New York, New York

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Image: Jen Davies

Halima Ali heads to the Big Apple for a whirlwind tour of musical theatre and opera

“Did you see a show?” enquires an excitable American mother, beaming from ear to ear, her teenage daughter clutching a playbill and a collection of souvenirs as we wait for the hotel lift.

It’s day two of my first visit to New York and I’ve already seen my second Broadway production. In total, I’ll get to see five during my four-day trip.

It’s not the reason I imagined would bring me to the Big Apple, watching more theatre in my short stay than I’ve experienced in the last five years, but as I come to discover, Broadway has become the very heart of this teeming metropolis.

The term ‘Broadway’ refers both to the size of the theatre and, of course, its geographic location in the theatre district. The area’s hub is Times Square, teeming with camera-wielding tourists shopping and nibbling roasted nuts from street vendors, while all around an array of billboards and enormous TV screens advertise the latest film releases, cars, electronics and shows.

As I’m moved along involuntarily by the crowd, I count more than 15 giant billboards for classic and new musicals, while at least two screens play the shows’ trailers. On corners, touts offer up their best prices for The Book of Mormon — currently the hottest ticket and booked up until next year.

The first show for me, though, is MAMMA MIA! I arrive early and am surrounded by excited teens taking pictures, posing with the posters and playbills. There are plenty of tourists, too, no doubt hoping some iconic tunes will help them shake off their jet lag. As the show starts, I’m shaken to my senses by the booming sounds of Abba. I’ve never seen the film, but the show’s exactly what I hoped it would be — light-hearted fun, but really all about the music, with classic numbers such as Dancing Queen and Waterloo getting everyone’s feet tapping.

The following day, I grab lunch at Sardi’s, Broadway’s unofficial hall of fame. The restaurant where Martin Sheen once worked as a busboy has been synonymous with theatre since 1927, when founder Vincent Sardi Sr would extend credit to struggling actors who couldn’t pay for meals. Even now, there’s a special discounted menu for holders of a Screen Actors Guild card.

Inside, it’s remained relatively unchanged since its opening, the only exception being the addition of 40 new caricature drawings a year to the existing collection of more than 1,000 lining the red walls of the main room. To get your face up there, you have to be connected to theatre, but more importantly, you have to come into the restaurant. With Tom Hanks’s newest production, Lucky Guy, soon to open across the street, perhaps he’ll become the latest ‘friend of the house’.

My next production is Chicago, a Broadway institution that’s been running for 17 years.From the moment a scantily clad dancer walks on stage declaring this will be a story of “murder, greed, corruption, violence, exploitation, adultery and treachery”, I’m hooked. It’s a fast moving show, with strong songs and a sharp sense of humour.

In stark contrast to this was a matinee performance of Disney’s Newsies. Although the film version flopped, the stage show’s been a huge hit and it’s easy to see why. With a young cast of cheeky characters, an underdog story, a striking set and acrobatic dance numbers, this Tony Award-winner has me joining everyone else in the Nederlander Theatre in a standing ovation.

Afterwards, it’s straight to the Lincoln Center for a quick backstage tour of the grand Metropolitan Opera House, where I see a team hoisting set pieces, including huge Roman columns and life-size trees, into place.

I run across the street for dinner at the Cafe Fiorello, where I battle through a well-heeled crowd including tenor Placido Domingo, who’s just completed a performance of La Traviata.

The Met’s evening show of Otello draws a host of well-dressed aficionados and as I take my seat in the opulent auditorium, the beautiful chandeliers rise to the ceiling, signalling the start of a gripping performance.

The next day, and my final show couldn’t be more different. I’m surrounded by talkative children squealing with delight, as Spider-Man and the Green Goblin battle it out over our heads and we strain our necks to watch them fly around the Foxwoods Theatre.

Though I was able to fit in some quick sightseeing, I barely scratched the surface of this big, varied city with my short stay punctuated by musicals and opera. But with so much of its past and present intertwined with Broadway, five shows in four days gave me a unique opportunity to experience the calling card of New York City.

This feature was published in ABTA Magazine and on CountryByCountry

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