Broadway’s Muse: New York City Neighborhoods

Broadway’s Muse: New York City Neighborhoods

Why do so many plays and musicals take place in neighborhoods in New York?

Tony Danza, the Brooklyn-born ex-boxer who became a star playing a boxer and cabdriver on the TV series Taxi, made his Broadway debut in the 1997 revival of Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge, which takes place in Red Hook, Brooklyn — one of the many, many works of theater set in a New York City neighborhood. “He was older,” Danza says about the playwright, “but his Brooklyn and my Brooklyn were not that much different.”
Danza is returning to Broadway as one of the stars of Honeymoon in Vegas, a new musical that begins in a very changed Brooklyn.

“Brooklyn now is seen as a place for young people on the verge of starting their lives,” says Danza’s costar Rob McClure, best known for his starring role on Broadway in Chaplin. Danza says, “I feel bad for kids in Brooklyn today. When I was growing up, for 25 cents you could buy a spaldeen ball and play 30 different games in the street with it.”

One thing has not changed: Neighborhoods of New York are still often the setting for shows on Broadway. “I think New York has a special place for writers,” Danza says. “New York is their muse.”

Of the 10 shows that opened on Broadway in September and October this year, two (Disgraced, It’s Only a Play) are set on the Upper East Side of Manhattan; two (This Is Our Youth, You Can’t Take It With You) on the Upper West Side; and one (On The Town) dances around all over town, from Times Square to Coney Island.

“New York is such an exciting and kinetic city where anything can happen; that kind of energy inspires my choreography,” says Joshua Bergasse, the much-praised choreographer for On The Town.

But that’s not all. This season, there are Off-Broadway shows that are set in every borough of the city. The Fortress of Solitude, playing at at The Public Theater, is a musical adaptation of the best-selling novel by Jonathan Lethem about two childhood friends who drift apart, set in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Gowanus as it changes into the gentrified and renamed Boerum Hill. Lincoln Center is presenting Kimber Lee’s Brownsville Song(B-Side for Tray) about the life and death of a teenager from that Brooklyn neighborhood, and the effect on his family. Manhattan Theatre Club is offering a play that takes place on Staten Island by Sharyn Rothstein, By the Water, about one family’s effort to rebuild their neighborhood after Hurricane Sandy. The New Ohio Theatre in downtown Manhattan recently mounted I Like to Be Here, about the people of Jackson Heights, Queens, written and performed by Theatre 167, a company based in Jackson Heights and named for the 167 languages that are spoken in that most diverse of neighborhoods. At Playwrights Horizons, playwright Heidi Schreck has placed her play Grand Concourse in a soup kitchen in the Bronx. “It’s set in the Bronx because the kitchen is partially based on a wonderful organization there called POTS,” says Schreck.

“There are so many New York City plays I grew up loving,” says Schreck, who was raised in a small town in Washington state. “Angels in America, Dutchman, Zoo Story, and, if I’m going to be totally honest, at the top of that list is the musical Annie” — so many, she says, “I get way more excited when I hear that a play is not set in New York City.”

Why do so many plays and musicals take place in neighborhoods in New York? “Because New York City is the center of the world; New Yorkers have the most interesting lives,” says Elizabeth Ashley, 18-time Broadway veteran currently in You Can’t Take It With You. “Would you rather they be in Newark?” jokes Mark Linn-Baker, who is Ashley’s colleague in the revival set around the corner from Columbia University.

“A lot of us live in New York,” explains playwright Tina Howe, straightforwardly. Though best known for Coastal Disturbances, set on a Massachusetts beach, Howe has also written Rembrandt’s Gift, which takes place in SoHo, and Skin Deep, whose action unfolds on the R train of the New York City subway.

There are plays and musicals set in other cities, of course, but “New York is the all-time champ,” says NYU arts professor Laurence Maslon, and has been since the 19th century. “It’s the city where playwrights came from, or wanted to go.”

“There are probably more stories in New York City than anywhere else,” says Jeffery Seller, a Broadway producer of original, quintessential New York neighborhood musicals such as Rent (the Lower East Side) and In The Heights (Washington Heights) as well as the most recent revival of West Side Story. (He is currently the lead producer of The Last Ship.) He is especially drawn to the neighborhoods of the city “because that’s where families are made.”

“Neighborhoods all have their character,” says Ayad Akhtar, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for Disgraced. “The more you know about a place, the more specific you can be about the world you are drawing. It’s always helpful to have a sense of this kind of specificity.” Many neighborhoods in New York have the added advantage of being so famous. To Akhtar, the Upper East Side is nearly shorthand for success. “Of course, these days, just to live in a nice neighborhood uptown or downtown connotes success, but there is something in the mythology of New York, in the history of the life of this city, that says the Upper East Side is the place where those who’ve made it live, especially when it comes to finance and law.”

Before he designed the set for This Is Our Youth, Todd RosenthaI spent an afternoon walking around the Upper West Side with playwright Kenneth Lonergan. “He showed me the actual places where the play is set.” Rosenthal decided to include the exterior of nearby buildings looming over the interior apartment where the action takes place. “The surround of buildings in the design is significant because it emphasizes the huge, imposing, ever-present world that surrounds the characters. It is an unscalable landscape.

“New York City is unlike anywhere else,” the set designer says, echoing many theater artists. “I live in Chicago. It doesn’t come close to the chaos, excitement, prevailing sense of urgency, the smashing-together of the old and the new, like New York. In This Is Our Youth the characters are churned around in the massive New York blender. The opportunities to succeed are massive, as are the avenues for failure. At the end they just want to go home and sleep. I feel like this every time I go to New York.”