by Ruby Comer
Years ago, too many to count, your Ms. Ruby was a Broadway hoofer—or chorus gal. One evening at a Broadway Cares event, I espied this little energetic redheaded kid passing out red ribbons to the crowd. What a cutie, I thought. Later we met and it turned out to be Marty Thomas, who was then co-starring as Colin in the musical The Secret Garden, at The St. James Theatre.
Now forty years old, Marty has built an impressive CV and earlier this year released an album, Slow Dancing With A Boy. Love the title! He was the 1992 Ed McMahon’s Junior Vocalist Star Search Champion, beating out a then unknown Britney Spears. Marty has appeared off Broadway, in films and TV, most recently as Charlie on Grace & Frankie. He’s a vocal arranger, producer, and has been a backup vocalist for Barry Manilow, Patti LaBelle [A&U, June 2005], Johnny Cash, Jennifer Holliday, and many more.
He created the show Marty Thomas Presents Diva, which has toured nationally and has been performed weekly in New York City for the past seven years. His creative skills also extend to being a cosmetologist and a salon owner. Do his talents never end?! He’s also a professor of musical theater at New York Film Academy. He even coaches beauty pageant contestants!
Though he’s been on the road since he was a child, Marty was raised on a farm in Trenton, Missouri. Currently living in NYC’s Hell’s Kitchen, Marty has been in a committed relationship for nearly two years with his partner, Jeffrey.
Marty and I are both typical Virgos, which means we’re organizers, loyal, adaptable, and
we’re multitaskers——though as I grow older, poo on doing more than one thing at a time!
Lucky me, as I travel thru Europe, I discover that Marty will be in Ljubljana, Slovenia, a delightful Alpine country, at the same time as me! OMG, I cannot say enough about this stunning place. I had no idea. Go there now before tourists begin to flood its charming villages, and the picturesque countryside that’s dotted with imposing castles. Since it’s a petite country, I rent a car from EuropCar (best prices!) and putt-putt around in my adorable crimson red Škoda. Heaven!
Marty and I arrange to meet at The Urban, a lovely boutique hotel where I am staying. It overlooks a quiet park, just off the main drag, which is a pedestrian mall. The hotel staff bends over backwards to assist with your every need. The rooms are stylishly minimalistic, and the breakfast banquet is stuffed with yummy foods.
It’s spittin-rain outside, so Marty meets me in the comfy hotel lobby, while the trees in the park sway just beyond the picture window. We sit on a Copenhagen-blue plumby sofa.
Ruby Comer: Hello, darling. [We heartily embrace and then I become bossy.] Marty, how did you first hear about the epidemic?
Marty Thomas: I remember as a little boy in the car with my mom and my brother, hearing about the “gay cancer” on the radio while my mom was pumping gas. It was such a scary bit of news and didn’t make much sense because I didn’t even understand what gay meant at the time.
When you landed your first Broadway role, the AIDS crisis was in full swing. At eleven, were you aware?
That was a big year for me, not only professionally but personally. I moved with my mom from the farm in Missouri to New York City where I was exposed to so many new things. The kids I encountered in school were much more worldly than me. I was very aware of the AIDS crisis, but of course, I couldn’t possibly understand all the details.
By the time you came of age, the cocktails had been created. Even so, sex was still dangerous. How did that play out for you?
I was pretty well educated about sex by the time I started having it. I definitely waited a lot longer than my peers. [He pauses.] I suppose it was equal parts fear and shame.
I get it, yeah. [He crosses his legs and shifts more toward me.] How old were you when you first got tested for HIV?
Nineteen. It was an organization in Kansas City that provided free confidential home testing. They would send someone to your house to swab you. It was amazing. They would also send volunteers to all of the bars offering confidential swabbing and education.
Hmm, interesting. What prompted the test?
The guy I was dating at the time was my first real boyfriend, though I wasn’t his. We got tested together, just to be sure where we stood. Even though we had no real reason to be concerned at the time, it was still terrifying. Back then you had to wait a week or so for results. That week was excruciating. I pictured all the movies about the virus that I had seen, and all the funerals I attended and my imagination ran wild.
I know you’ve lost many people to this disease; share a story.
One of my dearest friends, the owner of my first record label and my chosen godfather, Mel Cheren, died of pneumonia as a complication of AIDS in 2007. [In the late eighties, Mel founded a nonprofit, 24 Hours For Life, an AIDS fundraiser.] I still ache from that loss. He was one of the most incredible and generous humans I’ve ever encountered.
Mel’s passing was so sudden, Ruby, that it was difficult to wrap my head around it. He was a miracle in my life and my best friend. [With a melancholy look, he tilts his head slightly and glances around the room.] So many beautiful dancers I met as a child passed in my teens and twenties, but Mel was definitely the closest to me. Every time you lose someone it’s traumatic——terrifying and maddening.
Indeed, my friend. Indeed. What was the biggest thing you learned from being a Broadway Baby?
I learned how to take my craft seriously. We performed eight shows a week, just like adult actors, but also went to school full-time and took acting/singing/dancing lessons. Then there were auditions. It gave me perspective and confidence that I could actually succeed in show business. It’s easy for dreamers from small towns to feel like they could never compete. I love seeing small town performers make it.
Who do you look up to?
Billy Porter. He’s been a hero of mine since I was a kid. In my early twenties; he really took me under his wing. He gave me many career opportunities and mentored me in ways that he’ll probably never understand. He let me sing backup on his iconic album, On the Corner of Broadway and Soul. [He flings his arms in the air, looking upward as if to indicate the luck of it all.] Watching Billy emerge as an international star and an award-winning actor at fifty is beyond inspiring. He …is…unique. The world finally caught up with Billy, and we can all see how wonderful he is. I adore him.
You are passionate about many issues, including AIDS. What motivates you to give back?
I love volunteering, and I’m so grateful to Broadway Cares for giving me opportunities to use my skills and talents to give back. I’ve done many benefit concerts, where we only raise a few hundred dollars, but every dollar helps. It’s a golden feeling to participate in Broadway Bares or the Red Bucket Follies [two events that benefit Broadway Cares] and see numbers in the millions of dollars. Knowing that you had even a small part in raising that amount of money is addicting. I feel like the Broadway and theater community is especially in tune with charity as we have experienced such dramatic losses in our lifetimes. [Suddenly, his crystal-cut sapphire-blue eyes sparkle and Marty concludes.] I couldn’t be more proud to be part of a community that never says “No” to helping others.
Ruby Comer is an independent journalist from the Midwest who is happy to call Hollywood her home away from home. Reach her by e-mail at [email protected].