I don’t like show tunes and don’t really understand how any one does. But the idea of piano bars intrigues me the same way pick-up basketball games and gay sex clubs do, as a place where men get to play with strangers. So when my mus ical theater friends Jim and Andy invited me to Marie’s Crisis, I went along to observe, maybe even slip into, that anonymous camaraderie.
It was St. Patrick’s Day, a Sunday, and the West Village was weirdly uncrowded. At 7th Avenue and Grove Street, we went down narrow stairs into a dingy basement room. Cardboard shamrocks and limp green balloons were thumbtacked to the fake wood paneling. About 15 men and two tanned women with acres of hair lounged at tables against two walls and at the bar. An out-of-tune piano was surrounded by faded red bar stools.
The balding, bespectacled piano man looked like a milquetoast but came on brassy as Bette. Jim, Andy, and the other patrons joined voices with his sporadically, but they trailed off before the song ended. Even though cocktails cost $4, beer and wine $3, none of the singalongs were catching fire.
This wasn’t due to ignorance; I seemed to be the only one who didn’t know every word. My blank looks mystified Jim and Andy. “You don’t know ‘Sweet Charity’?” “You don’t know ‘Dreamgirls’?” and in horror, “You don’t know ‘A Chorus Line’?!” I shrugged apologetically.
Some time after 10, more people arrived and the cheap drinks began to kick in. Crowd participation swelled, then peaked on “New York, New York.” (This tune also killed at Yankees Stadium and at the post-September 11 peace rallies in Union Square: an anthem for many tribes.) With each verse, the singing grew louder and campier, and we all laughed and applauded ourselves at the end.
The seats around the piano were filled now, and the energy high. One gray-haired man was belting especially vociferously, stabbing the air with his hands, tossing his head, opening his mouth wide as a cannon. Jim whispered to me, “I love this music, but I hate being such a cliché. It’s so depressing to think of ending up like that guy in 20 years.”
I said, “What could be happier than people singing together? Wouldn’t it be a lot more depressing for everyone to be watching TV alone in their apartments? I think it’s really nice.”
I meant it, but I still found the songs unsubtle, unbeautiful, and uncool. Another piano player came on and launched into the night’s second version of “Tits and Ass.” I was plotting my escape when one of my musical heroes walked in.
I gasped and bounced up and down on my chair. I grabbed Jim’s and Andy’s wrists. “Oh my God, you guys, Stephin Merritt is here.”
“Who?” they said in unison.
“Stephin Merritt. The Magnetic Fields? He’s one of my favorite songwriters in the world and he’s right there, sitting down at the bar.”
Andy said, “Never heard of him.” “Or them,” Jim added.
“OK, well, this for me is like if, if Stephen Sondheim walked in, OK? I am such a huge fan of that guy.” I’m as shamelessly thrilled by celebrity as the next guy, but I pride myself on pitching my excitement more to the star’s talent–or importance–than the star’s fame. And so Merritt in the piano bar, like Kathleen Hanna on the subway, eclipsed my previous sightings of Molly Ringwald, Denis Leary, and Don Cheadle.
I switched places with Andy so I could watch the tiny genius, who was with one of the other singers from the 69 Love Songs album. Merritt ordered something in a snifter and looked around the bar expressionlessly. Suddenly I saw the scene through his sardonic, pitiless eyes.
I was swamped with self-loathing, my pep talk to Jim forgotten. “He’s said in interviews he was interested in musical theater, but he couldn’t have meant a bunch of queens bray- ing this schlock,” I thought. Merritt turned his back to the singing and leaned on the bar. “I bet he’s ashamed to be gay right now.” I cringed with him. Maybe he felt rude walking out without ordering a drink first.
But Stephin Merritt stayed in Marie’s Crisis, so I stayed for another hour, glancing occasionally at his back. His smoking, drinking, staying presence wafted through the room, gradually transforming my heterosexual/female/gay male shame into gay pride. I started to hear inspiration in the aggressive, tacky songs. Around midnight, I walked out into a light rain and headed for the F train, humming something by the Magnetic Fields.