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BY SCOTT STIFFLER | Just as Dick Clark had a long and defiant run as “America’s oldest teenager,” drag king Murray Hill gives no indication of intent to abdicate his well-earned position as the “hardest working middle-aged man in show business.” Having made his bones with a breezy, bawdy persona that draws on vaudeville, burlesque, borscht belt humor, acidic quips, comedic crooning, and flights of uncategorizable lunacy, this Hill has his eyes on the best that’s yet to come. As such, that’s where the title of his latest project comes from.
“Murray Hill: About To Break” finds our endearing, ever-leering ladies’ man poised for creative growth, by adding another notch to his belt: the autobiographical solo show. Known for over two decades as an ace-in-the-hole guest star around town, or as the indefatigable curator/emcee of his own anything-goes showcases, Hill has paid the bills (more or less) by doing everything from hosting Bingo on the Bowery to touring with Dita Von Teese to cracking jokes at Bally’s in Vegas — but breakout stardom, often within his grasp over the years, continues to elude. Hence this show, which seeks to take lemons and make lemonade, then add ice and infuse with booze. Like a cocktail mixed with mystery ingredients, a night spent with Murray has an intoxicating whiff of risk, and the promise of dizzying reward.
“I think the world’s ready for me to be a little more dimensional,” one-time NYC mayoral candidate Hill said, during a late night phone interview two days before the new show’s premiere. “I’m the main act, not the opening act,” he noted, “so it’s an hour and probably a half of me not just doing pure schtick, but also a little bit of info for the kids as to how I got here — the man behind the man behind the man.”
The decision to flesh out his backstory is a welcome if risky gambit for a performer who’s occasionally hinted at vulnerability (that Christmas show!), but always filled his tank with more brimstone than treacle. The tightrope walk of “About To Break” is summed up in the show’s press release as an intent to “shine a spotlight on the man who keeps going despite years of struggles and heartbreak. For the first time on stage, he flips the record and plays the B-side of his seemingly sparkly showbiz life.” Lest you think Murray has gone soft and turned over a new leaf, fans familiar with Hill’s Don Rickles-like affinity for engaging audience members in conversation, only to insult them mercilessly, need not be afraid.
“I gotta make sure to get all the new stuff and keep the show at an hour and a half, or my director [Tony Award winner Scott Wittman] is gonna kill me,” Hill said, assuring audiences, “There will be improv. I’m always gonna do that — but I’m gonna try this thing I don’t have any experience with, called ‘balance.’ ”
Opining on what else makes the show unique, infamously off-the-cuff Hill noted, “I’ve never rehearsed this much in my entire career. I’ve never had a full script written the week before the show. The difference with this one is, there’s a narrative — and I’m very excited to tell you Marc Shaiman wrote the opening number, which is very much a Catskills vibe. The songs in the show are all written with people I’ve worked with over the last 20 years, people who are part of my history.” Even Murray’s former showgirls, the Gold-Diggers (Frieda Williams and Francis Asher), are “coming out of retirement to do some half-high kicks, and backup singing.”
Put it all together, Hill vowed, and you have a classy show with enough polish to quite possibly thrust him into the big time — or at least closer to it than he’s ever been. “I’m not going fully Uptown,” he admitted, “but I’m definitely going to 41st Street.” The hope, Hill said with sincerity, is that after its six-show run, the creative team will “get a real good sense of what it is, and can go ahead and do a full run” not too far down the pike.
As for taking the show’s title off the marquee and into the realm of self-fulfilling prophecy, Hill believes the time might finally be right for that TV project he’s had his sights on for years. With VH1 airings of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and an HBO documentary crew having followed Lady Bunny’s recent relaunch of her iconic Wigstock gathering (a rollicking Sept. 1 Pier 17 gig Hill performed at), drag artistry and entertainment is being consumed and embraced by the popular culture as never before. “Its more out there,” Hill said, “but it’s more imbalanced than it’s ever been. There is such a huge discrepancy. But I did go to the big networks and had meetings with TV executives — and to me, that was huge progress from 20 years ago. It’s a zeitgeist moment,” Hill said, of the appetite for drag, “that hopefully will tip to include more kings, and not just queens.”
“Murray Hill: About To Break” is performed Thurs., Sept. 20 at 7 pm; Fri., Sept. 21 at 7pm; Sat., Sept. 22 at 9:30pm; Thurs., Sept. 27 at 9:30pm; Fri., Sept. 28 at 9:30pm; and Sat., Sept. 29 at 9:30pm. At Joe’s Pub (425 Lafayette St., btw. Astor Pl. & E. Fourth St.). For tickets ($25-$50), visit publictheater.org. Artist info at themurrayhillshow.com.