The Keys to A Good Holiday Are at Marie’s Crisis
It’s rare that a line for a bar or club is actually worth the hype, especially once the weather’s cold enough for coats zipped all the way up. But then, Marie’s Crisis, an iconic West Village staple that dates back to the 1850s and has roots with the neighborhood’s LGBTQ+ history by way of location and loyal patrons, is, in itself, rare. Here is a bar that’s less a bar and more a home, where lifelong friendships are formed and chosen family is found, where regulars fall in love beside a piano, where showtunes (and only showtunes) are sung sans microphone, as a crowd — there are no solos at Marie’s — and with such force that should you find yourself walking by on one of those cinematic, Christmas-y New York nights, you can barely resist the cheerful pull of the voices inside.
“We’re the world’s only sing-along show-tune acoustic piano bar where nobody’s the star and everybody’s the star,” says Adam Tilford, tenured Marie’s Crisis pianist. Tilford, along with his partner, Kenney Green (whom he met at Marie’s eleven years ago after Green happened to wander in), are among an intimate cast of piano players who bring the crowd alive each night. I spoke to Tilford and Green about the importance of music, and what it means to work at such a beloved establishment. They also offered up a few tips for newcomers, just in case you feel the sudden urge to sing your heart out after reading this…
Bonobos: The two of you have played at Marie’s crisis for over eleven years. You’ve also “taken the show on the road” to cities like Sydney and London. What does it mean to be part of a storied New York institution, and to experience that outside of its New York context?
Adam Tilford: I love it. I’m from the Midwest and always loved the legacy of New York and theater and the dream that everybody had, and now I get to be part of a legacy.
Kenney Green: Coming down the staircase and going to work, it’s pretty awesome to know that you’re a part of history. Music is universal, and what we’re learning, or what we’ve known, is that musical theater is also universal. So when we go to Sydney or London, or when we take it outside of the bar and give access to people who can’t get to Marie’s Crisis in New York, first of all, they’re super excited that we’re even there. The first year we went to Sydney, we were floored that people actually knew us. They were going crazy. “We can’t believe you guys are really from Marie’s Crisis.” It’s out of control. It’s pretty magical.
Tilford: What’s also lovely is they know how we work. They know it’s a sing-along bar. They know not to ask for solos. Everybody’s just having fun. Nobody feels entitled. Everyone just is so appreciative that the institution is there.
Bonobos: Do you ever go in with a playlist in mind, then change things up on the spot?
Tilford: I don’t know any pianist who goes in with a playlist ahead of time because it doesn’t work. I always say to be a Marie’s Crisis piano player, you’re not a pianist. You’re a room-reader. That’s the skill. If the room isn’t singing, it’s not working. Or if one group keeps singing really loudly and another group hasn’t stopped talking the entire night, or people are leaving, then you’re doing something wrong.
Bonobos: What seems to be the most popular song — the one that gets the loudest cheer or the loudest response?
Tilford: “One Day More” is the song that always hits from Les Miserables. It’s always hits, every time.
Green: During our Christmas season, especially happy hours, you can catch us doing just straight-up Christmas music. We switch gears for the holidays. “We Need a Little Christmas” from Mame always happens.
Bonobos: Does Marie’s have any other holiday traditions?
Kenney Green: We used to have a tradition for the die-hard regulars who don’t have a place to go, or for people who — especially LGBTQ people, who can’t go home or don’t have a family to go home to: on Christmas Eve during happy hour, we used to have a little Christmas dinner for them.
Bonobos: What is it like to work in a place where you start to know the people who come in every weekend?
Green: Every pianist has their regulars. People have found family within those who come on those shifts, and they’ve become a close-knit group and lifelong friends. They also feel like they know us on a personal level. This is a sad story, but there’s a couple of our regulars who have since passed on. The day that they stopped coming is the day that we on staff knew something was wrong. We started doing a phone tree and calling around town and like, “Hey, so-and-so didn’t come in for happy hour today. Have you seen them?” And that’s how eventually we’d find out that they had passed on…because they were such a staple, and they came at that time and they ordered the same drink and they requested the same song every Friday.
Tilford: What’s also nice is we’re a couple, and we met there. We met on one of my piano shifts before he started working there. And then also there’s a lot of people, regulars, who have coupled up, and are married or engaged or have been dating for years.
Green: And have kids now.
Bonobos: What holiday traditions do you two have in your home?
