I know it sounds a bit flaky (pun absolutely intended) but when we heard that there would be a new off-Broadway revival of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s Tony Award-winning musical, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street at Barrow Street Theatre, Lynn and I could barely contain our excitement.
Imagine that you’ve had a record-breaking, Seinfeld-esque “Serenity Now!”-level, unbelievably AWFUL day. Some of it is the result of one calamitous decision after another, while the rest is just the universe playing tricks on you. You descended into the subway instead of walking. You spoke up when you should have been silent. Someone hit you with their bag. Twice. You didn’t make reservations. You wore the wrong shoes for this much walking. WHAT is that smell, and dear Lord in heaven, where is it coming from? Oh, and it’s raining. Really, really hard. Of course you forgot your umbrella. Nothing–and I mean nothing–has gone your way. Then add to that the fact that this happens while you’re in New York City, an unforgiving megalopolis with a bloodhound’s nose for the scent of weakness.
In the summer of 2007, while Justin and I were still living in Phoenix, we made our annual pilgrimage to New York City with great anticipation. Our trips always included an ambitious list of restaurants to tackle, as well as a sampling of plays and musicals. That summer, we were excited to check out an Off-Broadway production we had read about called In The Heights.
At the 37 Arts Theater in Hell’s Kitchen (since renamed the Baryshnikov Arts Center), we were seated in the second row, close enough to see the beads of sweat on the performers’ faces and watch the spit escape from their lips. It was everything we’d hoped it would be: exciting, fresh, funny, captivating. We were so enamored with the performance that we waited after the show to speak to the creator, a young upstart named Lin-Manuel Miranda. But there was no one else waiting, and we questioned ourselves. Was this not done? Were we not supposed to approach the cast? We suddenly felt starkly like out-of-towners, clueless about the lay of the land. He exited the theater, and we lost our nerve. We stood there and watched him go by.
We’ll let you in on a little secret. While theater is something we love to experience, it’s not something we love to blog about. It’s a daunting task trying to capture the essence of a play or musical. But when we experience something unique, like we did with Wakey, Wakey, we want desperately to share our experience.
In Will Eno’s new off-Broadway play, Guy gazes out at the audience and says:
“This was supposed to be something different.”
The books we read are as much a part of our identity as the clothes we wear and the music we listen to. They inform our worldview, build our vocabulary and shape our sense of humor. My father tried to cultivate a love of reading in all his children at a young age. Book stores and literary festivals were common stops. We were initially nudged towards popular kids’ titles, reading lots of Enid Blyton then favorites like Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew. But once we recognized the wealth of material out there, we started to gravitate towards books that interested us personally. I went through an embarrassing teen romance phase (Sweet Valley High, anyone?) then thankfully moved on to a wide variety of literature.
Long ago (before the invention of the wheel, it sometimes feels like!), we were just a young couple in love. And when we first started dating, during that universal period in a relationship when everything is about connection and shared interest, we discovered with a great amount of satisfaction that we both had a mutual passion for film, from foreign gems to esoteric indies to cult comedies. We re-watched some of our favorites films together. There was Cinema Paradiso, The Sweet Hereafter, The Shipping News, Young Frankenstein, Dr. Strangelove, and, of course, The Princess Bride. The Princess Bride, in particular, became a rich source of our inside jokes.
Often, in those early days, I would muster my best (awful) impression of Fezzik (Andre the Giant, RIP) and drop this line at an absurdly incongruous moment:
“Why do you wear a mask? Were you burned by acid, or something like that?”
It never failed to crack us both up. Lynn’s favorite, one she still occasionally employs to this very day, was Inigo’s (Mandy Patinkin’s) response to Vizzini’s (Wallace Shawn’s) repeated use of the word “Inconceivable!”:
“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
And we’re not alone in our devotion to this film or our continued admiration for the brilliant dialogue and its flawless delivery by its brilliant actors. A quick Google search will produce endless memes appropriating its lines. I found this posted on a co-worker’s cubicle:
“I haven’t got the slightest idea how to change people, but still I keep a long list of prospective candidates just in case I should ever figure it out.”
Before he became a contributor at The New Yorker or a best-selling author, I discovered David Sedaris where so many of his other fans have, on National Public Radio, and through Ira Glass’s spectacular radio program and podcast, This American Life (you can find many of his past contributions here). From there, I went on to read his essays, all of his books and attended live readings (read: performances — because, undoubtedly, that’s what they are) on what are now three separate occasions.
Before I’d ever visited New York City, my first introduction was through television. More so the late night variety shows than the procedurals. And none more so than the venerable live broadcast of Saturday Night Live, with its ever changing cast and crew of comedians and writers plucked, seemingly at random, from the inestimable local theaters, clubs and performance spaces found in every nook and cranny of the city. These establishments, where so much raw talent is skimmed off the top of a limitless, un-homogenized pool of hopes, dreams and aspirations, are the incubators for creativity, experimentation and collaboration.
