“We live in these little personal boxes and we break free only to find ourselves in a bigger box. I can break free for the rest of my life and still be in a box.”
“That sounds like a song cue.”
“How do you mean?”
“You’re in a piano bar. We’re all show queens.”
— Terrance McNally, Some Men
One November night in 2013, Randy Taylor was working the door at the historic Greenwich Village basement bar Marie’s Crisis. Glee star Darren Criss approached him.
“Hey, I have Lea Salonga, can we come in?” Criss asked.
Lea Salonga’s name might be unfamiliar to anyone outside a certain set of musical obsessives, but as the voice of Jasmine and Mulan in the original Disney movies, almost everyone on earth is familiar with the sound of her singing. Randy knew her name instantly.
“You know, I’m starting to sweat because I’m a huge fan,” he later recalled. He ushered them past, despite the line snaking around the block.
The pair walked down the small staircase into the bar. They shuffled through the crowd of people huddled around the piano, doing what people have been doing every night at Marie’s Crisis for decades: singing show tunes, under the colorful fairy lights that dangle from the low ceiling’s exposed beams. To make room for the incoming duo, patrons leaned back against the black-and-white photos of Judy Garland, Ella Fitzgerald, and Liza Minelli that adorn the back wall. Those in the front inched closer to the piano, resting their drinks on the red wooden case that separates it from the crowd.
Criss quietly spoke to pianist Dexter Watson and took his place behind the piano. He introduced “Princess Jasmine herself” and the pair sang “A Whole New World” from Aladdin. Rapt onlookers had been granted permission to film in Marie’s for one night only, and they aggressively shushed each other during Salonga’s sections. Afterward, Dexter accompanied Lea for a rendition of “On My Own” from Les Miserables—she had played Eponine on Broadway and had reprised the role several times since. She watched him play as she sang, and shook his hand after the final note.
“I remember sitting on the steps, looking through the bars, just thinking, this is crazy,” Randy recalls. “She sings at a recording quality at all times. The piano wasn’t great,”— the piano at Marie’s is notoriously difficult to keep in tune, and often has broken strings from being played so often— “but her voice was impeccable.”
Randy has been part of the Marie’s community for over two decades, working on and off behind the bar, at the door, and as a singing server before becoming the manager in 2015. He has seen a great deal of the highs and lows that Marie’s Crisis has weathered, and that New York has weathered. Since it first opened in 1935, when Marie DuMont turned the basement into a cabaret bar in the throes of the Great Depression, Marie’s has borne witness to much of New York’s modern history, from a World War to the AIDS crisis, blackouts, 9/11, financial recessions, a litany of extreme weather events, and—perhaps the most daunting threat—the rapid and ruthless gentrification of the West Village. But unlike during Hurricane Sandy, for example, when the vulnerable basement bar was closed until the threat had passed, staff members are now facing an indefinite closure due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Pianists, singing waiters, and patrons have been forced out of the space that brings them a distinct and vital kind of joy—the kind where a crowd is enjoying a show.
Marie’s Crisis doesn’t advertise, not even in Playbill. Until recently, its online presence consisted of a lo-fi website with three pixelated images and a small paragraph of text. There’s a Twitter page that mostly deals in retweets (of pianists promoting their slots, or of New York comedians commenting on the deliciously bizarre 2019 film adaptation of Cats), and a closed Facebook group for regulars. Prior to March 2020, posts included a request for show tunes to be sung to a new baby and a photo of a potted plant “getting bigger every half hour” but still “yet to sing ‘Feed Me’”— a reference to Little Shop of Horrors.
In the bar itself, signs on the walls ask patrons not to video anyone without their consent. That rule is enforced seriously by staff and by other patrons; it is unusual to see footage of Marie’s on social media, since the tiny space makes it nearly impossible to record one consenting person without capturing at least fifteen non-consenting patrons.
The last time I was at Marie’s Crisis, pianist Drew Wutke was playing Sondheim’s “The Ladies Who Lunch,” and the growing crowd clinked their glasses every time the lyrics prompted them to toast the titular ladies. Stephan Morris, a former priest and present-day writer with a white beard, kissed me on the cheek as he and his husband, Elliot, stepped out into the mid-March evening.
