There is absolutely no excuse as to why someone such as myself, a New York resident for many years now, complete with esteemed theater-actor friends, hasn't had their fair share of Broadway experiences. For me, personally, I chalk this up to my fear of tourist-ridden crowds and little interest in musicals--although I greatly respect them (hey, I had a massive girl-crush on Frenchie from Grease as a kid, okay). Nonetheless, I cant help but feel like I'm failing this great city when out-of-town-ers ask what to see, what to skip, and how to go about it all when it comes to Broadway. Well, cowering behind the curtain no longer, I decided to have a sit-down with a theater aficionado and great friend to get to the bottom of what so many of us have been missing.
Matt Karr juggles stage management duties for various traveling theater shows when he's not working for a popular PR firm. He also pens hilarious, personal sentiments on everything from political views, tips on interior decor, reviews on the latest pop culture trends, or anything he damn well pleases on his blog: Matt About It. This fellow Brooklynite has seen everything on and far off-Broadway. I knew he'd school us in all things theater related, if we just asked:
FBM: Thanks for taking the time to talk to us! I, for one, know how busy and in-demand you are, my friend. You are always on the go. I truly appreciate your stamina, which is a necessity to really live and experience this great city and all that she has to offer. I mean, do you think the majority of people realize that you could dine at a different restaurant three times a day, every single day of the year, and you’d still never cover every eatery in NYC? This could be said for a lot of other major cities in the US, but considering the eclectic mix of cuisine we have here gives us the advantage. But perhaps I’m just biased.
Matt Karr: Oh absolutely! I still sometimes find it hard to decide where I want to eat just because there are so many choices! One time a couple stopped me in the Flatiron District and asked where a close restaurant was and I told them, “close your eyes and point!” NYC is truly a land of authentically eclectic cuisine. I love to go into a new restaurant and order something on the menu I can’t pronounce (makes for an interesting meal). Or even better, if it’s a smaller restaurant (less than 20 items on the menu) I’ll tell the server I’ll have whatever the chef recommends. I’ve never gone wrong with that! The key is just to get out there and try it and never judge a restaurant’s food by how the place may appear. If you find you're not a fan of something, there's about a 100 more eateries within 20 minutes of your next venture.
FBM: You're so right. Now I'm hungry and thinking about new menus and chefs... Okay, so tell us--we’ll get back to food and drinks here in a sec. Let’s talk entertainment. You have basically seen everything and almost everyone on Broadway and beyond. So many New Yorkers (myself included) and visitors to the city have a rather intimidating list of theater productions to choose from. Regardless of the major headliners and titles involved—or not at all—which of the shows in production today would you argue shouldn’t be missed and why?
MK: Well, first I suggest you run, not walk, over to On The Twentieth Century, playing at American Airlines theatre on 42nd St. Kristen Chenoweth is Broadway Royalty and she is starring opposite Peter Gallagher, also known for Broadway [and that little has-been The OC]. They are a comedy duo unlike I’ve ever seen before and unlikely to see again for quite some time. If you can get there before April 26th, Hedwig and The Angry Inch is starring the man that originally created the German Songstress herself, John Cameron Mitchell, who coincidentally sat right next to us when we saw it with Neil Patrick Harris last year. Her tale of woe is as harsh as her anger, but the music and performance from him and Tony Winner Lena Hall will leave you speechless. I would also say that Kinky Boots is a must see. It won a Tony for best musical and has it all. Great songs, drag queens, fantastic costumes and dance numbers, and a strong message about how changing our minds can change the world, which I think couldn’t be a better slogan for what NYC is all about. Finally, the last production I can’t recommend enough is Aladdin. This new production from Disney will have you on your feet cheering before the first act is over. The special effects will leave you breathless and the Genie will leave you in hysterics.
FBM: Amazing information. I'm a big Cyndi Lauper fan and I'm pretty positive I'd thoroughly enjoy Kinky Boots. Alrighty, let’s dish on the bad. Which of the shows should we skip, and why?
MK: You know, that’s a little harder to say, because if a show is bad, it closes quickly. You can have a big celebrity or Tony winner, beautiful sets and costumes, and the best marketing, but if it stinks, it will shutter soon. It’s just far too expensive to run a Broadway show these days to keep it open if it’s losing money. Producers will give it their best shot, but at some point, they have to cut their losses and run. A good example was The Bridges of Madison County. They had Stephen Pasquale from TV fame and Kelli O’Hara who is also a Broadway sensation and the Susan Lucci of the Tony Awards, and they adapted the über popular movie into a musical production that just didn't "sing". Ultimately, I think audiences decided that they didn’t want to see a musical about a woman cheating on her husband and family, very anti-Broadway normality. Not to mention, my biggest complaint was that it didn’t even have a full bridge, so, it was dead in the water after less than four months. Its called the BRIDGES of Madison County and you skimp on the bridge? No thanks.
