Friday, December 11, 2009

New York Performers

At Barnes and Noble Bookstores all over Manhattan, authors come to speak about their new books. It is one of the best forms of free entertainment in the city. Oh, sure, some of these "booktalks" are dull and uninspired, but a surprising number are lively and inflected with a love of performance. New Yorkers do love to perform, to show off, to mug, to strut their stuff, to attract attention, even to entertain. And a fair amount of this entertainment is available at no charge, and we don't even have to work very hard to find it.

There is one spot, however, that abounds with wonderful and dependable free entertainment. That spot is the Lincoln Triangle Barnes and Noble Bookstore at Broadway and 66th (just a few steps from where we live). This Barnes and Noble is loaded with books - 4 floors of books as well as a basement jammed with DVDs and CDs that makes it one of the best stocked stores in the city. But what perhaps makes this store unique is its impressive "performance" space on the 3rd floor. They not only have booktalks there, they offer 60 minutes of excerpts from the latest Broadway shows and musicals, as long as there is a connection to a new book, CD, or DVD. The cast of West Side Story has been there, the stars of Bye Bye Birdie have made an appearance, the folks producing Guys and Dolls weighed in, and so many others have appeared on their stage. Unfortunately, these performances are usually early in the evening and strictly on weekdays, making it difficult for us to attend.

Two evenings ago we finally made it to one of these mini-extravaganzas, and it did not disappoint. It was a tribute to Zero Mostel that included the new star of the play about Mostel - Jim Brochu in Zero Hour (noted very favorably in these pages a few posts back), the actress Frances Sternhagen who worked with him in Ulysses in Nighttown back in the late fifties, the wife of the songwriter Barton Lane, who knew him socially for many years, and a number of others, including the lyricist for Fiddler on the Roof - Sheldon Harnick (now 85). Brochu performed off and on as Zero, again brilliantly, but to hear these people talk about their colleague and friend in such rich and revealing ways was truly a treat. For the most part, this was a lovefest of a very crazy and impetuous man, but Harnick offered the most surprising insights. I think it would be fair to say that during the run of Fiddler on the Roof (Mostel was only in it for 9 months) in which Mostel starred as Tevye, there was never any let-up in the trouble that Mostel caused Harnick and the other producers of the show. He was such a ham, such a brilliant comic, and such an ingenious improviser, they could not get him to do it the same way every night. Thus, there were some nights when it went beautifully, and others, resulting from Zero's clowning, that did not come off well (at least according to Harnick). Audiences loved Mostel, in part because they never knew what we would do. But a lyricist, of course, wants a performer to do a song the way he imagined it or at least the way it was rehearsed with the director (Jerome Robbins, respected by Mostel as a director, hated by him for naming names when he appeared before HUAC). Zero Mostel could not do it the same way two nights in a row and so it was a luck of the draw whether his improvising resulted in something brilliant, or, in some bit of businesss that would cause the whole cast to get off their timing.

In any case, it was great to hear all these people talk about one of the greatest of New York performers. An event that probably couldn't have happened anywhere but in New York City.

1 comment:

  1. How lovely to be reminded of Zero Mostel. I remember seeing The Producers for the first time. It was playing at the Chicago Theater in the Loop. I was aware of Mostel from the recordings of Fiddler on the Roof but had no real expectations other than the film was supposed to be funny. Well, suffice to say that 'funny' doesn't come close...