As a young singer, Marty Thomas famously triumphed over then-unknown Britney Spears in the 90s on Ed McMahon’s Junior Star Search.
Fast-forward to today as Thomas has established himself as an actor and singer in New York City performing in cabaret venues and Broadway productions including Xanadu, Wicked and The Secret Garden, as well as appearances on the hit series Grace & Frankie with Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin.
On Friday, December 6, Thomas releases his second studio album, Slow Dancing With a Boy, a collection of songs that “explores the music of a young closeted man’s coming of age memories.”
Fusing pop and musical theatre styles with a song stack that runs the gamut from pop star Vanessa Williams to Les Miserables, the album features collaborations with The Voice’s Rachel Potter, Voctave’s Jamey Ray and viral sensation Mykal Kilgore.
Whether you want to slow dance with a boy, a girl, or just dance by yourself for a while, Thomas celebrates love, hope, and the healing and redemptive power of music in the new album.
In a recent chat with Instinct Magazine, Thomas shares the inspiration for the collection:
Instinct Magazine: Slow Dancing With a Boy is described as exploring the memories of a young gay man coming of age and questioning “the possibility of having lived those memories honestly.” Can you talk a bit about that journey in relation to these songs?
Marty Thomas: School dances in my hometown were kind of a big deal. Small town living can make you blow special events out of proportion and can create impossible expectations. It was also the 90s in small-town America and I definitely didn’t have the confidence or feel a sense of safe space to come out and live honestly in high school.
Looking across a dance floor and seeing a boy I had such a crush on, but couldn’t let anyone see me talking to, made those moments kind of excruciating. As grateful as I am to the girls who accompanied me to my school dances, those moments would have been vastly different if I could have danced with someone I was organically attracted to. All of the songs on this album have a specific meaning or memory tied to a life moment where I felt unable to live truthfully. Taking them back to rearrange them and place them firmly in the light was like cheap therapy.
IM: Is there a favorite song on the new album?
MT: I’m so proud of this project, and I love so many tracks from the album. One tune that stands out is a country two-step cover of Mariah Carey’s “Dreamlover.” It was a song that was HUGE when I was in high school. I grew up in a farm town in Missouri, and we had a school dance every year that was country themed in an old rock barn in town. It was definitely a dance that made me feel like a bit of an outsider and giving the song a two-step vibe definitely gave me a laugh. My producer Jamey Ray and my country singing friend Rachel Potter helped me bring this song to life.
IM: Was it hard to choose the songs on the album?
MT: Oh yeah, there was a long list of possibilities for this record. I went back and forth with my producer to narrow it down. Though I’m thrilled with the final tracklist, NOT covering a Whitney Houston song from The Bodyguard soundtrack will probably be one of the great regrets of my gay life.
IM: What was your approach to finding your version of these songs?
MT: I let the concept marinate for almost two years before I really started narrowing down the song list and creating the arrangements. Every time a jam would come on the radio that took me back to a nostalgic place, I would write it down and categorize it. Once I sat down with my producer, Jamey Ray to begin crafting the album, I really started picking and choosing the music that brought me back to specific, difficult emotional places. There is endless material that has inspired me as a performer, but this project really wasn’t about that. The songs on ‘Slow Dancing With A Boy’ had to be attached to specific memories of self-doubt and fear of fitting in. There were certain covers where the original version was incredibly important to honor, like “Remember Me This Way” by Jordan Hill from the Casper the Friendly Ghost soundtrack. It was the theme to my Junior prom and Jordan (who I also knew from my Star Search days) was cool enough to fly in and go to my country prom with me. Other songs like ‘Somewhere’ from the musical West Side Story and “As” by Stevie Wonder got a whole new approach to bring a renewed joy to the songs and contribute to the healing process.
IM: Do you approach recording projects differently than live performances? If so, how?
MT: I definitely think about recording pretty theatrically. Studio work and stage work are very different skills and I’m always so excited about the opportunity to work in the studio. The concept of this particular project is a bit dramatic, I admit, but the process has been incredibly cathartic.
IM: When not working on music, what fuels your creativity?
MT: I’m a hairdresser. It started as a fun passion project and turned into a second full-time career. I have a private salon where I take clients regularly and I also work with wigs for Disney International. It’s a constantly evolving business and art form that’s always exposing me to new people and situations. I feel like my two careers effectively support each other.
IM: Is there any particular piece of professional advice you’ve gotten that really resonated with you?
MT: When I was a kid, I was on a show called Star Search with Billy Porter (Emmy Award winner – Pose). We were both working on Broadway at the time and for years after, Billy acted as a mentor to me. I sang backup vocals on his record, ‘On The Corner Of Broadway And Soul” and while we working on it – I was auditioning for anything and everything that would see me. He sensed my frustration and gave me some advice that I’ll never forget. With experience, he shared that the industry might take a while to get hip to who I am and what I have to say. He encouraged me to not try and change myself to fit in, or even to book a job. He encouraged me to just do me, and wait for the world to be ready for it. He lives his own advice and it sure has paid off for him.
IM: What’s next on the horizon?
MT: I’m doing a concert on December 14 with Broadway composer Jason Robert Brown at the venue Subculture, where he has an artist’s residency. Slow Dancing With A Boy is a prom/school dance-themed project, so I’m throwing myself a “second chance prom”! January 5, at the Green Room 42 in NYC I’m inviting friends and fans to get dolled up and come dance with me. I hired a party band, DJ and a prom photographer for an authentic prom do-over! I’ll sing from the album and then open up the floor to some good old fashioned Footloose-style celebrating.
Check out Thomas’ take on “Crazy For You” below and look for the new album, Slow Dancing With a Boy on all digital download sites December 6.
And while we’re here, let’s revisit that moment in the 1990s when Thomas won the top prize over Britney on Junior Star Search.