It is a truth universally acknowledged that a gay man in possession of a tequila soda must be in want of a diva belting out a song way beyond his register. Not to generalize but, at least in the Chelsea gayborhood — where limp-wristed media strategists and their french bulldogs mingle with Midtown rat infestations — this is true.
So it shouldn’t have come as such a surprise when I saw an Instagram flyer for an event, called "Backstage Tea,” at the recently-ish opened club, Motel 23. Hosted by nightlife/ theater friends Jarvis Derrell and Rob Morean, it promised “Broadway’s hottest stars spilling the hottest tea” on Monday nights. I sort of figured that some of the same gays I’d partied with there might also be tired of getting drunk in their rooms while YouTube suggests the same Barbra Streisand "shadiest diva moments" compilations. But at Motel 23? Really?
Bored witless when it first opened at the tail-end of New York’s first lockdown in September 2020, I’d watched the place grow from a masks-on, sit-down cocktail bar into the rowdy hotspot that can host Lil Nas X’s SNL afterparty as easily as it can accommodate the 3 Dollar Bill gays on nights they decide to wear deodorant. I associated it more with losing my friend to a K-Hole (or a bathroom stall) than with sitting down to take in a show, but what am I if not a model of versatility?
I trusted Rob and knew Jarvis — who’d previously run the sassy “She Has Had It!” Instagram a few years back — would deliver a show, let alone some glam looks, so I booked a table and caught Jelani Remy (Ain’t Too Proud) and Jay Armstrong Johnson (The Phantom of the Opera) performing. Sexy... Good... Entertaining... OK, maybe they were up to something. Really, not since Bette Midler was belting at the bathhouses has such Broadway-level talent been performing at the same exact space you’re liable to see some Hell’s Kitchen twink use their own throat for other purposes any other night of the week.
"I like the versatility of the space, the energy shift,” Jarvis told me. “There are times where you could not tell me that we’re not all at a circuit party — you know what it’s like — but it’s still intimate. It’s kind of magical that someone can be partying here over the weekend then bring their grandma in on Monday.”
Now, before it looks like I’m running PR for the place, I’ll say that, like all the bars in all the towns in all the world, Motel 23 is a hit-or-miss. I either walk in and join my friends on someone’s table to live my Grace Jones pseudo-fantasy, or walk in, immediately see the 10 most toxic gays I’ve ever met, and leave.
The music never flops, though — that’s a constant — and, so far, neither have any of the performers or audiences I’ve seen. Rising star (seriously) Solea Pfeiffer, who performed in November, told me that the audience gave her "the most validation a person could possibly ask for. For those of us who live in the world of the girls and the gays, that’s what it’s all about: hyping each other up."
Of course, a crowd of the aforementioned girls and gays did not need much encouragement to hype up Pfeiffer, who tore through “The Life of the Party” before playing Rob and Jarvis’ two games: “Sixteen Bars from Hell,” where audiences shout out different musicals the performer must tailor a 16 bar cut audition for on the spot, and the titular tea-spilling ceremony.
Rob Morean and Jarvis Derrell
Pfeiffer, despite a constant wink that hints at being a fun time out, left the tea section unscathed. But others have not been so lucky. I remember one October show had Rob single out an audience member who’d ghosted him after a date-gone-wrong, and Jarvis is constantly either actively hitting on or reminding guests of what antics they got up to not too long before. Imagine some variation of, “You’re sitting there now, but I saw what you were doing in that corner last Friday!”
He didn’t seem embarrassed about it, but Max von Essen gave an eye-opening and jeans-tightening account of his time on the road as Tony in a touring West Side Story production, where he apparently bedded all members of both the Sharks and the Jets. It was giving Patti LuPone crabs reveal and, von Essen being easy on the eyes, the crowd ate it up when he took the stage in December of last year.
I asked the performer how he’d been prepped for the intimate line of questioning and he said he hadn't been. “I knew it’d be backstage tea not, like, tea,” he told me, adding that the hosts instructed him to just go with it. “To be honest, I’d kind of forgotten all about that part. I wish I’d had at least one drink before that.”
That ethos plays into what Pfeiffer mentioned she’s noticed recently, especially in the theater community, "that people seem a lot more willing to not do the bullshit small talk anymore. People are just like, 'What the fuck is up?'"
von Essen’s night included a mini Falsettos tour reunion, with Eden Espinosa and Nick Adams sharing the bill. That night marked a turning point for the cabaret series, not only because of its all-star lineup but because its hosts felt they’d finally established a good format and rhythm. It’s true, something shifted for the cabaret series that December night; the clubby pre-show music mixed well into their hyped-up overture mashup and the show itself went off without a hitch. Except, I guess, for when one of Jarvis’ balls fell out of their dress or when the accidentally straight man they’d brought onstage for an, ahem, immersive dance number proved to be not about it. All was handled gracefully enough, but left room for a winky love for the failings of live performance.
It reminded me of this first theater season back from the pandemic, when everything seems to be changing at the last minute and understudies, closures, cancellations and technical mishaps become part of the norm. Like Pfeiffer said, “It’s all kind of tapped into this Roaring ‘20s feel that we’re living, or wanting to live, right now, and also the New York live theater renaissance.”
I meant to ask Rob about the (pardon) intersection of theater kids and club rats. Both are New York subcultures inherent to the city’s spark that are leading the charge on bringing pre-pandemic normalcy back about, through parties and openings, mainly through the steadfast will of queer people recently deprived of the proximity and community that are so central to their experience. He beat me to it.
“I think nightlife gives a space for expression that the theater community is able to really take advantage of,” he told me. “I mean, you'll be out dancing and they'll be playing Mamma Mia. At the end of the day, musical theater is a type of popular music and it used to be much more. So I think of this as a gift for the New York City gay community at one of the most important moments in its history.”
Photos courtesy of Backstage Tea