At the peak of her popularity in the mid-1990s, Grammy-winning Melissa Etheridge released chart-topping, multi-platinum albums and played to massive arenas all over the globe. Which begs the question: Why is this musical legend performing in a sub-basement theater Off Broadway with a capacity of merely 500 seats?
Lucky for us, the raspy-voiced rocker proceeds to explain this unlikely trajectory in a hybrid concert/storytelling show, “My Window: A Journey Through Life,” now at New World Stages. For nearly three hours (with intermission), she recounts her journey from a backwater Kansas town to superstardom, coming out as a lesbian, and the many highs and lows along the way. She delivers the tale with an uncanny blend of humor, candor, and plenty of heart. If she’s a natural storyteller, she’s not slickly polished, relying on monitors displaying talking points, which makes her all the more endearing.
The deeply personal show is written by Etheridge with an assist from her spouse, Linda Wallem-Etheridge, and directed by Amy Tinkham. At times Etheridge is joined by Kate Owens, “The Roadie,” who gamely hauls the scenery and props in character. Her goofy mugging injects a jolt of comedy to the proceedings.
Etheridge was a child of the sixties, born in Leavenworth Kansas in 1961. She recalls how she fell in love with music at age seven, watching the cartoon band The Archies sing “Sugar, Sugar” (she wanted to be Reggie, not Veronica). After she wrote her first song in the sixth grade and traded her fake guitar (a badminton racket) for a real one, she performed with local music groups in offbeat venues, including a state prison. She even confesses a secret passion for showtunes, spurred by Barbra Streisand in “Funny Girl.”
Etheridge only lasted a couple of months at Berklee College of Music, choosing instead to play the club circuit around Boston. After moving to LA and playing gigs in lesbian bars, she was discovered by Island Records. Remember, this was when women weren’t supposed to play the guitar or drums, let alone be lead rockers.
Her 1988 self-titled debut album featured confessional lyrics and was an underground success. She belts out not only hits like “I’m the Only One” and “I Want to Come Over,” but also the lesser-known gems. Her sublime rendition of George Benson’s “On Broadway” is especially moving. She manages to insert a total of 24 complete or partial songs amongst the storytelling.
To her credit, Etheridge is utterly frank about her sexual orientation, detailing her many same-sex relationships. She famously came out publicly as a lesbian in 1993, one of the first mainstream American entertainers to do so (this was years before Ellen DeGeneres would declare “Yep, I’m gay”). For decades, she has been an admired role-model, activist, and benefactor for LGBTQ-related causes.
Coming out did not thwart her career; in fact, it might have given it a boost. Later that year, she released the smartly titled “Yes I Am,” her Grammy-winning breakthrough album. The legendary performer has released 16 studio albums to date, with no sign of stopping.
Throughout the proceedings, Etheridge is unafraid to mine the darker, painful chapters in her past. She recounts her heart-wrenching breakups, a dire breast cancer diagnosis, a terrifying (yet ultimately epiphanous) hallucinogenic drug trip, and her 21-year-old son’s harrowing battle with opioid addiction, just two years ago.
The minimal set design, by Bruce Rodgers, has the look and feel of a rock concert stage, with dazzling lights by Abigail Rosen Holmes. Projections of well-curated personal photos and videos from Etheridge’s childhood and career expand the scope of the production.
It’s no surprise that her encore was the huge hit, “Come to My Window” which had the crowd on its feet. Normally I cringe and fume when audience members insist on singing along in a theatrical venue. But Etheridge urged us all to join in, and I couldn’t help but comply. The supernatural power of song and community was not only entertaining, it felt oddly cathartic. A perfect balm in these troubled times of pandemics and dirty politics.
Make no mistake — this bio-concert is not just for die-hard fans, aging rockers, or out-and-proud lesbians. It’s for anyone hungry for human connection.
As the night unfolded, another nagging question emerged. How, considering the titanic talent and poignant intimacies shared onstage, and the limited run of only three weeks, could there possibly be a smattering of empty seats at this stupendous event?
Melissa Etheridge Off Broadway; My Window: A Journey Through Life | New World Stages | 340 W. 50th St. | Through Oct. 29 | $80-$144; melissaetheridge.com | 2 hrs., 50 mins with intermission