Known largely to NYC queer nightlife as the accompanist and partner on-and-off stage of political drag champion Marti Gould Cummings, Blake Allen is also an accomplished and award-winning musician, composer and music producer in his own right. From producing an acclaimed cabaret series to appearing in a cult hit drag reality show to recording a chart topping classical music collection, this towering talent has more than made his mark on the culture. And now he’s about to tickle the ivories once more, as he jumps on board the revival of Marti’s celebrated weekly bar show. [Cover photo: Jordan Frey]
Thotyssey: Hello Blake, thanks for finding time for us today! I always imagine the Allen-Cummings household to be constantly bustling with activity.
Blake Allen: Even with Zoom fatigue, our Casa Allen-Cummings is always alive, with Marti trying to save the world and make Hamilton Heights a better place to live–and me tinkering away at the piano or viola at all hours of the day! The only downtime is when we are sleeping, walking the dogs, or catching up on the latest episode of The Weakest Link!
This is a loaded question, but what is your process when you’re creating music? Do you go, “I wanna do a musical or a symphony or a song based on this or that theme” and get to work, or do you let music or words naturally flow out of you and then figure out where it all fits?
Typically, my creativity starts with a gestation of some kind. Like, it usually starts with an idea… then I do a lot of research, take a lot of notes, write a lot of musical ideas as they come to me, etc. Once I have created a kinda loose outline, I then paint by numbers: what am I trying to say, and how do I want to say it? These days, I typically write from the syntax of words, even if those aren’t the words that will eventually be used. Gotta have a [starting] point.
You’re definitely a force to be reckoned with in an orchestra pit or behind the piano on stage. Have you ever conquered the front of the stage as an actor of some sort?
If you call being on two reality shows about drag queens [editor’s note: here’s one, the other is discussed below] being an actor, than sure! But I am definitely not an actor. I started training in classical music at 3 years-old, and do not have a single memory without music in some way. ‘Tis very cliché, but there really was never a choice for me to do anything in my life except music. Not until late high school, college, and on did my focus incorporate composing and arranging.
I see that you are an El Paso, TX native… what was growing up there like?
El Paso is rich in history, culture, food, and the most breathtaking sunsets I have ever seen. El Paso is right on the border of Juraez, Mexico, so we went to Mexico all the time – I equate it like sojourning to Queens.
And, it must be so upsetting and infuriating to see what happened in Texas this past month.
El Paso is on a different grid than the rest of Texas, so they didn’t have nearly the catastrophic outages like the rest of Texas. It also snows a handful of times a year in El Paso, since it is in the mountains. My sister lives outside of Dallas, and her car froze shut because of the rain. She and her family also had to sleep overnight at their church, who also provided them a hot meal. Everyone is fine now, thankfully. They also weren’t slapped with a $17K energy bill. All just more proof why we need to protect our Polar Ice and have a Green New Deal.
What brought you originally to New York?
I went to undergrad at Brigham Young University in Provo, UT where I got my BM. Then I went to CCM in Cincinnati for the first half of my Masters–then moved to NYC to finish my Masters at NYU, where I am currently writing my dissertation for my PhD. I’ve been here for 10 years!
As far as your work with music goes, do you have any particular projects or properties that you’re the most proud of?
I’ll tell you about three of my things! My autobiographical piece about being gay, Mormon, going to BYU, and overcoming the trauma of my friends’ suicide through self-acceptance–the shards of an honor code junkie–is being released as a storybook opera on No Reverse Records in April starring amazing Broadway talent like J. Harrison Ghee, Teal Wicks, Hannah Cruz, Kuhoo Verma and Michael Lowney, and gay icons Tori Scott and 2-time Tony Nominee Alison Fraser.
My latest album, Sonatas, was released in 2020 and debuted at #1 on iTunes Classical and #4 on Billboard Classical charts, which is pretty sweet! Music from that album, which is based upon a journey to the ocean floor, premiered at the Met Museum.
And lastly is my concert series–“An Evening With…“–that ran for three years until the shutdown. The series reinterpreted the songbooks of people like Eartha Kitt, Dolly Parton, Shirley Bassey, and the Sherman Brothers for a new, contemporary audience. The series has even won a couple awards of the years.
On that “note,” congrats on your recent Broadway World Cabaret Award! That was for Best Arrangement of the Decade, specifically a version of “Mack the Knife” you presented in an installment of “An Evening With…” as sung by Ray “Doris Dear” DeForest! That’s a good one to add to the trophy shelf!
Isn’t that just a gag: Of the decade!? I mean, Joan Rivers came back from the grave to win comedy act of the decade, so I guess anything is possible! Ray and Doris have been so good to me these past couple years; I wrote the theme to Doris Dear’s Gurl Talk, which was a highlight of the pandemic.
You’ve traveled the world performing with your Famous Drag Spouse of 5+ years now, Marti Gould Cummings! What have been some of your favorite gigs as a pair?
