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Under Broadway: New York Holds Subway Auditions

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Under Broadway: New York Holds Subway Auditions

Under Broadway: New York Holds Subway Auditions

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

You know how the song goes: If you can make it in New York, you'll make it anywhere. As it happens, that's not only true for performers on Broadway, it also applies to the ones under Broadway.

Once a year, the New York subway holds open auditions for musicians of all kinds, from singers to string quartets. They're competing for a chance to play to one of the largest and toughest audiences in the world: New York subway riders.

Lars Hoel reports.

LARS HOEL: The mezzanine at New York's Grand Central terminal has a beautiful view of the main concourse and its famous four-sided clock. But this Tuesday afternoon, about 20 men and women are sitting behind long tables looking in the other direction. They're talent judges and right now they're paying attention to four musicians getting ready to show their stuff. It's group number 44, the Bill Murray Experience.

(Soundbite of music)

THE BILL MURRAY EXPERIENCE (Music Group): (Singing) (Unintelligible).

HOEL: It's a job they won't get paid for and yet, they're auditioning for it, a chance to perform in the noise and chaos of the New York subway. Jessy Carolina sings and plays the washboard, and she's been there.

Ms. JESSY CAROLINA (Musician): The subway's where I got started playing all of this old music and learning how to belt and, you know, be as loud as I can be, fighting against the trains. I play guitar, too. So, you know, it was just little me, you know, fighting against all the noise. I love the subway.

(Soundbite of music)

THE BILL MURRAY EXPERIENCE: (Singing) (Unintelligible).

HOEL: Musicians do love the subway. Not so much for the money few people make a living playing for tips in the tunnels. No, it's the hope that among the five million commuters who ride the trains each week there's that one person who can help launch a career.

In the 1980s, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority decided to do something about all the musicians cluttering up the subways. But rather than kick them out, the MTA gave them permits and special places to play. They call the program Music Under New York, MUNY for short.

Jay Walder is the MTA's chairman and CEO. Walder says MUNY is one way to make subway riders happy without spending a lot of tax dollars.

Mr. JAY WALDER (Chairman, Metropolitan Transportation Authority): We're striving for things that we can do at lower cost, protecting public dollars, that give pleasure to people. This is right there. Our arts programs and our music programs are fantastic additions to the subway system.

Mr. BOB HOLMAN: So, group number 17 is not here. So we're moving on to group number 18. And now without further a-don't, Billy Bromanista(ph).

(Soundbite of music)

HOEL: So here's how the process works: In January, musicians can start sending in their resumes and sample recordings. This year, close to 300 performers took the plunge. Out of that number, Music Under New York selected 68 to audition.

They each get five minutes to show the panel of judges what they can do. They set up their equipment, if they have any, in a corner of the mezzanine at Grand Central. One after another, they perform, all morning long and into the afternoon.

Bob Holman makes their introductions and tells them when their five minutes is up. He's been a fixture on the live poetry scene in New York as a performer and producer for decades. Holman likes these auditions because you never know what to expect.

Mr. HOLMAN: It's the constant re-tuning of the ear. You know, it's not only diversity in musical styles, but it's also the folks themselves. The group up there with the Cuban flutes and trombone, he plays the Cuban flute, she plays the trombone. She's from Muenster, Germany. He's from Cuba, and they met up in the Bronx. I like that kind of New York story.

(Soundbite of music)

HOEL: The judges are music industry professionals, fellow musicians, MTA workers, and a few come from New York cultural institutions. Jenneth Webster ran Lincoln Center's Out of Doors Festival for over 20 years. She says the judges are looking for more than just good musicians.

Ms. JENNETH WEBSTER: They need to be able to fit into the acoustics and the spaces where they're going to play. They need to be able to understand their music and play it without compromising but still have charisma that will attract the audience and keep them listening because otherwise, it's pointless to be down there.

HOEL: If you want charisma and audience appeal, three guys in skinny gray suits with skinny black ties have got you covered. They call themselves Astoria Boulevard, and singer Dan Scott says he's not worried about the challenge of playing in the subway.

Mr. DAN SCOTT (Musician): It's kind of a joy to play a song for people as they're passing by and they stop and, you know, put a smile on their face. And then they keep going with their day, and then you have a new group of people, you know, for the next song or for the next couple of songs. So it's really kind of a joy to be able to play for, you know, such a large group of people, you know, just all kind of passing through.

(Soundbite of music)

ASTORIA BOULEVARD (Music Group): (Singing) One of these days, I'm going to make a tiny fortune for you, and one of these days, I'm gonna wake up, and I'll say that I do because I'm gonna change my ways, and we can raise a family somehow, one of these days. One of these days, I'm gonna make a tiny fortune for you, and one of these days, I'm gonna wake up, and I'll say that I do because I'm gonna change my ways, and we can raise...

HOEL: Out of these 63 auditioners who showed up, just 27 will get letters in the mail telling them they're part of Music Under New York. They'll each receive a banner with their name on it and a permit to perform in one of two dozen prime locations in the subway system.

Singer Meghan McGary is part of a group that's been singing under the MUNY banner for four years. She says there's nothing like playing in the subway for getting up close and personal with your audience.

Ms. MEGHAN McGARY (Musician): I've had men break out into tears listening to me sing. That's kind of an amazing thing. Right in front of your face. It's not like you're on a stage and there's any separation. You know, you're standing right next to one another. You have very strong, heartfelt emotional reactions from people of all walks of life, from two-year-olds to 80-year-olds, English speakers, non-English speakers. It's a beautiful thing.

HOEL: It's not a stretch to suggest that any of these artists could go on to greater things. After all, Steve Martin, Pierce Brosnan and even Kanye West were all once just playing for tips and a smile.

For NPR News, I'm Lars Hoel in New York.

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: And the winners have been announced. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority tells us that two of the groups we just heard, Astoria Boulevard and The Bill Murray Experience, are among those invited to become MUNY musicians in the subways of New York.

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