FBM: Yeah, I'd need to see some solid Bridge action if it's in the title, dammit. Meryl and Clint were so good in that film. Such a gorgeous, heart-wrenching portrayal. Not sure that a musical would deliver the same sentiments but I'm not the expert here.. Any actors or major productions you were super excited to see, but so unpleasantly surprised by after?
MK: Nothing that is still open, or as the Broadway folk say “On the Boards”. Idina Menzel, or as she is more famously known, Adele Dazim (who says John Travolta can’t start a career?), is in a show called If/Then which is pretty much Sliding Doors the movie minus Gwyneth Paltrow. The only good thing about it was the hype, which let it hold on for a little while, but closes later this month. There is also the new play written by and starring Larry David called A Fish in the Dark that set a new Broadway record for advanced ticket sales. Unfortunately, I think the comedy and spontaneity that you got from Curb Your Enthusiasm and Seinfeld is lost when you try to recreate the same movements, lines, and poses eight times a week on stage.
FBM: You've made some tremendous points here. I'm so glad we are finally having this discussion! What took us so long? Wait, don't answer that... Okay, what about those major, long-running, cash-cow productions like Wicked or The Lion King, or that über talked about The Book of Mormon—any of these that either impressed or depressed? Should I be ashamed that I’ve lived here for as long as I have without seeing any of these? Actually, don't answer that either..
MK: Well, there is a reason that those shows have been running as long as they have! But you shouldn’t be ashamed if you haven’t seen them. Tickets for these shows are very difficult to get and subsequently are also the most expensive; many times going for $200 or more. I’ve seen Wicked 5 times, twice in Chicago, the touring company, and twice in NY (both times as someone’s +1). It is by far the quintessential Broadway story and will leave you with tears in your eyes at the end of each act. Not to mention that when it opened the critics pretty much said “Meh” and it’s actually been the audiences that have made this the worldwide powerhouse phenomenon it is. The Lion King is similar to that, but was a hit from the moment it opened. Not only for directing, but also for the authentic costumes and harnesses needed in order for Julie Taymor to recreate the popular movie magnificently for the stage. The show also does special Autism Friendly performances to open its doors to audience members who don’t often get to experience the magic of theatre. And then there is The Book of Mormon. This show ran for a solid three years before I got to see it. Friends of mine viewed it two/three times and I was left asking myself, “is this show really worth all the hype, $300 for the tickets, and having to book 5 months in advance?” Well, I don’t know about the ticket price, as I’m a firm believer that theater should be accessible to everyone, but the show was definitely worth every bit of the hype and wait. For many Broadway shows, they do a lottery 2 hours prior, to offer front row seats for $25-35. By luck, my fiancé (who had already seen the show twice) won and later that night I was laughing through tears at the sheer absurdity and comedy of it all. Then there's that Broadway staple and longest running production: The Phantom of the Opera. Now, don’t get me wrong; the music and story are iconic and it is truly a perfectly crafted Broadway musical, but I think you would be better to spend your money on a ticket to one of the other musicals and catch this one on DVD or on tour in your hometown. Going to NYC to see Phantom of the Opera is like walking into a Thai restaurant and ordering Pad Thai. Boooooring.
FBM: Ah, not Pad Thai! Go for the Red Curry! Now I'm hungry again.. Awesome. You’ve really given us some solid feedback here. At least I’ll finally have something to bring to the brunch table when my theater friends weigh in on the latest stage gossip. But for those (again, myself) that want to dress to impress the Broadway babes, what would you throw on to see Wicked vs. Fish in the Dark? After all, what fun is the theater if you can't work a little fashion in there.
