Mark My Words…Wilk is a Wow!!!

Posted: September 21, 2011 in Cabaret, Culture, Entertainment, Music, New York City, Nightlife, Performance, Uncategorized

“Ever since I can remember,” says Mark Wilk, “I’ve wanted to work in show business.  The trouble is, I didn’t know whether I wanted to write, or perform, or compose, or critique. I’ve tried my hand at all of them, which has taken years of effort, but I’m convinced that a man can wear many hats, and now I want to wear them all. Am I being greedy?”

Greedy, perhaps, but with absolute qualification. The prodigious Wilk, who hasn’t even turned thirty, has been a leading reviewer of theater for Nite Life Exchange since the website’s inception. But also an accomplished pianist, he’s begun performing every other Monday at La Mediterranee Bistro, 947 Second Avenue, and just picked up another regular gig at the posh Walle Restaurant & Lounge, just a stone’s throw from La Med. As if none of that was enough, he’s co-written the music and lyrics for a modern retelling of Alice in Wonderland, this time with an urban Black girl from the Bronx as the protagonist, and his collaborator is the multitalented music-and-comedy legend Marilyn Michaels. Who, as it happens, is also his mother. But make no mistake; this kid is hardly getting by on the coattails of mom and the impressive entertainment family from which he hails. Wilk is very much a happening event all on his own.

One would imagine that a childhood of such circumstances, in Wilk’s case on the Upper West Side, would come with oceans of pressure to strive for excellence or constantly be ‘on.’ After all, he’s not just the son of Ms. Michaels, but the grandson of Metropolitan Opera star Harold Sternberg and Yiddish theater star Fraydeleh Oysher, and the great-nephew of world-renowned cantorial artist Moyshe Oysher. But he is quick to dispel that myth. “Being born into such a distinguished lineage, there’s not as much pressure as you’d think!” he says. “So many of my family are entertainer-extraordinaires that I’ve been afforded the luxury of flying under the radar, so to speak. And so much attention has been given to mom–and she knows how to hold people’s attention, lemme tell ya!–or my late grandparents or my late great-uncle Moishe, that I’ve been able to watch and observe and learn.” He continues, “I guess it’s taken me a while to work up the gumption to put everything I’ve learned over the years into practice. Since I’m a natural observer, and mom’s a natural entertainer, I learn something new from her pretty much every day, as I did from my grandparents when they were still with us. She’s the toughest critic I know, so when I do something right, it’s a mini-triumph!” But naturally, even such events as his Bar Mitzvah came with a degree of flash. “In a family of entertainers,” he says, “any time there’s a stage and an audience, it’s a performance, so we all treated the Bar Mitzvah like I was on the finals of “American Idol.” My grampa, grandma, my mother–and yours truly–were really selling the material. And man, that Haftorah was one tough sell,” he chuckles. “Really, though, it was an uplifting experience. Fifteen years later, people are still reminiscing about it, and it was the only time in my life where I was the ‘lead’ on stage and the rest of my family became a supporting cast.”

Wilk opted to attend Vassar for college, not necessarily a first choice for some but a natural fit for him. “At Vassar, I liked my professors more than I did my fellow classmates,” he says. “I was a film major, you know.  Most people are surprised that I didn’t major in music, but how much can someone teach you about music after you’ve been taught by Marilyn Michaels for eighteen years, eh? But anyway, I was a film major, and my classmates were on a whole ‘nother level of pretentious. Can you imagine three hundred twenty-one-year-olds walking around with their heads held high because they’ve seen La Dolce Vita and Umberto D and are convinced they know everything about the history of cinema? And oy, the theater majors were no better. If I were to have admitted that I didn’t like August Strindberg, I don’t think I would’ve survived the night. Ultimately, though,” he continues, “my professors were too smart and knew too much for me to up and leave. And the place really was gorgeous. I have fond memories of lounging on the quad with some of my dormmates, or practicing on any one of the sixty-five Steinway pianos in any one of the dorms. There was never a day there when I wasn’t at a piano.”

Clearly he was on a career path towards doing something in the business of show, even if an actual goal wasn’t completely realized. And whereas some offspring of the famous become stars by association or, as is more common, simply laze about on their trust fund, nothing could be further from the truth in Wilk’s case. “I’ve been a salesman at Tiffany’s in their Silver department. I’ve been an online poker player, where I caught a few lucky river cards, that’s for sure,” he laughs, “I’ve been a ghost writer, kind of like in Roman Polanski’s movie The Ghost Writer except without any of the political intrigue, and I’ve been a PR rep at an athletic league. Oh, and don’t hold it against me, but I was a production assistant at FoxNews. Such nice people, and such awful politics.” Since his father, Peter Wilk (long divorced from Ms. Michaels) is a renowned colon surgeon, did he ever also entertain the idea of a career in medicine? “Oh, this is an interesting one,” he grins. “When I was six, I had the misfortune of walking into my parents room while they were watching a videotape of one of the gastric-bypass surgeries my father performed at Beth Israel. They could have been having sex and it would have been less traumatizing. So to answer your question, no, I never considered medicine after that. But I’ll admit there’s always been a curiosity about medicine.” He sighs, “Maybe in another life.”

