IN a room deep below the streets of the Theater District last week, it looked as if a Broadway show was a few frantic days from opening night. Carpenters drilled as other workers huddled over a glowing iPad. The set designer John Lee Beatty stood atop a banquette staining a picture frame. The lighting designer Ken Billington watched while spotlights brightened and dimmed onstage. The producer Richard Frankel monitored the commotion.
But when cases of liquor were wheeled in on hand trucks and talk turned to herb sorbets, it became obvious that this was something else altogether. The furrowed brows and barked orders were in preparation for the opening of 54 Below, a Broadway supper club for a Broadway crowd. On West 54th Street, below what was once the legendary nightclub Studio 54, where the hard-partying ghosts of the ’70s must still wander, 54 Below opens officially next week with a two-week engagement by Patti LuPone.
Its aim is to tilt the axis of the city’s unpredictably evolving cabaret world. It’s doing so with star power, deep pockets and ambitions to become “Broadway’s living room.”
There’s competition for that title of course. Broadway fans have choices in the neighborhood like Don’t Tell Mama and Birdland and, not much farther downtown, the Metropolitan Room, among others.
New York’s cabaret scene was in flux when plans for 54 Below were announced in February, just after the Algonquin Hotel announced that it would close its supper club, the Oak Room, after 32 years. Could New York support a newcomer?
Sidney Myer, the longtime booking manager at Don’t Tell Mama, called 54 Below a “thrilling venture” that comes in tough economic times for many clubs in the city. He said that if good business sense was a motivating factor in 54 Below or any other new club in New York, “no cabaret would open.”
As 54 Below readies for its debut — a soft opening is planned for Sunday night with a show by the comedian Jackie Hoffman — the producer Tom Viertel said it was keeping firmly in mind a cardinal rule of writing for the theater: Know your audience.
“We want it to be home for virtually anyone on Broadway and the people who love Broadway,” said Mr. Viertel, who owns 54 Below with Mr. Frankel, Steven Baruch and Marc Routh, the producing team behind several hit Broadway musicals including “The Producers” and “Hairspray.”
“The cabaret scene is quite a good one these days,” Mr. Viertel said. “But we are going to be different, particularly in our orientation. The bigger rooms that we might compete with, the Café Carlyle and Feinstein’s, are on the East Side. We aim to be part of the world of Broadway.”
54 Below’s Broadway pedigree extends beyond its owners to the designers: Mr. Beatty and Mr. Billington are both Tony Award winners, and the sound designer, Peter Hylenski, is a Tony nominee. The architect is Richard H. Lewis, who collaborated on the restaurants Bond 45 and Brooklyn Diner with Mr. Beatty.
To help Mr. Beatty conceive the space, Mr. Viertel wrote him a story about a group of thieves whose hideaway morphs into a speakeasy. During a tour last week the story line was apparent in the space, which was still a work in progress. Patrons will enter the club by descending a long, dramatic staircase. In the main rectangular room the walls, chairs and artwork are saturated in deep shades of red, purple and brown, mixed with wood and leather. Shaded lamps light the booths. Cabaret seating accommodates about 140, and at house right, a small bar seats up to 16.
“Patti doesn’t normally sing for under 200 people,” said Scott Wittman, the “Hairspray” lyricist who is the club’s creative consultant and the director of Ms. LuPone’s show. “It’s really like having Patti sing in your living room.”
The club will be open seven days a week with two shows most evenings; bar and food service will be available during and after performances. Mr. Wittman said the performers would be asked to do new material.
“That’s one of the things that we have insisted on,” he said. “If you play the room, it has to be an act created for us. Because we are new, you need to be new.”
Broadway names like Christine Ebersole, Sherie Rene Scott and Brian D’Arcy James will perform, but the club hopes to attract audiences beyond Broadway too, by also booking downtown favorites like Lea DeLaria and Bridget Everett. Phil Geoffrey Bond, the director of programming, said the theater industry, from chorus boys to stage managers, is the target audience for Sundays, after most shows end their work week, when the club will feature Broadway cast members.
A Monday night series will showcase emerging songwriters and singers. “We want to make sure we can get the young musical-theater kids in,” Mr. Bond said.
Although the cover charge for Ms. LuPone’s show is $ 70, other shows will cost $ 10 to $ 60, plus food and drink minimums. (By contrast the cover charge at Joe’s Pub ranges from $ 12 to $ 30, plus minimums; at Café Carlyle cover charges range from $ 45 to $ 135.) Some events, including a Tony Awards viewing party on June 10, will have no cover.
And then there’s the food. 54 Below’s executive chef is André J. Marrero, who has worked at DB Bistro Moderne, Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Perry Street restaurant and L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon, in the Four Seasons Hotel. During a tour of the new kitchen Mr. Marrero said the menu would be global: a Middle Eastern meze plate; a French-inspired rack of lamb; a modern American ice cream bar. An abbreviated late-night menu is intended to appeal to actors fresh from their curtain calls.
“We want to serve things that cast members would want to fill up on, like burgers, tempura vegetables and crostini,” Mr. Marrero said.
If other clubs that regularly book Broadway-theme performers are worried about losing out to 54 Below, they’re not showing it. Giovanni Beretta, the managing director of the Carlyle, said in an e-mail, “We hope this marks the beginning of a new trend and we wish them all the best.”
Shanta Thake, the director of Joe’s Pub, described the opening of 54 Below as lovely and added that she did not anticipate losing artists or customers.
Mr. Wittman said he hoped that 54 Below would become “fertile ground” for new material and undiscovered talent. And if a little Studio 54 naughtiness seeps in, even better.
“If there’s alcohol and singing,” he said, “there’s bound to be some naughtiness.”
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