Before the Ball Drops -- Ring in the New Year with First Night Morris
New Jerseyans, of course, have a few ways to celebrate New Year’s Eve on Thursday. Squeezing into Times Square to watch the ball drop across the Hudson River. Catching fireworks from apartments in Hoboken. Or simply plopping on the couch and watching on television at home. But no option may be as diverse as traveling to downtown Morristown.
There, you’ll find the 24th annual First Night Morris, a crosstown cultural event featuring 89 performances in 24 venues in the waning hours of 2015. There’s everything from jazz to didgeridoo music to an actor impersonating Abraham Lincoln to stand-up comedy to face-painting to a LEGO building event to two sets of fireworks, including one at midnight.
The event — which begins at 4:45 p.m. — is $25 and free for children 4 and under. There are also discounts for groups of four or more.
“Sometimes, if you pay $250 and go to something, you feel cheated,” says Lynn Siebert, the director of arts and communication for Morris Arts, the council supporting arts in Morris County and the group that organizes the evening.
“Here, if you don’t like something, you can see something at another venue,” she explains. “It’s a very flexible and enjoyable way to sample and experience thing. Maybe you’ll discover you have a great passion for Chinese flute music or Korean traditional dance — something you would have never gone to before.”
Siebert has spent years picking acts for the event, which she said was organized nearly a quarter-century ago “to provide a family-friendly, alcohol-free celebration of the arts as an alternative to people staying home on New Year’s Eve or going to a bar.”
Come Thursday night, there will be thousands of people traipsing across Morristown Green or hopping on the complimentary shuttle buses to move from venue to venue.
“You see large crowds of people all around, feeling happy and festive,” Siebert says. “There’s a real sense of community about it. It feels like you’re part of a town party.”
If you’ve been before, there’s reason to go again: Siebert says more than 50 percent of the program is new each year.
The lineup features New Jersey acts like jazz pianist Rio Clemente of Morristown and folk artist Spook Handy of New Brunswick. It also includes acts from across the nation and the globe.
“People that have played at the White House, Carnegie Hall, on late-night TV and at the Stone Pony and Madison Square Garden,” Sibert says. “There are really world-class performers.”
Many of the shows are geared toward families — like the Story Pirates, a professional improv theater troupe based in New York City.
Since 2004, the group has traveled the country to visit schools and turn stories suggested by students into plays. Recently, they’ve also hosted their own show on Sirius XM satellite radio.
“The mission is to celebrate the words and ideas of young people,” explains Jeremy Basescu, the troupe’s associate producing director.
The Pirates have performed in schools across this area for years, but this is their first time at First Night Morris. Their performance Thursday will be a pair of greatest hits shows — 7 p.m. and 8:15 p.m. — featuring eight to 10 sketches based on stories written by kids from all over the U.S.
One of the plays is based on a story from a school in Franklin Lakes. It’s called “The Big Party.”
“It’s a story about a girl who gets invited to a party and has to bake something,” Basescu says. “And everything she tries to cook turns out to be the wrong kind of thing, and her grandmother takes it away and eats it.
“There is a great sense of: What does it mean to fit in? What does it mean to be part of a social group?” he added. “It’s told from the really earnest point of view of a kid and also with a sense of wanting to write something really entertaining.”
The Pirates will also base a story Thursday on ideas taken from kids in the audience.
“Instead of saying this next story is written by kids in Brooklyn or Chicago, we say this next story has never been written. ‘You are going to come up with it right now,’” Basescu says.
John Forster is another artist who often writes theater pieces and music for children — but his performance Thursday may appeal more to adults who follow the news.
Forster, a renowned satirist of current events and life in general, has been called “the Jon Stewart of music.” He’s notched four Grammy Award nominations and had his songs recorded by Rosanne Cash, Tom Chapin, Judy Collins and more.
“I’m a miniaturist,” says Forster, who will perform at First Night Morris for the second time. “Song is a good form for me. I like squeezing everything I have to say into about three minutes.”
It will just be him and a piano Thursday night, and he says his set will run the gamut. There will be “some topical stuff,” including a tune about the Middle East and another about No Child Left Behind. There also will be a satire about singer-songwriters called “Lovin’ And Losin’.”
“I might do some really nerdy stuff,” Forster continued. “I have this new song called ‘The 12 Days of Christmas at CERN.’” (CERN is the European Organization for Nuclear Research.)
“These two nerds fall in love,” Forster explains, “and they give each other subatomic particles.”
So do ideas simply pop into his head when he turns on CNN or opens up a newspaper?
“They do pop into my head,” Forster says. “But for a song to be worth writing for me, it takes me a while. It’s got to feel like it’s got legs. So it’s not right on the headlines.”
That, he says, is why he probably won’t write about presidential favorites Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, despite the controversy and attention that surround them.
“Because it’ll be gone next month,” Forster says.
The largest First Night in the state, First Night Morris County attracts nearly 10,000 participants, so make sure you get your tickets now at http://firstnightmorris.com. Performances take place in at various venues within walking distance of the Morristown Green, including Mayo Performing Arts Center, local schools and places of worship, county administration buildings and more. The evening continues regardless of the weather. Free parking is provided at select locations, and complimentary shuttle service runs all evening.