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Virtual concerts aim to save iconic Upper East Side bar where great piano men played

Lauren Mufson performing at Brandy's. (Photo courtesy of Brandy's Piano Bar.

Brandy’s Piano Bar on the Upper East Side, where household names like Billy Joel and Huey Lewis have performed, has been able to survive prohibition, the Great Depression, a world war and the 1970s fiscal crisis in New York City. But it might not be able to survive the city’s ongoing battle against the novel coronavirus pandemic.  

Like all businesses in New York City, Brandy’s suffered a harsh blow when the novel coronavirus forced it to shutter its doors in mid-March drying up all of its revenue and was hit again when Governor Andrew Cuomo announced last month that the reopening of indoor performance venues in the city would be suspended indefinitely.

Over 66,000 businesses in the city have already closed permanently since March 1 due to the pandemic, The New York Times reported. 

But Brandy’s close-knit staff is banding together to keep the bar alive through a series of virtual concerts meant to mimic, as closely as possible, a typical night at Brandy’s.

Beginning this week, select performers will return to the bar to sing against the backdrop of live piano all on live stream to raise funds for owner and manager Jim Luzar and Mario Davila as the struggle to pay rent becomes more challenging. Performers will wear masks at all times except while singing and will remain socially distant the pianist, according to staffer and actor Justin Gregory Lopez.

Apart from its history of serving music icons, Brandy’s has earned a reputation for helping acting hopefuls achieve their dreams. When staff members are not serving drinks or singing for customers, they are headlining plays both on and off Broadway. The concerts, spearheaded by Brandy’s long-time pianist John Bronston, are an effort to repay the bar’s management for serving as lifesavers for those trying to make it in shaky industry pre-pandemic and a non-existent one now. In June, the Broadway League announced that its theaters would remain closed for the rest of the year.  

“Brandy’s made my career possible for me,” said Lauren Mufson, who first moved to New York City to pursue work on Broadway in 1987. Since then Mufson has starred as Donna in the Broadway and National touring companies of Mamma Mia!  and appeared in Off-Broadway performances of Kari Floren’s “The Porch,” “Voices of Swords,” William Finn’s  “A New Brain” and Elizabeth Swados’ “Groundhog.” 

No matter how long Mufson took a break from Brandy’s for personal or performance reasons,  if she needed to come back she was always received with open arms. For the last 10 years, Mufson has worked on Thursdays and Saturdays at Brandy’s after taking a seven-year hiatus from the piano bar life. 

“It was just the ideal survival job,” said Mufson, who loved the bar’s flexibility, loyal owners, talented staff and, of course, the passionate slightly drunken crowds singing along poorly to tunes ranging from Sweet Caroline to Don’t Rain on My Parade. “In a very insecure business, it has always been a home.”

During the early months pandemic, Luzar and Davila served as lifesavers once more when they organized virtual fundraisers to help staff pay for rent and groceries as they waited for unemployment benefits. Some staffers went eight weeks without receiving any sort of a paycheck.

After launching a GoFundMe page for staffers living expenses and hosting four virtual concerts Luzar and Davila were able to raise $25, 000 for the employees.  Not only did the “concerts” help ease financial strain for Brandy’s staff, but seeing their co-workers online helped employees feel a little less isolated while on lockdown.  

“Concerts” will be a mix of live-performance on Facebook and pre-record videos of staffers singing songs of their choosing from home. During virtual performances, a link to the GoFundMe page would be shared on the platform where listeners could continue the decades-long tradition of slipping artists four or five dollars. 

“It does require a little bit of risk assessment,” said Lopez about returning to the bar to perform. “But this place has done so much for me over the course of my life I think I can step out of the house and help them.” 

The next virtual concert is scheduled to take place on Thursday, Aug. 6, at on future live performances and fundraising events visit Brandy’s Piano Bar Facebook page.

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