On that final night, everyone was talking about the virus. The New York Times had just broken the news that a Broadway usher had tested positive. Someone had heard a rumor that one of the theatres was selling tickets for $50—an attempt to counter health concerns with a bargain. “I’d get the coronavirus to see a musical for $50,” someone else quipped. The next day, the lights on Broadway were turned off. Marie’s closed its doors not long after.
By the following Wednesday, I had left New York. I sat in an empty kitchen in Indiana and watched Drew play “The Ladies Who Lunch” via a Facebook livestream. It was one of the first times a Marie’s Crisis piano set had taken place outside the physical basement, and it was arguably the bar’s first serious foray into social media. Drew, too, was in Indiana, just a couple of hours away from me. He had swapped his aging piano for an electric keyboard and his piles of sheet music for an iPad, an item spotted less frequently at Marie’s. Patrons were watching from empty kitchens, living rooms, and bedrooms around the country; as they joined the livestream, Drew greeted them as he always did the regulars who arrived at the door on Wednesdays. They commented with song requests and sent their tips via Venmo and PayPal.
On a usual night at around nine pm, when Drew is finishing up his set and everyone is just tipsy enough to start feeling sentimental, he will start to speak about the magic of Marie’s. How it offers a space for anyone—aspiring Broadway stars, real Broadway stars, office workers, retirees, ambiguous New York creatives—“to sing [their] feelings out and get applause for it,” as pianist Adam Tilford puts it. To be accepted not in spite of their eccentricity, but because of it. Against the backdrop of the rainbow flags that adorn the back wall of the bar, Drew regularly talks about how Marie’s is a community for outcasts, how it’s the only bar in New York that allows for the collective experience of singing show tunes—and only show tunes.
On the livestream that night, he was briefer. He said he missed New York, and picked “Seasons of Love” from Rent to close out his set.
At some earlier point in our conversations, I had asked Randy about the most consistently in-demand song at Marie’s. He barely had to think about his answer. It was “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” “It’s a gay anthem, but it’s not just for gay people,” he told me. “It’s for people that feel even slightly not mainstream. The slightly queer, the super queer, the somewhere-in-the-middle queer.” I thought about this as I watched Drew through a small screen, drawing people in for a “kumbaya moment” from their separate homes. About the beloved Judy Garland classic, Randy had said: “[It’s for] people who never felt like they fit in.”
Even when it looked different, 59 Grove Street has always been a haven for those at the political margins, for people looking to belong. Thomas Paine moved there in 1809, after his controversial views caused frequent disruptions at his previous residence on what is now Bleecker Street. In its name, Marie’s Crisis references his essay “The American Crisis.” The title of his most famous work, “Vindication of the Rights of Man,” is emblazoned on the art-deco-style mirror behind the bar (so too are the words “liberté, égalité, fraternité”—a nod to his support for the French Revolution). The mirror’s origins are mysterious, but it has been there at least since 1958, when it earned a mention in The Daily News.
Unverifiable accounts say that Marie’s was a “boy bar” in the years between Paine’s death and DuMont’s arrival (Sara Apmann, the Director of Research and Preservation at the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, told me that “everyone likes to say those buildings were boy bars.”) What we know for sure is that the building was designated residential by the New York City Department of Buildings from 1921 until 1935, when the basement was reclassified as a dining room.
The piano was always central. In February 1945, Marie placed an ad in the Wall Street Journal inviting war-weary readers to enjoy cocktails and the musical stylings of popular pianist, Stephanie Landi. By 1969 it had become, as Terrence McNally describes in his play Some Men, a bar for “show queens,” where pianists would play show tunes for a clientele of mostly gay men.
The community that had formed in basement boy bars in the middle decades of the twentieth century experienced an abrupt and devastating change in the 1980s, during the AIDS crisis. New York City was disproportionately affected by the epidemic: by 1989, AIDS was the leading cause of death amongst men in New York State aged 25-44, and almost all of the cases were in the city. Men were being turned away from hospitals, and the President had barely acknowledged that the virus posed a legitimate threat to American citizens. The dearth of gay men across the city was felt acutely in the thinning crowds in spaces like Marie’s.
Even today, the devastation of those years exists as an ever-present hum under the joyous show tunes. A series of small plaques rests on prominent display along the edge of the bar; each bears the name of a regular, lost to AIDS, who used to sit there.
