It was as relaxed an atmosphere as you’re likely to find at a classical music performance. As Andrew Shapiro squeezed onto the small stage and sat down at the old Howard grand piano, a group of teenagers chatted over breakfast sandwiches and sodas. A worker plunged hash browns into a fryer. Two police officers milled about drinking hot coffees.
The concert hall in question is not some new annex to Lincoln Center but the McDonald’s at 160 Broadway, near Liberty Street, where Shapiro has been performing on Sunday afternoons since 2004. The Oberlin Conservatory-trained pianist and composer first came to the restaurant after reading a New York magazine article about the history of the city’s McDonald’s. He contacted the manager, Paul Goodman, and talked his way into a trial shift.
“I didn’t think I’d be doing this for seven-and-a-half years," said Shapiro. "But I like it and it’s fun."
Shapiro’s musical style blends echoes of Philip Glass, a former mentor, as well as 1980’s pop and ambient music. Hints of Chopin-esque harmonies turn up, usually in between shouts of “May I help the next customer please?”
That this is not a typical McDonald’s can be seen in numerous details throughout the restaurant. The upstairs dining area is known as the Orchid Room and fresh cut flowers adorn tables. Customers include a cosmopolitan mix of tourists visiting the World Trade Center site and office workers. Shapiro’s piano is in a small loft area that overlooks the entrance and must be accessed through a narrow gangplank behind the interior walls. During a recent visit, some in the restaurant appeared to take notice of the performance happening above, others ate and chatted with friends.
Raised in Larchmont, NY, Shapiro, 36, lives in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. He has released a handful of albums of solo piano music, his most latest being the 2009 “Numbers, Colors and People,” produced by longtime Glass musical director Michael Riesman. Because of the attention he's received for his McDonald’s gig, he has accepted invitations to perform at other piano-equipped McDonald’s in Poland and the UK. Shapiro said that he hopes to perform a concert tour of McDonald’s with pianos in the year ahead (there are several, as it happens, mostly in Europe).
The pianist said he is unconcerned with people who don't think this is an appropriate venue for a classically-trained pianist. Does he ever experience Big Mac Attacks during his four-hour shifts? “I used to drink a lot of the milkshakes,” he said. “Now I mostly have the grilled chicken sandwich – without mayonnaise. And I’ll come down and make a black coffee before my shift starts.”