All that spazz: A night out with Cole Escola, a microcelebrity born too late
In the early hours of Jan. 18, Cole Escola was in his Superman underwear. He hadn’t made a point of wearing them, but he was almost out of clean briefs and these—bright blue with red tipping and a big “S” on the crotch—were his last pair.
Escola is small but seems smaller. His face is a parody of itself, like one of those Margaret Keane "Big Eye" paintings: button nose, cute, pursed little-boy lips, mussed dark hair, and wide, intensely blue eyes. He talks like a boy, too, the kind that started sounding gay at five years old: almost cautiously well-enunciated, as if he’s trying out talking for the first time. (It's a put-on: He's a prolific talker.) Escola is a lot of fun when he laughs; it makes you feel good to make him laugh. It’s somewhat disconcerting when he takes off his shirt to reveal a substantial amount of curly dark hair; it’s momentarily surprising to be reminded that Escola, who is 24, has passed through puberty.
He has recently been abandoned: his friend Jeffery Self moved to California. For about a year from 2008 to 2009, Escola and Self made Youtube videos under the name VGL Gay Boys, borrowing the Craigslist sex-classified argot for "very good-looking." The videos were short sketches in the dryly absurdist-ironic Internet humor mode. Escola played the weirdo and Self the handsome “straight” man. The videos became exceedingly popular, and the gay channel Logo developed a show based on them called “Jeffery & Cole Casserole.” The show’s six-episode first season premiered in June 2009, with an eight-episode second season the following summer.
Escola makes more sense as a sidekick: Self is classically handsome, with blond hair and regular features. Naturally, he is now in Hollywood pursuing a traditional acting career while, back in New York, Escola treads the murky path of live performance. He’s the kind of young gay performer that doesn’t really exist anymore—a little androgynous, schooled in cabaret and Broadway, with cute but idiosyncratic looks. He’s appearing in a solo show on Friday and Saturday at Joe’s Pub, where he and Self had a series of successful live performances, and it may become clearer what, exactly, is the path for someone who is singing to an audience that has, for the most part, long ago moved on.
There is a bizarre weekly event on Mondays at Birdland called “Jim Caruso’s Cast Party,” which is essentially an open mic night. Caruso, the emcee, cracks wise in a mode that is nostalgic for its staleness. The whole thing has a slightly desperate feel: He is a former Liza Minelli backup singer, as is the pianist, Billy Stritch, and regulars claim with some pride that Liza herself shows up sometimes looking to score. There is a 20-dollar cover.
Escola sat on a stool in the back. He smiled and drank a vodka soda and looked wide-eyed, his fingernails painted a shiny ruby red. He was with his director, Ben Rimalower, and his manager, Jeremy Katz. They had arrived late, and were so far down the list of performers that it wasn’t looking good for him to get on before they had to leave for the night’s next stop. Colleen Ballinger said hello as she walked by. Ballinger does videos on the Internet as the comically inept musical theater lover Miranda Sings; she’s received a total of over 12 million pageviews on Youtube.
Nichelle Nichols, who played the groundbreaking black character Lieutenant Uhura on the original Star Trek series, took the stage. It was Martin Luther King Day, and she told a long story about meeting King, who convinced her to remain on the show. Nichols sang “Summertime” with every optional and improbable high note included, and the Rodgers and Hart song “There’s a Small Hotel.” Her voice was thin and true.
A little girl from the company of Billy Elliot sang a demented rendition of “Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart,” and a guy in his 20s gave a flat performance of the sex-pun novelty number “Entering Marion,” in which even the cheapest laughs felt like a drain on one's fleeting energy.
Ben Rimalower is the type of guy who seems like he can get things done. He had gone backstage during “Entering Marion” and managed to convince Caruso to put Escola on next. Escola, who had been strangely quiet, bounded up to the stage with his sheet music. His eyes shone; it was one of those moments you realize that there are some people who simply transform when they’re in front of people. He sang “All I Need (Is One Big Break),” an old Liza number from the minor Kander and Ebb musical Flora the Red Menace. He got momentarily off with the lyrics; the song seemed a little staid; his performance was fine but flat. He didn’t even hawk the Joe’s Pub dates. It was obscurely disappointing.
