Growing up in a Southern Baptist family in Atlanta, Morris Robinson’s bulk earned him the nickname “Massive.” He went on to play college ball for the Citadel; the 6-foot-3, 300-pound offensive guard was first team All-American. After college, he earned six figures as a sales manager for a Boston tech company and bought a huge house in New Hampshire. He married a long-legged flight attendant from West Virginia named Denise. Life was sweet. Then his wife encouraged him to audition for a little podunk musical in Boston. Now, three years later, he is the Metropolitan Opera Company’s most promising new bass, and the only one with a closet full of velvet Sean Jean jogging suits. Gayletha Nichols, director of the Met’s prestigious Lindemann Young Artist Development Program, said, “My expectation for Morris is that he will have a major career, a career of major international proportions.” A story making the rounds backstage at the Met is that when Mr. Robinson auditioned for placement in the Met’s young-artist program in 2001, he’d sung only the first three notes of Mozart’s The Magic Flute when maestro James Levine turned to his assistant and said, “He’s hired.”
As a child, Mr. Robinson sang in the church choir, and it was no secret he’d been born with a golden voice. But it was his wife Denise who encouraged him to go public. It was 1999, they were living in Boston, and Denise insisted that he take a role in a local musical. On the last night’s performance, Sharon Daniels, director of the Boston University Opera Institute, showed up.
“I remember being knocked over by his innate musicality,” Ms. Daniels said. “He didn’t have any of the refinement, none of the languages and no technical training, but he had this truly international-quality voice. I introduced myself after the performance and told him to audition.”
But Mr. Robinson was raised believing that a real man is his family’s provider, not the family’s songbird. It took months for his wife to convince him to audition for the institute. It worked. “I started thinking,” said Mr. Robinson, “do I want to work this boring chain of 9-to-5 days forever? Would I do that just so my kids get into good schools so they can do the exact same thing? I realized that I had to take this chance before I turned 65, got a gold watch and wondered what I’d missed.”
“Things happen for a reason,” Denise Robinson said, sitting on a leather sofa in their cramped one-bedroom in Harlem. “We’d been trying to have a baby, and that wasn’t going well. But if I had been pregnant at that time, he never would have pursued this, so I think it was meant to be. I always tell him, ‘We’re in this together now, and your dream is my dream.'”
So Mr. Robinson quit his job and started loading boxes at Best Buy every morning for $12 an hour to supplement his Boston University stipend. He took lessons in four foreign languages, vocal techniques, vowels, breathing and tone. He learned on the fly entire categories of operatic knowledge that other students had studied for a decade. “The things I had to work on were all academic,” he said. “The things most people had to work on, I already naturally got.”
That year, he saw his first full opera: Aida at the Boston Lyric Opera. He also happened to be in it, in the role of the King.
In 2001 he was accepted into the Met’s program. The couple moved to New York, and things got pretty heady-like the wet night last February when a handful of opera buffs trudged through freezing slush to Hunter College to watch a master class conducted by James Levine for the 11 students in the Met’s young-artist program. The house lights stayed bright, and the maestro freely interrupted the singers to offer detailed corrections. Two-thirds of the way through, Mr. Robinson climbed the stage steps and stood alone behind the music stand. He sang an aria from Simon Boccanegra that ends with his character accusing the Virgin Mary of forsaking his daughter and then begging forgiveness for his blasphemy. Mr. Robinson filled the theater with deep, powerful waves of sound, finally plunging into the darkest reaches of the bass range, a low F. In the quiet that followed, an older patron in the first row stood and clapped vigorously, shouting, “Bravo!”
Since coming to the Met, the 33-year-old Mr. Morris has performed in several productions and has been cast in three roles for the upcoming fall season, including the High Priest in Nabucco .
“There are opera patrons in gray slacks and double-breasted suits coming up to me now and giving me high-fives,” Mr. Morris said with a laugh. “They’ll say, ‘What’s up, man?’ and give me a pat. Now, they’ve never said that before in their lives. But they know I earned the right to be at the Met, and they know that’s the way I speak.
“I’m probably the oddest ball they’ve seen around here,” he continued. “But I don’t dread my day, I’m not bored, and I don’t have to keep wondering anymore why God gave this voice to me.”
