Salty Brine’s “He’s So Unusual”

August 8, 2023

It is always a cause for celebration when Bistro Award-winning performer Salty Brine releases a new chapter in his ongoing series, The Living Record Collection.  The concept for the series is to present an album in its entirety, with the songs in order, while interweaving a literary work along with related personal stories and reminiscences.  For example, the show for which he won his 2018 Bistro was Welcome to the Jungle which brought together Harry Nilsson’s Nilsson Schmilsson, Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, and memories of his time as a bullied young gay boy at summer camp in New England in a seamless work of theatrical art.

Salty Brine as W. B. Leslie

In the latest entry, He’s So Unusual, he changes things up a bit and plays a character from beginning to end as he presents Cyndi Lauper’s She’s So Unusual as part of a funny, dramatic, oddly moving glimpse into the Pansy Craze of 1930s New York using his own fictional creation, celebrity, vocalist, and raconteur, W.B. Leslie, and allowing him to escort the audience into the world of glamorous night clubs, seedy gay bars, hustlers, the closeted well-to-do, repressive politics, and forbidden freedom and the eternal search for love and the price one pays in its pursuit. Perhaps he took inspiration from Lauper’s inclusion of the Helen Kane 1929 recording, “He’s So Unusual” (Al Sherman, Al Lewis, Abner Silver), a funny, mock-innocent realization that there is “something wrong” with the singer’s new boyfriend that cheeky Cyndi included on her album.

Whatever its genesis, the show captures its time and place and people brilliantly while remaining a 2023 comment on a history that is still at play in our lives.  Music director Ben Langhorst contributes not only sensational piano and vocals, but inhabits the character of Leslie’s “good friend” and cohort on and off stage, the Duchess.  The delight that Brine takes (and engenders) simply saying the name (dramatically pronouncing it “doo-shess”) again and again is more fun than other shows have in their entire running time.  

It is not a spoiler to reveal that W.B. Leslie and the Duchess are ghosts and the occasion is one last performance of their show to commemorate their sadly unfulfilled brush with greatness at a Times Square nightclub on a fateful New Year’s Eve in 1934 as they tell the story of their tragic end. The songs are rethought and, at times, rebuilt to fit the circumstance, and it is astonishing how easily each of them slides into their new/old role; it is also a tribute to the musical talents of Brine and Langhorst. The stage and the era are set with a brief foray into Gold Diggers of 1933 with “We’re in the Money” (Harry Warren, Al Dubin). The song serves as the prefect prelude to the album opener, “Money Changes Everything” (Tom Gray) setting the stage and dropping clues for what will become the murder mystery at the heart of the show while capturing the infectious energy of the original in entirely new ways. 

Returning to music of the time, Noël Coward’s “We All Wear a Green Carnation” (from Bittersweet, 1929), Leslie recounts the arcane method of identification used by gay men of the time to identify themselves.  Slyly furthering the plot, he explains that he always chooses a more fragrant bloom for his lapel. This early highlight made me hope that perhaps on a break from his massive Record Collection mission he might see fit to recreate Sir Noël’s classic Las Vegas performances with Langhorst at the keys.

“Sexual deviant” was a phrase used at the time by religious zealots to excoriate the homosexual threat, but Leslie revels in it, celebrating his inclusion in that select category with “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” (Robert Hazard). Shaping Prince’s “When You Were Mine” around the oft-told tale of the hardened “straight” hustler who falls for a closeted and married john heightens the emotional heft of the number. In a genius stroke, Cole Porter’s “Night and Day” is interpolated into it.

Salty Brine and Ben Langhorst as “The Duchess”

Then the spotlight falls on Langhorst who dazzles with impressions of Beatrice Lillie, Mae West, and Sophie Tucker—the Beyoncés of their day.  In these dazzling surroundings one might expect “Time After Time” (Lauper, Bob Hyman) to be a killer and one would be right, especially when echoes of Tucker’s “Some of These Days” (Shelton Brooks) underscore the Lauper classic. Taking the “bop” of “She Bop” (Lauper, Rick Chertoff, Gary Corbett, Stephen Broughton Lunt) seriously, the duo make it fly off  with a frantic, hilarious, exhilarating, cocaine-fueled fury. On the other end of the performing spectrum, “All Through the Night” (Jules Shear), deepened by musical shadows of “The Man That Got Away” (Harold Arlen, Ira Gershwin), is a stunningly romantic poem to loss, fate, and heartbreak.  

“Witness” (Lauper, John Turi) and “I’ll Kiss You” (Lauper, Shear) bring us back to the murder mystery at hand as clues are remembered or revealed.  A pitch perfect “He’s So Unusual” has thematic reverberations thanks to the story that Brine is so skillfully presenting in addition to its own comedic delights.  The night ends with an honest-to-god, Agatha Christie-style round-up of suspects and theories of the crime that is as unexpected as it is perfect. The final song from the album, “Yeah, Yeah” (Hasse Huss, Mikael Rickfors), leads into a dizzying medley of all the Lauper songs that have come before in a masterful climax to an extraordinary show.  Hats off to Max Reuben for his usual sharp and insightful direction and bravos to Salty Brine and Ben Langhorst for the splendid work. 

Salty Brine is one of the true treasures of New York nightlife, and He’s So Unusual is but the latest example of his brilliance. There are plans for its return in late fall, so don’t miss it.  


Presented at Pangea, 178 Second Ave., NYC, August 4 & 5, 2023.


About the Author

Gerry Geddes has conceived and directed a number of musical revues—including the Bistro- and MAC Award-winning "Monday in the Dark with George" and "Put On Your Saturday Suit-Words & Music by Jimmy Webb"—and directed many cabaret artists, including André De Shields, Helen Baldassare, Darius de Haas, and drag artist Julia Van Cartier. He directs "The David Drumgold Variety Show," currently in residence at Manhattan Movement & Arts Center, and has produced a number of recordings, including two Bistro-winning CDs. He’s taught vocal performance at The New School, NYU, and London’s Goldsmith’s College and continues to conduct private workshops and master classes. As a writer and critic, he has covered New York’s performing arts scene for over 40 years in both local and national publications; his lyrics have been sung by several cabaret and recording artists. Gerry is an artist in residence at Pangea, and a regular contributor to the podcast “Troubadours & Raconteurs.” He just completed a memoir of his life in NYC called “Didn’t I Ever Tell You This?”