Angel on a Dirty Boulevard



In November 2016, the performance series Live From Lincoln Center presented Lang Lang’s New York Rhapsody. The concert was described as “his love letter to New York, the city he considers his adoptive home, set to the music that helped make this city so famous.”

One of the numbers was a combination of “Somewhere” from West Side Story (music by Leonard Bernstein, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim) and “Dirty Blvd” (written by Lou Reed) from Reed’s album New York. Renowned vocalist Lisa Fischer sang “Somewhere” while the incomparable Suzanne Vega did the honors for “Dirty Blvd.”

I’ve since watched this performance many times and am in awe of the tiny miracle Fischer and Vega conjure by the end of the performance.

On one level the mash-up of these songs is predictable — almost a cliche. The romantic “Somewhere” rubbing up against the cool grittiness of Lou Reed. The concept seemed interesting and entertaining simply given the talent involved. But the performance takes an unexpected and magical turn from the moment Vega walks onstage and begins rapping the first lines.


Pedro lives out of the Wilshire Hotel
He looks out a window without glass
And the walls are made of cardboard, newspapers on his feet
And his father beats him ’cause he’s too tired to beg

He’s got 9 brothers and sisters
They’re brought up on their knees
It’s hard to run when a coat hanger beats you on the thighs
Pedro dreams of being older and killing the old man
But that’s a slim chance
He’s going to the boulevard

He’s gonna end up on the dirty boulevard
He’s going out to the dirty boulevard
He’s going down to the dirty boulevard


The words are spare but the orchestration is expansive and evocative. As presented by Vega, the song’s protagonist lives in a world of shit, yet in the way she plays the role one senses a dreamer beneath the bravado. Her voice is youthful; her slender frame and clothing emphasize the androgyny of a young person; her gestures are the braggadocio of a self-conscious teen.

Lisa Fischer enters stage right and begins “Somewhere.” There are many good reasons why West Side Story has been a continual stage hit for close to 60 years and the song “Somewhere” is one of them.


Perhaps because Fischer is the un-diva with the voice of a diva, the song seems fresh and unpretentious — she just simply sings the song instead of turning it into a “diva moment.” It takes humility to put the song before you.

Fischer’s voice is not pure and technically perfect like an opera singer’s. Instead there is the rough edge of rock and soul and the blues. It’s a working voice and I think that makes the performance more accessible and effective. She is genuinely invested in the song.

The orchestra plays an instrumental bridge that is the symphonic equivalent of a guitar solo, creating a contrast with the Vega’s measured vocal. The words, however, are not gentle and Vega’s delivery is full of swagger.


This room costs $2,000 a month
You can believe it, man, it’s true
Somewhere there’s a landlord’s laughing till he wets his pants
No one here dreams of being a doctor or a lawyer or anything
They dream of dealing on the dirty boulevard

Give me your hungry, your tired, your poor I’ll piss on ’em
That’s what the Statue of Bigotry says
Your poor huddled masses
Let’s club ’em to death
And get it over with and just dump ’em on the boulevard

Get ’em out on the dirty boulevard
Goin’ out to the dirty boulevard
They’re going down on the dirty boulevard
Goin’ out


To those with some knowledge of the histories of these two women their presence on the stage of the Lincoln Center is itself somewhat of a miracle. As children they may or may not have harbored dreams to perform on stage at Lincoln Center, but if they did, such a journey might just as well have been to the far side of the Moon. Yet here they are.

Fischer becomes a supernatural agent watching over Vega, who, as the performance unspools, increasingly inhabits the skin of her character. The kid with the truculent facade gives way to wistful dreamer. It’s my favorite of Vega’s performances.


Outside it’s a bright night
There’s an opera at Lincoln Center
Movie stars arrive by limousine
The klieg lights shoot up over the skyline of Manhattan
But the lights are out on the mean streets

A small kid stands by the Lincoln Tunnel
He’s selling plastic roses for a buck
The traffic’s backed up to 39th Street
The TV whores are calling the cops out for a suck

And back at the Wilshire, Pedro sits there dreaming
He’s found a book on Magic in a garbage can
He looks at the pictures
And stares up at the cracked ceiling
“At the count of 3,” he says,
“I hope I can disappear.”

And fly, fly away from this dirty boulevard
I want to fly from the dirty boulevard
I want to fly from the dirty boulevard
I want to fly-fly-fly-fly from the dirty boulevard


The song’s end is an example of how theatre can emerge from the simplest of things. Fisher moves towards Vega to cross over into our realm. She vocalizes on the word “somewhere” while Vega/Pedro dreams

I want to fly away
I want to fly
Fly, fly away
I want to fly
Fly, fly away
Fly, fly away
Fly, fly away
Fly, fly away
I want to fly

And then an angel appears on that dirty boulevard.