from this kind of moderate craziness (and) life just became completely, severely nuts. So that's really why I chose that title. And, honestly, I'm not really going to talk that much about COVID except how you manage not to, — it's really very, very good-humored — and I talk about this idea of happiness a lot ...
The overarching idea of the show is this idea of how we go from this moderate to severe illness and how we kind of struggle along with this idea about happiness. I'm not going to tell you what I end up saying about it all, because it's not that important. It's really of importance to the show itself.
Palo Alto Weekly:
What do you look for in choosing music for the show?
Somebody said it eloquently, and it's such a cliche, but it's so true: "You don't look for music. It looks for you, darling." … It's a very personal thing: you don't know why a song appears in your brain.
Two of the songs in the show I wrote the lyrics for: one is a cover of a song by The Beach Boys called "Pet Sounds," which is an instrumental and I've always loved it so much. So I wrote these lyrics to it about my dogs, how much I love dogs. And the other one is a relyricization of "You're the Top," which is Cole Porter. It's kind of a more contemporary version so it feels more relevant. And I've been doing that for (as) long as I've been at the Carlyle. I've been doing these versions of "You're the Top" every year.
Palo Alto Weekly:
You seem like you're always having so much fun on stage. What's your secret?
If you're going to go on stage, you have to understand before anything else, that is the assignment. You don't take the job unless you plan to have a really great time. I'm not kidding. That's all it's about. …
When I was in fashion, I made clothes for Liza (Minnelli) and I became good friends with her. And she had this way, when you watch Liza perform, boy, she is in it and that is what she is born to do, more than almost any other performer I've ever seen. With Liza, darling, she is there for that show. She shows up. And I say that only because it's a lesson. It's a real lesson in this idea of giving them what they want, and when you consider that they want to have a great time, and when you consider that the only way they're going to have a great time is if you have a great time — you see where I'm going (with that).
I've learned a lot of that from my close association with Liza. Just watching her from the wings, walk on stage, as if she was literally walking into her living room receiving guests. … She had that show at Radio City Music Hall for which I did the costumes, and I went a number of times. She would have these almost like "salons" between acts. She had a red kimono, like a Halston robe that she put on, and she would come into the green room with a thousand votive candles and catering, and all these people would show up in the middle of the whole show — they would just come backstage and it was almost like a party. It was just so fun. And then they would go back to their seats and she would do the second act. So you see where you learn from that, you see what that's about. That's about somebody having the greatest night of her life every single night.
Isaac Mizrahi's "Moderate to Severe" takes place Sunday, May 15, 7:30 p.m. at Schultz Cultural Arts Hall, Oshman Family JCC, 3921 Fabian Way, Palo Alto. Tickets are $90. For more information, visit paloaltojcc.org.