Green: I make enchiladas…
Tilford: Our traditions are really quiet. We watch a lot of Christmas movies. We decorate the house. We don’t go home or see the family or anything because we’re usually working. As a musician, the holidays are your work time. They’re not your vacation, because everybody else is on vacation. So we spend a lot of quiet nights at home when we can.
Bonobos: What is your personal stance on holiday decorations at home? When should they go up, and when should them come down?
Kenney Green: Our Christmas stockings have been up all year long.
Bonobos: Christmas movie must-haves? The ones you watch on repeat?
Green: I love it a little bit more than Adam does, but I can watch White Christmas every single day of the week.
Tilford: I’m into the horror movie thing, so I love any sort of dark Christmas movie, like Die Hard, or like the Addams Family at Thanksgiving. I love that sort of thing. Just twisting it a little bit. Oh, Gremlins.
Green: We definitely like Gremlins.
Bonobos: The line to get into Marie’s Crisis wraps around the block. What are some ridiculous strategies people have used to try to get in or to beat the line?
Green: Sometimes Adam and I will work the door if it gets too packed and we’re not playing the piano, so we’ll be the doormen for the night, and I love when people come up and say one of two sentences: One, “I’ve been coming here for years.” I’ve actually heard Adam respond, “Not in the past 11 you haven’t, because I don’t know you.”
The other one: “It’s my birthday.” Well, it’s everybody’s birthday.
Tilford: Every day is someone’s birthday. The way to avoid the line is to come early. And not everyone can, but that’s the way it works. We’re a tiny, teeny-tiny bar.
Green: TV and movies have made our bar look bigger than what it actually is. People are always shocked; they can’t understand why they can’t get in. We can only let in 75 people, and that’s pushing it.
Bonobos: What should a Marie’s Crisis newcomer know?
Green: Tip lavishly. Don’t yell and scream. Be kind and be courteous to everyone and have a great time. And most importantly, sing along.
Bonobos: What if you just don’t know the song and you get that awkward feeling that makes you want to mumble into a glass so no one can tell you don’t know the words even though everyone else knows the words?
Kenney Green: My tips would be enjoy what’s happening around you. And your time will come.
Bonobos: Do either of you play piano when you’re not working?
Green: It’s funny. We have an upright piano in our bedroom right now that is housing our flat-screen TV.
Tilford: People always assume we come home and play songs together, and it’s the last thing I want to do when I come home.
Green: We like to not hear a piano. Please don’t.
Bonobos: You must give a lot of West Village recommendations given your tenure at such an iconic West Village spot. What are your go-to recs?
Green: Believe it or not, this is so sad, I’ve lived in New York for 20 years, and there are still things that I haven’t seen as a New Yorker — other than the normal things, like the Empire State Building, which I went to for the first time three years ago with my mother. I still have not seen the Statue of Liberty unless I’m flying past it on a plane. So I say that to say, as far as the West Village goes, when we’re done with work, we get out of that village as fast as we possibly can and get home. We own a car, so our thing is to drive upstate, or go to Six Flags. We love Six Flags.
Bonobos: Do you have advice for all those people out there who wish they stuck with the childhood piano lessons? Or who wish they started in the first place?
Green: I’m a firm believer in: you’re never too late in this life to learn something or to do something new. It’s lots of hard work, but if you want to learn the piano, get a teacher, start learning music, learning how to read music, and… It’s going to take a while. It doesn’t happen overnight, but stick with it.
Tilford: I’m a proponent of: the music is more important than the performance. People have asked me to teach them piano, and I was like, “I’m not going to do that, but I’ll teach you to read music.” The music’s more important than the performance because music is bigger than us. But on the other hand, if you want to play the piano, sit down and play. It doesn’t have to be good. You’ll get better by doing it.
Bonobos: You said, “Music is bigger than us.” What does that mean to you?
Tilford: Because we travel so much and because I work with kids and I see what music does to people across the world…it’s the kid who’s too shy to talk, it’s the kid who is bad at math, it’s all those kids who find that they’re good at music, and it could — I mean, it changed my life as a kid, so I know that it does that to people. They find they’re good at this, and they’re like, “Oh, this is my special thing I didn’t know I had.”
Green: Music taps into human emotion, so even if you’re not a musician, everyone across this planet appreciates music in some way, shape, or form. It’s the only universal language, I think.
And math. But don’t nobody want to do math.
Amelia Diamond is a writer and creative consultant living in New York City. Follow her on Instagram here.