Editor’s Note: David Schmader is a writer and performer who lived and worked in Seattle from 1991 to 2019. Here he remembers theater performer Nick Garrison, who died July 26.
Like many Seattle theatergoers, I’ll never forget the first time I saw Nick Garrison onstage.
It was 1998, at the nightclub and performance venue Re-bar, during the run of “Dirty Little Showtunes!,” a musical revue wherein musical-theater standards were fitted with new and very gay lyrics by writer Tom Orr. Among the cast was baby-faced newcomer Nick Garrison, who appeared onstage in a smoking jacket and ascot to perform “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Homosexual,” a spin on “The Pirates of Penzance”’s Major-General patter song, which the 24-year-old Garrison turned into a showstopper. The sheer talent emanating from the diminutive figure onstage was staggering: While his mouth delivered the tongue-twisting lyrics with a wry smile, his eyes — huge and sparkling — kept him intimately engaged with the audience. His ownership of the song and the stage was total, and it was clear to all present that we were in the presence of a star.
Now, suddenly, this beloved star has shot out of view. On July 26, while hiking on the Burke-Gilman trail, Garrison, 47, died of as-yet-undetermined causes, according to his sister Lisa Wooley.
It’s not enough to say that Garrison was packed with talent. He was one of those performers with a surplus of talent — capable of hitting any note, communicating any emotion, and nailing any joke, with enough talent to spare to make it all look spontaneous, effortless and joyful.
Garrison’s extraordinary gifts revealed themselves early. While a 15-year-old student at Seattle’s arts-forward Northwest School, Garrison took up private vocal study with Seattle vocal coach Emilie Berne. “He was always miles ahead of his peers,” Berne told Seattle Met in 2009. “He had a real mature artistic understanding … even when he was in high school it was like teaching an associate rather than teaching a child.”
After high school, Garrison spent a year abroad, studying singing in Paris before heading back to Seattle, home to a sprawling theater scene ready to make the most of the world-class talent in its midst. At the start of the new century, Garrison landed the role of a lifetime: Hedwig, the German-born genderqueer rock goddess who is the beating, bleeding heart of the glam-rock musical “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.”
Premiering at Re-bar in the fall of 2000, the Seattle production of “Hedwig” immediately became a sensation, drawing hordes of theatergoers and rock fans to the perfectly ramshackle Re-bar for an electric, immersive theater experience that effectively turned Seattle into a Nick Garrison fan club. There aren’t many roles as demanding as Hedwig — think King Lear or Martha from “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” if they had to front a real-live rock band — and Garrison murdered it. Here was a role to make the most of his gifts — the soaring voice, the killer wit, the startling dramatic presence, that whole damn surplus of talent — and Garrison made it his own. When the Seattle run finally wound down, Garrison reprised the role in productions in San Francisco, Chicago and London.
After “Hedwig,” Garrison lit up stages around Seattle, starring in shows at the Empty Space, Intiman and Seattle Repertory Theatre, where he performed the Pulitzer-winning one-man drama “I Am My Own Wife.” In 2006 he wrote and performed the solo cabaret show “What You Sing Might Save You” at Re-bar, and in 2009 he took on another role he was born to play: the Emcee in the 5th Avenue Theatre’s production of “Cabaret.”
Throughout all this, Garrison served as de facto leading lady for the Brown Derby Series, wherein classic Hollywood screenplays were given rollicking staged readings onstage at Re-bar. Garrison starred in 29 Brown Derby shows, portraying everyone from Rosemary in “Rosemary’s Baby” to Ripley in “Alien,” leaving audiences choking with laughter. “He played not just the character, but the actress who had been given these lines,” said Brown Derby creator and director Ian Bell, marveling at the layers of Garrison’s wit. “Nick found such depth and honesty in comedy that he could do anything, he could turn anything into comedy gold.”
The COVID era drove his creativity online, with Garrison channeling a world of energy into Facebook essays that are breathtaking in their depth and eloquence. From navigating his daily life of caring for his beloved mother to peeling back the layers on some eternal human problem, Garrison’s writings gave all who read them hope and a fresh reason to love him. Gone are the days of Garrison blasting an audience into awed adoration, but his spirit sings on.
Garrison is survived by his mother, Mary Garrison; his siblings Lisa Wooley, Laura Plew and Jeff Garrison; and many nieces, nephews, great nieces and great nephews. Details on a memorial are forthcoming.
This story has been updated with the correct date of Garrison’s death. The photo caption of Garrison in “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” has also been updated with the correct year of the production.