Marti and I always joke that our relationship is best when we are international–probably because our phones don’t work properly. I love performing on the gay cruises, whether it be Vacaya, Atlantis, or RSVP. These cruises really give us the opportunity to interact with people from all over the world, and it is really powerful to hear all the stories from our elder gays; they truly paved the way for us to have the freedoms and happiness we have today!
What are the joys and challenges of being a couple both on and off stage?
I know Marti’s brain really well, and our banter together is that of a married couple–which the fans always find one of the best parts of the show (Marti has taken away my microphone privileges). Though because we are married, we probably don’t have as much patience as if we were working with someone else. So definitely a double-edged sword, but a blessing!
A blessing for all of us! In fact, you’ll be joining the reprisal of a well-known and acclaimed weekly bar show on Monday that Marti created a few years ago, now in an all new venue!
I’m very excited to jump back in and do Marti’s brilliant “Stage Fright” at Playhouse with DJ 2Face. I was a sub for [Marti’s original accompanist] Bradford Proctor when the show was at a different venue, so it will be fun to have a weekly show, in the city we love, together!
Stage Fright was super fun at its original home and its later pop-up incarnations… Marti had so many amazing guests from Broadway and beyond, thanks in part to the connections to the biz you both have. Was there a night that you were in the house and particularly star struck at Stage Fright? I remember Alan Cumming!
Hands down, Alice Ripley sticks out in my mind when she sang “As If We Never Said Goodbye,” and how she just held on to every single word. I’ve never heard a gay bar so quiet. I also enjoyed George Wendt and Melba Moore. My favorite I was able to accompany was Jenn Gambatese–what a kind soul and beautiful singer.
Playhouse is gonna be a perfect fit for Stage Fright’s revival, with the new venue’s stellar lighting and sound and that gorgeous stage… we’re in for a treat!
The Playhouse stage is gorg! The transformation from Boots and Saddle to Playhouse is remarkable. Truly is the perfect space for Stage Fright.
Another project you and Marti are known for is Shade: Queens of NYC, a reality show that aired on the Fusion network in 2017. Shade followed a cast of some of the city’s best loved queens (two cast members, Brita Filter and now Tina Burner, have gone on to RuPaul’s Drag Race fame) in their day-to-day ventures. Marti produced and starred in that, and you appeared and produced a Christmas album tie-in for it! It was a wild season… do you remember that time fondly, or is the world of reality TV too insane?
It was such a great experience. I have become extremely close with Tina because of Shade, and the show also allowed my friendships with Brita (who even makes an appearance on my upcoming album shards), Chelsea, and Jasmine to grow! I was on about five episodes, and helped with music for a handful of them too… and even got into drag for the Christmas episode (thanks Chels!).
It was insane because it highlighted the very beginning of our marriage, which is probably not the best time to showcase it to the world. We started filming in, I think, August, and had been married in June. I’m very proud of Marti for not only showcasing that there is drag outside of Drag Race, but also showing how drag is a community built on friendships and love. Well… for the most part. Hopefully a Season 2 is in our future!
Speaking of Tina and Drag Race, wasn’t it such weird business that she was in the bottom three last episode after what appeared like a pretty solid performance as the Rusical emcee? Plus, she had a great yellow taxi-themed runway look!
WTF!? Tina slayed the house down boots. She was amazing; she had so many more lines and musical cues than half of the girls put together. I don’t know what is going on with this season and Tina, but I am #TeamBurner ’til the cows come home. Go buy Tina’s new single “If You See Something, Slay Something,” and follow her on IG!
In recent years, Marti has gotten very involved in activism and politics, and is currently running for city counsel. They may well become the first non-binary politician in our state! Marti’s transition from full-time nightlife into politics must have been quite a world change for you.
To be honest, drag is inherently political–and ever since I met Marti, they have been very active in their community and fighting for equity. It is one of the things that attracted me to Marti: how much they care for equity. Yes, Marti hadn’t created Hell’s Kitchen Democrats (the first meetings were in our living room–and we had a one month-old puppy!) or been on the community board yet.
But from the prospective of a spouse, the transition to running for office always made natural sense for something in Marti’s future. Marti’s grandfather was a judge in Chestertown, MD, which is still a source of pride for the family. I know Marti will win their election (primaries are in June). But even if they do not, the world is a much better place because of the activism and change that has occurred because of Marti’s leadership.
Congratulations on all your professional, personal and artistic successes! Before I let you go, it must be said: you’re 6’6″! Is being the tallest person in the room always a good thing, or can it be annoying?
The only annoying thing about being tall is waiting for the Disneyworld fireworks for two hours, and then right when they start… a parent is asking me if I can sit down because their child can’t see. Sorry Madame, but you knew I was standing here two hours ago. Put your kid on your shoulders.
Ha! Thank you, Blake!