Close call leads to campy cabaret revue
By DANIEL GEWERTZ
Boston Sunday Herald
SEPTEMBER 24, 2000
Nina Vansuch says music saved her life. But last spring her friends were more worried that music might kill her.
HERALD PHOTO BY DAVID CARASCABARET: Will McMillan, from left, Nina Vansuch, Brian Patton and Michael Ricca come together for ‘At the Movies,’ which both honors and sends up songs from ’50s and ’60s Hollywood films.
On May 19 -- exactly one week after breast cancer surgery and against doctor's orders -- Vansuch sang in the cabaret revue "At The Movies."
"I had a lumpectomy and lymph dissection. My doctors said they didn't believe how well I looked, but they also said I was out of my mind to do the show," the 47-year-old local singer recalled.
"It was just one of those things where you're not going to stop me."
Vansuch reprises the musical revue "At the Movies" under less medically chancy conditions at Scullers on Wednesday, with pianist Brian Patton and singers Will McMillan and Michael Ricca. The three vocalists met in 1999 as fellows at the highly selective Eugene O'Neil Cabaret Symposium in Connecticut.
The newly revamped "At the Movies" both honors and sends up songs from '50s and '60s Hollywood films, mingling the classic with the campy.
The daughter of a Russian Orthodox priest and an "artistic, violently schizophrenic mother" who was institutionalized during much of the singer's childhood, Vansuch's life has been as dramatic as the movies.
The breast cancer bout earlier this year was her third fight with malignancy. In 1983, she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer and had her thyroid removed. In 1998, it was colon cancer.
"They caught it early." she said. "The polyps were surgically removed."
That close call gave Vansuch a sense of urgency about developing her music, which she's pursued sporadically over 30 years. "Music was always my anchor," she said. "It gave me something I could always depend on even when things were totally crazy when I was a kid."
At age 16 Vansuch started her career with a folk-rock band in Ohio. "An agent once said he'd make us as big as the Turtles," she said.
In the '70s, after an early marriage and divorce, she found cult success singing in the folk/jazz/pop trio Night Angels.
"We were the straight women in the early women's movement," she said.
A self-admitted "vinyl junkie," Vansuch co-owned five record stores in and around New Haven. She moved to Boston in 1978, the city of her birth, on Bonnie Raitt's suggestion. But by then the folk and jazz scenes were at a low ebb, and punk was ascendant. Vansuch got a record store job and moonlighted as bartender at The Rat.
"It was a blast. I did some booking, and married the manager," she said.
"My husband was drawn to me because I was an entertainer, and then immediatedly wanted me to give up music. It wasn't a good marriage."
The pairing produced a son, but Vansuch was soon divorced for a second time.
Throughout her life there was one talent the outgoing Vansuch possessed in addition to her singing. She could write grants.
"The first one was when I was 19. I wrote a grant that started an arts center in Connecticut for kids like me: relatively poor, artistic, musical. Then I wrote grants for the New Haven arts scene, and in the late '80s as a single mother in Belmont, I wrote grants and taught at the Kendall Center for the Arts. The Center later burned down."
The grants helped Vansuch develop theater/music/comedy projects inspired by her own tumultuous life including "Love Songs For Dummies!' a run-through of her "stupid romances." and, "Where Have I Been All Your Life," a show about "how creativity can sustain you."
Currently, Vansuch is applying for grants for a show about her "life as a fag hag."
Vansuch received her gift of music from both parents, but especially her mother, who was "loving and extremely funny in her lucid times."
The culture of complaint irks Vansuch. "I'm bothered by people who say they can't relate because of dysfunctional families. I say grow up. Take the stuff you were born with and do something with it. That's what music did for me. It saved me."
"At the Movies," Scullers, Boston, 8 p.m. Wednesday. $15. Call (617) 562-4111.