Monday, August 23, 2010

"You Don't Know 'Wicked'?"

The Piano Man...
A good friend of mine used to have a regular solo piano gig in a Manhattan hotel. While some might think that there are many advantages to having a steady hotel gig in times like these, my friend spent a good deal of time complaining about the job and relating some depressing yet amusing incidents which would occur during the job on an almost nightly frequency. It seemed as though anything and everything could happen, from drunken guests rowdily requesting "Rhapsody in Blue" to mothers changing their babies diapers right next to the piano. So when my friend asked me to sub for him one night, I had mixed feelings about showing up to play: would I have a relatively uneventful evening of solo piano playing? Or would I have to fend off rabid Billy Joel fans insisting on "The Piano Man" for the fifteenth time?

The first hour of the gig was quiet. Despite the fact that the piano was in rough shape, and maybe hadn't been tuned since the Nixon administration, I played jazz standards in a non-threatening manner for an uninterrupted hour, and then took a fifteen minute break. "What is the big deal?" I mused to myself and the plate of cheese and fruit that I took from the free spread at the bar. "This gig is a piece of cake." I glanced at my watch and approached the piano bench for another set of lobby-friendly jazz standards.

Midway through my set, a blond woman, possibly in her late 40's, enclosed in a beige Hilary Clinton-style pantsuit, sidled up into my piano air space. She wasted no time in letting me know that she was very annoying:"Uh, yeah, that sounds great and everything...", I wasn't even finished the song," ...but do you know any songs from Wicked?"

I had decided fifteen years prior to this moment that if anybody came up to me on a solo piano gig and made requests while I was still playing AND expected me to talk and play and not be incredibly annoyed all at once, then I would grind the song to a halt and defend myself. Well, first I would GLARE at them and then mount a counter-offensive.

"Uh, what is Wicked?", I asked, 'cause I REALLY wanted to know.

"YOU DON'T KNOW WICKED? IT'S THE HOTTEST SHOW ON BROADWAY!", she proclaimed. I sarcastically  wondered to myself if she was a music critic for the Times.

"Oh, I think I saw an ad for it on the Q64A Bus. But no, I don't know any songs from Wicked."

She totally ignored what I had just said. "Do you know THIS song from Wicked?" And then she sings what she thinks is music, but it sounds more like someone waking up from being in a coma for 6 months.

"Lady, I told you, I don't know any songs from Wicked! If you have sheet music in your purse, I'll happily try to read it, but no, I don't know the musical."

"Well, you really should learn some of that music....." She seemed to be finished, but before she scurried away, there was one more knife-in-my-soul kind of request: "My sister is sitting over at this table. She just graduated from Columbia with her Doctorate. Can you play something appropriate for that?"

Edward Elgar
Wow. "Um, what about Pomp and Circumstance?" I was half to eighty-five percent joking. She looked at me quizzically. I proceeded to hum Edward Elgar's famous graduation processional.

"Sure! Play that!" She said, clearly forgetting to offer me a gratuity of any sort, as she sauntered over to where her highly-educated sister was sitting with her husband.

"I'm NOT going to play that!" I shouted, and then I picked up where I had left off in the song I was playing before the Wickedness. Soon enough, it was time for another break to rest my fingers and my mind.

I had actually sort of forgotten about the first half of the Wicked incident when the second half began. I was resting on one of the lobby couches near the piano, when I realized that the Wicked witch and her
sister the Doctor and her husband were sitting two couches over. And they were discussing their displeasure in my lack of Wicked awareness.

"Can you BELIEVE that the pianist didn't know any songs from Wicked?"

"How could he not know any songs from Wicked? IT'S THE HOTTEST SHOW ON BROADWAY!"

"Jeez, How can he be a piano player in NEW YORK CITY and not know any songs from WICKED?"

I could see them from where I was sitting, and was thinking about walking over and explaining to them how I could be such an ignorant piano player and still make a living in New York. But I had one more set to go, my fingers and brain had forty-five minutes of non-Wicked music to deal with, and I just figured what the heck.

I still think that my friend is lucky to have his steady gig. But if it was my gig, I don't know if I personally could handle the constant psychological torture. Yes, there are worse jobs. Playing piano in a hotel is more satisfying overall than, say, working at Starbucks. But I think about it like this: This Wicked Witch of the Pantsuit heard me playing jazz and asked me to do something else because that's what SHE wanted. If you work the counter at Starbucks, nobody comes in and asks for a Quarter Pounder with Cheese! You wouldn't say "Can you BELIEVE that they didn't have a Quarter Pounder with Cheese?" NO! You are in the wrong restaurant! Go to McDonald's! If you want songs from Wicked, then buy tickets for Wicked! I think they are on sale NOW! In fact, I heard from somebody that it was the HOTTEST SHOW ON BROADWAY.......

Maybe I'd look better in a pantsuit........


  1. Right On!

    Hasn't that happened to all of us?

    off the top of my head.

    Playing in a Piano Guitar jazz duo and getting a Steve Miller Request

    PLaying in a country band and getting a Jethro Tull Request

    Playing in any group and getting a request for Wipeout

  2. That was hilarious! I know another pianist who was playing with a trio at a Theatre District Italian restaurant, when one of the guys at the bar asked if he knew Stairway to Heaven!

  3. That is a funny story. I can only assume that you have since learned all of the songs from Wicked as well as the incidental boating music to Death of a Sails-man starring Julinda as Second Mate.

  4. Here's something you can try next time anyone strolls up to the piano to request something (or if they just belt it out from across the room):

    "I do take requests, however you must submit your request to me in writing on a $100 bill!!"

    Usually they'll be quick to shut-up and mind their own business. You can modify it to your own liking. Do they make $1000 bills btw?? Anyway, it's something you can try. If they actually pull out the cash then....good luck. hehe..I haven't quite figured out what I'd say if I don't know the tune.