And of course, writing the new Wonderland musical has been a priority of Wilk’s for several years. “What a journey!” he says happily. “When I was twenty, at Vassar, my mother’s neighbor Karlyn Ferrari gave me an idea for a movie about a contemporary Alice in Wonderland. Instead of England, it would be New York. And instead of a rabbit hole, it would be a sewer cover, etc. Well, my mind just went in a thousand different directions, and faster than my fingers could type, I was writing out this story of an African-American girl from the Bronx who winds up in Wonderland. The first draft was pretty much unreadable,” he continues. “I was twenty, knew nothing, and thought I knew everything. Oy, that’s a bad combination. I showed it to my mom looking for advice, but she saw a lot of potential and began to write it, too. Suddenly, I had a co-author. And I swear, I fought her tooth and nail on almost every single change she made. It took me three years to get my ego under wraps. Originally, I didn’t even want it to be a musical comedy! I wanted one song, and that was it, a la Magnolia, the Tom Cruise movie. But she was writing some splendid melodies, and every now and again I’d come up with a lyric. Once we’d written four songs, we were committed to an entire score! So now we have a madcap musical comedy on our hands, and we’ve had three readings: one in ’06 in mom’s house that was dreadful but informative; one in ’09, a ‘table-read’ with several Tony Award winners (Lewis J. Stadlen, Dick Latessa and Capathia Jenkins!) that was stupendous; and one last year that, unfortunately, did not see the light of day because several of our cast members fell prey to illness. Yikes! But,” he finishes, “I’m happy to say that we’ve made it even funnier since then, and I’ll pit her score up against any Sondheim, Rodgers, or even Jerry Herman’s any day of the week! Looking into next year, or possibly early ’13, we’ll be putting it up. We’re using Little Shop of Horrors as the template for how we want to produce the show–a small off-Broadway theater, and then have it catch on!”

Mother Marilyn did play a small role in his employment at La Med as well. He says, “My mother talks on the phone all the time, and she’s always looking to win friends and influence people. On a lark, without ever actually having been to La Mediterranee, she looked it up online and then contacted the owner, Ernesto, saying that she knew a gifted young pianist, etc. Can you imagine such a thing? This is why she’s survived in show business for fifty years. Traveling salesmen wouldn’t have such guts! In any case, Ernesto got in touch with me, I auditioned for him, and we haven’t looked back. It was my first time at a New York City bistro, but I’m already also a regular at Walle. And I do hope this is a start to something bigger. People have been telling me for a number of years that I’ve been keeping my voice and piano-playing too much under wraps, but I’ve only recently started to believe them. Funny, that. But really, I sing in the shower so much, my vocal instruments are in prime condition!”

Where does Wilk see himself ten years from now, in both a best-case and worst-case scenario? “Worst case?” he laughs. “‘Please, sir, c-can I have some m-m-more?’ Best case? ‘Thank you, oh, thank you! I’d like to thank all the little people who…’ No, really, nothing will ever stop me from watching plays and movies and offering my opinions about them, so whatever the worst case is, critiquing will always be alive and well in me. Nor do I ever see myself away from a piano for more than a day. But if somehow the good Lord foils my plans, artistic expression always finds a way out, in one way or another. The best-case scenario is really for me to live up to my potential, however much of it I have. And I’m really too biased to accurately gauge that.”

Finally, as a young person, what advice can Wilk give to other twentysomethings who seek a similar career path? “In show business, talent always takes a back seat to good old fashioned gumption,” he says. “Now, that’s the toughest lesson I ever had to learn, and the toughest with which to reconcile. It shouldn’t be that way–people should be able to spot talent like a light in a dark room–but for most people, it’s tougher to spot than Waldo. So it’s the people who are out there every day, plugging away for themselves, who thrive and survive, and if they happen to be talented, what a break it is for the world!” He sums up, “My mother always says ‘nothing comes easy,’ and she’s dead right (she usually is). As with pretty much everything, I’ve been a slow learner. But I’m learning, always.”

Thus, the time is now for the public at large to learn a thing or two about Mark Wilk and what he has to offer, be it journalistic, compositional, musical, vocal or otherwise. Because it can only be a matter of time before this bright young thing has the world at his feet. Be there.

  1. BILL BOLLAND says:


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