Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Musical Perversity in Manhattan (with apologies to Mr. Mamet)

Last year, the highlight of my birthday celebration was when I got the oil in my Beetle changed at the Valvoline on 58th and Lyndale Avenue. (To answer your question, yes, I felt very sorry for myself). This year, the highlight was an evening of rapturous, transcendent splendor, or as close as you can get to such a concept in Greenwich Village. For this dramatic change in my annual fortunes, I have my good friend Virginia to thank.

On the cozy island of Manhattan, I’d imagine that there are bars which cater to every sort of decadence and perversity, including some that a sheltered Minneapolitan like me can’t even begin to imagine. Last Thursday night, it was my great good fortune to find a bar which catered to mine. Virginia has been telling me for years about Marie’s Crisis, a dank, dark, low-ceiling-ed slice of heaven, right there on Grove Street. In addition to absorbing her tales of a place that seemed like Oz, I’d also read Marc Acito’s take on a very similar place, in “How I Paid for College: A Novel of Sex, Theft, Friendship & Musical Theater.”

Marie’s Crisis is a watering hole that caters to the sort of people who write bathroom graffiti about Julie Andrews (see below; it’s true). On one magical visit, Virginia told me that she realized she was standing next to (and singing “I Could Have Danced All Night” along with) Cheyenne Jackson, so she bought him a gin and tonic. But I digress, a Bway Queens are wont to do.

On the night we went, there were no stars in attendance, just people who prided themselves on knowing every part to every musical ever written, including whether the introductory chorus required an “oooh” or an “aaah,” and how many parts of harmony. The crowd was utterly diverse and, of course, completely unified. At one end of the bar, a big black lady had a voice so deep and low that I felt my chest rumble when she sang. Behind me, there was a boy whose hips signaled that he couldn’t be straight if his rent money depended on it. He swiveled happily to “La Vie Boheme,” performing a well-remembered choreography with his pal, apparently from their days in the chorus. “Now we cross!” he urged, and the two locked arms and grapevined stage left as if they were at the Wintergarden. At the other end of the bar sat an utterly unremarkable looking guy, one for whom the word “nebbish” was invented. Yet, he delivered a crisp, deeply projecting take on every tune. Hearing the remorse he brought to the simple line “I was happy” in “At the Ballet” was a highlight of my evening, if not my year.

Most people in bars are utterly distractable, while this crowd delivered laser-like concentration to the piano player and the music. And, while I suppose one hears lots of guffaws and sees plenty of fake smiles in a non-pervert bar, I could not recall, as I looked around the dim room, ever spending bar-time with people who seemed to be so deeply at peace, and so full of joy. There are precious few believers in the world, the ones who know that evenings really can be enchanted, that every mountain can most certainly be climbed, and that we can all be gayer than laughter. When we have a chance to sing together, it looks, and sounds like, the sort of church I could happily attend.

Thanks, Virginia. That was, truly, the best birthday ever.

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