But it’s not all roses, as they say. New York City is a place where you’ll find incredible successes but also abject failures. You may stumble across the blueprints for achieving unparalleled fame and fortune, but you ignore the cautionary tales of ruin and misery at your own peril. New York City is hard. It’s survival of the fittest. And you don’t survive long on your own.
We’ve touched upon these themes before, when we covered a screening of Don’t Think Twice, which you can find here. But watching a film or reading a synopsis is one thing, seeing it play out in person is entirely another.
First Comes Love: This Election Blows at Lynn Redgrave Theater gave us a bird’s eye view. First Comes Love is a series borne of Kyle Ayers’ ingenious idea to solicit pornographic movie scripts from a fake ad he placed on Craigslist. The response was overwhelming, providing him with so much material that he decided to turn it into a show. The unedited (and sometimes previously unread) scripts are acted out by comedians and actors with improvised costumes and props. Presented by CounterCulture, First Comes Love: This Election Blows was a selection of political election-themed scripts from the treasure trove.
While the idea of watching scenes from amateur adult movie screenwriters might seem a little raunchy, the essence of First Comes Love was far less about sex than one would expect. The atmosphere created by the close-knit band of comedic players was fun and lighthearted. Lynn and I laughed, and laughed hard, at various points throughout the show. The material was mostly weak (remember, these were responses to a Craigslist ad), but it was the intense expression of camaraderie between the cast, the contagious fun and enthusiasm they exuded, the blind trust they placed in each other, and the irrepressible joy they shared with us, the audience, that made it a unique experience.
Pair it with:
Dinner at Minetta Tavern
I don’t really do “crawls”. And I don’t say that with disdain. There’s nothing wrong with them or with people who enjoy them. But I tend to feel going from one establishment after another over a single night numbs the palate. I do, however, pay close attention to “Best of” lists, and will, from time to time, methodically strike from the list different iterations of a culinary item over a relatively short period of time. Burgers are one such item. And I’ve tried many.
Until recently, Spotted Pig’s chargrilled burger with Roquefort cheese held the top ranking, unchallenged and by a wide margin. That is, until I visited the West Village and Keith McNally’s legendary French bistro, Minetta Tavern.
Steaks are excellent here, but let’s not waste time. The reason for this stop is the Black Label Burger — easily the best burger I’ve ever had. And yet, it’s the definition of simplicity: a beef patty allegedly consisting of a proprietary mix of NY strip, skirt steak and brisket, sauteed onions and a Balthazar Bakery seeded brioche bun. That’s it. And it’s incredible.
Opened in 1937, and purchased and renovated in 2009 by McNally, the space is filled to rafters with its charismatic ambiance. With the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, Eugene O’Neill, E. E. Cummings, Dylan Thomas, and Joe Gould, as well as various other famous writers, poets, and pugilist regularly frequenting the tavern over its storied history, it’s a special and unique place to share an incredible meal.
113 Macdougal St
5:30pm—12am (Sun – Wed)
5:30pm—1am (Thurs – Sat)
As I mentioned once before here, I studied English Lit at university. And I’m sure it will come as no surprise that I read a fair bit of Shakespeare during that time, and by “fair”, I mean a lot. And throughout my studies, I analyzed, discussed, and wrote a lot of papers about the famed playwright and his innumerable works. The Merchant of Venice was one of those works — a challenging one. It was required reading in a few of my later classes, so I’m quite familiar with it. It’s sort of notorious for being an emotionally complicated and intellectually treacherous play to study, and it’s much less read for enjoyment due to its subject matter. And for this reason, it’s anathema for many students. Of all of Shakespeare’s plays, I cannot think of another fostering a more strained and contentious relationship between readers, academics, historians and the material itself.
When I was younger, our family would spend the Christmas holidays visiting family in Singapore. My uncle was a fan of musicals and often had the recordings playing during our stay. I’d grown familiar with the scores of Cabaret and Jesus Christ Superstar, but had never actually seen a production. Then during the Grammy Awards in 1988 they featured a performance from Phantom of the Opera, and I became obsessed. When I finally made it to New York City, watching Phantom of the Opera was at the top of my to-do list, and it was the perfect culmination of my Broadway dreams.
Since then I’ve added somewhat to my Playbill collection. But Justin and I haven’t figured out how to become independently wealthy (tips welcome!), so we hem and haw, then judiciously try to pick shows that have something unique to offer. We’ve gravitated towards less conventional musicals — Fun Home’s deep material drew us in, while American Psycho’s promise got us there (you can find our post on that one here). When we heard about raves for She Loves Me, we were a little skeptical. It seemed too… basic. But boy, did it prove us wrong.