As the speakers blared Elton John’s “Circle of Life” and screens flashed with images of Rafiki lifting the newborn Simba high into the air, an extraordinarily tall man picked up a comparatively petite friend and held him aloft, Lion King style.
It was the closest thing I saw to choreography at Tavern on Camac’s Showtunes Night, the exuberant mess of sweaty bodies and spilled beers that has become, for some in the Gayborhood, a Sunday night ritual.
I had tagged along with Luis, a new friend and Tavern regular who had agreed be my tour guide on a visit to the weekly singalong and dance party. (On the dance floor, he explained to someone that I was writing a column. “So this is over, then,” the man replied, with a gesture that took in one of the few Gayborhood spaces not yet infiltrated by bachelorette parties.)
But the secret’s already out. As I headed to the bar, I was nearly knocked over by the crush of people determined to wring the last dregs of fun out of the weekend: men still in their baseball caps and T-shirts from a game with the LGBTQ-focused Stonewall Sports league, a fresh-faced young man in an “It’s my 21st birthday!” sash, a guy in a blingy “Trophy Boy” hat.
“That is the most popular night up there. We’ve been doing it for seven or eight years, but it’s become the juggernaut that it is within last three years,” said Howard Nields, general manager, who developed Showtunes Night and freely admits he stole the concept from a bar in New York. Today, the mirror-lined room, equipped with a smoke machine, colored lights, and no fewer than four disco balls, may well be the only place in the Philadelphia where you’ll hear clips from Sister Act and Glee played back to back with numbers from Hairspray, Mamma Mia, and Moana.
Tavern, on one of Center City’s quaint, narrow alleyways, is better known for its piano bar: a clubby, ground-floor room with a grand piano that’s flanked by bar stools and crowned with a Lucite top hat for tips. On Sundays, the featured act is Ghosha, a husky-voiced lounge singer with a penchant for ’60s R&B and pop.
But Showtunes Night is upstairs, in a tiny nightclub no one bothers to call by its official name, “The Ascend Lounge.” At 10 p.m., it was filled with people slow-dancing to the love song from Beauty and the Beast. By 11 p.m., they were jumping around to “Shout” as though at a wedding reception or singing to themselves in the mirrored walls. What with all that enthusiastic dancing, I counted at least five dropped and spilled drinks (three of them directly into my shoe).
No matter, though. Celine Dion came on the screen, and soon 50 people were all belting out “My Heart Will Go On” in unison, some with fists clenched and brows furrowed in Celine-like intensity. “She looks amazing!” someone said, gazing at the music video as though it were a new release, not a rerun from 1997.
Nields said he and DJ Chris Bretz try to refresh the playlist regularly (requests are welcomed). But people want to hear what they know. “If you don’t play it for them, they get a little angsty,” Nields said. “They love their Disney for some reason.”
Tavern on Camac
243 S. Camac St., 215-545-1102, tavernoncamac.com
When to go: Showtunes Night starts at 9 p.m., though people line up early some nights, especially on holiday weekends. The piano bar is open 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. daily.
Bring: Your LGBTQ-only kickball team. Your friends who were musical-theater nerds in high school. Nields estimates the crowd is about a third Stonewall players, a third Tavern regulars, and “the rest are people who really, really love show tunes.”
Order: The best-selling beer here, Miller Lite, isn’t much of a steal at $5. If you’re looking for more booze for your buck, go for a vodka cocktail; it’s $7.50 for what’s essentially a plastic cup full of vodka with a splash of soda and an ice cube.
Bathroom situation: I can’t speak to the men’s room from personal experience (only lore), but there’s a single-stall, any-gender bathroom downstairs that’s plenty clean.
Sounds like: A noisy 100 decibels downstairs, and much, much louder upstairs – but, if you’re a fan of Sister Act, totally worth it.