It’s said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and for the comedic writer-performer Ryan Raftery, that form takes the shape of satirical semibiographical musicals. After taking on a triumvirate of media icons — Anna Wintour, Andy Cohen and Martha Stewart — in well-received one-man shows, Raftery is returning to Joe’s Pub at the Public Theater this month with three of America’s most iconic fashion designers in tow.
“The Obsession of Calvin Klein” sees Raftery taking on the role of Klein, while his two costars portray Donna Karan and Ralph Lauren. Raftery was inspired to write his latest show by his own “obsession” with the tension of Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan,” and a Fern Mallis conversation at the 92Y during which he learned that Lauren and Klein are from the same neighborhood in the Bronx (and Karan from Queens.)
“I knew I wanted to do an artist next, and the pressure that fashion designers are under because they are on a creation calendar. No other artist in the world is on a forced creation schedule like fashion designers. Some fashion designers create up to six collections a year. Karl Lagerfeld does more than that, and I thought to myself, ‘That could really drive you crazy,'” says Raftery from inside Joe’s Pub on a recent afternoon. “And that’s where the ‘Black Swan’ thing came in.”
The idea to use Klein as a nexus for his latest project came to him during the run of his last show, “The Rise and Fall (and Rise) of Martha Stewart.” “Somebody came to see my Martha Stewart show, and Martha’s exacting perfectionism reminded this person of Calvin,” says Raftery. “He’s like, ‘I worked for Calvin and that reminds me exactly of Calvin Klein.’ And I was like, ‘Really? Tell me more.'”
The premise of the new show? “Obsessed with a crushing paranoia that childhood friend and fellow mega-designer Ralph Lauren is intent on sabotage, Calvin Klein and henchwoman Donna Karan scheme to ensure the continued reign over his black-and-white empire.”
Needless to say, Raftery took many creative liberties for comedic effect. There are factual elements peppered in, and riffs off the well-known idiosyncrasies and history of each character. The title itself is a wink toward Calvin Klein’s iconic Obsession fragrance.
“This is a story of one of the world’s most famous names, and extrapolate it,” he says. “Everything the average person on the street knows about Calvin Klein is in this show — jeans, underwear, fragrance — that’s it, and everything else I’ve used real moments from his life, but I’ve heightened it for dramatic and comedic effect.”
For most of the show, Lauren’s likeness is stationed offstage amidst the parlor-style audience, where he is frequently illuminated to tell his story to the tune of Dolly Parton’s “Here You Come Again.” (Klein gets the through-line of Tchaikovsky.)
“The first time you see [Lauren] he’s like, ‘1966, I’m making ties and putting little ponies on them, and making lots of sales, in shops like Bloomingdales’ — so he gets his story out, then Calvin and Ralph have a couple of interactions, but it’s not until the end of the show that there’s a big confrontation and they’re actually on stage together,” he says.
Similar to the characters of his show, Raftery is a born-and-bred New Yorker from one of the boroughs.
“There’s something that inspired you to want to get out when you grow up that close to Manhattan, when you grow up so close to the center of the universe and you can see the buildings from your backyard, you can see that famous skyline,” says the Brooklyn native. “In the Calvin Klein show, it’s the very first song in the show that he sings about Manhattan and how that’s where the women that I want to dress live. For me, that’s where the theaters were, that’s where Broadway was, that’s where I want to go. I think that’s something about the outer boroughs that’s special because it inspires you to get out — if you want to get out.”
After graduating from NYU, Raftery did just that, decamping for Los Angeles and television work.
“I foolishly thought when I’m done doing TV and Broadway’s ready for me, then I’ll come back,” he says. “And it just didn’t really work that way.”
Back in New York, his path actually crossed Klein’s, albeit briefly; he worked as the now-retired designer’s personal assistant for one day.
“I had two interviews with him, and I couldn’t get over how cool he was — he was just very laid-back,” says Raftery of his erstwhile employer. “It just wasn’t what I wanted to do. I figure for someone like him, he’s gonna need someone who’s really committed to that job.”
With silence from Broadway, Raftery set out to find his way back onstage. “I started doing cabaret shows that were all very autobiographical, and then I didn’t have any life experience left to mine,” he says.
But he did have a day job working as a p.r. assistant for Coach, which led him to the Vogue offices. It was during that visit, in which Raftery was the proverbial fly-on-the-wall, that the idea to write a one-man musical satire about Wintour (channeled through the lens of Darth Vadar) came to him.
“Anna’s daughter came and sat right there,” says Raftery, gesturing toward a café table a few rows back from the stage. “Bee Shaffer came to see the show and she held up her phone for the first 10 minutes of the show, and I knew why. I’ve never been more nervous before or since,” he recalls. She was a fan. “She came backstage and Instagrammed a photo of us and she called me her surrogate mother, and that got us press in seven countries.” While Wintour herself never saw the show, she did donate a pair of sunglasses for a charity performance of the show. Andy Cohen sent him flowers. Raftery recently got a selfie with Stewart, after the fact, which came with a compliment: “It’s not every day I get to meet a famous composer!”
Reaction from the Calvin, Ralph, and Donna camps remains to be seen. The show opens Oct. 28.
“I know that Calvin knows about the show, and I know that Calvin’s not really into attention,” says Raftery, who diverges from his character on that trait. “I would be extraordinarily flattered to even be on the radar of geniuses on that level. I hope they all understand that I’m a comedian, and I’m never in the business of hurting anyone’s feelings. If anything, I want to shine a light on…how much specifically Calvin and Ralph have done not just for fashion, but for the way we live our lives.”