Phillip Lopate describes the shape of Manhattan Island as‘a luxury liner, permanently docked, going nowhere’. This feeling of being tethered to the land, unable to get to sea, was a feature of New York life for much of the twentieth century. New York was an island without a coast. The West Side piers that once welcomed the Lusitania spent most of the twentieth century crumbling or behind barbed wire, while the East Side’s coves and points were cut off from pedestrians by six lanes of the Robert Moses-designed Franklin Delano Roosevelt Drive. It wasn’t much easier to reach the shores of Brooklyn, Queens or the Bronx, either: with a few exceptions, they were largely reserved for municipal or industrial use, and easiest to see from the Staten Island Ferry (en route to the borough with the most beaches). Now, slowly, the city is reclaiming its shoreline, with some spectacular results.

PURPOSE (or, the Great Subway Leviathan of 1904) by Jeff Tang

OBJECT: Subway Cars

BODY OF WATER: East River 

Such Strange Gravity, illustration by  Tomoyo Hirioshi

Such Strange Gravity, illustration by Tomoyo Hirioshi

SUCH STRANGE GRAVITY by Jeff Tang at National Sawdust

Get your tickets now for Jeff Tang's SUCH STRANGE GRAVITY, featuring PURPOSE, OR THE GREAT LEVIATHAN OF 1904

Use the promo code UNY and we will give you a free broadside featuring original artwork and poetry.

Saturday, August 11, 8:00 pm

Tickets ($15) here.  

Such Strange Gravity: Songs of Gotham” is a theatrical song-cycle that explores and deconstructs the mythology of home via the narrative of a “hidden” historical anthropology of New York City that spans from the first European contact with the Lenape tribe to the near future. Composer Jeff Tang has worked with a variety of lyricists, playwrights, and poets to interrogate how the identity of a city is created and evolves, the question of whose stories and histories persist or are expunged, and how the process of naming and renaming affects the dominant cultural memory. 

Making a necessary inquisition in today’s climate, Tang’s collaborators map to the multitudes of voices and issues of our city. Rigorously researched and inspired by factual events, the project uses some as jumping-off points to create new mythologies. Stories include the “sandhogs” who built the subway system, the spectacular 1911 fire that destroyed Coney Island’s Dreamland amusement park, the demise of the Collect Pond, once the primary life-source for generations of the island’s inhabitants, and more. Narratives both large and small from across time will form a mosaic of our great metropolis.



Photo by Jeff Tang

Photo by Jeff Tang


From the New York Times, Sep 29, 1895: "Phillip N. Jackson, Vice President of the Newark Electric Light and Power Company, confirms the story told by Willard P. Shaw of 41 Wall Street, New York, last week, of the appearance of a sea serpent last Sunday off the shore at Spring Lake [New Jersey]. Mr. Jackson says he saw the monster with his naked eye a half mile from shore, and also had a view of it when two miles away, through Mr. Shaw's marine glasses. He says it was traveling through the water at a great rate of speed, and was about 100 feet long. A number of folds in his body were plainly seen as they rose and fell. At times the monster raised his body ten feet in the air, and it then presented a terrible sight. Mr. Jackson says that, so far as he is concerned, he has no doubt that the object he saw was a genuine sea serpent."

There once was a man in the ground        (CHORUS: Hmm…)
Some say he's wandering
Some say he drowned                                (CHORUS: Hmm…)
He grew up a sailor
On a Sag Harbor whaler
For forty long months her barrels sat dry
For the sea was fished bare
As the cold winter sky

He hitched from the coast into town        (CHORUS: Hmm…)
To help build the railroads that ran underground
He dug with the others
Called sandhogs, these brothers
At night each would dream what his purpose should be
But the man when he dreamed
Only dreamed of the sea
How the crew would sing

Hey ho
This sea is my home
A four-letter word that I learned to let go of
Hey ho hey ho

All aboard they sing
Hey ho
It's this ocean I love
The endless below and the boundless above, so
Hey ho
Hey ho


