Arts

Farewell to ‘Stomp,’ a Show at the Beating Heart of New York

The stage has no curtain. The set is littered with highway signs and mass transit insignia. And then there are the gigantic oil drums, ominous and puzzling. It could be a storage facility. Or the site of an industrial warehouse party. But then the sweepers start to trickle in, swooshing across in balletic punk pageantry.

Since its debut at the Orpheum Theater in the East Village in 1994, “Stomp,” the wordless percussion spectacle of twirling, tapping, sweeping, banging, clanging and yes, stomping, has gone from a scrappy neighborhood attraction to a mainstay of the culture of New York City.

In honor of the show’s 10th anniversary in 2004, a mayoral proclamation declared March 14, 2004, as “Stomp Day.” For its 20th birthday in 2014, the Empire State Building shone in red light in its honor. That year, the production was also the centerpiece of the city’s “Stomp Out Litter” campaign, shot across the five boroughs; and in 2015, the show’s performers participated in a collaboration with another city cultural institution, the Harlem Globetrotters. The city once even temporarily renamed Second Avenue between Seventh and Eighth Streets “Stomp Avenue.”

In its history, only three occasions have disrupted the continuity of the New York run: Sept. 11, a gas explosion on Second Avenue and the Covid pandemic. Even as commercial stores booted out local businesses, rents shot up and students and artists moved farther downtown, the show hung on in an ever-shifting neighborhood.

The Orpheum Theater, which has been home to “Stomp” since the ’90s.Credit…Zack DeZon for The New York Times

In the world of “Stomp,” anything can be used to create rhythm: garbage cans, radiator hoses, match boxes.Credit…Margaret Norton/NBC, via Getty Images

But after 29 years, the production will close for good on Jan. 8 because of declining ticket sales.

“Say it ain’t so!” said the music producer Lou Green, who is widely known as Bowlegged Lou. A “Stomp” super fan, he said he had seen the show 225 times and planned to see it once more before the cast takes its final bows.

“I’m having withdrawals,” he said. “‘Stomp’ was such a fixture in New York.”

Part drum line, part step team, part ensemble of city buskers, “Stomp” is a show in which timing is everything. The cast of eight perform with repurposed household objects and urban detritus, creating rhythm out of garbage cans, suitcases, radiator hoses and precision choreography, all while threading in humor through one-upping showdowns and zany mishaps. Anything can become music: fingernails scratching against match boxes; basketballs passed back and forth with a thud.

“Stomp” has had unusually global reach. It has been spoofed on “The Simpsons,” included as an answer on “Jeopardy!” and performed in 45 countries — including at the Acropolis and the 2012 London Olympics closing ceremony.

Still, it remained a symbol of the cultural landscape of New York. But it wasn’t born here.

The 1997 cast of “Stomp,” which included one of its creators, Luke Cresswell, fourth from left.Credit…Lois Greenfield

It was conceived by two Britons — the creators and directors Luke Cresswell and Steve McNicholas, who met as street performers in Brighton, England, in the early ’80s. Together they formed musical groups that mixed percussion, vocals and comedy, and after experimenting with one-off performances using only brooms and garbage bins, they premiered “Stomp” at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 1991.

“We concentrated on the rhythmic elements,” McNicholas said, “but I think we remained aware of the inherent absurdity of the concept of using everyday objects as instruments, so the humor was there from the start.”

When the show arrived in New York in the early ’90s, the East Village was home to the Blue Man Group, CBGB and the indie-rock club Brownies. Cresswell and McNicholas found the punk downtown — far from the bright lights of Broadway — a perfect fit for their deadpan show.

“Stomp” has been spoofed on “The Simpsons,” featured as an answer on “Jeopardy!” and performed in 45 countries.Credit…Rachel Papo for The New York Times

“It’s not glamour; it’s not cute sets,” Cresswell said. “It’s a small, funky little theater with people doing it really close to you. You feel and smell the sweat.”

Cresswell and McNicholas weren’t sure if the show would make it through its original four-month run, yet it has outlasted much of the neighborhood’s arts ecosystem from those early days.

Brownies went dark in 2002, CBGB in 2006; and the Blue Man Group was acquired by Cirque du Soleil in 2017. And one by one, many of the “Stomp” cast and creators’ go-to East Village locales shut their doors: the adjacent luncheonette Stage Restaurant, the corner bar and bistro Virage, and Gem Spa, the nearly 100-year-old bodega across the street, which closed in 2020.

Still, “Stomp” endured for nearly three decades, rivaling “The Phantom of the Opera,” which is set to close this year after 35 years onstage. Throughout the show’s touring and Orpheum Theater productions, Cresswell and McNicholas retained artistic control and directorship. .

Jackie Green, the publicist for “Stomp,” said that flagging international tourism after pandemic lockdowns was a factor in deciding to close, but she declined to share financial figures. (The North American and European touring shows will continue to run.)

McNicholas said that he felt for the New York performers, who in the last year were performing for “tiny” houses, though neither the energy onstage nor the enthusiasm in the audience had let up, he said.

“It’s a small, funky little theater with people doing it really close to you. You feel and smell the sweat,” Cresswell said.Credit…Rachel Papo

“I’m a little bit sad, because I feel like we were part of the East Village,” McNicholas said. “We were part of the landscape of the Village, and it’s a shame to say goodbye to that.”

“Playing on objects to create music has been around forever,” said Alan Asuncion, a member of the final New York “Stomp” cast who has been performing at the Orpheum since 2007. “But the creators brilliantly put it into a piece of theater that has become a household name. And that legacy will live on.”

Because the show is wordless, save for a few gibberish sounds and some good-natured grunting, its cadence and comedy are accessible to a wide variety of audiences.

At a recent performance, children bubbled over with delight, adults clapped their hands and stomped their feet wildly in a packed house. The audience was carried by the pulse of drums and call-and-response cues.

In any other setting, seeing a group of muscled men and women in work boots wielding yellow rubber gloves and industrial sinks around their necks might be cause for alarm. At “Stomp,” it’s a moment of giddy anticipation. The audience can sense something big is coming. There’s a collective prolonged inhale. And then the Stompers started rocking. As they swayed their bodies, so did the giant sinks. Water sloshed from side to side creating a swishy melody, before the performers began to heave their bodies to and fro, banging on the sinks and pipes.

“I’m going to miss the audience interaction, being able to look out and see the audience look back at you,” Asuncion said. After 15 years, “it surprisingly doesn’t get old.”

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