Piano bars are often hit-and-miss outside New York City. We’re spoiled here, in that there are so many of them, you get to choose. Some venues lean more on musicals. Pianists elsewhere pay homage to standards from the Great American Songbook, and a few love rocking out to “Don’t Stop Believin'” or “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
These are not the “dueling piano bars” you’ll find in smaller cities and towns where two pianists try to crack wise while collecting gobs of money for playing snippets of songs everyone knows. They’re more like live karaoke, but with an actual musician in which the big challenge for both you and your accompanist is to try to make each other sound as good as possible.
If you like Disney tunes, you’re in luck. Songs from The Little Mermaid, Aladdin and The Lion King are in regular rotation. Likewise, you’ll often be able to test the depth of your knowledge of Billy Joel and Elton John’s catalogs, where the farther you get from “Piano Man” and “Your Song,” the better the pianist will like you.
Here’s our ever-evolving list of NYC gay-friendly places where the pianist will, to paraphrase Smash, “Let you be their star.”
The Monster (80 Grove Street)
Downstairs is a disco, replete with retro ’70s tea dance music on Sundays. Upstairs is a round-robin of regulars, tourists and new arrivals that runs the gamut from “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” to Backstreet Boys, Whitney Houston, Britney and Beatles classics, with long detours into Broadway favorites. There is no microphone, so the crowd often sings along — to the frustration of those who come to solo, and the delight of those who know that the soloists are not always the best singers in the bunch. The pianists here play for tips. The more you tip, the more you sing. Think of it as a live jukebox.
The Duplex (61 Christopher Street)
The emphasis here is on soloists, and because there is a microphone and a makeshift stage of sorts next to the piano, the Duplex is a bit of an intermediate step, perfect for those who have sung before, or are too hammy and in their cups to care. The bar (there’s a cabaret upstairs) attracts throngs of tourists — being two doors down from the legendary Stonewall Inn — as well as aspiring Broadway talents. Not surprisingly, the entertainment is wide and varied, both in song choice and quality of performance. A $20 in the tip jar, and they’ll let you sing anything they can find sheet music for, whether or not you should be singing it. And be aware: the bartenders also sing, and shade will be cast if you stink.
Uncle Charlie’s (139 East 45th Street)
A relatively intimate setting where the pianist often has his or her own fanbase and everyone is throwing an impromptu party for everyone else. There is a microphone for both you and your accompanist (who will often contribute harmonies, if asked), but the room itself isn’t particularly conducive to its own entertainment. It’s long and ungainly, with the piano off to one side of a three-tiered barroom. It’s unlike the Monster, where singers cluster around the piano and are oblivious to the bar patrons. It’s different from the Duplex too, because there, the room is cramped and the music amplified, and singalongs occur so often that if you don’t want to be in a piano bar, it will drive you out, pronto. At Uncle Charlie’s, you sing to your friends or to the pianist. If you’re stellar, the patrons may glance up in your direction. But don’t expect them to act impressed.
Looking for more things to do in New York, check out our picks for the best LGBT events in NYC this week.
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Last modified: July 23, 2019