The cocktail craze that has gripped New York over the past decade has changed the way the food service industries do business. If you open a bar, your bartenders better have a thorough knowledge of the latest liquors and mixers on the market, while also being skilled at making the classic, pre-Prohibition drinks that savvy patrons are now demanding. Likewise, restaurateurs who once concentrated on building up their wine cellar, cannot hold their heads up without delivering a thoughtfully curated cocktail list.
Not untouched by these trends are the concessions stands at Broadway's major nonprofit theatres. Go to any of these houses and you'll find an array of tempting libations. But they won't be wearing tired names like the Stinger or Rob Roy. No, these go by more particular names of recent coinage (though with historical roots). Ever heard of, for instance, The Frolicking Frog? Or the French Planter?
You have if you're a regular at Lincoln Center Theater's Vivian Beaumont Theater, where those cocktails were served up in honor of, respectively, productions of the musicals The Frogs and South Pacific. Those and many more mid-show bracers are the work of Sweet Concessions, a company that has manned for many years the refreshment stations at LCT, the Roundabout Theatre Company's American Airline Theatre and Studio 54, Manhattan Theatre Club's Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, as well as several nonprofit Off-Broadway houses. Sweet Concessions was founded in 1986 by Julie Rose. Her house mixologist, who must concoct dozens of originals cocktails each theatre season, is Brett Stasiewicz.
Though Stasiewicz has spent most of his working life around restaurants and bars, he never intended to be a drink slinger. He simply saw an opportunity and he took it. Hired in 1996 by Rose, he was put in charge of the Beaumont concessions in 2000 during the run of the hit musical Contact. "The concessions were not doing that well" at Lincoln Center, remembered Rose, "I said, 'Just make it work.'" "At that time, specialty cocktails were just taking off," said Stasiewicz. "We decided to go into that area and try it. It was something nobody else was doing." He started to self-educate himself in the art of mixing drinks. "I did not know much about liquor at the time," he admitted. "As we began to do it, I started to research and study the liquor. I knew some bartenders and I'd ask them questions."
For Contact, he came up with a number of mixed drinks named after the characters in the show. The Girl in the Yellow Dress cocktail, for instance, was gin-based, with some orange juice and apricot brandy thrown in.
"Eventually people just began to expect that the cocktails would be there," he recalled. "They'd ask, 'What are the drinks going to be for this show,' or actors would ask, 'What is my character's cocktail going to be?'"
Other theatres took note and, in a year or so, Stasiewicz was shaking up new creations for Roundabout productions. "The marketing people started coming up and saying 'Are we getting a cocktail for this show?'" Though some drinks were named after songs or thematic notions connected to the drama, most got their monikers from characters in the show. The recent Roundabout revival of A Man for All Seasons was supported by drinks called Master Cromwell, Thomas Moore, Henry VIII and Cardinal Woolsey.
Since his is the theatre, these were not just cocktails, but cocktails with a story to tell. For each drink, Stasiewicz would compose a witty bit of text — part history lesson, part recipe dissection — explaining the drink and its relation to the stage character. "When we first started doing it," said Stasiewicz, "it was specifically for people who like going to the theatre and have an interest in the productions they are seeing. They were sort of inside theatre jokes."
These Cocktail Cliff Notes of sorts have become as popular as the refreshments themselves. "I have a friend," said Rose, "who goes to the shows at the Roundabout. She told me 'When I go there and I haven't seen the show before, I study the drink menu to see what's going to happen in the play. I love it. I understand the show from this stuff.'"
The theatres don't pay Sweet Concessions anything extra to get custom cocktails. But the company isn't about to stop making them; the promotion is too successful. "It does make more money," said Rose. "When I started the company, people weren't drinking at all, period."
Stasiewicz said he worries constantly about running out of ideas for drinks. Nonprofits open new shows regularly, and each show carries with it a new raft of characters demanding their signature tipple. "Fortunately, the liquor industry keeps expanding and creating new things. If I'm not sure what to do, a liquor representative will come up to me and say, 'Hey, I have this.'" Several of his inventions are based on vodka, the popular, and flavorless, workhorse liquor of the drink industry, and Stasiewicz takes full advantage of many flavored vodkas which are introduced to the market at a regular clip. The Light in the Pizza cocktail was based on Citron vodka, with some lemoncello giving the drink an Italian flavor in keeping with the musical's Florence setting.
Occasionally, one of the stars of a show will take an interest in the drink that is meant to represent his or her character.
"During Hedda Gabler, Mary-Louise Parker one day just happened to notice the drink," related Stasiewicz. The Hedda Gabler cocktail featured vodka, St. Germain elderflower liqueur and cranberry juice. "She loved her Hedda drink, and she kind of went through the menu after that." Then Parker noticed that all the characters had a drink except the maid.
"The maid should have a drink," she protested. "That's not fair!"