New York Times
By Edward Rothstein
October 14, 2010
I don’t think the woman who flashed us the other night on West 57th Street by lifting up her shirt was in the cast of the new bus ride/city tour/improv show/New York experience called “The Ride.” But I’m only guessing, because one business-suited passerby on 42nd Street was so intoxicated by the Broadway melodies being broadcast by our passing bus that he dropped his briefcase and leapt into a vaudeville tap-dance routine right out of a 1930s musical. And a late-night deliveryman on East 43rd Street was so caught up by the passing tour’s blaring hip-hop soundtrack that he spun and flipped into a virtuosic break-dance routine.
But unlike those examples, which “The Ride” had clearly set up in advance for its patrons, pretending, with a wink, that the tour was giving us a glimpse of eccentric New York street life, the flasher didn’t seem to be performing a part, at least not one found in a script. She broke into laughter after her feat, watching the transparent-sided bus, with its three rows of stadium seats mounted sideways like a portable theater, filled with shrieking passengers.
In this, it turns out, she played right into the tour’s hands. So did we all. Because by the end of this 75-minute, 4.2-mile “Ride,” which is making its debut this week, the guides who had led us from West 42nd Street up to Columbus Circle and back had the bus singing a karaoke version of Kander and Ebb’s “New York, New York.” The words were flashed on the vehicle’s 40-some video screens, and the result was apparently heard on the street as we drove down Seventh Avenue. Crowds stopped, gawked and waved arms along with the singers, and applauded us as we applauded them. Who’s onstage? Who isn’t?
You don’t really know what to make of “The Ride” at first. It’s a commercial enterprise, created by the avant-garde theatrical entrepreneur Michael Counts, written by John Bobey (whose credits include late-night television comedy) and directed by Daniel Goldstein (whose credits include Broadway). Each night a crew of more than 60 technical people, street performers and tour-guide actors with improv-comedy experience tries to combine these diverse styles into an atypical tourist bus ride that costs $59 or $65, depending on the departure time. Plans are to run 364 days a year, with up to 156 rides each week.
These theatrical prices also accompany a bus meant to look theatrical: black and screaming “The Ride” in neon red along the side. Each bus costs $1.3 million. It is the tallest vehicle allowed by law; its audio systems emulate the punch of club sonics; and its cushioned 49 seats face the transparent side of the bus, allowing outsiders to see in, once its 40 video screens and 3,000 LED lights are illuminated. Three buses are touring now, making round trips from the Marriott Marquis in Times Square, where tickets are sold. A fourth is due soon, and in case of success, another four are planned. (There are also more elaborate hopes, for other cities and other countries.)
Forget the ride for a moment: all tour buses should be built this way; you miss one side of the street but get a huge panoramic view of the other. From an ordinary bus you can’t sense the streetscape’s expanse, but here, with windows stretching nearly the length of the bus, when we crossed Broadway at dusk, an hour before theater time, the city looked unearthly, a teeming throng of figures and glaring lights.
Strangely, though, as a tour, “The Ride” was least successful. As our two guides began their opening banter, we might have at first suspected that Scott really was educated in urban planning at Columbia University or that Jackie was a world traveler come home. But there are 18 such Scotts and Jackies, with the same names and script, giving these tours.
The banter incorporated a fairly lame conceit that “The Ride” has been under development since the end of World War II, that it has all the artificial intelligence of HAL from “2001: A Space Odyssey” (with a more vigorous voice, which is heard throughout the tour) and that it is now embarking on “our biggest and boldest experiment to date, to answer the question: What makes New York … New York — the pulsating capital of the world.”
Such pulsating is better left not talked about, but the guides were apparently supposed to get a subplot going involving Scott’s romantic interest in Jackie, while filling in travel time with improvised dialogue and “fun facts” about the sights: the grime cleaned off the ceiling of Grand Central Terminal in 1998 was a thick layer of tar and nicotine. The Chrysler Building’s spire was secretly prepared and mounted so the result could surprise rivals as the world’s tallest building — but then it was trumped by the Empire State Building.
The finest moments, though, had nothing to do with the city’s dazzling stage sets — its buildings and avenues — but with the great crowds found within them, which is why “The Ride” is best taken when the streets are packed. Before the bus leaves Times Square, its voice draws attention to varied street characters (all in the tour’s employ). A man purchases three hot dogs, then suddenly starts juggling them. Pedestrians look on in shock, less at the accomplishment than at his daring to do something so pointless on jammed sidewalks. A man with a sequined top hat and party paraphernalia reserves his spot for New Year’s Eve; he leaps around in celebration after the bus broadcasts a New Year’s countdown. A sailor just home from World War II bends over to kiss a nurse, recreating the renowned 1945 Alfred Eisenstaedt photograph.
“The Ride,” then, begins in pure silliness, much of it not too funny, but when that suited tap-dancer finishes his bit, the tour takes on a cinematic aura. This is, after all, how so many movies and Broadway shows work. While walking down a street, someone breaks into song or dance, just as strollers do here.
The urban dance scene of musicals is a genre of its own: first there is the surprise of the passersby, then the affectionate acknowledgment of the dance, and soon the whole streetscape is in on it (unless you are like Gene Kelly, singing in the rain in near isolation). It’s the way of Broadway melody, the style of “West Side Story.” And here, too, on “The Ride,” you begin to watch the passersby look in shock and then pleasure at the theatrical indulgence of these people on the sidewalk; you almost expect them to join in.
Two singers dressed as Radio City ushers start their own duo; a ballerina dances in an illuminated tutu around Columbus Circle; a woman in front of Carnegie Hall sings an aria from “Carmen.” (“I just got off the bus from Iowa,” she explains. “I’m hoping if I sing outside here, Mr. Carnegie will pass by and discover me.”) It’s all a version of “42nd Street.”
No one does join in, yet. But you are reminded that one aspect of New York streets is that strange stuff is not that unexpected. It isn’t all that surprising to see someone singing on the street or dancing in the rain; it is only mildly surprising to see a woman lift her shirt.
The effect may have been much more intense in the 19th century when crowds created a different way of walking; the new urban citizen strolled the city and attended to its exotic sensations and shocks, an anonymous wanderer amid all the other wanderers.
Now the unexpected may even be uniting rather than isolating. It is a shared phenomenon, something to be talked about; it is even a matter of pride how much strangeness we have seen. Oddity creates community. I may be giving “The Ride” too much credit. But for all its artifice, it gives us a chance to be reminded about this effect; it looked as if quite a few conversations started on the sidewalk as the bus rocked by. Evidently even the flasher was inspired. And when extraordinary things are done in unison, not just by one eccentric but by a large group, the effect is amplified.
Take a look at the so-called missions of the street-theater group Improv Everywhere, in which hundreds of strangers suddenly freeze in the middle of Grand Central, or, as in its recent “MP3 Experiment Seven,” thousands of listeners simultaneously follow instructions heard over headphones. At first there is a certain implied mockery of those not in on the secret. But ultimately, the large-scale strangeness breaks down isolation with communal comedy. The Improv videos go viral.
Something like this happened in the tour’s final moments, as “The Ride” featured a transparent busload of passengers waving and singing “New York, New York,” as listeners in the streets stared, watched, ran along or even, eventually, joined in. The street is quite a ride.
Schedules, information and tickets for “The Ride” are at the New York Marriott Marquis Hotel, 1535 Broadway, at 46th Street; experiencetheride.com, (866) 299-9682.