The Karen Miller/Rochelle Seldin Homepage
Around Karen Miller's Piano
by John Kenrick
This article was written in 1998 during the final months of Eighty-Eights. Special thanks to Paul Cahill for contributing several of the photos on this page.
Please note: all the photos below are thumbnails you can click on them to see the larger versions.
A piano bar is a hybrid creature: part performance space, part living room, part cruise-a-thon, and part saloon. The bar is there to sell drinks, the pianist is there to perform, and the crowd is there to sing, listen, drink and socialize. All of this means that it's impossible to predict what a given evening's chemistry will be, even if most of the people on hand are regular customers. One week will bring magnificent choral explosions, while the next depends on some socko soloists to save the day. Of course, there are some nights where the crowd is so dead that nothing works which is when you remind yourself that a better night is just a week away.
While every factor counts, the most important issue is the person at the piano. The pianist determines the type of music, the style of performance, and the general tone of the evening. As with most things in life, someone with the right experience can make all the difference. The experienced piano bar player knows how to take genial control of most any situation and generally keep the party going, offending no one but taking no more than a minimum of guff. A rowdy room, a noisy drunk, a singer hogging the open mike any of these can make mincemeat of a neophyte.
Karen Miller has kept the party going in Greenwich Village piano bars for more than twenty years. That she has lasted so long while remaining warmhearted and welcoming sets her firmly in a class by herself. Many of her regulars are New Yorkers who come week after week, but others are travelers who can only make the pilgrimage once or twice a year. That's why the proceeding are often interrupted for happy reunions. And it doesn't take long for someone to get into the spirit of things. Karen knows how to make folks feel at home in no time.
After opening with some personal favorites like Sondheim's "Comedy Tonight/Love Is In The Air," Karen warms things up with some well-known movie and showtunes: The Muppet Movie's "Rainbow Connection," a medley from Peter Pan, Oklahoma or Camelot, and a soloist or two get things rolling. Around 10:30 PM things warm up with a raucous medley from The Wizard of Oz, complete with props and choreography. Yes, Dorothy's house drops from the sky (complete with squashed witch), and the munchkins are not the only ones known to "come out." Once everyone is revved up, it's time for some solo turns by staff and customers, including bartenders Leslie Anderson and Luis Villabon. Because the staff are all professional performers, outside projects keeps the roster changing from week to week new faces and talents are always part of the program.
You can count on hearing the "SOS" medleys of South Pacific and The Sound of Music "same war, different theatres!" Both shows involve props, costumes and sight gags everything from leis to wimples. And if you can't imagine "Climb Ev'ry Mountain" as a soft-shoe/tango/doo-wop/aria with choreography included, give it a try. It is addictive!
In the course of an evening, the crowd around Karen Miller's piano heard riotous send ups, political satires, and loving bits of comic tribute. Rochelle Selden would perform "Dear Mr. Sondheim" by Wayne Abravanel, a brilliant comic take on the hazards of performing the Sondheims tongue-twisting lyrics. Composer and Broadway musical director Fred Barton performed his "Born On A Bike," Miss Gulch's hilarious answer to Judy Garland's "Born In A Trunk." Comedian and Broadway actor Rick Crom's many parodies include an ingenious mini-musical showing what might have happened if Sondheim had written Oklahoma.
When Luis Villabon is in the house, he re-creates classic dance moments from Chicago or A Chorus Line. And the regulars can usually be coaxed into their insanely staged take on "Gee Officer Krupke" from West Side Story. The latest theatrical headlines are sure to be mention when yours truly presents his constantly updated parodies of "Trouble" or "Be Our Guest."
Through all this, friends greet each other, couples (of all kinds) cuddle, and singles of all persuasions can be as cruisy or laid-back as they like. The staff does a first rate job, and many make themselves at home in the club-like camaraderie of the bar area. While drinking is the norm, those more partial to coffee or soft drinks are just as welcome. The most serious singers tend to congregate around the piano, and those preferring to listen fill the tables in the main room or front far.
Around midnight, Rent reigns supreme (like it or not) in a medley that culminates with a spirited rendition of "La Vie Boheme." Afterwards the crowd's requests set the tone, which can be anything from The Music Man to Godspell to Les Miserables. As the hours pass and the audience shrinks a bit, the selections become more esoteric, with 1776, Mary Poppins or even Dear World on the menu.
When the hour is right, Karen breaks into her traditional closing tune, the jazz classic "Dream A Little Dream of Me." Some remember Cass Elliot, others remember Satchmo, and some think of Beautiful Thing its that kind of tune. The music ends, the tabs are paid, and farewells begin, but some linger to dish with Karen or just catch up on what everyone has been up to. Amazing how a few showtunes and a little fellowship can make everything else in life easier to face. Like I said, the right pianist makes all the difference.