Nestled in the basement of a building, on a block between Broadway and 8th Avenue; where the dancing shadows of Halston, Liza Minnelli, Andy Warhol and Grace Jones pass and repass; sits a veritable jewel of Broadway – 54 Below. Ray Rackham reports.
For readers who have yet to visit this goldmine of live entertainment, you’re about to read a love letter. How might one describe what you encounter as you take your first steps down into what has become a mainstay of the New York theatre scene? Elegance is a word that immediately springs to mind; 54 Below has the sense and feeling of forgotten elegance, a reminder that the world we live in can be beautiful, with perfect sound, meticulously considered design; where every night is a new, vital experience, with the innate urgency that only the performing arts can provide. A recipient of the 2022 Tony Award Honor for Excellence in the Theatre, the club has become colloquially known as Broadway’s Living Room, a home away from home where you might find a Broadway superstar sharing a nightly bill with an up-and-coming artist, trying out original material for the first time.
Opening in 2012, the venue was the brainchild of multiple Tony Award-winning producers Tom Viertel, Marc Routh, Steve Baruch, and – importantly – Richard Frankel (all producers of Hairspray, The Producers). The founders, as they are now called, have remained a vital component of the club’s ongoing success: with Baruch serving as the Board’s President, Viertel its Chairman and Frankel a very active Managing Director.
“We all had a love for cabaret, for various reasons. Tom and his brother Jack ran a folk-music coffee house in the 1960s in New Haven, and “worked the stage lights” of a 1200 seat nightclub at a Catskills Mt resort”.
Richard Frankel explains, a far cry away from their extensive catalogue of Broadway successes, but a seed was planted nonetheless. In the 1990s the team had worked on the show Song of Singapore, which was set in a 1941 cabaret (“a thrilling and utterly enjoyable hot mess” as Frankel describes it) and that planted seed was watered once more. “A lot of the cabaret and supper houses in New York were in hotels, or converted ballrooms and conference rooms, with bad sound systems, lousy food, or terrible sightlines; and to add insult to injury none of them focused on Broadway music, but rather the Great American Song Book. There was also nothing… in the Broadway district, that celebrated Broadway performers and music, and presented them excellently in a hospitable environment.”
After a two year search they happened upon the basement of the then legendary (but long-since closed) disco and nightclub Studio 54. This was over a decade ago.
“At that time, it was a cellar with concrete, puddled floors and cinderblocks, but it had no pillars, which made it perfect for sightlines”, Frankel continues. The founders enlisted Broadway and New York’s most creative artists and designers, as well as top food and hospitality professionals to create a space that was inviting, elegant, and would successfully marry top-tier cabaret and a culinary experience typified by quality.
“When 54 opened it felt like a huge deal, it was an exciting moment in the New York theatre scene because it was the only venue like it. It found itself in between two types of clubs that already existed. There were a few cabaret stalwarts in New York City, but they felt pretty down and dirty; nice spots but definitely more casual, more like places where you’d go and see old school cabaret or up and comers”, explains composer/lyricist Joe Iconis (Be More Chill), who along with Patti LuPone was one of the first artists to perform at the space, “When this other brand of room, that felt very top tier and approachable, opened; well it felt like the kind of space in between, where you’re going to see a wide variety of performers and new material, but you’re also getting a sparkling, glitzy New York experience. The fact that it opened in the basement of what was Studio 54 had such a tie to the theatre community, it a real allure about it.”
And the venue is most certainly not without its glitz, but in surroundings and through the dining experience that is an integral part of what makes 54 Below special. Frankel goes on, “it’s an enlightened philosophy of hospitality: reading the table and figuring out what the guests want in a quiet and dignified way.”
Indeed, the culinary experience has as important a place on the billing as the entertainment. With pre-theatre dinner offered nightly from 5:30pm, 54 Below sets a new culinary standard for entertainment venues across New York City, and continues to surprise over a decade on. Fresh, clean and seasonal ingredients are used to create an ever-changing menu by talented Chefs and are then almost stealth-like served by a team of wait staff that never take the focus away from the talent on stage. Mandisa Boxill – who started off as an entry-level restaurant back server and over the course of her career at 54 Below is now General Manager – says “Generally, we train our staff that their time to shine is between applauses. A lot of the original restaurant staff were Broadway enthusiasts, and they instinctively knew when to serve, and when not to. It’s a style that has kept the wait staff visible but unobtrusive”. Indeed, one of the greatest performances you will see at 54 Below is the way in which the servers are able to run a fully functioning restaurant during moments of applause, with a full dining experience you would expect from any high-end restaurant in the City. And like any good Broadway ensemble, a small and perfectly formed team of chefs, back runners, servers and bar staff combine to create the illusion of a cast of thousands. And great effort is taken by the founders and restaurant managers to make sure that the changing menu meets the expectations of 54 Below’s loyal clientele. Boxill goes on “our clientele love their beef, so there will always be a steak, there will always be a short-rib”. Frankel and his partners attend every tasting, before a menu is released to the general public. It’s a system that has served 54 Below well, with a slew of awards including multiple Trip Advisor Certificates of Excellence, and entrance into its Hall of Fame.