    Victor Wpg.

  5. That's really true.
    I've been there.

  6. Great post! The Elgar reference reminds me of the story about composer Max Reger, who responded to a critic's negative review in a Munich newspaper as follows: “I am sitting in the smallest room of my house. I have your review before me. In a moment it will be behind me." Andy.

  7. If you had known any of the songs from Wicked, would you have honored her request? Suppose the hottest show on broadway had been a revival of a Cole Porter musical, and she'd made a request for Let's Misbehave, or something else you could sink your jazzy teeth in to?

    How was she to know that you were a Jazz Piano Player, and not a piano player who happened to be playing jazz at that moment? You assume she heard you playing jazz, she may have simply heard you playing piano. I think her reaction to you not knowing her request was out of line, but I don't think it was off base for her to expect you might know tunes from a very popular broadway show. Was this a gig where taking requests was expected?

    And I'm surprised you didn't jump at the chance to do the definitive jazz interpretation of Pomp and Circumstance...

  8. Anonymous- good point. May I remind you that Lady Gaga is the hottest
    "musician" at the moment. Am I running out to get the Lady Gaga songbook? No....
    Honestly, those kind of gigs are not what I normally do, and that's kind of the point. I normally do the kind of gigs where people come to hear ME play or hear THE ARTIST that I happen to be playing with. So I don't do a lot of gigs where people make requests anymore.
    Also, why don't these people just listen to what I'm playing instead of asking for their favorite songs? It's like going to a restaurant and asking for pasta " the way my momma used to make it." You go to a restaurant for food the way THEY make it. So why not just accept what I'm playing for what it is? Would you go to hear the New York Philharmonic and go up to the conductor and ask him to play " Red Barchetta" by RUSH? Obviously a solo pianist is a little different, but I still think I'm right. But there are some pianists out there who are more like human jukeboxes , so that's what they are expecting me to be. Anyway, I still think it's a good story. And I have yet to downloa the Wicked soundtrack. I'm too busy listening to Gary Bartz and Maria Schnieder and Jimmie Lunceford and Led Zeppelin.

  9. Just to add an encouraging counterpoint:

    I once was playing duo jazz at a dive near the NJ Turnpike -- red velvet wallpaper and everything. There was hardly anyone in the place, and sometime during the second set the dreaded drunk started staggering over to the bandstand. I just knew he was going to lean on the keyboard, expel his ugly breath and ask for some lame tune I didn't know.

    I was right about almost everything. What actually happened was that he pulled out a $20 and slurred, "Do you think you could play...'Round Midnight?"

    "Yes, sir!"

    Later he did the same little dance for My Funny Valentine.

    A night like that almost makes up for all the others (or at least some of them).

    Jeff in Wpg

  10. These kinds of interactions are inevitable because of how Americans learn about culture. For a bunch of historical reasons, we've gotten it into our heads that art and music and food and so forth is divided into two worlds: High Art and Fun.

    High Art is the kind of thing that rich people like to go to, or that average folk like to pretend to enjoy on very special occasions: going to the NY Phil, eating at some really expensive restaurant. High Art's conventions are bewildering and seem designed to make you feel embarrassed to ask too many questions about them for fear of looking like a low-class rube. And so High Art's practitioners are immune from having to deal with this kind of BS. A lot of people go see High Art specifically BECAUSE it makes them feel classy to associate themselves with these distant, imperious figures.

    Then there's Fun. Fun is...well, if enjoying it doesn't make you also feel intimidated, it probably falls into the category of Fun. And with that comes an expectation: if you're paying for something that's fun, then seeing something Fun and not having fun means that you're getting shortchanged! They OWE it to you to be fun! That's why most Chinese restaurants in the US don't serve xiaolongbao or cumin lamb but rather General Tso's Chicken and fortune cookies. A few of them tried that! Their target white American customer just didn't find the authentic stuff fun enough! So instead they resign themselves to pandering, because otherwise they'd go out of business real fast.

    Playing piano in a hotel doesn't feel too intimidating to most people, so most of them just put you in the category of Fun without thinking about it. And that's why there are always people who pull this kind of crap - because to them, your work is Fun, they figure that they can always just ask you for things that make them have more fun.

  11. Very funny. I, unfortunately, have seen Wicked (out of town guest request). I spent a crapload on tickets and the show was TERRIBLE! I still don't know any songs from Wicked because the songs are completely unmemorable. Actually, the music sounded so canned that we had to actually look to see if there really was an orchestra in the pit! I'm sure they use off-site musicians too so they can cram more tourists in. It is very sad that this is one of the "biggest" shows on B-way. I can only gather that that is the case because you don't need to know English, you don't need to have any taste and you can be easliy satisfied wth a couple of "special effects" which would be laughed at in Vegas. Truly, this was one of the worst shows I've ever seen.

    Now, the production of "South Pacific"--THAT's a musical with absolutely gorgeous orchestrations by Sir Richard Rodney Bennett played by a wonderful orchestra! See More

  12. And some people just enjoy abusing others because they can.

  13. One night on a gig I was on, some moron came up to the band and started abusing us. One of our quick-witted members responded, "Hey, man, do we tell you how to park cars?" The fool slunk away; sometimes justice does triumph.

  14. In response to the clueless woman, it would have been fun to have played Charles Mingus' "Wham! Bam! Thank You, Ma'am!"

    To respond to future Wicked requests, while not steal Ray Bradbury's title and write a blues entitled "Something Wicked This Way Comes."

  15. salle mariageMessages On HoldOne night on a gig I was on, some moron came up to the band and started abusing us. One of our quick-witted members responded, "Hey, man, do we tell you how to park cars?" The fool slunk away; sometimes justice does triumph.


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