The line outside the bar was one-in-one-out. My friend and I huddled in the December wind on a street in New York’s West Village, waiting for enough patrons to exit so we could be let inside. The bar was a half level below the sidewalk, and piano music and raucous singing drifted through the window near our feet. It was around 10 p.m. We had spent the day doing other vacation-y things: brunch in Brooklyn, visiting the New Museum where locals took selfies to a whole new level, cocktails in a speakeasy hidden off of a hot dog joint in St. Marks Place. Now, we were here–waiting to get into a packed-to-capacity piano bar that solely played Broadway show tunes. As the line inched forward, we made our way to the front and then inside. The small, packed bar area exploded with sound; a full capacity bar was singing at the tops of their lungs “How we gonna pay… how we gonna pay… how we gonna pay… LAST YEAR’S RENT?!”
I grew up worshipping MGM musicals with the same fervor my classmates had for hair bands; Gene Kelly was my Brett Michaels. In high school, I found my Happy Place when I was cast in my first real musical (outside of a grade school production called In Quest of Columbus where I played the railing of the Santa Maria). While my all-girls Catholic high school in a north Chicago suburb was hardly the setting of Fame, I had at least found a place among the teenagers whose CD collections were dominated by original cast recordings. When people learned my name was Kim, they typically responded by blurting back Miss Saigon lyrics: “I have a heart like the seeeeaaa…… A million dreams are in meeeeee!”
At Marie’s Crisis Cafe, I was once again among my people. It’s hard to explain the power of music, the way it creates a sense of community and gives a venue full of people a shared–at times transcendent–experience. Hedwig sang it best: “All the misfits and the losers, well you know you’re rock and rollers, spinning to your rock and roll…” In the packed bar, regulars mixed in with tourists; a decent amount of patrons appeared to still be wearing stage makeup from earlier in the night. Most of the crowd recognized a song from the first few chords, and the energetic vocals from the pianist helped the stragglers catch up. There were enough professionals and music buffs present to break out into harmonies, fill in the backup chorus, and interject lines of dialogue. We broke out into goofy grins and joyous laughter each time we recognized a song, then dove right into belting it out along with everyone else. It was impossible to be unhappy in a place like this, where even the most jaded New Yorker wasn’t too cool to sing “Little Surrey with the Fringe on Top” in public. We tore through numbers from Chicago, Little Shop of Horrors, Mary Poppins, Hedwig & the Angry Inch, Oklahoma, Les Miserables, Showboat, and A Chorus Line while throwing back cheap domestic beers in the cramped tavern. We sang until 3 a.m., when we reluctantly called it a night and caught the subway back to our rented apartment. With the piano playing on in my head, I thought back to all those nights on the stage, with pancake makeup on my face and my feet crammed into character shoes, finding my joy through music and performing. A million dreams are in me.