The foreman that day, he was nervous and mad
Not enough track
Not enough rail could be laid in the time that they had
in that hey hey hole
Blasting a tunnel from asphalt to hell
Not enough air
Not enough pay in the world to be huddled down there
In that hey hey hole
All the sandhogs sing
Hey ho, this hole is my home / They sing
A four-letter word that I learned to unknow / so
Hey ho hey ho
All day long they sing
Hey ho
it's this mud that I know
The almighty above and the devil below, so
Hey ho hey ho


Well he'd heard in the tunnels a terrible tale
A man fell thirty feet when they blew through a rail
And the sight of his fall
And the sound of his wailing
Would haunt all the men in their dreams
And yet he survived and called out
Through the black
So they lowered a lantern then watched
ALL 3      
As the water he'd landed in foamed
Then churned, then attacked!
And the memory's drowned out by the screams

But the ones who were there
They gathered to swear
They'd never admit what they'd seen
Yet whispers were heard
They were twisted, absurd
For man is, by nature, a greedy machine
When they dug out the tunnels too quick and too deep
They awakened a thing that they should have let sleep


(IRT Ribbon cutting ceremony, October 27, 1904)
Ladies and gentlemen - the Mayor of New York City!
I give to you the Interborough Rapid Transit railroad! 

(spot light up on SANDHOG GHOSTS)

Well they lost two more men by the end of the year
     (Hey ho hey ho) 
(MAYOR MCLELLAN: "City Hall to Harlem in 15 minutes!")
Then they lost twenty more when they quit out of fear
     (SANDHOG GHOSTS: Hey ho hey ho)
(MAYOR MCLELLAN: "The fastest and safest in the world!")
The mayor needed this monster -- he needed it dead
MAYOR MCLELLAN: "Put an end to it."

Is all that he said


(Months later, a subway car is sitting stalled in the station. It’s hot. PASSENGERS are agitated and waiting to leave. A busker enters the car. PASSENGERS groan…)

There once was a man in the muck
Some call it Providence
Some say it's luck
For only one sandhog at work in the biz
Had the right set of skills as specific as his
And the point of his resume
Was to chase that goddamn whale!

(The traincar revs and the lights flicker; MAN: "Stand clear of the closing doors!" The train is propelled into darkness. The passengers sing and sway rhythmically as the lights flicker on and off like a haunted carnival ride.)

Those so obsessed
They are blessed with a higher calling
I have a purpose - I just have to find it!
Find one or Gotham will swallow you whole!
Hey hey ho
Purpose will keep you alive…
---There she blows!
Hey hey ho

All aboard they sing
Hey ho, this city's my home now
A four-letter word
That I learned to outgrow
Hey ho hey ho

All aboard they sing
Hey ho, this rock is my high
We plant our dreams in the dirt
Pray to steel in the sky
Hey ho hey ho

(The train bursts through a wall and lands in the East River. Water floods the car and PASSENGERS scream. The lights flicker and die. BLACKOUT.)


There once was a train in the deep
Some say they searched
But rescue’s not cheap
So a small superstition persists to this day
When approaching a bridge your conductor might say
"There's traffic ahead and a minor delay."

And even the skeptics they don't make a sound
Just a nod to those lost on this merry-go-round
And the one who discovered his purpose
Deep underground


JEFF TANG is a Brooklyn-based music theatre composer and arts + culture producer whose work has been seen in New York, Chicago, London, Minneapolis, and La Jolla. Commissions include NYC's Leviathan Lab, the NYU Write/Act Festival, Music Institute of Chicago, Theatre Latte Da in Minneapolis, and St. Anne's School in Brooklyn. He is at work on a song cycle on the hidden history of New York City with a variety of lyricists, playwrights, and poets. He spends his days as a producer on the Metropolitan Opera's Media & Presentations team, and many evenings co-curating and producing National Sawdust+, a new performance and conversation series in Williamsburg. MFA, NYU Graduate Musical Theatre Writing. Find him at