No, Marie’s Crisis—the long-running piano bar at 59 Grove Street in Greenwich Village—isn’t what you’d call glamorous. After you go down a few creaky steps to get in, you realize the bar’s mirrored wall is always smudged, there are ratty Christmas lights hanging all year, and the stairway to the bathroom is as dank as the bathroom itself. But that’s part of Marie’s charm.
And the fact that the place is a New York treasure, filled with theater lovers gathered around a pianist and group-singing show tunes, makes it glamorous enough for me, thank you. I started going in the ’80s and have been obsessed with it—as a destination for bonding through music and even working out material—for years.
There’s no cover and no minimum, you just stroll in and carry on (though there’s a line on weekends), throwing tips into the fishbowl on the piano to thank the talented and tireless piano players. One of them, Kenney M. Green, likes to pause between songs and comically announce, “By day, this is a gay bar. At night, it magically turns into…a gay bar. I want to thank the straight people here for letting us tolerate you this evening. And for my LGBT brothers and sisters, welcome home!” He also says that if you absolutely have to have a phone meeting with your agent while he’s playing, “there’s a lovely smoking lounge right outside on Grove Street.” But if you stay, please don’t request a Billy Joel song. “He is not a Broadway songwriter,” reminds Green. “He simply entrusted his songbook to Twyla Tharp [for a jukebox show].”
Another expert tinkler, Jim Allen, plays one of my favorite show tunes—“Another Hundred People” from Company—whenever he spots me standing there, and I run to the fishbowl to deposit a thank-you dollar. (This being a musical theater–related hangout, one should really give tens—you know, Hamiltons—but give what you can.) And here’s a tip: Sondheim doesn’t go over too well on the weekends, when the crowd is less gay and the bachelorettes want to hear Disney songs. What’s more, all through the week, Little Shop of Horrors is often the most recent show they play songs from—this place is mired in the glory days of Broadway and off-Broadway—though an occasional Dear Evan Hansen or William Finn song will seep in, and Rent always brings the crowd together for choruses of rousing angst.
Sondheim doesn’t go over too well on the weekends, when the crowd is less gay and the bachelorettes want to hear Disney songs.
The building is also rich with nonmusical history—activist-philosopher Thomas Paine (who wrote the influential pamphlet Common Sense and, more relevantly, The American Crisis) died in the building, before Marie DuMont opened her bohemian restaurant and piano bar in the space in 1929. The wonderful weirdness of it all used to attract oddballs.
There was the guy who would brag about being on the cover of Newsweek while waving a copy with his photo obviously taped onto it. And then there was a middle-aged man who would sit by the piano and emit notes so high they could practically only be heard by dogs. As the place has gotten more and more publicity, the clientele has become a little less marginalized, but there are still wonderful moments, like the time a pianist played “Time Heals Everything” from Mack and Mabel and a woman seated in the corner started singing so loudly and beautifully, it became a solo that sent chills through the room. The waiters also get solos, though my favorite singing waiter—Maggie Wirth—recently left Marie’s for other opportunities.
Do I sing? Yes, and I’ve found that screeching along with the crowd tends to embolden you to sing hard and loud. I got so excited singing along to “Don’t Rain on My Parade” from Funny Girl one night that I decided to put it in a cabaret show I did elsewhere. Thank you, Marie’s, for the free rehearsal—and for the years of singing out and loving it. Glamorous!
Michael Musto writes the weekly Musto Unfiltered column for the LGBT site NewNowNext.com. For 29 years, he wrote the entertainment and nightlife column La Dolce Musto for The Village Voice. He has written four books and appears regularly as a commentator on television. He is one of the rotating cohosts of the long-running TV show Theater Talk.