Musicals and New York

I wrote a meditation on this theme for the new annual journal, Musical Theater Today, which came out last year. Working on the Robbins exhibition non-stop makes me think about all this all over again.

Edgar Allan Poe saw crowds. The French poet Baudelaire saw the flâneur, a wandering observer. The dancer, choreographer, and director Jerome Robbins saw alienation. As a young, ambitious man in New York, Robbins wrote drafts and drafts of possible scenarios for the stage. All of them are about struggle. Young artists, full of dreams and anxiety, squeezed in two rooms in a brownstone in the west ’50s. A man asking for money on the subway to feed his family. Another homeless man pinched awake by a hard squeeze on his finger by a merciless cop. A woman hurrying past men huddled on the side of the building, their gazes searing her legs, thighs, and buttocks.

Robbins famously brought this alienated view of the city to the Broadway stage. Ideas of New York have long inspired artists, but usually the city serves as a backdrop rather than the basis for plot, theme, and meaning. More often than not, the show within a show – 42nd Street or The Producers – portrays the city as the place and business of entertainment. West Side Story is of the city, in the city, and by the city dweller, observer, and alienated man Robbins. And so it is a tragic view. Imagine the difficulty of selling a musical whose first act ended with two dead bodies on the stage to money folks in the mid-1950s.

We can imagine it now because of Hair and A Chorus Line and Rent and Avenue Q and all the other shows that have weaved tragedy and alienation and satire into a dancing, singing vision of the city. New York is the home of the musical. But what kind of home is it?

If you wanted to write a musical on New York, how would you begin your research? Reading a book about the history of Coney Island, listening to songs with New York in their title, looking at pictures in old magazines, dancing the Lindy Hop?

Many begin with a walk. Some take a camera. Perhaps you’d capture the breakdancers on the subway with their extended show over the Manhattan Bridge. Or look at the kids frolicking on a warm day around Bethesda fountain in Central Park. You could mingle with the crowds of the Puerto Rican Day parade. Or seek out the quiet of the Rose Reading Room in the New York Public Library. You might go to the edge of the water, in any borough, and look for Lady Liberty through the jangle of islands. Or sit in a coffee shop on every block along Broadway.

How would you know when you found it?

In the literature on New York, the phrase “my city” rarely appears, according to David Kishik in The Manhattan Project. Walt Whitman evokes it in the long anthem of a poem, “Mannahatta”; F. Scott Fitzgerald only refers to it in the negative in a nostalgic essay called “my lost city.” New York resists comprehension, much less possession.

And yet.

It bubbles forth endlessly in musicals, not just as a place of business, the channel to fame, or where the accident of love occurs. It is a kind of electric current-providing the pulsating energy necessary to tales of striving, excessive emotions, drama. Musicals make sense in New York. They also make sense in high school auditoriums. And perhaps for the same reason. If all the world seems knowable, all the opportunities achievable, all the emotions charged sky-high by teenage hormones in high school, so too in New York. Musicals belong here. They create a city that can be possessed-and to which we all can belong.