"Beyond the Velvet Curtain"—Broadway Theater with Road Scholar, April 2016

This is Hal and Nancy's travelogue of New York City with Road Scholar for the program The Best of Theater in New York: Behind the Velvet Curtain. It was Hal's 12th Road Scholar trip, Nancy's 11th. To jump directly to the Road Scholar–specific content, click here.

Saturday, April 23 – to New York City

We flew to Newark on United Airlines, Ubered to New York, and checked into the Club Quarters hotel on West 45th St., booking a two-day stay prior to the start of the Road Scholar program. It was a small room, typical for a New York hotel, but very quiet. (This was a pretty nice hotel, very conveniently located with good services, and we will consider returning for a future trip.) We took the subway to Greenwich Village and had pizza at Mario Batali’s restaurant, Otto, which was not quite as good as I remembered it from a previous visit. Wow, was it loud. We finished the evening by taking a nice walk around Washington Square.

Washington Square

Sunday, April 24 – Central Park, MoMA, and the Staten Island Ferry

As part of my marathon training, I needed to do a 10-mile run this weekend, so I did it in Central Park, first taking the full 6 mile loop and then a shorter one that went around the reservoir. The weather was simply beautiful and there were lots of walkers and bicycles in the park. While I did that, Nancy visited the Museum of Modern Art. After resting up, we took the subway to the Staten Island Ferry and enjoyed the free round-trip. For dinner, we met our three New York cousins at a Greenwich Village restaurant called Knickerbocker Grill, which was a very nice “neighborhood” restaurant with excellent food.

My 10-miler
Scenes around Central Park
Food trucks at Columbus Circle
On the Staten Island Ferry

Monday, April 25 – 9/11 Museum, Food Tour

We visited the 9/11 Museum at the reconstructed World Trade Center. This was very well done, with lots of architectural artifacts, movies, and a comprehensive look at the day’s events. For those with limited time, I would recommend heading to the latter portion of the exhibit, which was the most interesting for me. Outside, the 9/11 Memorial consists of two large fountains in the footprints of the two towers. All very moving. I had visited this site in late October 2001, before the cleanup had made very much progress at all, so it was interesting to see the transformation.

Freedom Tower
Architectural elements in
Artifacts in the museum
Nancy at the 9/11 Memorial

In the afternoon, we booked a food tour of Greenwich Village with a company called “Free Tours by Foot.” Their business model is to offer a free walking tour in which you pay for your small portions of food at each stop on your own, selecting the foods and quantities to meet your desires. At the end, everyone tipped generously. Our tour guide, Lori, was very knowledgeable and personable. She gave us a lot of information about the history of Greenwich Village and also pointed out a number of interesting food opportunities we did not have time to visit and sample. Here is a list of places we visited or that she recommended:

  • On McDougall Street, Mamoun Falafel was Syrian style, colored green and nice and spicy. (This street was amazing because virtually every storefront featured a different ethnicity.)
  • Artichoke Pizza had a so-so crust, but the topping was simply delicious.
  • Faicco on Bleecker Street was a multi-generation “pork shop” in which we had arancini—large, creamy, cheesy, deep-fried risotto balls.
  • Lori recommended Grom as the best gelato in Greenwich Village.
  • She also recommended Rocco for its cannoli, which are stuffed to order, not premade and refrigerated.
  • On Morton Street, she recommended the savory donuts at the Donut Project. Although we did not stop there as a group, I ducked in and bought one called olive oil and black pepper, which frankly did not taste a lot different than a conventional large, glazed doughnut with extra frosting on one side.
  • Bleecker Street Pizza was one of their house flavors, similar to a margarita, and had an excellent crust. They had signs saying they were the best pizza in New York City, but I think that is a large overstatement.
  • Lori recommended Marie's Crisis Cafe, which is a piano bar frequented by Broadway performers and there are lots of sing-alongs. It is right next to a recommended place called Big Gay Ice Cream Shop.
  • We had bite-size stuffed bagels at Bantam Bagels, which had been featured on the Shark Tank TV show. These were good, although I thought they were somewhat expensive. We sampled pesto, jalapeño, and cinnamon flavors.
  • Our final stop was Molly’s Cupcakes. This was a nice little store, although I do not think their relatively expensive cupcakes were anything really special. We shared some sort of a butterscotch combination.
Food-tour Lori (hand raised) on McDougall Street

We met the Road Scholar group at the hotel and had a buffet dinner in the hotel restaurant. There are 24 participants, with quite a few from California, to my surprise. Some of them were repeat attendees. After dinner Stephen Cole took us on a brief narrated walk of the immediate vicinity, including the New York Public Library, Bryant Park, the (former) Hippodrome building, and the historic Algonquin Hotel.

