When Stephen Sondheim passed away last week, the worldwide epicenter of Sondheim grieving was arguably Marie’s Crisis Cafe, New York City’s temple of the musical-theater sing-along: fans waited in line for hours to “Isn’t it rich? Are we a pair?” their sorrow away.
Why sing together with others of your own kind? Grief management isn’t the only draw. Wolves and lions vocalize with their own, probably to defend territory. Birds sing in groups for the same reason, as well as to attract mates and to strengthen the pair-bond. But when humans sing—at least, the ones who have been doing so at Marie’s for the past four decades—they may also do it to unburden themselves of the fact that they secretly know all the words to “Shipoopi.”
A twilit, basement dive bar the size of an airport Cinnabon, Marie’s is, given how a certain global health crisis has demonized group singing, an unlikely survivor. After hosting a year or so’s worth of virtual sing-alongs (one Marie’s pianist chose “Anatevka” as his first selection in the ether-sphere because that’s the song Fiddler on the Roof’s villagers sing when they’re forced to leave their homes), the club reopened fully this spring. It was as if an entire building had risen up on its haunches and roared the Sondheim-derived credo of over-therapized gay men and their allies everywhere, “I’m still here!” (jazz hands optional).
A longtime way station for members of the entertainment industry—one Marie’s pianist said, “I call Tuesday night from one to three a.m. “the Twilight Zone” because you never know who’ll show up. I’ve had half the cast of S.N.L., people from Bob’s Burgers and Mad Men, Philip Seymour Hoffman … ”—Marie’s is located on the site where revolutionist Thomas Paine, who wrote the pamphlet The American Crisis, died in 1809. The collective history of the building that houses Marie’s seems to be If You’re Not Supposed to Do It, Do It Here: the building was a brothel in the 1850s and a “boys’ bar” in the 1890s. In 1929, Marie’s Crisis Cafe was opened as a restaurant and speakeasy by a Frenchwoman named Marie DuMont; today, vaccinated but mostly unmasked patrons break out into microphone-less song in a space that forbids social distancing. Don’t tell Mama.
Indeed, cheekiness has long been the venue’s lingua franca. Classically trained pianist Franca Vercelloni has played at Marie’s for 15 years, including on the night Trump won the presidency (“More than a few of us thought about Cabaret. Someone suggested we all sing “Tomorrow Belongs to Me”) and the night the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage (“It seemed like everything was possible. Scarlett Johansson was here and requested ‘New York State of Mind’”).
Vercelloni likes to razz her audience—she’ll introduce a song by saying “From the musical Wicked!”and then she’ll play “Aquarius.” But it is also her responsibility as pianist to divine well-known guests’ wants—to intuit that someone like actress Zooey Deschanel doesn’t want to be singled out in the crowd, but that when Mike Myers shows up with his show-tune-loving wife, it’s probably fine to engage in a little Wayne’s World homage with “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
The collective history of the building that houses Marie’s seems to be If You’re Not Supposed to Do It, Do It Here: the building was a brothel in the 1850s and a “boys’ bar” in the 1890s.
Jimmy Fallon presented Vercelloni with a more nuanced problem a few years back. “My shift ends at 10,” Vercelloni says. “Down the stairs at 9:53 comes Jimmy, his wife, and her friend. He comes right up to the piano and says, “‘Soliloquy’ from Carousel!’ I said, ‘Jimmy, my shift ends in seven minutes, I cannot play that 10-minute-long, slow, sad song.’” Fallon then suggested “Believe It or Not” from the TV series The Greatest American Hero instead; Vercelloni heartily agreed. The crowd launched into the anodyne tune, whereupon Fallon proceeded to clamber up onto the piano and bodysurf it.
“I was like, Oh my God,” Vercelloni says. “Everyone’s phone comes out; everyone’s taping. I’m thinking, This is cute, this is jovial. It’s great. But then we were trying to move on—to pass my tip jar, bring on the next pianist. But Jimmy was in such a great mood that it was hard to get him off the piano. And the next pianist said he didn’t want to play.”
Fallon was able to do what many Marie’s patrons only dream of: fully self-actualize on command, even in the absence of a feather boa. To visit Marie’s is, for many, to put oneself in a state of excited dread, anxious that we will either be the only person in the room who knows the lyrics to a particular song—or the only person who doesn’t know them. (Looking at printed lyrics is discouraged; Vercelloni asks patrons to make up their own words if they don’t know the real ones.)
This state of ambivalent suspension is highly conducive for the slightly bitchy wit that we associate with those who drink from the well of loneliness. When—sharp intake of breath—Liza Minnelli walked into the bar one night some years ago (Vercelloni: “I internally combusted”), Vercelloni asked her what she’d like to hear, and Minnelli answered, “There’s Gotta Be Something Better than This.” Whereupon one of the other patrons asked, “Is that a statement or a fact?” Kuh-ching.
In the end, however, Marie’s prevailing spirit of steely showbiz survivorship lays waste to any feelings of inadequacy. You arrive a jittery or emotionally numb mess, but two drinks and tens of over-caffeinated Broadway lyrics later, you unleash a power from beyond the grave. You’re still here. You cain’t say no. You’ve washed that man right outta your hair. You can’t stop the beat. And you’re telling me you’re not leaving. When comedian Richard Ayoade didn’t know one of the songs that Vercelloni played during his visit in 2018, he told her that the experience was “like being trapped in a very one-sided conversation.” Vercelloni laughed and then, gazing at Ayoade and his companion, asked, “Do you guys want to sing another song?”
“I mean, no,” Ayoade responded. “But I imagine you’re going to do it … ”
“Whether you like it or not.”
Henry Alford is a New York–based writer and the author of And Then We Danced