OUT OF STATE
Get your black spandex tights and head down broadway musical memory lane with NATASHA STAGG in her seventh installment of OUT OF STATE. After the curtain drops, there's still New York behind any rendition of "New York, New York." Which is your favourite?
There are problems that are closer to you, and those that are further away, but still large enough to worry you. There are ones you can manage and those you can’t. The ones you can manage feel closer, more real, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are. This is what my therapist insinuates when I say I hate what I sound like, starting to let the fear of a scorched earth get to me, then focusing instead on the loss of a few more restaurants I liked. The world is burning, the world is burning, the world is burning, I think, and then: If the Lower East Side An Choi restaurant and the Times Square McDonald’s can’t make it, who will?
At the beginning of quarantine, I watched Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York (1977), a musical my father would reference a lot when I was growing up but for some reason never got me to watch. My father is a musical theatre aficionado up to a certain time period, having grown up in Manhattan, attended the Famehigh school, LaGuardia, and gone on to become a lighting designer and technical director of stage productions outside of New York. Now that I think about it, I’ve never seen Fame (1980), either. My father preferred West Side Story (1961).
The Frank Sinatra version of “New York, New York” used to be played out of many windows here at 7 o’clock, back when the city would applaud the essential workers every day. I much prefer the Liza Minelli version, which came first, and which holds in it all the blind passion and wavering denial needed to “make it there” in the time it was sung (in the 70s, but in a movie set in the 40s), when New York was considered far more dangerous.
My father tells a story sometimes about working at a club and seeing a young Liza Minelli hanging out with her parents’ friends, practicing songs when the bar was closed. To me, she embodies so much of what show business can and cannot do for a person, especially one born into it. She embodies, actually, so much of how I view life, if I’m being honest: its highs and lows, the low notes levelling out the high ones to make a better composition.
Seeing as I’m such a fan, it’s strange that until this year I’ve never watched New York, New York, which stars Liza in one of her most pivotal roles. I had an idea about it being corny and dated, and so I guess I put it off. Watching the first few scenes, I still wasn’t convinced, but as the movie progressed, I was caught up in the thrill of seeing a production from an era without obvious endings. Even if Robert DeNiro’s character is abusive and jealous, the late 70s didn’t always stress that this type of behaviour couldn’t be love. I didn’t know how the movie would end, and I was genuinely worried for Liza’s character, who eventually writes the song “New York, New York,” an overly confident ode to a city that isn’t doing much for her at the time.
I won’t spoil the ending, but I will say I loved it, and it didn’t feel as easy as the ending of A Star Is Born (1954), a musical film with a similar plot in which Liza’s mother Judy Garland starred. New York, New York’s strangely flat sets and super-dimensional acting intensifies its themes, and watching it, I was taken back to the days of my own childhood that I spent in theatres and the companies that dressed them – strangely quiet worlds hung with scenery that looked abstract up close and costumes that looked haunted on mannequins. From this story and from so many others, my takeaway is that theatre can’t save you, but it is something there for you to save, a mouth that begs to be fed.
And really, people mostly want to be wanted.
I never wanted to be an actor, but I am lately thinking about the theatre, an industry in desperate trouble now, and one that formed me in so many ways. It was this shadowy place, dark and cool even when the sun was blazing outside, its thick curtains and cushioned seats specifically made to stifle any noise from backstage or front of house. Its innards, massive rigs and ropes and coiled cables, dropped and snapped while people wearing all black cursed and yelled, heavy items hung from dizzying heights everywhere, camouflaged in darkness. Even as a child, I saw the work that went into putting people on stage, the ugliness of opera singers’ makeup and of ballet dancers’ throbbing feet. It was not a glittery rush of giggling chorus girls. The performers, compared to the stagehands, were tired, getting loaded off of tour buses to wander toward a new dressing room full of their own sweaty, constricting clothes, for the hundredth time.
Everything felt at once frenetic and banal, hushed and loud, as my sister and I wandered the maze-like structures. And then the curtains would rise, as they say, and everything would fall into place, except it was all being wrestled into place, from every possible angle. As a metaphor, in movies, it works for me: the struggle that results in a show – an outlet for each participant’s own validation issues. This particular desperation defines New York, at least in the song (“if you can make it there, you’ll make it anywhere”), the way Liza sings it. (Frank Sinatra’s version sounds cocky in comparison, missing the meaning and instead becoming a hugely effective tourism ad.)
The song, the movie, and every movie I like about show business (there are a lot) is really about being desperate to prove one’s self by pulling something off, and the bottomless pit that such an act opens up. It’s about displaying that desperation to a bigger and bigger audience, as long as everything keeps working out. As a metaphor, it is a drug addiction, abusive relationships, social climbing, sealing off a broken heart, believing in a god that doesn’t exist, living a hopelessly romantic life in hopeless times. It is staying in a city, any city, during its decline, maybe. Or maybe that’s just me being dramatic.
NATASHA STAGG is a writer based in New York. She is the author of Sleeveless: Fashion, Image, Media, New York 2011-2019 (2019) and the novel Surveys (2016) both published with Semiotext(e).
A new instalment of Out of State will be published online every Thursday for ten weeks. Last week, she wrote about Pilgrimage to the grave, and a few musings on the plight of Cancel Culture.