Arrivederci , Tony
Already, the regulars are suspicious.
“They have this new waitress,” said Robert Kastler, a photographer who on lives Mulberry Street. “She looks like a Hooters waitress. I walked in and she was all smiley, all perky, all, ‘Hi, how are you doing today?'”
Mr. Kastler was talking about the newly christened Mulberry Street Bar, which until very recently was Mare Chiaro’s, a Little Italy watering hole with oak-paneled walls, sawdust on the floor and the Old World atmosphere of an Italian social club. In the 1990’s, both the Paris Review crowd and the dot-com Wunderkinds embraced the bar as their own, despite the bright overhead lights and lack of fruit-flavored martinis. More recently, Nolita hipsters have held court-all under the watchful eye of Tony Tenneriello, who sold the bar last month. Until then, Mr. Tenneriello, 81, could be seen there every night, cigar in his mouth, working past 1 a.m., shuffling from table to table to clear glasses and staring defiantly at anyone who lingered too long or got too rowdy. Locals just called the place “Tony’s.”
Mr. Tenneriello said he sold the bar because of his age and the long hours the job required. “It looked like I was going to die in that bar,” he said. “But I sold it.”
The new owners haven’t decided yet whether to take down the black-and-white photographs of Tony posing with Frank Sinatra, Ronald Reagan, Madonna and others. “We have to retain the spirit of the bar,” said co-owner Eddy Welsh, 67, “but we also have to attract a new crowd. How much of a change do you make? Where do you draw the line?”
Indeed, Mr. Welsh and co-owner Richard Cestaro, 40, both local businessmen whose families grew up on Mulberry Street, have the unenviable task of running Tony’s without Tony. Their influence is already evident. In order to restore the exterior to what it looked like when the bar first opened in 1908, they’ve added copper outlay to the bar’s wooden doors and repainted the window frames, restoring them to their original white. Inside the bar, top-shelf liquor has been added, as has tap beer. The $3 Coronas now cost $5, and on the jukebox a buck buys two songs instead of three. The sawdust is gone. Soon the bar will serve lunch and late-night snacks: chicken wings, peel-your-own shrimp, eggs and peppers. Also under consideration is live Dixieland or country music.
The bar had been in Mr. Tenneriello’s family since the turn of the century, when his father, Christopher Tenneriello, opened a small bar called C. Tenneriello’s at 1761¼2 Mulberry. Tony’s father worked the bar and Tony’s mother cooked chicken parmigiana and spaghetti and meatballs for a crowd of local Italians. After school, Tony would go to the bar and do his homework.
The police were the bar’s biggest crowd, coming in for lunch from their nearby headquarters on Centre Street. Members of the neighborhood’s crime families stayed away, according to Mr. Tenneriello.
“I’m not saying that no one ever came in,” he said. “But let me just say, thank God for the police.”
The police headquarters moved away in 1973, as did many of the neighborhood Italians, replaced by Chinese immigrants. By the late 80’s, the bulk of Mare Chiaro’s business were tourists who came to the city to visit the rash of new restaurants on Mulberry Street. Padding out the crowd was a mix of artists and writers. In the mid-1990’s, editors from the Paris Review met there every Friday night. The dot-commers would come by after long hours at their Broadway offices.
Nowadays, the crowd is thinner. A recent Thursday night found the bar sparsely populated with a mix of tourists, hipsters (White Stripes look-alikes) and stockbrokers. Sinatra’s “Summer Wind” played on the jukebox; an eager, short-haired female bartender was offering shots.
One of the stockbrokers, Mike, in his mid-30’s, had been coming to Mare Chiaro for the last six years.
“It was better when Tony ran the place,” he said, lowering his voice and looking around the bar. “The new owners want to get the yuppies in here. You can tell by the little things they’re doing-raising the prices of the drinks, the jukebox.”
Asked about this, Mr. Cestaro looked pained and said, “You can’t run a business selling $3 drinks.” He added that the bar’s prices are now on par with the other neighborhood bars.
If Mr. Cestaro and Mr. Welsh don’t have the full support of some of the regulars, they seem to have earned the respect of locally owned Italian businesses.
