In seventh grade, walking through Times Square for the first time on the way to a family bat mitzvah in Chappaqua, the neon signs, the Audrey Hepburn print vendors, and the constant threat of death by oncoming taxi cab brought tears of emotion to my eyes. This was before I entered my 20s and started crying during insurance commercials and every rendition of “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” so it felt emotionally climactic to stand at the base of the TKTS steps, staring up at Elphaba’s beguiling smile on a poster for the new hit musical, “Wicked.”
My soul felt magnetized to each billboard and cobblestone—like Annie delivered into Depression-era Midtown by her bald fairy godfather, I discovered the cleanest, most commercial slice of New York City and I swore that I would one day work on 42nd Street—preferably not while wearing a sandwich board. Half a decade later, my savvier peers’ verbal defecation on the area where Broadway theaters make their home shocked me. Didn’t they know that any workspace of Kristin Chenoweth was a sacred shrine?
Whether Times Square strikes you as a destination or a model for a level of Dante’s “Inferno,” there are plenty of venues for Annie-like wonder outside of the Broadway playhouse. If you like Times Square, you will love Ellen’s Stardust Diner, which epitomizes the frenzied, neon appeal of Midtown, only with more food. The kitschy 1950s pastel motif and thick milkshakes complement the singing, dancing waitstaff, who serenade patrons with Broadway showtunes and popular hits while the customers eat and scream at their children. This would be a one-time-only tourism nightmare if not for the unbelievable waitstaff, whose talent is truly Broadway-level. It’s a great choice for people who want five-star talent at milkshake-price and don’t mind hearing two or three renditions of “Summer Nights.”
Ellen’s isn’t the only place in the city where you can get a Broadway experience without shelling out for overpriced tickets. Did you ever think about how great it would be if you could see every single recorded Broadway performance for free, but then realize it was impossible and go back to crying and watching the PBS recording of “Company”? Well, have I got a public library for you, Bobby. The New York public library for the Performing Arts has copies of every Broadway production ever recorded, as well as thousands of other movies and theatrical performances that can be watched in the library itself in a private viewing area. It also has thousands upon thousands of books of music, including just about every Broadway and movie score, which can be checked out with a New York Public Library card. Literally stop reading this article right now and start running to the corner of 65th Street and Broadway at Lincoln Center if free art appeals to you.
If watching free, historical theater on tape is just too technological and removed for you, go see “Broadway in Bryant Park,” which is just what it sounds like, except the title should specify that it’s free—a favorite word of this columnist. Each summer, popular on- and off-Broadway shows send major stars to perform their shows’ hits in a sunny corner of the Midtown park in an effort to share precious art with people from all walks of life (and as an inexpensive, altruistic-seeming form of advertisement). If you are in the city this summer, there is no excuse not to go. Check the bryantpark.org website for updates and get ready to see Sutton Foster’s flawless skin and voice in all of its perky, Tony-winning glory.
For people who think they are real New Yorkers and thus above the warm garbage smell of Times Square, Marie’s Crisis will still deliver a good dozen renditions of “Summer Nights.” Take the 1 train to Christopher Street and discover the kind of bar where you can take Instagrams to prove that living in New York is fun and you definitely leave Morningside Heights more than once a year. Marie’s Crisis is a gay piano bar where performers sing hits and pianists lead drunken masses in Sound of Music sing-alongs. Go or wonder forever what effect alcohol has on theater people en masse.
Exhaust all these options, and then return to Times Square. Instead of waxing Sondheim-sassy on the obesity of tourists and the garishness of the advertisements, consider how lucky you are to live within snarking distance of the greatest theater district in the world. Access your inner seventh-grader, sigh when you realize the guy you thought was Robert De Niro is handing out free pamphlets on the upcoming apocalypse, and go celebrate theater.
Jenny Singer is a Barnard College junior majoring in English. Singer on Broadway runs alternate Fridays.