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Cultural capital

The hottest ticket in New York this autumn is to ‘Hamilton’, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical about America’s lesser-known founding father. Obama’s about to go for the second time, but sadly, tickets for ordinary folk are rarer than gold dust, so it may be best not to plan a stateside holiday around that.

But this is the Big Apple, so there’s plenty else to occupy your time if you’re heading there in the next few months, both on Broadway and beyond. For starters, there’s the extended High Line park, which opened to the public a year ago and now runs to 30th Street, in a circuitous route offering ample greenery and a clear view of the Hudson. If you’re willing to cross the water out of Manhattan for a bargain or a good meal, the now-staple attractions of the Brooklyn Flea and the Smorgasburg food market will be open on weekends at Sunset Park. If not, head to Extra Virgin in Greenwich Village for a low key brunch, or grab a classic cocktail at Dakota Bar on 72nd street (so-named after the building at which John Lennon was shot).

If you’re there before the end of January, there’s a new production of ‘Spring Awakening’, the Tony-winning rock musical about teenage passions that launched the career of Lea Michelle. This time, it’s musical theatre with a difference, as a proportion of the cast is deaf and much of the choreography involves sign language, with deaf performers and hearing/singing ‘voice actors’ paired to bring each role to life. Which they do, with energy and skill. Produced by the company Deaf West, and with a star turn from Oscar winning actress Marlee Matlin, it’s ultimately spellbinding.

Lou Romano, colorscript, "The Incredibles," 2004. Digital painting.

Heading uptown, two current exhibitions stand out. At Cooper Hewitt, a stone’s throw from the more famous Met Museum, the spotlight is on Pixar and the creative genius of animation in recent decades, with hundreds of original sketches and paintings on display, as well as disarming sculptures revealing how Woody from ‘Toy Story’ could have looked, and a whimsical Vitruvian Man featuring Flik from ‘A Bug’s Life’. There’s also the chance to view the first Pixar original short film (from 1986), ‘Luxo Jr’, featuring a desk lamp playing with a ball; a two-minute clip that brings home just why this company retains such a grip on our imaginations.

Robert Kondo, Remy in the Kitchen, "Ratatouille," 2007. Digital painting.

The holy grail for Pixar, we learn, is three key principles: story, believability and appeal. And taking us from early outings to more recent successes such as ‘Inside Out’, the exhibition explores the processes by which characters are sketched, refined and ultimately humanised, how colour palettes for different stories are chosen, and how the most miniscule detail can be vital to making a scene credible. What becomes clear is that the animations necessarily evolve from the external world, not simply the imagination. The design for the home of the family from ‘The Incredibles’, for example, knowingly combines vintage furniture with futuristic trimmings to communicate the film’s particular universe; likewise we learn how Remy from ‘Ratatouille’ was crafted to be simultaneously endearing and definitively a rodent.

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On in Cooper Hewitt’s immersive ‘Process Lab’, much of the exhibition is interactive. Indeed visitors are handed a touch screen pen at the beginning to click and swipe favourite images, which are then saved to a personal ticket code. Strictly necessary? No, but certainly something different.

Across the park on the Upper West Side, a new exhibition looking into Manhattan’s historic connection with the superhero genre has just opened at the New York Historical Society. ‘Superheroes in Gotham’ offers an intelligent look at how the genre was spawned and how it has developed. Some of the history was familiar, for example that many of the original artists were Jews who found in comic book heroes a power they lacked in real life, but other nuggets, such as that comics were republished in pocket-sized editions for troops serving abroad during the war, were new. And I was fascinated to learn that Superman appeared as a much-loved radio drama throughout the 1940s; the original scripts from the show can’t help but make you smile.

It’s not just for overgrown fanboys, despite the array of original costumes and props, including a Batmobile, an early Superman suit that appears to have been stuck together with pritt stick, and a selection of first edition comic books over the years. In fact, it’s an insightful look at popular culture and the ways in which this is both shaped by and shapes external events.

The physiques of the early superheroes are outlandish caricatures, yet in the days of muscle men and stars fixated on a six pack, they appear prescient. Equally, reading about the eccentric feminist ideas of Wonder Woman creator William Moulton Marston places a seemingly crude character in far greater context. And the exhibition’s central premise – that superheroes are intrinsically a New York phenomenon, because high-flying saviours need tall buildings to weave through – is hard to argue with. Food for thought as you wander round the city, perhaps.