“There was a huge sense of camaraderie not just in Marie’s, but in all the gay bars downtown,” Stephen Morris, who lived through the crisis, told me. “People really found solace and strength by coming together and caring for each other. Especially the singing. It was a way to put aside some of the fear and terror for at least a few minutes.”
Randy arrived in New York in 1995, when treatments to “help people stay alive” were becoming more readily available. Crowds slowly began to return to Marie’s. By 1999, the bar was bustling enough again that Randy recalls “very fun, very gay” Friday evenings with “old-world, mean bartenders” and Dexter Watson at the piano. Patrons—still majority gay men—continued to come in steady numbers in the beginning years of the new millennium, mostly undaunted by 9/11 and by the 2008 financial crisis. Nobody remembers the recession driving people too far from cheap drinks, community, and show tunes.
In 2013, the footage of Darren Criss and Lea Solanga went viral. In 2019, the TV hit Younger filmed a scene at Marie’s. In recent years, things have shifted noticeably: the word has gotten out to the wider world, and the crowds have grown significantly in response. “After that aired,” Randy recalled, referring to Younger, “young ladies flocked to Marie’s. Marie’s became a Mecca, it just did.” The arrival of squadrons of young, seemingly mostly straight, women stirred up age-old and complicated questions—what is the place of straight women in a gay bar?—and some of the staff members and regulars bristled at the change.
“I could give you a list of regulars who think women should be barred at the door,” said Brandon, who played to many of 2019’s raucous Friday nights. “But a lot of our Marie’s regulars need Marie’s because it makes them feel like there’s a place for them, [and they] aren’t all queer.”
It was undeniable that business was booming, and many like Brandon had an open-door attitude at the time. “If you’re a freak,” he said, “welcome.”
But good business is always tenuous for a small piano bar. Since March, when the city was shut down in an attempt to rein in the encroaching pandemic, more than 2800 small businesses have closed, according to the New York Times. Half of the closings have been in Manhattan. The Times cited research predicting that a third of small businesses in New York will never re-open.
Even the higher-profile, historic Stonewall Inn, which is located just around the corner from Marie’s, launched a GoFundMe Campaign in June asking patrons to help “save Stonewall.” And while other surrounding gay bars— The Monster, The Duplex, Julius’s—have been able to set up tables outside and a smattering inside, Marie’s is in a more complex position, both because of its underground location and because of the higher-risk nature of singing. In March, a widely-circulated story about a choir in Washington state revealed that one infected person had spread the virus to fifty-three of the sixty-one choir members by the end of one rehearsal. Two later died. Singing in a small room with no ventilation is, according to health experts, one of the most ill-advised activities, and one that is likely to be heavily regulated for some time.
The staff at Marie’s didn’t need any convincing that prolonged closure was the right decision. “Folks who worked the 13th and the 14th”—of March, the last nights before the closures— “most of us had symptoms,” Maddie recalled. “A lot of us have tested positive for antibodies.” The virus has touched thousands of New Yorkers’ lives, and with cases once again on the rise, Marie’s continues to face a prolonged period of uncertainty. These are, undoubtedly, what Paine described in “The American Crisis” as “the times that try men’s souls.”
Singing server Maddie McClouskey, the bar’s self-titled “only female queer,” suggested the digital piano sets in the early stages of the lockdown. She and a few other staff members had been thinking about how they might continue to play to an audience, bring in some cash, and recreate the bar’s sense of community. They decided that they would livestream shows to the Marie’s Crisis Facebook group—which, at the time, was a closed group of roughly five hundred members, all regulars. They were the dedicated patrons, the kind Marie’s staff had come to count on for tips, “or at least some love,” as Randy put it.
The first online performance took place on March 14th. By the 19th, thanks to a tweet from Lin Manuel Miranda and a writeup in Time Out, requests to join the Facebook group were coming in by the hundreds.
In what was already becoming the preferred medium for socially distant communication, the staff met via Zoom to decide how the shows would work, and if they wanted to accept the swathes of people who requested to join the group (“It’s so funny, because in the bar we usually say “staff meeting” when we go to a corner and take shots together,” Maddie told me. “So before this time, ‘staff meeting’ meant ‘whiskey’”). They agreed that pianists would stream their usual shifts, accepting song requests via the comments section; that only administrators could post to the group; that the much-loved singing servers would continue to perform; and that anyone who wanted to join would be accepted.