Escola seemed unperturbed by his performance as he got in a cab.
"You forgot the words and lost your confidence,” Rimalower said, and it was meant as consolation, not criticism. The next stop was the Flatiron District gay bar Splash, known for go-go boys who make Cole Escola look like an old guy. It was Musical Monday at the bar; they play clips from old Tony Award shows and people sing along with the enthusiasm of a Protestant congregation.
Escola passed an old boyfriend, tall and strapping, as he entered. The backstage employees of the bar—the “backstage” is a small room overlooking the dance floor—look like 70s porn stars, all droopy mustaches and brawny builds. One former go-go dancer named Alec gnawed on a fiber bar. It was his third or fourth of the day, and he said he really needed to go to the bathroom, but the backstage bathroom lacked a toilet.
The crowd, which was sparse to begin with, had thinned since Escola’s arrival. The hostess of Musical Mondays, an irritating blonde, announced his performance. No one clapped when she called him the star of “Jeffery & Cole Casserole.”
An elevated catwalk serves as Splash’s stage. Escola launched into “Broadway Baby.” He slowly stripped down to his Superman briefs, which is not what you expect during “Broadway Baby.” His voice was excellent, and he seemed in his weird element.
Maybe Birdland is too straight for him. Escola, who is unaccountably dull when he’s singing a normal song in a normal venue, gets better as he gets weirder. His options are consequently limited. He’s a gay performer doing a gay thing that would have fit right into gay culture a few decades ago, but in a New York of the A-List and Fire Island gone condo, in which that same kind of performance has been presented and dulled to a waxy matte finish by Glee, it seems few care.
He said he aspires to be some amalgam of Amy Sedaris and Charles Busch, but Sedaris, the closest comparison, is singular. Besides, she’s a straight woman. To be a truly bizarre gay man is next to impossible; there’s Justin Bond, but he likely wouldn’t be able to become Justin Bond if he were 24 years old in 2011. Escola’s path is totally uncertain, which is sad given his weird, real talents.
In any case, the strange hypnosis Escola can conjure when he's at his weirdest was not working on the almost perversely disengaged audience at Splash. He sang “Unexpected Song” and “Gimme Gimme,” putting on a big curly red wig (this was his Bernadette Peters wig, a recurring element of the VGL Gay Boys videos). You could hear patrons' conversations over the music. For the finale, “The Lady is a Tramp,” he barked the refrain at the table right in front of him, to no avail. He ended, to scattered applause.
Escola was born in Oregon. He followed a boy to New York and spent a year at New York University—enough time, he said, to make friends in the city—before dropping out. At Mary Louise Parker’s daughter’s second birthday party, he appeared in a massive Clifford the Big Red Dog costume. “We can see the girl in there,” the kids said.
After his performance, as he waited to get paid—getting paid at Splash is a singularly arduous process—he talked with his friend Christian while the Tony footage continued to roll, mostly obscure musical numbers from the eighties. A fan of his from San Francisco had asked if he could stay with him in New York; Escola said yes (the guy was cute), and the San Fran boy promptly arrived with his less-cute boyfriend in tow. After a few days of endless threesome, Escola was sick of sex; whenever he went for the hot one, he kept ending up with the dog.
He and Christian spoke about Jeffery Self, who had a few days before chipped his front tooth; it turned out that he’d been accidentally head-butted by his new boyfriend. (Self’s Internet friends raised the $3,500 for a new tooth in three days.) Logo would be deciding in mid-February if they were ordering another season of "Jeffery & Cole Casserole."
As Escola had gotten his clothes back on after performing, the Musical Mondays hostess came up and hugged him. “I hope people get you,” she said, a little doubtfully. And if the crowd at an event called Musical Mondays didn’t get him, who will?
“I know that he’ll become a household name,” Escola’s manager texted the next morning. “My wish is that it happen quickly!!!”