Tuesday, April 26 – The Effect

After breakfast in the hotel (which we had each day this week, either in the restaurant or the meeting room), Stephen Cole took us on a walking tour of the theater district. Stephen is an accomplished author and performer who has written 13 musical theater shows—he does the book and lyrics, working with composers to complete the works – and three or four books about the theater and television. And he is a walking encyclopedia about the theaters, their history, the shows, and the performers. Unlike virtually every tour I have taken in the past, I was never tempted to open up Wikipedia to test any of his assertions. And you could not ask for a more entertaining guy.

A show we did
Stephen Cole at TKTS
Times Square
New Amsterdam Theater prop room
Nancy and Lion King costume

We had an extended visit at the New Amsterdam Theater, which was built in 1903 but had slipped into disrepair and ill repute by the bad old days of the 1970s. The revival of Times Square under Rudy Giuliani brought in the Disney theatrical organization, which restored it to its former glory for the opening of The Lion King. We took a tour with a very informative young woman who told us the complete history while we watched some special effects guys working on the otherwise empty stage—no photos were allowed of the stage. The current production at the theater is Disney’s Aladdin. We went to a room that contained costumes and props from all of the Disney theatrical works and some people tried on costumes, such as Mary Poppins.

After a sandwich lunch at the hotel we were met by Dan Egan, a musical theater professor at Yale University, who conducted a very interesting interview with Scott Morfee, the producer of the play we would see that night, The Effect. Scott is the owner of the Barrow Theater in Greenwich Village, the site for a number of original off-Broadway productions. There were many interesting tidbits in this discussion. He said that “commercial theater” is rare outside of New York, London, and sometimes Chicago; most theater organizations are nonprofits. Unlike the majority of theaters, which shuffle in multiple productions per year, the commercial theater market attempts to find a show that will last for a very long run. When his theater is able to host a North American premiere, such as this play, he is able to negotiate a “participation in” (slice of) the profits from that play, regardless of where it appears, for the next 10 to 18 years. He gave some financial examples producing plays, which are supported by multiple investors of $10,000 and up. These people are probably in it more for the prestige than financial gain. For example, his recent production of Our Town (which included a “revolutionary” third act) cost about $4.1 million to run for 18 months and the investors did not break even until two weeks before the end of the run. His actors work for about $850 per week “at scale” versus about $2000 per week on Broadway. (A Broadway production is defined as one of the theaters within set geographic boundaries and must have at least 500 seats.) Of course, scale is the minimum payment, including pension, medical, etc., and presumably the bigger stars make a lot more than that. Fourteen of the past 15 Pulitzer prizes have been awarded to off-Broadway productions.

Dan Egan and Scott Morfee

We took the subway to Greenwich Village and had dinner at a nice, small French restaurant called Chez Jacqueline, and then walked over to the Barrow Theater, which is a rather small room in some sort of a community center. There were only 150 seats for tonight’s performance of The Effect. This play was written by a British woman named Lucy Prebble. Scott described that afternoon the process of getting her to make modifications to the original production, one of which was to decrease the running time by 30 minutes, and another to thoroughly Americanize all of the dialogue. The play was very well acted by people I had never encountered before. I thought the actress Susannah Flood was particularly good and Scott predicted she would become well known pretty soon. It was a story about an experimental medical study of a new antidepressant and the two young people who participated (along with the audience) did not know whether it was drugs or chemistry that caused them to fall in love. Unfortunately, it was one of those stories that was very typical of the theater business. It started with very interesting, quirky, engaging characters who then descend into darkness, so that the first act is usually somewhat funny and the second act becomes quite depressing. But it was certainly thought-provoking.

Barrow Theater in this building

Wednesday, April 27 – The Crucible and Paramour

We started in the hotel with a very entertaining presentation by Stephen Cole, who talked about his musical productions and the process of writing for the theater. He talked about his show Ethel Merman’s Apprentice; his proposed project to write a biography of Chita Rivera; Dodsworth, which was a musical rethinking of a classic movie that he produced in Fort Worth, starring Hal Linden; and his experiences writing a one-off show, Aspire, for the Emir of Qatar, the process of which he then captured as a humorous musical itself, The Road to Qatar.

We had lunch at Sardi’s, the famous Broadway restaurant. It is decorated with hundreds of caricatures of famous performers and a few local politicians. A rather touristy place, but the food was pretty good. We did not see anyone famous on this occasion. Our afternoon matinee was The Crucible, Arthur Miller’s 1953 play about the Salem witch trials, meant to be an indictment of the McCarthy era. This was quite an unusual production because it was set in what looked like the basement of a modern building with somewhat modern costumes, performed by an interracial cast using their own individual accents. I am unfamiliar with the original production, but folks tell me that this version provided more ambiguous cues about whether actual witchcraft might have been involved, so it did not seem 100% one-sided. The performances were excellent throughout and quite a few well-known actors were on stage:  Ben Whislaw (who played Q in the latest two James Bond films, but looked and acted completely different here as the lead male role), Sophie Okonedo, Ciarán Hinds (whom I loved as Julius Caesar in that old HBO series, Rome), Saoirse Ronan (at age 22, a two-time Academy award nominee), and Bill Camp. The play had a very dark tone, so I probably did not enjoy it as much as I should, and it was not helped by very uncomfortable seating in the Walter Kerr Theater. I might recommend their seats to people under 6 feet tall.

