When all the best songs about loving New York City are standards from the American songbook—with the exception of the aspirational “Empire State of Mind”—what can a modern New Yorker turn to in order to express the ambivalent adoration most of us have for the city we call home? For anyone who has ever thought about leaving the city for someplace a little easier, there is now Jonathan Solari’s The Love Letter You’ve Been Meaning to Write New York, a new theater piece in which passersby become part of the story.
In a reversal of the usual proscenium take on theater, Love Letter is performed on the sidewalks outside of the Financial District’s 3LD Art and Technology Center and the audience watches from inside.
“The audience is sitting inside facing out the floor-to-ceiling window that shows you what is happening on the street,” Solari said. “We follow the story of a young man who has gone through hard times in the city, some of them in front of you and some we show through film elements. He’s decided to leave New York for good, and all of these strange encounters he has with people passing by on Greenwich Street try to influence him to stay. Part of the charm of the piece and part of the danger, in my point of view, is we don’t block off the street at all. Sometimes a cab drives by and sometimes there’s pedestrian traffic.”
On one memorable occasion, Solari stepped outside during a performance to find that savvy New Yorkers, always looking for a deal, had congregated on either side of Love Letter’s “stage” to watch the proceedings for free. Less observant pedestrians have been known to suddenly look up and find themselves center stage while going about their evening. “A lot of the time they’re so caught up in their path or where they’re going that they’ll end up in the center of our ‘proscenium,’” Solari said. “And then having a moment of, ‘Oh wow, all of these people are staring at me!’ The audience obviously loves those little moments, as do I and as does the cast.”
Those cast members are as likely to swell or drop in number as are the spectators, both in 3LD and on the sidewalks. Billed as a cast of 51, Solari says that, with the addition of swings and one-off guests, the cast can range anywhere from the 20 core performers to 85—which can make the occasional musical number difficult. But what would a love letter to New York be without some live music?
“There are five original songs that our band inside the theater plays to reflect different moments of our main character’s journey,” Solari said. “I have leaders in the cast who are choreographers who can devise work, but I look at the larger picture. I kind of reference it as taking a Busby Berkeley approach. As the music varies, we go from sultry jazz that reflects Times Square at night to Spanish Harlem, which is throbbing and alive, to a Lower East Side that is sort of a CBGB punk. So sometimes we’ll have really clean, sexy choreography and sometimes we’ll just be moshing around in a pit together.”
Everything about Love Letter, from bystanders-turned-costars to the weather—Solari says watching his cast dance to a sultry jazz song in an abrupt rainstorm, lit by neon street signs, was a thing of beauty—is suffused with the spontaneity that keeps New York City humming with a manic energy. But nothing is set in stone until the show engages with its final collaborator: its audience.
“Beyond falling in love with the city again, you have to fall in love with the people, because the city is people,” Solari said. “Everyone who lives in the city has their own relationship with the city, has had their moments of doubt, of wanting to run away. And for an audience member to sit in that theater and see what’s happening and put their lens on what we’re showing them—that’s the final step, the final collaboration.”
Love Letter opens Sept. 24 and runs through Oct. 16 at 3LD Art and Technology Center, 80 Greenwich St. (at Rector St.), 212-352-3101; $15
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