On May 10, 1893, the Empire State Express hit the record speed of 112 miles per hour, more than doubling its initial schedule speed at the time of its 1891 opening. The train, belonging to the New York Central and Hudson River Railroad, was hauled by “the Queen of Speed”, Locomotive #999, which would not be retired from service until 1952.
Happy 100th Birthday to the late, great Mike Wallace! Born to Russian Jewish immigrants in New England, Wallace became one of the most recognized TV journalists of the 20th century, interviewing notable political figures such as Deng Xiaoping, Vladimir Putin, Manuel Noriega, and Anwar Sadat, and such artistic luminaries as Pearl S. Buck, Maria Callas, Salvador Dali, and Barbra Streisand. He ultimately became most famous as the face of CBS’ 60 Minutes, which he hosted for nearly 40 years. Over the course of his career, Wallace won numerous honors including the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award, three George Foster Peabody Awards, and 21 Emmy Awards. He died in 2012 at the age of 93.
West Side Story
Originally called East Side Story about a romance between a Catholic boy and a Jewish girl on the Lower East Side, the crown jewel in Leonard Bernstein’s oeuvre had a gestation of 10 years, during which time street gang warfare in west Midtown became front page news and the subject matter of the topical and timely modernization of Romeo and Juliet changed to reflect the headlines. The Broadway debut of lyricist Stephen Sondheim and musical debut of playwright Arthur Laurents, the show put ballet in blue jeans and sneakers and took romance to the streets. The iconic balcony scene was now on a fire escape in the San Juan Hill neighborhood, the fateful duel was now a knife fight underneath the West Side Highway, the masked ball was now a dance at the local gym. But all of Shakespeare’s (and subsequently Bernstein’s) emotions and pleas for peace and tolerance in the original source material remain as potent and powerful today as they were in 1957 or four centuries earlier.
In the Heights
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s star-making (and Tony Award-winning) breakthrough centers on one of the great set pieces of New York City life – the corner bodega. Our narrator is a store owner from the Dominican Republic who has settled in Washington Heights with a bustling community that will familiar to virtually all New Yorkers. The cab company and the hair salon provide the deli with ample support in the institutional make-up of the neighborhood but, of course, it is the characters within them (and their relationships with each other) that make this masterpiece soar. Featuring the most compelling father-daughter relationship since Fiddler on the Roof and the most most romantic love duet since “If I Loved You”, this story of the simple denizens of a Latino neighborhood on a hot day will resonate with audiences of every background for years to come.
Based on Ruth McKenney’s memoir My Sister Eileen about two small-town Ohio girls acclimating to the bohemian world of Greenwich Village, Leonard Bernstein’s celebration of the artistic life begins with a tour of the neighborhood: “On your right, Washington Square, right in the heart of Greenwich Village.” The focus on outsiders making a new home and a new life in the city, with triumphs and tragedies coming in short order, is summed up magnificently in the big ensemble song “What a Waste” about all the urban transplants who came to New York chasing their dreams, only to have them dashed by the challenges of metropolitan existence. But our leading ladies never lose hope and the audience is encouraged not to either.
Guys and Dolls
Set around the oldest established permanent floating crap game in New York, this Damon Runyon fable gives us the bad old Times Square. Not the porn-filled inferno from 40 years ago, but the one from 40 years before that, filled with gamblers, bookies, and sewer rats whose souls desperately needed saving. From the leading lady’s distinct accent that rhymes “poyls” with “goyls” to the leading man’s description of the city that never sleeps during “My Time of Day” – “the smell of the rainwashed pavement comes up clean and fresh and cold – the Big Apple is always on the lips of these characters who mix slang with formality with ease. Midtown staple Lindy’s has its first letter changed for the story, but still sells more cheesecake than strudel. The original production won the Tony Award for Best Musical and the legendary 1992 production won the Tony Award for Best Revival.
Nearly a quarter century old now, Jonathan Larson’s fantasia on the East Village before gentrification was seen as the most edgy and contemporary take on life in the city that New York theatregoers had seen in a generation. Based on Puccini’s La Boheme, Paris is traded for Gotham and tuberculosis takes a back seat to AIDS. This meditation on a city and a world in transition into an uncertain future is seen through the eyes of young edgy artists who don’t have one. But they continue to dream, as one does when one is penniless in the Village, and sing in Tompkins Square Park and at the Café Life about la vie boheme.
Insurance is one of the top four biggest industries in New York City (the other three being banking, real estate, and of course tourism). And some of the grandest, most beautiful, most majestic buildings on the skyline are insurance company headquarters. So New York City is the perfect place to observe National Life Insurance Day. Designated on May 2 to mark the anniversary of the day life insurance first became available in the U.S., it is a day to appreciate the genuine benefits of a traditionally unsexy industry. Happy National Life Insurance Day!
On May 1, 1933, The Catholic Worker began publication under the direction of Dorothy Day. Recognizing that many of the working poor were her fellow Catholics, Day sought to use the newspaper to teach about how they could seek a solution to their problems within their own religion, claiming her publication’s mission was “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”. Having lived out her youth as a bohemian social activist in Greenwich Village, going through a string of lovers, and bearing a child out of wedlock, Day’s conversion and immense devotion to Catholicism is considered one of the great stories of faith in the modern age. And she continued to use her activist roots and experience to enhance and improve the mission of her publication, which she continued to edit until her death in 1980.