Affirmations and Adrenaline as Singer Celebrates 60th at Port Authority

Sandwiched between two heavily traveled escalators and above a sandwich shop, the performance space was formerly home to the Port Authority’s operations control center, when it was filled with a battery of monitors hooked up to security cameras. The piano was placed there a year and a half ago. | Photo by Tequila Minsky

BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | Broadway or bust, so the saying goes. Or… you could also sing near Broadway — in a bus terminal.

Not just any bus terminal, that is, but the most famous and busiest one in the world.

That’s what Jonathan Kuhn did for his 60th birthday, giving a 90-minute virtuoso performance during a recent Friday evening rush hour at the Port Authority.

Kuhn is the director of arts and antiquities for the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. When he’s not overseeing the countless statues and monuments in New York City’s green spaces, however, one of his great passions is singing.

And, yes, the Port Authority actually does have a performance space — on the second-floor balcony of its south building on Eighth Ave. — with an amplification system that piped Kuhn’s pipes throughout the place. A baby grand piano was first added there in October 2016 — in a space formerly occupied by monitors for the terminal’s security cameras — through a collaboration between the Historic Districts Council and Sing for Hope, the program that puts colorfully painted pianos in the city’s parks. Kuhn said he first learned of the performance space — which is free to use — from reading about it in the New York Times.

As cabaret veteran Woody Regan tinkled the ivories, Kuhn stood and crooned into a microphone a total of 17 songs, ranging from “Something’s Coming,” by Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein, “Sweet Baby James,” by James Taylor, and “Both Sides Now,” by Joni Mitchell, to “Tupelo Honey,” by Van Morrison, “Thunder Road,” by Bruce Springsteen, “Imagine,” by John Lennon, and finishing, fittingly, with “Forever Young,” by Bob Dylan.

A crowd of about 70 friends took “a ticket to ride” with Kuhn, cheering him on from other sections of the balcony. Meanwhile, of course, there were also droves of commuters and travelers streaming through the station.

“The stage manager at the Port Authority said that 260,000 people use the terminal daily,” Kuhn said. “So, one must assume that many, many thousands passed through the space during the show. Commuters would often stop for a song or two or three. So, at any given moment, there seemed to be 100 to 125 stationary audience members, and many more hundreds passing through.

“People rimmed the balcony on the second floor, while others lingered and looked up from the ground level. The stage is flanked by two escalators, which at all times were essentially filled. It was fun while performing to see people turn their heads!”

Despite all the hubbub and motion, he said, “It was surprisingly intimate.”

That said, due to the din and the place’s sound-swallowing acoustics, he refrained from the usual cabaret-style patter in between tunes.

For Kuhn, it was also, as he put it, “a culmination of about seven years of vocal instruction and dabbling in the world of popular music, cabaret and open mike.”

His singing started out years ago simply enough, as he “honed his craft” at home, by singing his children to bed at night.

Next came several years of classes at HB Studio, on Bank St., followed by independent group lessons. His harmonic hobby has opened up a whole new world for him.

“It’s a community of creative people expressing themselves through song in a myriad of ways and forums, and a remarkable antidote to the ills of the world at large,” he reflected. “I knew none of these people when I passed the threshold of 50, and the singing experience and all that comes with it has transformed my life.”

Some of those singers — from the monthly Groovin’ on a Sunday cabaret series — performed during an intermezzo while Kuhn took a break.

As for his song set, Kuhn said, “The show was loosely built around the theme of the stages of life — it being my 60th birthday, after all — and the commitments we make to one another, and the commitments we sometimes sever or release.”

Jonathan Kuhn sang a 90-minute set at the Port Authority on March 9 for his birthday. Accompanying him on piano was Woody Regan. | Photo by Tequila Minsky

Dylan’s “Forever Young” seemed “the appropriate song to close the show for my 60th birthday celebration,” he said. “May we stay forever young in spirit and commitment to the things we value at any age.”

He saw some songs as vibing well with the venue: “Thunder Road,” for example, was a good one for the Jersey commuters.

“Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ felt just right for the bus terminal,” he added, “a sea of humanity from all walks and stations of life, where we become — became — one.”

Before belting out Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Waters,” Kuhn gave a shout-out to his “silver girl,” wife Michele Herman, a longtime columnist for our sister publication, The Villager.

Asked afterward what she thought of her husband’s transportation terminal tour de force, Herman said, “It was a triumph. His voice just got better and better. He always sings well, but I think the affirmation of a huge audience and the adrenaline brought out the best in him.”

Kuhn agreed that serenading the bus station really got his musical motor running.

“It was so energizing to perform for this cross section of humanity, from commuters to the indigent to the National Guard at the lower level providing station security,” he reflected. “To perform for a crowd numbering in totality that of Madison Square Garden was the thrill of a lifetime! It was an opportunity to connect the personal with the universal, and bask in a collective experience.”

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