When writing about Sandra Bernhard, it's all too easy to fall back on superlatives--amazing, brilliant, magnificent, incredible--but as true and accurate as those words may be, they do not begin to do the complexity of Ms. Bernhard's work any justice. Sandra's shows are always a multi-layered affair. It's such a thrill to get lost in the webs and tales she spins, it's like getting lost in Paris, or some other fabulous, foreign city, and stumbling onto the coolest places and people. In some instances, experiencing Sandra on stage is like taking a step through the looking glass. "Sandyland," which is the title of the new show, is very much a Wonderland for the 21st century.
From December 26th to the 31st, Sandra performed "Sandyland" at Joe's Pub for her always eagerly anticipated annual holiday residency. This year's show was more personally revealing than anything I've seen Sandra perform before. It was a journey into La Bernhard's private world, which began with a mystical rendition of "If You Could Read My Mind."* Her world is a dizzying trip... one minute she's in France exchanging e-mails with Andre Leon Talley, Sandyland's very own Mad Hatter, and the next she's getting hugged by a strange lady in the lobby of a sketchy Sheraton hotel. In a nutshell, that's what "Sandyland" is all about: contrast and irony--the irony of an accomplished, legendary, iconic performer who, for better or for worse, has remained an underground artist.
The musical highlight of the show was a medley of Roxette's "Listen to Your Heart" and Heart's "Alone." Sandra has a unique, magical ability to transform the corniest songs into profound, substantial emotional moments. Only Sandra could make Roxette sound like Oasis. She manages to unearth a life and poignancy in these songs that no one else knew existed. As she repeated the words "listen to your heart," the lyrics suddenly became a mantra, a plea... a plea for people to look inward and to reconnect with what really matters. It was Sandra taking a stand against the mediocrity and shallowness spawned by social media... It was a moment of spirituality and serenity amidst the very noisy, chaotic times we're living in. When Sandra was singing, you could feel this sense of warmth and unity in the room. It was a moment I wanted to hold onto for as long as I could.
The last stop on the "Sandyland" journey was an outrageous, unforgettable rendition of Miley Cyrus' "Wrecking Ball," which Sandra mashed up with Journey's "Don't Stop Believing." What a moment that was. For the song, Sandra donned a white tank top and a white pair of men's boxer-briefs. The expression on her face was one of mock defiance. When Sandra came on the scene in the late 70s, she came in like a wrecking ball, changing the game and what it meant to be a woman in the entertainment business. What have the current ladies of pop--Rihanna, Miley, Katy Perry, Gaga, etc.--done for us lately? Absolutely nothing. And that was the whole point of Sandra's "Wrecking Ball" performance. I saw it as an attack against the instant fame—born from reality TV and social media—that has dominated the pop culture landscape of the past few years. To drive the point home, Sandra even pretended to take a "selfie" with her tongue sticking out a la Miley midway through the song.
Sandra is everything today’s crop of insta-celebrities is not: she’s authentic. And she’s a star. A real star in the same way Bette Midler is a star. Stars like that don’t really exist any more. All we have now are celebrities on instagram. And that is precisely why Sandra’s work is more important than ever (and I mean that sincerely, without the slightest bit of exaggeration). After 30 years in the business, Sandra is still very much the wrecking ball she was when she first burst onto the comedy scene. Now she’s tearing down the bullshit, superficiality and emptiness of our culture and, in their place, offering work that is challenging, deep and provocative, as she always has. It’s the kind of work that could potentially save pop culture and pop culture is in desperate need of being rescued. If anyone can do it, it’s Ms. Bernhard.
*Note: Streisand covered "If You Could Read My Mind" on her Stoney End
album, and last year at Joe's Pub, Sandra opened the show with a cover of "Stoney End"--there's nothing coincidental in Bernhard's work, and I loved the continuity of this year and last year's opening numbers.
A dream come true: Sandra and me.