"I'm goin' to New York"—that's got a kind of ring to it that gives a little thrill. Could be you're pulling up stakes & starting over; could be just a jaunt. Could be you're never coming back, but you don't know it; could be you'll hate the place & can't get away fast enough. The noise & the crowds that excited you to the soul are now like sandpaper rubbing you to bits.
We're just back from the place. Walked all over Queens & Brooklyn Heights (which is now inexplicably called Columbia Heights) & of course Manhattan & Central Park. I don't know my ass from my elbow in this territory; all it took was coming up out of the subway to disorient me. West? East? I couldn't tell, couldn't make myself remember the shape of the City. Or Borough or whatever it is.
I took a breath of the air in Times Square & 42nd Street; turned around all giddy, even though it's Disneyfied & I hate that as a concept. It was madness. Got temporarily caught up in a lottery outside of the Marquis Theatre on Broadway for tickets to The Drowsy Chaperone The Musical (didn't win.) We headed for TKTS to see what we could turn up on short notice. Our choice ended up Jewtopia, which I still have a hard time saying out loud, since my goyische sensibilities say I shouldn't even think things like that, but my menschele partner says 'nu, at half-price—so what could it hurt?' This turns out to be a good choice; we're at the Westside Theatre on West 43rd Street in a cozy setting, right down front, (it seems like you automatically get good seats when you do it at the last minute), and we're laughing our heads off. Now I have to do a bit of research on this to see if it's a set-up, but during our performance, one of the guys was doing some fancy onstage costume adjustment along with equally fast dialogue when one of his elastic shoulder straps got uncomfortably caught in a very tender anatomical area south of the waistline. Both actors tried valiantly to keep straight faces, but the best they could do was finish quick & get the heck off the stage.
We got serious for the next night: serious Italian food shoveled down in a noisy restaurant with a wise-guy waiter & some serious Shaw on West 42nd Street at the shudder 'American Airlines' Theater. (I can't even look at what I wrote—yeccch.) Anyway, Swoosie Kurtz & Philip Bosco in Heartbreak House. This was strange in that these were tickets bought in advance, but high in a big house up in the balcony where it was warm & dark, & after an Italian meal...well, let's just say that parts of this show were not seen by us, while we took the odd snooze when the action, the digestion & the heat warranted. I definitely woke up when Bill Camp, as Mangan, was onstage—voice like a foghorn! Swoosie was lookin' good in a sexy red dress & I dug Philip's fluffy white beard.
Onward to a long day of tramping through more neighborhoods in search of the true bagel, found (curiously enough) in...Queens! Yes, Forest Hills Bagel has the deal—three extra bagels with each dozen, at 60¢ apiece and such bagels! They bite back & make your jaw sore from chewing. A pastrami sandwich uptown at Zabar's and it's back to Brooklyn to rest.
Then we hit TKTS again & this time—paydirt! Front row left at Helen Hayes to see Jay Johnson's The Two and Only. I barely remember this guy from the half-hour sit-com Soap back in the 70's; he was the ventriloquist who much to his shock was hired by the network actually to play a ventriloquist. This stage show runs a hour & forty or so with no intermission & he drinks water & sweats a bit. No surprise: Mr. Johnson does the work of all the characters onstage—I lost count of how many—and while it might seem that this is lightweight stuff, it goes much deeper. There were kids in the audience, but this was like Lennie Bernstein's old shows about classical music. I learned more about the technical aspects of the art of ventriloquism, including calling it art, wondered a few times if maybe he was taking himself too seriously, and then he hauls out a full size orangutan that wraps itself around him & keeps accusing Johnson of molesting his hairy butt. He manages all these voices without the slightest movement of the mouth (& you can really see from the first row). A little wiggle from his waddle is all you'll get. And the idea you got from your voice teacher that you have to open your mouth WIDE to get any proper sound out? That's a load of crap. Jay Johnson not only changes the pitch & quality of his voice without benefit of WIDE open mouth, he belts a couple of songs just cause he can do it & you can't see him do it. So there.
Now I have a confession: we'd planned this trip for a while & in the process of contacting various friends with whom we wanted to spend time, the idea of attending the Metropolitan Opera came up. I initially was cool to the idea; we had eight days and two of those were going to be travelling & even though I'd been to Manhattan & sung at Carnegie Hall in my Conservatory days & gone up the Empire State Building & been to Battery Park, I'd never seen a Broadway show. That was first on my list—forget the opera, it's long & mostly boring & there are only half a dozen operas I would sit through anyway & they're usually Mozart. So unless we could see Mozart at the Met, I wasn't interested. God, I'm glad they talked me into it.
The current production is Madama Butterfly, directed by Anthony Minghella. We sat in the seventh row Orchestra & it was f***ing glorious. I can't say enough: this huge space encompassing color & movement over three hours (including intermissions)—like entering another world (which is the idea after all), but done with such a gentle touch that the intimacy of personal tragedy & the panorama of cultural miscommunication was seamless. Minghella said in an interview that he was not convinced that the production was doable, and yet having seen the finished product, I think his choices & his team ended up having the sort of serendipity that inspires a solid confidence in the outcome. For example, he says that he approached his singers the same way that he would his actors: nothing would work on a musical level if those characters did not know why they were there. He ran rehearsals without music, picking apart the lyric bit by bit, analyzing the situations & emotions, respecting his singers enough as actors to trust that they could see that there is no difference between what they are doing and a straight play. It's just accompanied by music.
So. What a trip & with shirt-sleeve weather to boot. And from our friend's apartment in Brooklyn on the corner just above the promenade with the Manhattan skyline beyond, we get midnight Street Theater. I'm standing at the kitchen sink brushing my teeth and I hear a man's voice in thick Brooklyn accent, "I'm SORRY!" I look up just in time to see a woman disappearing up the alley away from him, saying something I couldn't catch. He follows her waving his bare, muscular arms, "I'm SORRY I slept with yuh SISTAH!" No response from the lady.