Photo courtesy of the Kimmel Center
This upcoming Thursday night will be all about debuts for Philadelphia’s beloved drag queen Martha Graham Cracker as she makes her very first appearance at the Kimmel Center’s Perelman Theater. She’ll be there to celebrate the release of her debut album, Lashed But Not Leashed, featuring the songs from her show of the same name. This unique musical was conceived right here in Philadelphia and you’re invited to join Martha for a one-of-a-kind (and one night only) performance of the show.
Lashed But Not Leashed gives the audience “an intimate, deep look into Martha’s heart,” explains Dito van Reigersberg, the man who brings Martha to life through various cabaret and drag show performances throughout the city. Though Philadelphians may have seen Martha perform in the past, no one actually knows much about the character of Martha herself. Who is she? What is she like off stage? What makes her tick?
“Anyone who has seen a Martha Graham Cracker performance before knows that she usually covers songs in an unusual way. Lashed But Not Leashed is the first show where Martha wrote her own songs,” he says.
Dito always imagined Martha as a librarian if she were to walk away from showbiz. So in this show, audiences will witness what may be Martha Graham Cracker’s last stage performance (fictitious plot, folks, Martha really isn’t going anywhere!) as she’s ready to explore her true calling as a bibliophile!
“Librarians are heroes,” says Dito when asked if that’s a dream he would pursuit for himself as well. “It could be something I would want to do.” Truthfully, though, Martha’s story lets us just consider taking risks and explore the many parts of ourselves. “Martha can be her glamorous self [in Lashed But Not Leashed] while talking about meaningful things- about herself and about the world,” he continues.
Dito stumbled into the creation of Lashed But Not Leashed in an unconventional way. He was offered a spot at the Kimmel Center’s Theatre Residency Program in 2015 where teams of performers come together to create and develop work that is then presented to the public. Dito and his chosen team began to brainstorm their opportunity- who would they be writing these songs for? Themselves? Martha? If they’re writing for Martha, why?
“Ethan Lipton, a playwright and songwriter, thought we could put all of these songs into a show [for Martha],” Dito says. He trusted Ethan’s instincts and after many meetings and back-and-forth emails, Lashed But Not Leashed, was born.
Dito is really proud of this show and the original songs that tie the story together. And he should be. Lashed But Not Leashed premiered in 2017 and was followed by Martha and her band performing at Joe’s Pub in NYC- which collaborates with the Kimmel Center for their Theatre Residency Program- in January 2018. They then took it to the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis last year before performing again in the Kimmel Innovation Studio in March 2019. With fans begging for Dito to lay down these tracks into an original Martha album, he couldn’t help but give them what they want.
Lashed But Not Leashed was recorded locally at Buckeye Studios in South Philadelphia where Dito experienced the process of creating an album for the first time. From singing a track multiple times just to get the right sounds or having each musician and instrument recorded separately to then be layered on top of one another, recording an album is a true labor of love. And stress. Dito would sometimes head out for a walk while the rest of the band determine what versions of the songs sounded best, then return to be amazed at how everything could be “Frankensteined together to produce the best of all takes.”
The collection of songs turned out “luscious and pretty”, just like Martha Graham Cracker herself. Lashed But Not Leashed features a wide range of musical styles, from disco to funk anthems, a little bit of country, throw in a power ballad and some rock-and-roll, too. Each song helps build Martha’s story and adds depth to her already established persona. She’s a lady with a lot to belt out and she’ll easily charm the pants off of everyone in the audience through her variety.
“You will not get bored during Lashed But Not Leashed,” Dito laughs. He enjoys performing the poignant and tender tracks the most. “‘The Diving Bell and the Butterfly’ is probably my favorite. I love the lyrics and the three part harmonies with Dave [Sweeny], and Eliza [Hardy Jones] who takes the lead. It’s intense and gives me goosebumps.”
For Dito, Lashed But Not Leashed is a tribute to all of the possibilities you left behind. “Or maybe the possibilities you’re not willing to leave behind,” he says. “It’s a beautiful thing to not cut off possibilities. You’re never too old [to make a change].”
And now that the album is wrapped and ready to go for all of us this Thursday, Dito has even bigger plans for himself and Martha in the future.
“A Martha Graham Cracker Lifetime movie!” he jokes. “I would like to do more acting as Martha or Dito, and I hope to tour the Lashed But Not Leashed show. I just want to dream big! I’m lucky I did crazy things with my band, sing with a choir, a string quartet…musically, I’ve checked a lot off my bucket list.”
A bucket list item he has yet to check off is a duet with Mary J. Blige or Philadelphia’s own Patti LaBelle. “There’s a video of Patti LaBelle singing ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ when MLK Day become recognized. It always gives me the biggest goosebumps. That performance makes me proud to be an American and a Philadelphian.”
And Philadelphia is proud to call Martha Graham Cracker one of our own too. Dito never imagined he would one day become a drag queen or even a performer. So Lashed But Not Leashed’s story and Martha’s desire to try something different is meant to inspire and encourage all of us.
Come see this original piece of theatre and get to know Martha Graham Cracker, and maybe even yourself, this Thursday night in the Grand Hall of the Perelman Theatre (inside the Kimmel Center at 300 S Broad St). Tickets for this performance are available here and the album will also be ready and waiting for you to take it home.