MK: I’m so glad you asked me that! Sadly, these days, seems as if fashion is missing from the Broadway audience. To sum the style up in one word: tacky. At some point, people stopped caring how they dress to attend the theater. Perhaps I am of a different mindset, but I love to really tie it on when I see a show because it is a unique place that brings together a mix of all different cultures and social statuses under one spectacular roof. Also, ample time to gawk at other ensembles is definitely built into the evening. For example: You enter the theater up to a half hour before and can sit and watch the rest of the audience stroll in, greet and chat with people you may know, or flip through your playbill. At intermission everyone stands up and once again you are given a peek at what is usually hidden behind giant drab coats on the street. It’s like you are seeing the NYT Street Style during fashion week but it’s walking right in front of you! Now, that doesn’t mean that you have to go out and buy the latest Chanel frock immediately. It simply means you can be creative and fun when picking your outfit. A simple tip for men is to add a tie, I prefer a bow tie, but a long tie would work as well. I also love to see both men and women in colorful clothing, say kelly green pants or a magenta blazer or frilly skirt. Leave the t-shirts at home unless at the very least you have a well-fitting blazer over it. No shorts. Well, I suppose you can get away with wearing shorts if the rest of your outfit, say a collared shirt and suspenders, help to make the entire ensemble more formal. Cutoffs of any kind are a big No-No. I would say no to jeans, but I have, on occasion, worn a very dark, non-bleached and straight-legged pair along with a blazer, bow tie and boots; wing tip, not steel toed. Rule of thumb: If you could wear the outfit to Central Park on a blistery hot day, don’t wear it to the theater. Not to mention, theaters are often kept at what feels like sub-zero temperatures, so layer up! Really, it doesn’t matter if you are wearing H&M or Michael Bastian, be creative and show some flare because the worst thing that can happen is that you blend in. Or worse, stand out for the wrong reasons, and who wants that? You probably paid over $100 for your ticket, you should try and dress like you did!
FBM: No cutoffs, people! Oh, I can only imagine (I'm sinfully laughing on the inside)... Okay, I’m wearing the best threads, and [finally] seeing the best shows. Now for the most important bit of info: where in the world must I retreat in the Theater District should I get a hankering for a strong and delicious libation, pre or post-show?
MK: Now you’re REALLY speaking my language! There is no better theater tradition than pre-show drinks! Since everything is open very late in NYC, I recommend that you wait until after the show to get dinner. Now, it may seem crazy to be eating at 10pm, but trust me, coming out of a show will have you on a natural high and you’ll be ready for some grub. Plus, the real benefit is that you won't spend the entire meal sitting and looking at your watch worried that you will be late for the show, which is a MAJOR FOUL. So before the show, grab a drink and an appetizer to tide you over for a few hours. I can tell you, after much research, every show is better with a pre-show beverage. The great thing is that there are just as many places to get a cocktail as there are restaurants to dine in. The Rum House on 47th Street offers affordable drinks and live piano music. Social on 8th Ave has multiple floors, each with a bar, and a rooftop to take in that gorgeous spring and summer weather we waited all winter for. The Russian Vodka Room on 52nd literally throws you back in time and you will forget that you are sitting in the middle of one of the most populated areas of Manhattan, probably because there aren’t any windows for you to see out of (or for people to see into). There is also a relatively unknown spot called Bettibar, located on the 3rd floor of the Hourglass Tavern on the corner of 46th and 9th that only holds about 20 people and has musical instruments adorning the wall. However, I would say the best spot with the best view would have to be R Lounge. Located in the Renaissance Times Square Hotel on 28th St and 7th Ave, this bar hosts the amazing mix of fantastic drinks, comfortable ambiance, and the best view of Times Square you can ask for. If it wasn’t for my desire to try different places, I’d go there before every show. The best way to experience Times Square is directly above it all!
FBM: You've seriously got me pining for a rendezvous in Times Square now. What is happening?? Any quick tips on getting the most out of your Broadway experience (secret handshake, password, etc…)
MK: Well, I don’t know if there is anything too secretive about Broadway these days. At least in front of the stage [winks]. There are a couple of rules that one would think are obvious, but I see broken all the time. Never, and I repeat, NEVER be late for a show. Everyone is going to despise you if you arrive ten minutes late and then have to climb over bodies to your seats. You paid a lot for your tickets and so did they. Make sure you turn off your cell phone--this should be a no-brainer. It has been a long time since I saw a show that wasn’t interrupted by a ringing phone. Even the vibrate function is unacceptable because these theaters are made with the best acoustics in mind. We will hear it shaking. Many Broadway theaters have bars in them. My first job in NYC was as a bartender in a couple of the Broadway theaters and they sometimes offer specialty cocktails created just for the show. If you pre-order a drink for intermission when you purchase your drink before the show, not only will your drink be ready when the first act ends and you get to skip the line, but it will be 50% off. Another tip would be how to purchase your tickets. To get a great deal on prices, you can visit TKTS in Times Square or try the lottery option that I mentioned before. However, being that this is 2015 and we are all about ease and technology, you can skip the lines and the “luck” and go right to TodayTix, a new app that hunts down the best Broadway deals for you and lets you buy on the spot. TodayTix is the future of ticket buying so I highly recommend you jump on this train.
FBM: You are like the information-super-highway of Broadway. Too bad you're not on their payroll [yet]. In conclusion, I’m simply curious; how many playbills do you own? Ballpark.
MK: Oh geeze. [Long pause] Well, lets see. We have probably 8 binders filled with playbills, each holding around 50 or so and we also have a full bag ready to fill another three binders. It’s not all just Broadway but even so..……it’s a lot!