Remember When You Could Buy Pot in Washington Square Park? ‘The Greenwich Village Follies’ Does

The lights dimmed and a hooded character emerged from the aisle. “Ya wanna buy some weed?” he asked an audience member. Three other actors crept on stage, “smoke, smoke?” they probed. Maintaining their cool, the group turned the hustle into a song and dance number.

Remember those days, when you could buy pot in Washington Square Park?  That’s history, but it’s not forgotten…

Through songs, vignettes and improvised skits, the “The Greenwich Village Follies,”  created by Doug Silver and Andrew Frank, offers an 80 minute lesson on the history of the Village. On an intimate, black box stage at the Manhattan Theatre Source, the Follies cast of four chronicles a wide spectrum of events and portrays various historical characters — from the arrival of the Dutch (Peter Stuyvesant is played by an audience volunteer) to the Stonewall riots of 1969.

Actors perform "Resist the Grid," a song about the city's decision to create Manhattan's famous grid pattern in 1811. Photo Courtesy of Doug Silver

The show’s playful tone captures the creative and non-conformist culture of the Village — the reason that it became New York’s first sanctuary for artists and radicals.  History buffs will get a chance to indulge in the play’s coverage of a group of slaves freed in the 17th century or the horrific Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911. But fans of the lighter side of the Village will find their appetites sated too — pot dealers, sex shop customers and N.Y.U students all have a role in this romp through time.

MetroFocus asked the “Greenwich Village Follies” musical director Doug Silver about the play.

Q: How did you choose the historical events featured in the show?

We looked for historical moments that had an active story, or that had a particularly theatrical sensibility.  For example, Peter Stuyvesant, who was the first prominent resident of the Village, tried to rally the Dutch settlers to fight the British but they refused to do it — that gave us something very active to write a song about.

Also in 1811 New York City wanted to build the street grid from Houston Street north, but the Villagers protested, and won, getting to keep their winding streets and stay off the grid.

We decided to handle the horrible Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911 by starting with the perspective of two witnesses.  And at the end of our show, there’s this moment in the Stonewall riots of 1969 where a chorus line of drag queens is barricade the street against police officers, so that song just wrote itself!  We even use the same lyrics that they were singing to the cops.

“On Our Corner,” performed by Patti Goettlicher and Meghann Dreyfuss, is about the Triangle Shirtwaste Factory Fire of 1911. [powerpress]

Q: What was the developmental process like — who was involved and how did the play evolve over time?

Back in 2004 Andrew Frank and I were spending most of our time at Manhattan Theatre Source in the Village, and we were becoming increasingly fascinated by the neighborhood and its character and history.  We started writing songs, and did a one-night-only performance of an early draft of The Greenwich Village Follies in 2005. Year after year we kept redrafting, adding and cutting songs, and doing more performances.  In 2009 we did a trial run of five months performing on Sunday nights, and finally this year we opened a permanent run on Sunday nights at Manhattan Theatre Source.

It truly has been a multi-year development process, one that has afforded us the ability to craft the piece lovingly and carefully over time, in front of actual audiences that would often give us direct feedback after performances.

Q: Do you have a favorite piece, and why?

Personally, my favorite piece is “The Anonymous Artist,” towards the end of the evening.  We pay tribute to many famous people throughout the performance –Edgar Allen Poe, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Jackson Pollock, Bob Dylan and many others — but we take an important moment at the end to acknowledge that Greenwich Village has never been only about the famous people.

There are thousands of amazing artists creating important work in the Village, past and present, and we’ll never know their names.  So we wrote “The Anonymous Artist” to honor them.  I think the song beautifully sums up the energy and spirit of “The Greenwich Village Follies.”

MetroFocus Multimedia Editor Sam Lewis conducted this interview via email. It has been edited and condensed.


MetroFocus is made possible by Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III, the Sylvia A. and Simon B. Poyta Programming Endowment to Fight Anti-Semitism, The Peter G. Peterson and Joan Ganz Cooney Fund, Bernard and Denise Schwartz, Barbara Hope Zuckerberg, The Ambrose Monell Foundation, Janet Prindle Seidler, Jody and John Arnhold, the Cheryl and Philip Milstein Family, Judy and Josh Weston and the Dr. Robert C. and Tina Sohn Foundation.

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