Saturday 21 October 2017

Revolutionary bar to drown your sorrows

Raise a glass to New York's all-singing, all-dancing bohemian piano club

SING OUT! Franca Vercelloni, who has played piano at Marie’s Crisis in New York for the past decade
SING OUT! Franca Vercelloni, who has played piano at Marie’s Crisis in New York for the past decade

Gina London

Near Seventh Avenue, across from New York's Stonewall Inn, where riots there in 1969 launched the gay rights revolution, stands a brick building with a red and white awning known as Marie's Crisis.

Forty years before Stonewall, chanteuse Marie DuMont opened her own club as a refuge for bohemians. She named it in honour of Thomas Paine, a hero of another revolution, the one that liberated the US from Mother England.

In addition to Common Sense, his more famous work, Paine also wrote American Crisis, which called for the bluecoat soldiers to re-enlist during the war.

He later died on the site that Marie came to own - so it was to herself, Paine and America's first crisis she referred when she named the West Village drinkery.

And it was America's latest crisis that prompted me to find myself inside the building last week. In town on business, I had asked if a group of friends would like to gather after work to tell me their thoughts on the Trump Transition.

"No," they collectively sighed. My New York friends were tired of post-election politics. They wanted a break. One of them, Caitlin O'Toole, a writer and journalist [who actually had 'The Kardashians' as her beat for a time], suggested we go instead to Marie's Crisis, which is now noted as one of the city's last remaining piano bars.

When we arrived, the small pub was jammed with people crowded around an upright piano. There were men and women, young and old, gay and straight. Every single one of them singing with abandon, to Seasons of Love from the Broadway hit Rent.

I didn't know all the words to that one. But I freely confess I love musicals. Growing up, my mum liked to play records of the old chestnuts like South Pacific and Music Man. I happen to know every word to every song from Camelot, for example. Just ask me.

In spite of not knowing the night's first song, I joined in anyway, mouthing that lyric-substitute word "watermelon" with enthusiasm to match the pitch of the assembled crowd. Behind the piano, leading us like a gracious hostess of a private party, sat Franca Vercelloni.

A native New Yorker, who studied piano performance at the University of Cincinnati's Conservatory of Music, Franca has played at Marie's Crisis for the past decade.

"The music of musicals compared with that of Justin Bieber, or any of the 800 other young people who are becoming stars every day, triggers a response of euphoric play where people become childlike and carefree and think that anything is possible," she told me.

"People get so happy when they know the words. They recognise the chorus of something they know and it's like they're kids again. It makes me happy, too."

It reminds her of her trip last May to Ireland.

"It was my first visit, and I'm obviously Italian American but I have a great many friends who are Irish American and I understand how particularly important music is to the spirit of the Irish people.

"I took the Traditional Irish Musical Pub Crawl in Dublin run by Anthony Bools and Larry Shaw. I told them I played in a piano bar in the States and they explained how music is a part of every day in Ireland.

"I don't think you'd find a fiddler, or a piano player, or an accordion player in almost every bar like you can in Ireland. It's more indigenous.

"I loved it," she laughed as she relived the experience.

Her emotions, dipped, however, as she recalled her experience of playing at Marie's Crisis on election night.

"For us, it was a pretty grim night. At 9.30pm results were just starting to be tallied; people kept compulsively checking their phones. We joked that if Trump wins, we'll have to play Tomorrow Belongs to Me from Cabaret [it's the song sung by the Nazis]. But then as the night progressed, we became more anxious and sad.

"I tried to keep spirits up. Playing Rainbow Connection and Somewhere Out There - happy songs. But I was sick to my stomach. Sometime after midnight a Hillary supporter came in. He was weeping. He was inconsolable.

"I was supposed to play until 3.30am, but we packed it in a little early by the time it was pretty much a sure thing that Trump won. I felt like I was fiddling while the Titanic sank.

"I also played the Friday that the Supreme Court ruled gay marriage was legal. That night was unbelievable," Franca described... and then she began to cry.

"It's making me tear up right now. It's making me tear up thinking about what the country might face in the next four years with the potential change of the make-up of the Supreme Court. And I'm straight. But so many of my friends..." She trailed off.

The night that I was in Marie's, there were no tears. Only cheer. Franca led us in dozens of buoyant show-tunes including Part of Your World from The Little Mermaid. That one I know. I joined in the song.

The mirror on the wall behind the bar at Marie's Crisis is etched with soldiers and a woman shouldering a sickle. Three words are inscribed in the centre - Liberte, Egalite, fraternite - words that emerged from another crisis: the French Revolution. Franca fittingly leads us in a stirring number from Les Miserables. I know the lyrics to that one, too. I belt out joyfully along with the rest.

We shake the rafters. The power of words. The power of song.

I look around. All smiles. All joy. For this moment anyway, there isn't a care in the world.

Gina London is an award-winning US journalist now living in Ireland

Sunday Independent

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