Crowning Kenyon Phillips: A Cady Huffman Story

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Kenyon Phillips. Photo by Nico Malvaldi.
Kenyon Phillips. Photo by Nico Malvaldi.
Kenyon Phillips. Photo by Clay Patrick McBride.

Not a few artists aim to rule New York, and they always scheme new ways to claim the throne. Yet even by Gotham’s standards, Kenyon Phillips staged a coup when the Huffington Post’s Tom Semioli anointed him “The King of New York.” True, Semioli had once been Phillips’ publicist, but the moniker stuck. And his subjects are loyal and legion.

So just who is Kenyon Phillips? Back at the century’s turn, he formed the band Unisex Salon, which linked up with The Strokes’ producer, Gordon Raphael, and opened for the late Lou Reed, to whom Kenyon is oft compared. Even later, Phillips wrote songs for Amy Poehler, and soon his music covered the tube — MTV, Bravo, Showtime — with the man himself appearing on Tommy Hilfiger’s reality show on CBS, The Cut.

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Here’s how Semioli described Unisex Salon

…noisy yet melodic, sensuous but always sardonic, frightfully real yet comfortably surreal…gorgeous in the grotesque.

And this was the band’s fan base, he wrote:

…hipsters, dilettantes, kinky Wall Street executives, porn actresses, cable TV divas, and downtown frat boys [who] walked on the wild side to see and hear them.

And all of that led to Phillips storming the castle:

…You’ve seen Kenyon’s dancing silhouette in campaigns for Apple iPod. You’ve heard his compositions on network and cable TV — Showtime’s Shameless, CBS Eleventh Hour, MTV’s Teen Cribs, and Nickelodeon’s The Mighty B! among others. Kenyon’s current genre defying ensemble The Ladies In Waiting have found a home at Joe’s Pub deep among the luxury condos and chic boutiques of Lower Manhattan. His debut solo EP, Fire in the Hole, sounds like nothing and everything you’ve heard before.

Today, Phillips’ latest venture is an quasi-autobiographical, quasi-rock, quasi-opera, The Life and Death of Kenyon Phillips. Performing for one night — Wed., Aug. 19, 8pm, at Webster Hall (125 E. 11th St.) — the show will feature Broadway actress Daphne Ruben-Vega and — filed under T for “This Should Be Interesting” — pop guru and gossip legend Michael Musto.

Here’s more:

The Life and Death of Kenyon Phillips is a surrealist rock opera that uses circus, cabaret, burlesque, and vaudeville to trace the origins of downtown performance artist – and sex addict – Kenyon Phillips. Directed by Tony winner Cady Huffman, the show stars Phillips and his all-girl orchestral pop band, The Ladies In Waiting…and a host of aerialists, acrobats, and burlesquers from the NYC circus underground.

Musto calls Phillips “the love child of Luther Vandross and Steven Tyler.” But listen: who needs cross-genetic musical breeding when you can straight-up rule New York?

Here’s a refresher on the amazing Cady Huffman, the director of the show:

Dubbed ‘The mountain every Jew would like to climb’ by Mel Brooks and ‘The Kitty Carlisle Hart of Kitchen Stadium’ by Iron Chef America host Alton Brown, Huffman…was quickly snatched up by Bob Fosse to dance in his last original musical, Big Deal. Throughout her 30-plus years as a performer, she has also written, produced and directed for theater, TV and film, and mentored several young writers, directors and musicians. She is a popular host and auctioneer for many charity events, and has directed galas for the Drama League and Creative Alternatives of New York. Huffman won a Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical for her role as Ulla in The Producers, and later revived the character for a season of HBO’s comedy Curb Your Enthusiasm.

So what in this for Huffman? What’s the melding between Broadway gold and rock glitter all about? Huffman isn’t letting on, exactly, so for tickets, click here, and read below.

And now, 5 questions Cady Huffman has never been asked:

Cady Huffman
Tony-winner Cady Huffman.

What’s the most perceptive question anyone has asked you about your work?
I rarely get asked questions about my work and I really can’t think of any perceptive questions. Every once in a while someone is perceptive enough to comment on the challenges facing every artist. The instability, etc.

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What’s the most idiotic question anyone has asked you about your work?
Again. I rarely get asked questions and I wouldn’t call any of the comments idiotic. It’s a difficult lifestyle for people to understand.

What’s the weirdest question anyone has asked you about your work?
I got nuthin’.

What about The Life and Death of Kenyon Phillips needs a director? What do you uniquely bring to the challenge? What’s your approach to working with him?
Kenyon is very creative and enthusiastic. We have worked together to get his vision up on the stage. It’s not easy to write something and have perfect perspective on how to best present it. He has trusted me to be that objective eye for him and I love doing it.

What’s the most important thing you’ve taught Kenyon, and what’s the most important thing he’s taught you? What about The Life and Death of Kenyon Phillips is “immersive”?
We have taught each other about trust. That’s always the most important part of this type of relationship. He trusts me to get the most out of him and his work. That’s a huge gift as a director. As far as immersion, this is not a situation where you’re expected to sit quietly with your hands in your lap. In fact, just the opposite. Social media is encouraged, wild laughter and applause are heartily supported. There will also be circus elements right over the audience’s head. Look up, people!

Bonus question:

Certain theater critics still argue that rock is anti-theatrical. Is that nonsense? What about Kenyon’s music appeals to you personally?
I have never heard that. Tommy did pretty well and Jesus Christ Superstar and others. Who’s more theatrical than Meatloaf?! Kenyon’s music is inherently theatrical. He loves telling stories with his music and I love listening to it.