But an expertly crafted dining experience is only one side of the coin, especially when every table is less than 24 feet away from the show on stage. 54 Below needed an inventive and creative Director of Programming, with both a finger on the pulse of the current Broadway scene, and a deep understanding of the history of Broadway; and found one in Jennifer Ashley Tepper. Tepper doesn’t simply book acts, but has lovingly curated a bill of over 7000 shows that are mini-Broadway seasons in themselves, with an obvious commitment to diversity. “One of the things that fosters the community is the great volume of shows we house. You can see Marilyn Maye at 7pm and a group of students performing a new musical they have written at 9:30pm. We can program Patti Lupone and know that show will sell out 12 performances, and be a premium experience, but we can also charge a lower price on a Monday at 9:30pm for a new artist. This has created a system that knows how to sell Norm Lewis, but also a Broadway Halloween group show, and everything in between. We support artists at all levels of their careers.”
Almost every artist interviewed made specific reference to Tepper’s innate ability to program acts just as they should be. “Jennifer is specifically skilled in booking the room to be representative of what is going on in the culture but she is also informing the culture; reacting to it and instigating it”, explains the inimitable performer Joe Iconis, “Such is her command of the history of Musical Theater and the New York City cabaret scene that she knows how to honour what has come before us, but also push us forward”.
Whilst it is true that many a now Broadway veteran have debuted their solo shows at the venue (Ariana DeBose, Bonnie Milligan and Ben Platt, for example) what is fascinating is 54 Below’s commitment to writers. Many a Broadway show has made its New York City debut being ‘tried out’ at 54 Below. This dedication to the writers of Broadway, be they legends of the Broadway stage or writers just starting out, is another game-changer. In recent memory, Iconis’ Tony nominated Be More Chill and the Tony Award winning A Strange Loop could be heard at 54 Below long before full productions were mounted on Broadway. Tepper continues, “we make sure everyone has a place on our stage.”
But what of the people on stage? There was no shortage of talent willing to wax lyrical about the venue, and in writing this love letter, it became very clear that an army of established and up-and-coming talent wanted most to simply say thank you to Frankel and co for the work they have undertaken in keeping the love for, and spirit of, Broadway alive.
The legendary Ann Hampton Callaway, who has been a mainstay of the 54 Below scene for many years, first came to 54 Below because of her absolute belief in the founders, who had worked with her on the Broadway musical Swing! in 1999. “I just believe in what they are doing. We need this room. It’s perfect. There’s a beautiful tradition of going down those stairs and entering another world… where life is going to be beautiful.” Hampton Callaway has performed carefully crafted legacy shows, paying tribute to artists such as Peggy Lee and Barbra Streisand who have made an indelible mark on her as much as the artform, together with deeply personal song-cycles that “balance audience connection, connection with the material, and the intimacy of cabaret. If you do your homework, and give your evening an arc that is surprising and moving, people will have a very different experience each night. You might refine things as the [engagement] goes. [The audience] love ballads, but they don’t want to hear that all night long. Everything is live and fresh, and performing at 54 Below gives me an opportunity to talk to the audience and let them know why I chose a song. And that ring of truth will reach the hearts of the audience. Part of my job is to make people fall in love with the songs all over again.” Hampton Callaway’s shows change the dynamics of cabaret, so an audience can – in one evening – be transported to the seventies with The Way We Were, or sing along to You’ve Got a Friend. Hampton Callaway’s evenings are some of the hottest tickets in the 54 Below year.
