They were hooked: The moment singer-songwriter Jim James and his bandmates from My Morning Jacket first wandered into the immersive, genre-bending show "Sleep No More," there was no turning back.
The five guys spent hours wandering around the 100,000-square-foot warehouse space in Chelsea, visiting dozens of carefully designed rooms, following mysterious actors and generally having their minds blown.
"I've never experienced a piece of art like that before," James says by phone from Louisville, Ky. "The thing is just so overwhelming. And you get a sense that you created your experience."
James was so excited that he and some of the band returned the next night and he also came back a few months later. So it comes as no surprise that he picked "Sleep No More" as one of the stops on his new tour promoting "Regions of Light and Sound of God," his first full-length solo album.
He joins a long list of musicians — from Bjork to Florence Welch — who have become part of the experience. Now approaching its second year, "Sleep No More" has found itself evolving into a musical draw as well as a theatrical one.
"This has taken on a life of its own," Jonathan Hochwald, a producer of the show, says while sipping a rye and ginger beer cocktail in the space's nightclub as a recording of Marlene Dietrich singing "Falling in Love Again" played. "What surprised us is how versatile and open-minded not only the people are but the place is as well."
Becoming a music venue wasn't necessarily a goal when the doors opened on three empty hulking warehouse spaces on 27th Street, a spot renamed the McKittrick Hotel. It houses the show "Sleep No More," a kind of art installation-meets-theater-and-dance piece with elements of both Shakespeare's "Macbeth" and Alfred Hitchcock.
Created by the British theater troupe Punchdrunk, visitors are handed Venetian-style mask to wear and are encouraged to explore. About 25 performers act out mostly wordless scenes inspired by Shakespeare's play while dressed in 1930s outfits and giving off a film noir vibe.
The show, which doesn't advertise and relies on word-of-mouth, ends with an invitation to gather in the hotel's Manderlay Bar for a drink and to listen to the house band, an invitation some professional performers have found inviting enough to get up on stage themselves.
The punk-pop singer Pink and Police drummer Stewart Copeland, each at different times, began jamming with the band. The space inspired Perry Farrell, frontman for the alternative rock band Jane's Addiction, to renew his wedding vows in the bar after a show.
The list of musicians embracing "Sleep No More" and its haunting space include John Legend, Wyclef Jean, Meshell Ndegeocello, David Garza, Dita Von Teese and the band Chairlift. Everest and Skeleton Key had album launch parties there. Songwriter and musicians Glen Hansard turned it into an Irish pub one night.
Bjork spun records in a private party in the creepy hospital during a stop on her latest tour, while Broadway legend Joel Grey celebrated his 80 birthday in the bar by getting up and singing the chilling "Willkommen" from the show "Cabaret," an event that participants said sent shivers down their spines. The Preservation Hall Jazz Band earlier this year wrapped up a 16-show residency, adding a jazzy mournfulness to the atmosphere.
At the end of the show's regular performance on Wednesday night, James will play a concert in the main ballroom. In addition to the new songs from the CD, he'll do a few covers of songs relevant to the experience.
"The place just inspires creativity," he says. "I've seen it three different times now and every experience was different. It's kind of a limitless thing. I think that's why it's been so successful."
Hochwald says the musicians get excited about riffing off the noir vibe or Shakespearian themes explored by the show and by a space that includes a spooky cemetery, an indoor forest, a candy store and a cemetery, all beautifully realized.
"What they love is this idea of a totally different kind of gig, a totally different way of presenting of concert where your mind is completely blown, you don't know where you are but you're having this one-of-a-kind experience," he says. "It's like the next generation of how to present a concert."
The evolution of the space into a music venue is part of the show's constant updating. New rooms are being worked on all the time and new spaces are being unveiled, including a new rooftop bar called Gallow Green, which Hochwald hopes will be suitably verdant this summer to attract a late-night crowd hoping the show can go on.
"If somebody's been to the show 70 or 80 times — and we have fans nearing 100 — the fact that they're going to still be discovering new areas and new rooms is really exciting for all of us," he says. "Even as the producer of the show, I haven't seen everything."
Hochwald, who together with fellow producers Randy Weiner and Arthur Karpati created the company Emursive and stages "Sleep No More," laughs that the Mandalay Bar has become his new office since keeping the show fresh means daily updates and tweaking.
"It's a blessing a curse. One the one hand, you don't get to walk away. It doesn't get to operate in amber. It's always growing, always developing," he says.
"We knew it would be something very special and we felt confident people would embrace it and fall in love with it. I guess what we didn't expect all of these new dimensions to the experience."
James is a perfect example. He may not be satisfied with only playing new songs during his concert at the hotel this week: Attendees might also see the bearded singer running around, doing a little acting, too.
"I've heard that, too," he says, appropriately mysteriously. "All I'll say is I've heard that, too."
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