A friend—not an inhabitant of Gotham, we hasten to add—has told us that New York is like meeting the liveliest, most sophisticated creature at a party, a creature whom, as the evening drones on, will turn into the most provocative, still later the most exhausting, and finally the drunkest on booze and self-loathing. And yet we will sleep with New York anyway—he swears we will— caring not a whit that we’ll regret everything in the morning, that we’ll spend hours trying to piece the evening back together via Instagram, to no avail.
Having been whipped into a frenzy by a single extended metaphor, and determined not to watch yet another Tony Awards telecast in which the award for best musical goes to a show we’ve never heard of, we zip up to Manhattan on a whim. We will take a long weekend, we will see some of the biggest shows, we will see if the city hits on us.
Scene: we are buying bagels the morning after our arrival in the Big Apple, and while we don’t, strictly speaking, regret seeing the previous night’s performance of If/Then at the Richard Rodgers theater, we had been less than thrilled to discover that it is a show about New Yorkers with great jobs and successful-people problems who adore their city and hate every place else (Albany is a favorite target). In other words, If/Then dwells in ersatz New York, the New York of sitcoms, New York as imagined by people who aren’t from there, a New York for tourists.
Anyway, we are in an epically long line at Ess-a-Bagel on Third Ave.—the real New York, for the purposes of this story—where at least a dozen flavors of the world’s premier breakfast bread are, before our eyes, dunked into a cauldron of boiling water just before being baked, which is just before they are served to the rowdy Manhattan-version-of-pitchfork-wielding crowd. Right in front of us is a hypertensive, heavy-set woman sporting sweatpants and bed head. Later, we will watch as she shouts into the ear of a flustered counter attendant that she wants an everything bagel topped with lox spread, then shouts it again, before turning to us, shaking her head and rolling her eyes, because what has the world come to when a bagel guy confuses lox with lox spread. But until then she will strike up conversations with random strangers, because “I’m a people-person,” and that’s what people-people do.
“The new musicals,” we say when the people-person turns our way and asks why we’re here. It is an annual pilgrimage that affords us, we tell her, the privilege of going back to Houston and gloating at a big, swanky Tony Awards party. (We are lying. The party will be sad and sparsely attended and everyone will be drinking Chi-Chi’s cosmos from Spec’s.) Surprisingly, except not, the woman has intimate knowledge of the New York theater scene.
“Idina Menzel used to live in my building,” she tells us. “Nice girl.”
Elizabeth, the character Menzel plays in If/Then, is also a nice girl, two of them actually. Confronted with an only–in–pretend–New York career dilemma—Shall I continue being a powerful city planner/developer, or should I marry a handsome soldier/doctor and bear two beautiful/unseen children?—the Brian Yorkey/Tom Kitt musical decides to let both scenarios play out simultaneously. In one she is known as Beth, in the other as Liz, and in both cases she is played by Menzel, whose constant shuttling back and forth calls to mind a split-personality case, not to mention that Gwyneth Paltrow movie someone dragged us to years ago. But the Frozen star’s many fans, or Fanzels as they actually consent to be called, will not be disappointed. The songs may be meh (by the same guys who brought you Next to Normal), but Menzel is utterly terrific in her Tony-nominated performance, as is the rest of the cast.
“He’s a pedophile!” shouts a woman that evening, directing her message to the crowd in front of the St. James theater, where Woody Allen’s Bullets Over Broadway, nominated for seven Tonys, is playing. “How do you know?!” yells back a ticket holder, who is not about to let accusations by Mia Farrow’s daughter ruin his evening, not when orchestra seats cost $152. There is a moment in which we expect the woman to say she has lived in Allen’s building. But instead she is gone, as is the moment of high drama, the highest we will see during the ensuing two and a half hours, including intermission.
If the world has been begging for a musical adaptation of Allen’s 1994 Bullets film, the world must surely have changed its mind by now. Despite well-performed covers of Jazz Age standards, a talented cast, and Zach Braff (Garden State, Scrubs, two episodes of Cougar Town), the reviews were mixed-to-negative, as they say. We hated it, and not only because it was yet another musical about New Yorkers with great jobs (playwright! mobster!) and successful-people problems—Shall I remain a starving young dramatist forever or accept the offer of a Mafioso willing to bankroll my play if I cast his imbecilic girlfriend in the lead?—who adore New York and wouldn’t live anywhere else (Pittsburgh is a favorite target).
