I’m in New York City, staying with my friend James in Midtown, and my partner Mike has joined me. We’ve already explored the parks in museums, so it’s time to dive into another side of New York – live entertainment. But before we can be seen in public, we need to visit the local barber shop.
A close shave
New York’s neighbourhood streets are lined with small ma’ and ‘pa shops, and one of the most iconic is the barber shop. Men from every age group and social class descend on these tiny shops to have their manly manes styled into something appropriate for the coming week of high-speed life. Neither Mike or I need a haircut, but we do need a shave, so we wander down 10th Ave one morning in search of an iconic spinning candy cane pole, the iconic symbol that decorates the window of every barbershop in the world.
We find a shop within two blocks of James’ apartment. Upon entering, we are immediately encouraged to take a seat in their classic vinyl pump chairs with polished metal bases that haven’t been upgraded since the 60s. There are three barbers in the shop, all muscular Middle Eastern men with thick black stubble and the mannerisms of Sylvester Stallone.
“What can I do for you, boss?” mine asks.
“I’d like a shave please,” I reply.
The barber nods and gets straight to work. He reclines the chair, thrusting my throat upward into murdering position, and then pulls out his tools: a straight razor, a hot towel, and a can of Gillette shaving cream. He wraps the scalding towel over my face. “Is the heat OK?” he asks, without waiting for a response. After the hair on my face has been suitably scalded, he removes the towel and smears the foamy cream over my skin and up into my nostrils.
My man gets to work removing the hair on my face by carefully peeling off the top layers of epidermis with his razor blade. Occasionally he looks down, but he seems more focused on the conversation with his coworkers.
“Did you see what happened to Mikey last night?” he asks his neighbor.
The guy shaving Mike shakes his head sadly. “What a shock, huh? They popped him twice in the gut, and then an hour later he shows up half-dead in the hospital parking lot. He should’a followed through on the deal, ya know?”
“Yeah, you don’t want to screw those guys,” my man replies. He takes a break to wipe the blade on a towel. I notice a deep scar running down his bicep. I feel my face burning.
“I wonder if he’ll make it though?”
“Nah, he doesn’t make it. I watched the latest episode online. It’s not released on Netflix yet.”
Ah, so the tough immigrant barber holding a straight razor to my throat isn’t involved in a drug ring after all—he just watches TV. New York just ain’t what it used to be.
An explosion of talent
New York is an entertainment hub, particularly when it comes to live music and theatre. There’s so much talent in New York that even a second-rate street busker huddled over a sidewalk vent is likely to be better than your average bar act back home. And when it comes to top-drawer live shows, the entire universe revolves around one point: Broadway.
I have to admit: I love musicals. I’m the sort of guy who, when not paying attention, might accidentally burst into song while walking down the street, causing others on the sidewalk to stop and stare. It’s perfectly in character, then, that I am able to squeeze in four shows during my time in New York.
The first show I see is Hedwig and the Angry Inch, a rock musical about a musician who escapes East Germany after a botched sex change operation. At our performance the lead role of Hedwig, first made famous on Broadway by Neil Patrick Harris, is played by Darren Criss (who played Blaine in the TV show Glee). It is basically a one-man show, and I’m nearly driven to tears by Criss’s incredible vocal and stage talent. It’s a raw and moving performance of unparalleled originality.
The next day, Mike and I decide to see a matinée performance of Chicago, a classic musical about the vain Roxy Hart trying to get herself out of women’s prison after murdering her lover. Roxy is typically portrayed as a pouty blonde floozy, but, oddly, the role is currently played by the black American singer Brandy. Her decidedly un-Broadway approach to the performance gives a fresh interpretation to the somewhat-stale musical, and her unique voice makes the songs sound new to me.
James and I also check out The Spoils, an off-Broadway play starring Jesse Eisenberg (he played Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network.) Non-musical plays in New York generally garner much less attention (and commensurately smaller budgets and audiences) than the mega-musicals, but they do offer a better opportunity to get intimate with some great actors. The play takes place in a New York apartment living room, and follows the antisocial main character’s self-destruction as he systematically alienates himself from everyone. The characters are imperfect and real, not at all like the heroic demi-gods portrayed on Broadway, and in them I recognize shadows of some of the people I know, and, more disturbingly, a bit of myself as well. It’s not an uplifting experience—the actors don’t even smile at the curtain call—but the real New York isn’t all song and dance either, is it?
James doesn’t come to see Chicago with me and Mike because he needs to stop by a box office in the early afternoon to pick up some last-minute tickets for “a cabaret.” That seems fine to me—I’m sure a New York cabaret will be quite entertaining—but I don’t think much about it until that night, when we head over to the Hammerstein Ballroom.
And that’s when it hits me. James didn’t just get tickets to any old cabaret. This is a sensation. It’s legendary. It’s the best burlesque show in town, and happens only once per year. We’re going to Broadway Bares.
The show is put on by the charity organization Broadway Cares, which raises money to fight HIV/AIDS. The show features about a hundred of the hottest Broadway stars performing elaborately choreographed striptease numbers. Imagine it…these people have made a career out of belting perfectly in-tune ballads while simultaneously doing aerial backflips. They’re some of the most gorgeous and fit individuals on the planet. And the stage is full of them, thrusting and bouncing and spinning and flouncing at full throttle. I’ve never seen so many pert bottoms and rippling abdominals in once place, and likely never will again.
I can’t really explain the event any better than that, but suffice to say, it was profound. Check out the videos on their website if you’re drooling. https://www.broadwaycares.org/bares.
Back on the road
New York is a wonderful city. It’s big, dynamic, busy, noisy, smelly (especially on garbage day), creative, tasty, rich, wild…and on and on. The best of nearly everything can be found here. I want to stay. But then again, I’m looking forward to getting home, so after a week in the Big Apple, it’s time to pack up and keep heading into the west.