“We’ve got people from all over the world who have maybe never set foot in the bar, and maybe never will,” Brandon explained. In the comments section, greetings from around the country—and, indeed, from around the world—are interspersed with notes from regulars. In this way, COVID has created a “global Marie’s community,” something that never existed before.
“We’re all aware that people need it. Mental health-wise, even in New York regular life, it’s therapeutic and it’s sacred to people,” Drew told me.
There are drawbacks to introducing people to Marie’s virtually—older regulars feeling talked over in the comments section; pianists missing the immediacy of feedback from live audiences; the loss of same-room camaraderie —but as the pandemic wears on, the group is becoming increasingly vital. When he was diagnosed with COVID-19, Randy shared his updates, cheerfully assuring the group that he was fine, but that he hoped his taste would return soon so that he could enjoy his morning coffee.
Not all updates have been so positive. During one of the weekly Wednesday sets I sat in on, a regular shared in the comments section that his father had passed away from the virus, and Drew paused the set to pay his respects.
And in early March, the beloved singing server Marc Castelli passed away from complications relating to COVID-19. He had worked at the bar for over fifteen years and was, as Maddie recalled, “the definition of Marie’s for a lot of people.” To pay tribute to him, staff divided up what they called the “Marc Castelli songbook.” Over the course of a week, they each performed the songs that Marc was known for (his rendition of “Poor Unfortunate Souls” from The Little Mermaid was a reliable crowd favorite at Marie’s), the songs he loved to sing, and the songs that reminded them of him. The week ended with one of Marc’s favorites: “When I Look at You” from The Scarlet Pimpernel. Staff recorded themselves singing their different parts at home, and pianist Michael James Roy edited it together.
Someone also found a recording of Marc singing that song at Marie’s many months before the bar had closed. Before the staff’s group number began, people tuning in heard his voice, explaining to a raucous crowd that his shift was technically over. “But before I go home,” he says in the footage, “I’m going to sing one more number, if I may.” The crowd cheers.
In late March, I FaceTimed Drew in a disoriented haze. I explained that I had needed to move our interview back because at the time we had initially planned to speak, I was in a rental car somewhere on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. I had told my bewildered parents in Australia that I was on my way to stay with my boyfriend’s family in Indiana, even though my knowledge of the state, at that point, was confined to the garden outside the carriage house we were staying in. I told Drew all of this while sitting at a small desk by the window, and we began talking about his home state. He regaled me with stories: borrowing the score of Into the Woods from his local library (“someone should have sent up a flare for me! Like, who is this child and what is going on with him? Can we please get him adjusted to reality?”); driving heavy machinery on his summer break from college; working as a creative arts pastor at a church in Huntington, Indiana.
“The church stuff has just always been a normal part [of my life],” he explained. “That’s how I grew up.” He plays piano for a small, liberal church in New York City (which is also now live streaming its services). And from the beginning, he told me, he was able to recognize an undeniable spirituality within Marie’s Crisis, too. “Jewish folks who have a strong synagogue background…folks who came from a lapsed church background… [Marie’s] reminds them of what those singing communities really feel like.” The spirituality at Marie’s is “just based around something different.”
It makes sense, then, that patrons and regulars are expressing an unwavering faith in its future survival. In 2006, Village Voice columnist Michael Musto expressed something of this faith when he railed against those who then doubted the future of New York in the face of gentrification. He cited Marie’s as an example of the Village’s ability to withstand. “[That] whoopee spot where boozy shower singers and even some professional drop-ins belt out everyone’s favorite show tunes,” he wrote, “as if gathered around a campfire…[it’s an] argument against that old whine, ‘New York City isn’t what it used to be.’” Downstairs at Marie’s, Musto argued, New York City was “better than ever.”
His sentiment holds true fourteen years later for Marie’s pianists, as the pandemic continues and op-ed pages are filled with doomsday treatises on the future of New York, promising that the famously resilient city will, this time, fail to bounce back.
“The world is going to be different, everybody knows that,” Drew acknowledged. “But keeping that little community together”—gathering them around a Facebook campfire, for now—“has really been important to people.” Marie’s has, after all, seen hard times before; “whether it’s a death in the community, a terrorist attack, or a natural disaster,” Adam reflected, “that stupid little bar that only holds seventy-two people becomes the first place people want to go when we’re back.”
After the time of this reporting, Marie’s Crisis announced it would reopen under heavy COVID-19 safety restrictions.