A venue that allows a performer to play a ‘run’ of shows most definitely allows for creativity, each night. “I was really intimidated to play 54 Below for the first time. I did not come up through the classic musical theatre”, explains two-time Tony Award winner Norbert Leo Butz (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Catch Me If You Can), “I thought cabaret was something that rich people did on the Upper East Side, or in clubs in Weimar Germany in the 1930s. I played rock acts, and folk clubs; I was a busker with my guitar. When [54 Below] first asked me to do an evening, I went to see Patti Lupone, and no one does cabaret better than Patti. I thought ‘I can only do what I can do’ and so I created my own show that has roots in rock, folk and blues. Once I got my head around the fact that you don’t have to fit a mold of what you think cabaret is, and that audiences want to see songs interpreted in a different way, I found a great freedom and a whole other artform there.” Butz has created many evenings of songs that are free from the narrative of a traditional Broadway musical, reinterpreting songs in a whole new way, revitalizing songs and giving them a new urgency; a recent example was turning Dolly Parton’s 9 to 5 a protest song for working mothers and essential workers (which had to be seen and heard to be believed). “a great song is like a piece of architecture: if it is solidly built, and the foundations are strong, you can throw anything at it…and it will sing”
In line with Tepper’s mantra of giving new artists a showcase. Broadway’s Mauricio Martínez (On Your Feet!) suggests “It was a dream come true being invited to sing at 54 Below. Back home in Mexico I would watch videos on Youtube [of 54 Below gigs] and think ‘I really want to do that’. I remember Aaron Tveit’s live album being recorded at 54 Below, and was so inspired. Fast forward to today, and I have just recorded my live album there.” Martínez’s shows are autobiographical and extremely personal, his first show charting his journey from Mexico to Broadway, his latest examining how – since Covid – artists have to audition on self-tapes. It’s a specificity that 54 Below can bring, because of the way it allows artists to be creatively free. Martínez’s live album, recorded at 54 Below, will be released in February 2024.
Covid hit the venue hard, as it did every performing arts venue almost worldwide. Frankel was grateful for the government intervention that the Biden-Harris administration afforded creative spaces; and perhaps one of the very few positives that came from that period was the fact that 54 Below has not only continued to offer a more prominent live-stream options for audience members (which became all the rage in 2020 but has seen a decline since). the 54 Below management team approached live-streaming in the same way they did the original design of the venue; with passion, creativity and sparing no expense (by Frankel’s own admission, they had a lot of fun learning this emerging artform); and what they have created allows for some of the best live-stream experiences you could hope to find. “I love how it makes our shows so accessible to anyone truly across the globe”, explains Broadway’s Jasmine Forsberg (Here Lies Love), “My father watched my recent show from Sarasota, Florida, and he called me after the show to say that he felt like he was right there with me, in the room. It’s amazing to be able to share our stories with people who cannot travel to New York, and the quality [of production] is incredible. It allows so many more people to enjoy the art”. Butz goes further, “I’ve struggled with the price of tickets, as a lot of my audience are working actors, or essential workers, who might not afford the ticket price. I love the idea that for fifteen bucks you can stream my show. And [54 Below] hasn’t cheaped on it… seven cameras – one even connected to the piano. We have to make art for the people who need it the most, and if we’re not doing it for their benefit, why are we doing it?”
Such is the love that the talent has for the venue, all of those interviewed went above and beyond to share their stories. Hampton Callaway was rehearsing for a show in London, Butz took a call in between meetings; Martinez stepped out of rehearsal. Forsberg managed to find time to share her love for the space on the eve of her Broadway opening in Six The Musical. When the talent goes out of their way to praise a venue, something’s got to be right.
But perhaps the most loving of all those interviewed was Joe Iconis, who unashamedly extols an almost spiritual and temporal connection to the venue. “54 Below has become my artistic home. Any song of mine that has ever been in a musical that was heard on a stage before it was part of the finished musical, that stage was at 54 Below. In a way that other artists have artistic homes at theaters around the country, my spot is 54 Below. It’s more than a cabaret, it’s more than a place to sing music, it is a place I am able to workshop new material. The audience is a great mixture of real aficionados and people who are more casual audience members, who are taking a shot at whatever happens to be there, and that cross section is so rare. 54 Below enables me to get paying customer responses to my work, I’ve developed songs by using how they went over with a 54 Below audience as a marker. I can go into production with the peace of mind that the song works and operates in a certain way, because of the reaction from the 54 Below audience. Being at 54 Below is engrained as part of my artistic process now.”
When you visit 54 Below (and, readers, you must!), be sure to check out the Tony Award that – in 2022 – was awarded to Frankel and his partners for their contribution and excellence in theatre and sits proudly in the venue’s lobby.
As Frankel concludes “[winning the Tony] was terrific. [the founders have] won Tony awards before, but there is nothing like [54 Below] recognized by [its] peers. The Tony award is a decision by people who do the work you do saying you’ve done the job well. It’s very satisfying on both a personal and an institutional level.”
Satisfaction is the final word this writer wants to leave you with. You are not only guaranteed it at 54 Below, but it will shine through every moment of your experience, from the moment you enter, until the moment you leave. And that – readers – is why this is not a review, but a love letter.