The first time I went to Marie’s Crisis Café, I thought I’d found a stage door to heaven. It was my 24th birthday, and my then-boyfriend (now husband of 14 years), Chris, had taken me there as a surprise after dinner at Lupa. We walked up Seventh Avenue South and made a tiny turn onto Grove Street, and as soon as Chris opened the door, Sondheim came spilling out. Well, not literally. Stephen Sondheim himself didn’t stumble out onto the street. But his lyrics, specifically for “Some People” from Gypsy, did. My eyes widened and my pulse quickened. I descended the stairs to the basement bar and there, before me, were dozens of strangers crowded around an upright piano, singing full-voice with huge smiles on their faces and half-drunk Manhattans in their hands. And like me, they knew all the words. I didn’t hesitate: “Oh what a dream! A wonderful dream…”
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People have been belting out show tunes at Marie’s since the 1970s. Before that, the space was a bohemian cafe and, apparently, back in the 1850s, a den for prostitution. (The name comes from the original owner—Marie Dumont—and the fact that Thomas Paine, who wrote “The American Crisis,” died in a house on the land where Marie’s is now.) Every night, insanely talented musicians with an encyclopedic knowledge of the Great White Way take to the piano and play for tips (for years now, my favorite has been the smiley, curly-haired Franca Vercelloni). When I first started going, the musicians generally played from memory or maybe songbooks; now they have iPads and can call up lesser known requests, like “If I Had a Fine White Horse” from The Secret Garden or “I Know Him So Well” from Chess. The waiters, too, are ringers, and they often take a pause from doling out martinis to flawlessly tackle a solo.
I had my 26th birthday party there. And my 28th. I’ve taken my mom and my brother, my best friends from home, coworkers I barely knew. Three months after I gave birth to my son, Marie’s was my first night out. (The Manhattans were stronger than I remembered!) I’ve sung alongside celebrities and fashion designers, octogenarians and baby-faced Gen Zers. Once, at Christmastime, I was brought to tears by a 7-foot-tall drag queen singing “O Holy Night.”
In the past couple of years I haven’t gone as often as I used to, what with the family and the early morning requirements, but I did stop by with a friend recently to sing along with a few tunes from Once on This Island and Cabaret. The crowd was different, but also the same—some good singers and some not, but all musical-theater fans.
Now, though, as the coronavirus has locked me inside my New York apartment for the foreseeable future, I’m stopping by almost nightly—virtually, that is. The Marie’s Crisis crew is logging onto Facebook Live every night, roughly from 4:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m., taking turns spreading joy by playing “Seasons of Love” from Rent and “Corner of the Sky” from Pippin, right from their living rooms. People all over the world are posting requests and thank-yous and heart emojis out the wazoo—and, of course, singing along, as loudly and as off-key as they want (until their neighbors complain). And they’re sending “tips” via Venmo, the internet equivalent of dropping a fiver in the jar at the real Marie’s. It’s pretty magical, really. There’s nothing like a good show tune to help tune out the day’s news.
To visit the virtual Marie’s, join the Maries Group page on Facebook. And be generous with those Venmo and Paypal tips! Once the world straightens itself out, visit the real Marie’s at 59 Grove Street in New York City.