A Musical Tribute in the Key of Car Alarms

New York, New York. If you can make it here, you’ll make it anywhere, right?

But how do you “make it”? Is “making it” landing your first apartment lease without a cosigner? Is it ditching your part-time gig waiting tables for the 9-5 you’ve been dreaming of? Is it continuing to wait tables while you follow the path to your acting/singing/painting/writing/insert-artistic-pursuit-here career? Is it being able to Snapchat your BFF back in Ohio a picture of the Manhattan skyline from the roof of your shitty brownstone in Bed Stuy?

These are the questions I’ve asked myself as I face the existential crisis of realizing I hate it here sometimes.  I leave my apartment and despise my garbage-strewn street and obnoxious upstairs neighbors, my miserable commute to the job I loathe, my encounters with clueless tourists alongside catcalling creeps, and the fact that I subject myself to all of it willingly on a daily basis.

I walked into Pete’s Candy Store in this mindset last Friday, ready to drown my sorrows in vodka-sodas and punch the first person who told me to ‘smile’ in the face. I’d had a bad day at work, and had just come from a bad interview for a new job I didn’t really want anyway. After 27 years here, I wondered, what the hell is the point? Was there ever one to begin with? Should I do the unthinkable and become an ex-pat like so many before me?

Enter Ben Farha and Katie Siegmund. The duo are members of Rapidfire Bootleg Theater, a troupe of actors, writers, directors, and performers who embody the spirit of “making it”. “Making it work” may be more apt; each one of their productions is a DIY experience, from a karaoke fundraiser in a crowded bar to a performance of “Rabbit Hole” in someone’s basement. I’ve seen their plays in their friend’s living rooms, back yards, and occasionally the back rooms of friendly venue owners. They’ve been passionately acted, directed, and produced, and are usually free to attend. Rapid Fire Bootleg was inspired by the idea that art should accessible to the masses, and lets the performers delivering it hone their craft even if they can’t quit their day job. It’s theater for the people, by the people.

Back to Ben and Katie – the two collaborated on a 45-minute performance of power ballads about their love for this city. Inspired by what I assume was similar soul-searching to my own, “11 Songs to Remind You: You Love It Here!” was a tribute to existing in New York. Simply staged with Katie on the piano and Ben on a stool in front of a crowd of about 20, the intimate show was exactly what I needed to see after a day of questioning everything that keeps me here.

I expected “11 Songs” to be a collection in the vein of Frank Sinatra and Taylor Swift – idealized visions of a New York that realizes dreams rather than crush them relentlessly. I thought I’d be hearing a lot about Broadway and the Big Apple, about basking in the glow of an all-night diner’s lights while holding hands with the adorable stranger you met on the subway.

This is not what New York is, but Katie and Ben are well aware of that. Rather than leaning on the standard musical montage about the “City That Never Sleeps”, their set list comprised of songs that have nothing to do with New York. If you hear them under the right circumstances however, you’ll realize they’re the perfect score.

Ben opened the show with “If Ever I Would Leave You”, an ode to the city that he’s called home for most of his adult life. “Pure Imagination” and “On My Way” painted the rose-hued vision of the future he had when he arrived in New York. “I’ll be a star, Mama!” he professed, and then detailed his first job on Broadway… which was handing out comedy show flyers for less than minimum wage.  

The show continued with the theme learning to toss back the curveballs New York throws at you. Ben sang Beyonce’s “XO” to describe moving into his first big-city apartment; the move-in date happened to coincide with Hurricane Sandy. “Home”  (performed by guest guitarist and vocalist Ben Cohen) made us reflect on those moments when we all thought we might be ready to pack our bags and get out for good. But we stayed here, and we’re the better for it. Ben’s experiences are familiar to anyone who’s tried to make a life here. No matter who you are, New York will make you readjust your expectations.  If you can accept that and become empowered by it, you’ll fall in love with this place. Nobody sees what we see, they’re just hopelessly gazing

There were also plenty of songs about dealing with the day-to-day travesties and triumphs we all experience in this great city. Sarah Bareilles’ “Brave” explained how even the most timid New Yorkers aren’t above berating a stranger whose backpack is taking up the space of four people on the subway during rush hour.  A performance of “There’s a Parade in Town” perfectly summarized the immense dread that swells inside you when you hear the words “St. Patty’s” or “Puerto Rican Independence Day”. “Tubthumping” by Chumbawamba made me nostalgic for the nights in my early 20s spent throwing back $3 shots in dive bars to a near-constant soundtrack of ‘80s dance mixes.

The performance ended with the single New York-centric song of the evening – Alicia Key’s “Empire State of Mind, Part II” – and a lesson we all should take heed of. The key to “making it” in New York isn’t “surviving”, but “submersing”. Yes, we live in a place where “scraping by” means a salary that can buy a 7-bedroom home in other parts of the country, where people are rude, crime is high, and our rats are getting their own documentary.  But this place is not just a city; it’s a living, thriving, organism that will eat you and spit you back out if you let it. New York is its own entity, and you can surrender to it or let embrace you. Either way, it’s going to keep going strong whether or not you can keep up. As Ben said, “Sometimes, you have to run alongside it. And you better be fast, because sometimes New York is a crosstown bus that you have to catch.”

To find out about upcoming Rapid Fire Bootleg Theater productions, visit rapidfirebootleg.com.