Late one New York night back in 2011, whilst walking through the heart of the West Village, friends pulled me into an underground bar. A simple red-and-white sign in Old English Font read “Marie’s Crisis.”
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It was unusual for these dear friends of mine — who, unlike my own partier self, didn’t drink alcohol — to drag me into a bar on our walk home. More often, it was me suggesting one last drink at a local dive.
Christmas lights hung from the roof — no matter that it was mid-year. An upright piano stood tall in the middle of an otherwise basic room. Broadway choruses filled the air as I was rammed into the mismatched crowd who somehow suddenly became one, swaying together in unison to the music. My eyes met my friends with unbridled joy as I realized this was a singalong bar.
I zigzagged my way across the bar for a cheap and strong vodka served by an abrupt bartender annoyed at my request for lime (no one has time for lime when a Disney singalong is about to break out). I zigzagged my way back through the heaving, animated crowd to my friends.
For a moment, the bar quieted and the crowd stopped as a lone singer began to sing “Part of Your World” from ‘The Little Mermaid.’
It was heaven. It was musical Nirvana. It was Marie’s Crisis, the much loved West Village bar that is popular for its Broadway ballads and musical theater numbers.
Located in the heart of West Village and mere steps away from Stonewall, Marie’s Crisis is an important hub for the LGBTQ+ community. The bar first opened in the 1850s when it was used as a den for sex work. It later became a “boy’s bar” before finally becoming the beloved piano joint we know today: a place where musical theater lovers and a large portion of the LGBTQ+ community have gathered to stand together and sing while lone pianists belt out numbers on the ivory keys of the upright piano.
Long-time Marie’s Crisis pianist Franca Vercelloni knows how important the bar is to many New Yorkers and visitors.
“It is a place where people can work out a lot of feelings and find lifelong friends — all while singing with a group of strangers who quickly become friends,” she says. “It brings people together. It has an international following and brings people from all over the world.”
Alas, this typical pre-pandemic scene has had to adapt and change to meet medical and safety requirements due to Covid restrictions. The beloved singalong bar announced this month it would reopen with 15 people allowed inside at socially distanced tables with set opening hours that match state laws.
Not long after this announcement, new curfews and lock-downs announced by the state of New York meant this was not possible. For a bar that prides itself on camaraderie and good times, it’s been a trying year — including for the staff. The overflowing goldfish bowl tip jar is no more during these times, but you can still show you care with virtual tips via Venmo.
“2020 has been so many things to so many extremes. I’ve lost friends and loved ones due to Covid and other illnesses,” Vercelloni tells GO. “That’s already tragic, but the fact that we haven’t been able to gather and grieve together over many of those losses is awful.”
As an ally, Vercelloni understands the importance of Marie’s Crisis for the LGBTQ+ community from what she’s observed and what friends have shared with her.
“Marie’s Crisis is a safe space, a place of acceptance, a place where you can find your tribe. It is community, friendship, and family,” she says.
Music tends to make people feel good, and it turns out there is some science behind it, too. According to this study when you listen to a song you like, dopamine is released into your brain. Places like The Nordoff-Robbins Center for Music Therapy are committed to the belief that music can be utilized for personal growth and development.
I can certainly attest to that. Growing up, I was surrounded by music. A baby grand piano sat in my family living room, the sounds of the likes of “Les Mis” floating down the hall as my mom sat tinkering away on the ivory keys.
Every Christmas Eve, my wild and wacky aunts and uncles gather around a piano and the entire family sings carols. You better believe they also do a rendition in German — an ode to their heritage — much to the amusement of their children, nieces, and nephews. Today, I drive around listening to Broadway ballads — or opera songs — to make myself feel better if I’m feeling low.
So when those lovely friends of mine drew me down into that dark little underground bar with a piano smack bang in the middle of the room without warning, it was love at first sight. The silver lining of the pandemic is that closed borders and boundaries have increased the accessibility and availability of virtual experiences.
Never one to Skype with friends around the world before 2020, I’ve found myself speaking to my favorite people regardless of where they live.
“I miss the camaraderie and joy that comes with my work and interacting with people,” Vercelloni agrees. “On the flip side, I’ve spent more time with my aunt, who’s joined me on some of my live streams, and that’s been crazy and wonderful.”
Marie’s Crisis has been hosting virtual performances since the start of the pandemic. Armed with smartphones and pianos and their own personal Venmo accounts, the regular pianists stream live singalongs from their homes. The audience can join their Facebook page (Marie’s Crisis Live | Marie’s Crisis Cafe) for the scheduled slots.
Scrolling on my Instagram feed often feels wasteful, but not recently. A few days ago, as I was scrolling away, a notification popped up that @FrancaVerce was “going live.” I wondered if the camaraderie of the piano bar could be captured over the internet as I clicked into her account. I didn’t have to worry; the joy of experiencing this West Village institution via their virtual singalongs from thousands of miles away brought me straight back to the experience of visiting there.
“Mikki, how are you?” Vercelloni yelled as I joined her virtually.
The first ballad trickled into what sounded like the end of ‘Happy Birthday.” “Let’s go fly a kite” steamed up and more people joined the feed.
I sat across the kitchen table from my mom — an amateur pianist. She looked across to me when she heard the piano music blare from my smartphone. I knew she wanted to join in but was too shy to ask, so I rapid-fired questions to encourage her.
“What’s your favorite musical song? Can you play now on the piano, so we can join this New York piano bar on Instagram? It will be fun, come on!”
We were at my childhood home; the baby grand sat in the room next door. My mom hesitated, but I saw a sparkle in her eye.
“Does she know ‘Whistle a Happy Tune’ from ‘The King and I?’” my mom asked as she raced to her piano and started frantically practicing. She chose the song to reflect the uplift in moods that she thinks New Yorkers may need in this crisis.
“Can we join and play along live on our piano? ‘Whistle a Happy Tune?’” I typed to Vercelloni.
Sadly, she has limited time and had to conclude her set early. She vivaciously promised to arrange a time offline for us to pencil in the piano set. The camaraderie of a New York piano bar spreads all the way to a scorching 103 degree summer morning in Perth, Australia. Magic.
There will be a set of Covid Safety requirements for the bar when it’s allowed to reopen, but the singalong thrills remain the same via the virtual events. Thankfully, it seems this bar is set to survive the pandemic, as the building is owned by the bar’s owners.
“I don’t think we have to worry about it being sold and turned into a Sephora or a bank, as we have seen happen with so many beloved New York institutions,” Vercelloni assures me. “The owners want to see it reopen, it’s an iconic NYC institution.”