Michael Coveney: Big Apple bites and Manhattan memories

You should always do new things in familiar cities. Over the past few days in New York, I walked along the new High Line – a disused railway track reclaimed above the city streets and reanimated with beautiful plants and shrubs, running from way downtown up to 30th Street (and further, soon) – took a short trip on the shuttle between Grand Central Station and Times Square, and met one of my son’s best friends for post-matinee cocktails in Sardi’s.

Less pleasing was the discovery that you can no longer actually buy the Times in Times Square. The greatest newspaper in the world – and how comforting to find those brilliant thumbnail listings in the paper on Friday – is probably more of an on-line force right now than our own Times or even the Guardian, and the print circulation is dwindling by the minute.

Otherwise, it was business as usual: schmoozing in Joe Allen (and in Bar Centrale above the restaurant), dawdling in the Drama Bookshop, breakfasting in the Red Flame diner next to the Algonquin Hotel. I did shake up my morning routine a little by wandering into the buzzy Hell’s Kitchen neighbourhood to poke my nose into Mark Shenton’s natty new walk-up apartment, bumping into Gene David Kirk (formerly of the Jermyn Street Theatre, now directing a Tennessee Williams double-bill with Amanda Plummer off-Broadway) en route.   

And, blow me, having bumped into Cameron Mackintosh in Kinky Boots on Thursday night, there he was again at my Saturday matinee of Pippin. He was a lot less pleased to see me (surprise, surprise) than I to see him, for he bounded over to me in the interval, even more Tiggerishly than usual, to complain about the fact that I’d mentioned him in my Kinky Boots blog.

The trouble is, he  says, that when people know he’s been to see something in New York, they want to know whether or not he’s going to present the show in London. So the office phones start ringing. And ringing. I apologised, sort of, saying that if that really were the case, then he could never go out anywhere. “Well, I don’t!” When he’d stopped jumping up and down like a big fluffy puppy, I apologised again, more profusely this time, and promised never to mention that I’d seen him at the theatre ever again.

Like Cameron, I’d seen the original Bob Fosse production of Pippin in London, the one with Ben Vereen and Elisabeth Welch. Unlike him, I hadn’t thought all that much of it. But Diane Paulus’s circus-style production at the Music Box — with amazing choreography and gymnastics, partly based on the Fosse routines, by Chet Walker and Gyspsy Snider — is a work of genius, forging a satin and silk purse from a sow’s ear and containing a string of cherishable performances, not least from British unknown Matthew James Thomas in the title role, no doubt recovering from his stint as Peter Parker in Spider-Man on Broadway.

And something very moving and remarkable happens at the end of the second act, when Pippin has at last settled for his “corner of the sky” well away from the battlefields, the ceremonial and the cares of office; his adoptive son, Theo (played beautifully at my, and Cameron’s, matinee by Andrew Cekala), is drawn tantalisingly back to the world of circus, of show and tell, of dark desires and secret dreams that have been conjured, out of nothing, by the Ben Vereen emcee, here played by the extraordinary, lizard-like and sexually ambiguous Patina Miller.

I didn’t see Cameron Mackintosh at any more shows, but I did see David Edgar at Richard Greenberg’s slightly disappointing (after the build-up it’s had) The Assembled Parties, and Elvis Costello at the Sunday matinee of Newsies, where he passed completely unrecognised even though kitted out in his trademark black suit and titfer, and making a bit of a meal of running up and down the aisle to collect booster seats from the foyer for his young children.  

Edgar, who scripted the RSC’s Nicholas Nickleby and enjoyed a great Broadway success with it, ruefully remarked to me that his work is most often done these days on the West coast. But he’s back in the Apple with his Chichester Minerva version of Ibsen’s The Master Builder, opening at BAM this week and starring John Turturro.

And Elvis Costello was in town – he didn’t tell me this; I read it in the Wall Street Journal after I’d failed to buy the Times in Times Square – to head-line the Jazz Foundation of America’s annual Great Night in Harlem at the Apollo. I’d love to have known what he thought of Newsies, which is a pretty straight-up-and-down Disney musical about a newsboy strike in 1899.

Myself, I loved it, and I’m sure Cameron did, too, though he wasn’t at that matinee (perhaps he’s decided to avoid any more rumours about the future of Newsies – which has been running for over a year – by finding out where I’m going first then cancelling all arrangements). Anyway, the show’s got a bit of everything: – Oliver!, Annie, Les Miserables, 42nd Street, FDR and newspaper moguls, the romance of journalism, romance full stop, incredible choreography by Christopher Gattelli.

The music is by Alan Menken, the lyrics by Jack Feldman, the book by Harvey (Kinky Boots) Fierstein, the great design by  Tobin Ost, and the whole show maintained to a level of technical precision and emotional commitment that frankly took me by surprise.

But then, New York is always full of surprises. I had two great ones on Monday morning in the sunshine. After shopping on the upper West side, we wandered, almost accidentally, into “Strawberry Fields” in Central Park, a site developed in memory of John Lennon who lived (and was shot) nearby. I’d never actually been to this spot before, and very beautiful it is, too.

And John and Yoko’s apartment in the Dakota Building must have been right next door to the fourteen-room Central Park West mansion flat so elaborately designed by Santo Loquasto for The Assembled Parties at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J Friedman Theatre on 47th Street.

On crossing the park to the East side, we found ourselves outside the Hunter College theatre at 68th Street and Lexington. It’s now called the Danny Kaye Theater, which it wasn’t when I played a fairy there for a fortnight in a visiting college production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1968. Too much information, I know, but the memory of it made my heart jump just a little…