Seeing the Statue of Liberty was the highlight of my first visit to New York City. I was on a high school trip cruising New York Harbor, and I remember looking up and there she was — a beautiful 3-D version of all the photos I’d ever seen. My jaw dropped and the boatload of noisy adolescents suddenly went silent.
I’m still an admirer of Lady Liberty, but since that first visit, I’ve also become a fan of live theater, and now my New York trips are mostly motivated by Broadway shows. Of course, covid caused theaters to close, but they’re open again and making a robust return to pre-pandemic numbers. At the moment, some of the hottest tickets are for shows written by songwriting genius Stephen Sondheim, who passed away while theaters were dark.
One of these, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, is drawing capacity audiences. In addition to its rich score being played by one of Broadway’s largest orchestras, the main attraction is the headlining presence of popular singer-actor Josh Groban in the title role. Nearby, Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along has received universal acclaim. Off Broadway, the hottest ticket in town is Here We Are, a new musical Sondheim was working on at the time of his death.
Of all the non-Sondheim shows, I’m most intrigued by &Juliet, a pop-music romp that imagines what else might have happened after Shakespeare’s Romeo takes his own life beside Juliet’s presumed corpse. What if she awoke and decided not to end it all? This more female-friendly course of events flips the script and gives Juliet a second chance at life and love.
Kimberly Akimbo is another highly original musical about a teenager who pursues joy in her life despite having a rare disease, and Hadestown is a musical update of the Greek myth about ill-fated young lovers.
Have I seen all these shows? Sadly, no, but I keep abreast of what’s happening through friends who are professionally involved. That’s how I happen to know that Solea Pfeiffer, who is in Hadestown, was also in Almost Famous at the Old Globe, and Ryan Vasquez, who is in The Notebook, was in The Outsiders at La Jolla Playhouse. Both Pfeiffer and Vasquez are graduates of the stellar Department of Musical Theatre at the University of Michigan.
There’s also a major local connection to Hell’s Kitchen, which will open off-Broadway at The Public Theater on November 19. This new musical is loosely based on the life of La Jolla resident Alicia Keys and, while she isn’t in the production, the Grammy-winning artist wrote new songs for the show. The coming-of-age musical will also feature some of her best known hits. The Public is a nonprofit theater where A Chorus Line, Hamilton, and other blockbuster shows opened before migrating to Broadway.
Chances of getting a ticket to Hell’s Kitchen anytime soon are, in the words of one of my NYC connections, “impossible,” but Carmel Dean at Places Please Travel can sometimes pull the rabbit out of the hat for tough-but-not-impossible ticket situations. In fact, besides being able to offer hard-to-get tickets, Dean can also organize backstage tours, workshops, classes, and cast meet-and-greets. For example, she recently curated a small performing arts school’s trip to NYC where she arranged tickets to Moulin Rouge, a dance class with one of the cast members, and a music workshop with the Tony-winning orchestrator of the show. Dean can also organize backstage tours of Radio City Music Hall and a dance class with a Rockette. In addition, she’s on the Tony Nominating Committee, so she sees every Broadway show and can make recommendations to clients based on what style of theater they enjoy.
Another option San Diegans have is joining one of the theater tours offered by The Old Globe. These take place in spring and fall and go to London as well as New York.
And what about pre- and post-theater dining? According to my NYC sources, who range from local theater buffs to an Oscar-nominated actor and a Tony-winning director, the two classics — Sardi’s and Joe Allen — are still top notch. They also recommend Bar Centrale, Becco, Osteria al Doge, Café Un Deux Trois, and La Masseria.
As for sightseeing, I plan to visit the new Museum of Broadway in Times Square on my next trip, but only after I’ve paid my respects to the very lovely Lady Liberty.