“To be honest, the bar needed an update,” shrugged one Mulberry Street restaurant owner. “The new owners are good guys. They realize they’re dealing with an institution; they’re not going to change it too much. Tony knew what he was doing when he sold it to them.”
Mr. Tenneriello said he has no interest in what the new owners may or may not change.
“What people want, and what people don’t want, it doesn’t matter,” he said, laughing hoarsely. “Things are going to change. It’s called progress, honey.”
Gary Coleman on Broadway
Natalie Venetia Belcon grew up zoning out in front of the sitcom Diff’rent Strokes -and boy, was that a good idea. She’ll be portraying the TV show’s elfin star onstage in the naughty puppet-themed musical Avenue Q when it opens July 31 on Broadway. Ms. Belcon is Gary Coleman.
Watchoo talkin’ ’bout, Willis?
Ms. Belcon was appearing in Carmen Jones at the Kennedy Center last fall when she was asked to audition for the role. “My agent was reading the breakdown to me over the phone, and he sounded very puzzled,” said Ms. Belcon, who at 34 has a smooth, broad face and wide hips and who carries a parasol to block out the sun. “And I said, ‘Gary Coleman? Are you sure that’s it?'”
Avenue Q is South Park meets Sesame Street meets Rent , with Muppet-like puppets and disgruntled humans singing, dancing, copulating and looking for their “purpose.” The show ran for 12 weeks at the Vineyard Theatre near Union Square, then began previews on Broadway earlier this month. Featuring a handful of Jim Henson–trained veterans, the production has the same pedantic, soothing quality as everyone’s favorite street where “the air is sweet.” However, on this street, the puppets get drunk, lose their jobs and give each other head. Meanwhile, their human neighbors guide the young, impressionable puppets and have their own pleasures and gripes. In the opening song, “It Sucks to Be Me,” the humans and puppets try to determine whose life sucks worse. Puppet Kate Monster complains that she has no boyfriend, while Puppet Princeton laments that he can’t get a job with only a B.A. in English. Wearing overalls and a baseball cap, Ms. Belcon’s Gary Coleman saunters in, juts his chest forward, puts his hands to his hips and explains that he became a building superintendent when his acting career fell through. He sings, “I made a lotta money that was stolen by my folks / Now I’m broke and I’m the butt of everyone’s jokes.”
We later learn that this Gary Coleman sells his belongings on eBay and masturbates to Internet porn. When the characters discuss their various purposes, Gary Coleman, clutching a copy of Variety , says, “My greatest fear is that I’ve already achieved my purpose in life, and from then on it’s a slow, quiet walk to the grave.”
The real Gary Coleman, 4-foot-8 and 35, has not seen the show. He has atrophied kidneys, is on dialysis and lives in Los Angeles. At the age of 30, he told US magazine he was a virgin. He has lately held jobs as a security guard and an arcade manager and has auctioned off “celebrity” dates with himself. Nonetheless, he recently filed for bankruptcy. He also landed in some trouble after attacking a fan who asked for an autograph.
“He’s in the show as a reminder of how not to end up,” said Ms. Belcon. When it came to prepare for the role, Ms. Belcon, who previously played a lesbian in Rent on Broadway and also has embodied both Josephine Baker and Tina Turner onstage, accessed the sit-com recesses of her mind and came up with the treacly child star’s puckish lope and chipmunk grin. She also watched videos of the show provided by Avenue Q’s director, Jason Moore .
Besides playing the show’s only character based on an actual person, Ms. Belcon is also the show’s only black cast member-a fact that comes to light during the show’s number “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist,” where Gary Coleman admits that he would never tell a black joke, but finds “Polack jokes” hilarious because all such jibes are “based on truth.”
“I love that song!” Ms. Belcon said. “Let’s just face it. You have to love it because they had the balls to put it down on paper and put it to music, and the reason it gets the reaction it does is because it’s true. Every word of it. I’m not racist, but I think we all have tendencies and it’s human.”
The show’s most poignant tune is “Schadenfreude,” which Ms. Belcon sings in her rich alto: “The world needs people like you and me who’ve been knocked around by fate / Cause when people see us / They don’t want to be us / And that makes them feel great!”
Ms. Belcon said she could see Queen Latifah or Halle Berry taking over the role one day.
-Anna Jane Grossman