Stephen at Sardi's
Interior of Walter Kerr Theater

We had the rest of the afternoon and evening free, so we had a light dinner at a local café and then saw a preview performance of Paramour, the new theatrical production by Cirque du Soleil at the Lyric Theater. This put a musical comedy veneer on top of Cirque acrobatic acts, and we had a great time. The corny plot, about a 1940s movie producer who falls in love with an aspiring actress and casts her in a number of different stereotypical roles, was just enough to introduce song and dance numbers mixed in with acrobatics. Few of them were at the grand scale of a regular Cirque production under the Big Top, but most were impressive: juggling, seesaws, trapeze and other aerial stunts, and my favorite, a full city rooftop set with multiple trampolines. The lead musical actors were all pretty decent, the female lead beautiful and a great singer. There was also a lot of innovative multimedia included. The Lyric Theater is very large, a combination of two adjacent theater buildings, and the seating was comfortable. Until Thursday, this was the highlight of our trip.

Interesting "curtain" at Lyric Theater

Thursday, April 28 – The Color Purple

We resumed in the hotel this morning with a discussion led by Dan Egan regarding the two serious plays we saw. I did not take very many notes because this kind of discussion usually sails over my head, such as where we were talking about intellectual versus emotional levels, etc. My takeaway was that most of our participants were very impressed by both plays, with the women among us more enthusiastic than the men. :-)

Dan Egan
Laurence Maslon

Laurence Maslon, a professor in the graduate acting program at NYU, gave us a presentation about the history of musical theater on Broadway. His background includes a number of books and television programs on the subject. His thesis is that musical theater reflects current America. We had film clips and a discussion of the first important musical, Showboat, and talked about the career of Ethel Waters. In response to questions, he talked about the history of operettas versus musicals and how Broadway used to dominate the popular music charts (and how that run ended in 1966).

After lunch Dan Egan interviewed Joaquina Kalukango, the actress who played Nettie, a major role in The Color Purple, the production we would see that evening. Joaquina is an engaging young woman who graduated from Julliard and has the distinction of being the first black Cleopatra cast by the Royal Shakespeare Company. She talked about the auditioning process, her fellow actors, how she gets into the role, memorizes lines, etc. A very interesting hour with a rising young talent.

Dan and Joaquina
Nancy at Grand Central market, after lunch

Dinner was at a “Vietnamese–Japanese” restaurant named An’Nam, family-style food that was not really all that good. (I have various theories of life, and one of them is to avoid ethnic food in theater district restaurants. Well, actually I usually try to avoid all theater district restaurants. Good food is rarely their top priority.)

Our final show turned out to be the best all: The Color Purple at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater. I had no familiarity with the novel by Alice Walker or the film or the previous Broadway production, so I came into this entirely cold, but I left enthused and impressed. This is a very spare production, with a single set that is almost bare, and the only props used throughout are a number of wooden dining room chairs. We were told that the previous production had had a larger cast, elaborate sets, scene changes, etc. But our version allowed us to focus entirely on the performances, which were uniformly excellent. Cynthia Erivo, who played Celie, came across at first like a mousy young girl, but as the show progressed she was spectacular, with a powerful and emotive singing talent. She actually received a standing ovation after one of her numbers, which is something I find rather rare. (Of course, the whole cast got a big one at the end.) Jennifer Hudson was as good as I have seen her in other productions. Danielle Brooks, who plays the character Tastee on Orange Is the New Black, was amazing, so forceful and so different than her TV character, other than once again giving a very humorous performance that really riled up the audience. And Joaquina was very good although she did not get a lot of stage time. Nancy thought that this show was the best she had ever seen; I thought it was certainly up there in my top five or so.

Hal and Nancy enjoying Color Purple
Standing O

Friday, April 29 – Flying Home

Because of the vagaries of frequent-flier tickets, we had a relatively early flight out of Newark, so we did not attend the final session, which was Stephen Cole leading a discussion of Color Purple and wrapping up the week. Too bad—usually these wrapup breakfast meetings have little memorable content. However, we were happy to get home at a reasonable hour. This week with Road Scholar was outstanding, and I would recommend it to anyone. Our next similar trip will be to Detroit, of all places, in September.