This is not the New York we came to see. We came to see the real New York, which is to say New York magazine New York, a world where everyone is wearing white Jax jeans this summer and taking vacations to Norway (Oslo is out, Flåm is in), where living room walls have H-A-T-I-N-G M-Y-S-E-L-F spelled out in neon typography, where people eat lamb tartare and read 1,500-word articles about “butt stuff” that you’d never see in Houstonia. What about that gluten backlash we’ve heard so much about? The Tesla backlash? The bikini backlash? Where are all the people buying Turkish slippers in 100-square-foot pocket boutiques?
They are nowhere, of course, because this is Broadway, this is Times Square, a place devoted not to what New York falsely imagines itself to be but what New York falsely imagines we imagine it to be. How else to explain the theme park that is Times Square, big and loud but safe, where tourists pose with living Statues of Liberty as if they were Mickey Mouse at Disneyland, and plush versions of old-timey taxis are $17.95 and the cheapest souvenir is a dark chocolate Empire State Building ($1.99)? To see Times Square now is to not believe that this was once the American Sodom, a place of hookers and muggers and dealers and massage parlors, a place where, in 1984, 2,300 crimes were committed on a single block. Sure, hints of the old skeevy depravity can still be found (Guy Fieri opened a restaurant there last year, for one), but these days, a young man needn’t fear the Greyhound bus taking him to Midnight Cowboy, and that teenage girl you see walking alone is most likely on her way to Wicked, not to becoming Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver.
Anyway, the Times Square clean-up is now almost three decades old, and New York, it seems, has been cleaning up ever since. More than 50 million tourists visited the city in 2012, spending more than $36 billion, and the taming of the city’s mean streets is no small reason why. Given that, the further expansion of today’s Square—splashy, harmless, cartoonish, and finally negligible—seems inevitable. It will likely gobble up everything in its path, the theater district included. (Then again, given the current offerings at the St. James and Richard Rodgers, maybe it already has.)
By the way, 12 new musicals opened on Broadway this season, and no long-weekend theater junket could hope to take in all of them, especially as some have closed—four, as of this writing—owing to some combination of bad reviews and audience disinterest. Still, seeing the rest would have required a week’s stay at least, not to mention sitting through three more movie adaptations (Rocky, Aladdin, and The Bridges of Madison County, though the latter was a novel first) and a revue (After Midnight).
In short, we just weren’t up for a week’s worth of unrelieved pandering, not from Broadway, the birthplace—and for decades the greatest producer of—what is arguably the consummate American art form. That the musical is now being in effect held hostage by the ongoing success that is Times Square’s redevelopment can no longer be doubted. Its only hope, it would seem, is that its theaters might somehow escape their captors and start life over somewhere else, somewhere, that is, where heavy crowds, light entertainment, and an ever-growing bottom line aren’t the primary considerations.
Even as we say that, however, we find ourselves in front of the Stephen Sondheim theater—formerly the Henry Miller theater, formerly Avon-at-the-Hudson, a porn theater—and a performance of Beautiful (or The Carole King Musical, as the subtitle blares), nominated for six Tonys. While this stage biography, which follows King from her early days as a songwriter for The Drifters, Aretha Franklin, and others to her eventual storied solo career, is strictly by-the-numbers, it does have one enormous asset—Tony-nominated Jesse Mueller in the (sub)title role. Not only does she have the hectoring beauty of King’s voice down pat along with perfect command of the singer’s legendary songbook, Mueller has something ineffable too—something we might call star quality if it didn’t make us sound like Rex Reed. We will simply say that she is very good in the role, so good she somehow transcends both the Beautiful script and Broadway itself.
So good that we almost forgot we were watching a musical about New Yorkers with great jobs and successful-people problems—Shall I keep writing #1 hit singles with my cheating, drug addict husband, or should I record Tapestry and sell 25 million albums?—who adore New York and wouldn’t live anywhere else (your turn, New Jersey).