Museum of Broadway: 10 things I learned, 11 rooms I liked

Individual Broadway musicals take pride of place at the Museum of Broadway, opening this week to the public, with literal show rooms: elaborately designed rooms dedicated to such shows as “Oklahoma,” “West Side Story,” “Company,” “Hair” and “Rent,” and half-rooms, or prominent corners, for other hits, from “Hello, Dolly” to “Hamilton” – often including actual costumes, and a few props, and imaginative re-creations not so much of the musical’s original sets but of its setting, and its spirit. See photographs below for examples (You have to imagine the apt music that is blasted out in each room.)

But there is so much else presented in the museum’s 26,000 square feet, not just on three floors, but even in the staircases (including a special exhibition on theater caricaturist Al Hirschfeld), that it’s too overwhelming to sum up adequately. Some of it, admittedly, is old hat to regular theatergoers:  There is a Playbill Hall with the playbills of all current shows; a Map Room with a map of all 41 Broadway theaters. But the museum’s founders boast that the permanent exhibition highlights more than 500 individual productions over three centuries, and there’s plenty of information here that even a supposed theater pro might not know, if you take the time to read the fine print (I took three hours, and didn’t get to everything.) 

About that fine print: The museum has a visual bias, at least on its top two floors, which present the history of “Broadway” chronologically from 1732 to the present. The displays seem intended to be viewed (or Instagrammed) more than read. In between the rooms dedicated to individual shows (almost all of them musicals) are timeline walls (split between plays and musicals) that are dense with reproductions of posters and stills. The text on them varies — sometimes quotes, or lyrics or anecdotes, or whole pages from scripts or essays, but each wall includes a panel that summarizes anywhere from a decade to a century in a paragraph or two. Much of the text requires that you get right up close or even crouch down on the floor to read (which communicates that they don’t expect most visitors to do so.)

The first show room (after the first timeline wall) is dedicated to the Ziegfeld Follies,

As a wall label in the Ziegfeld Follies room explains, impresario Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. launched in 1907 on a roof garden, and presented a new version annually until 1925, and intermittently thereafter until 1931. Designed by Sam and Ryan Ratelle, the room displays such artifacts as gold shoes, gold purse and a tiara belonging to “Ziegfeld girls.” When I visited, the workmen were making final adjustments.

The main feature of the “Oklahoma” room, designed by Ann Marie Coolick, is stalks of corn (that’s as high as an elephant’s eye?), but there are also production stills, and a video of some of the dancing.

The most elaborate room is without question the one dedicated to “West Side Story,” designed by Anna Louizos, which features a jukebox, a neon drug store sign, a dart board, and an old-fashioned, full stocked drug store countertop, as well as an imitation rooftop (complete with a rooftop view of the San Juan Hill neighborhood) and a video of two performers (Robbie Fairchild and Tanairi Sade Vasquez) dancing in shadow profile against a startling red background.

A corner on “Hello, Dolly” features a mannikin wearing the headdress worn by Bette Midler and the dress worn by her replacement Bernadette Peters in the 2017 revival, along of photos and caricatures of the original Dolly, Carol Channing.

The photograph shows the neon sign and one of several booths in the room dedicated to “Company,” which is primarily a maze of mirrors. It is designed by Bunny Christie, who won the Tony Award for the set design of the recent revival. Right before this room, is another one split between Bob Fosse and Stephen Sondheim, that pays tribute to Sondheim’s penchant for puzzles and word games. A game asks you to figure out the anagrams for shows that he wrote (and gives you a clue to make it much easier.). For example, one phrase is: “That Lilting Miscue” and the clue is “Send in the Clowns originated in this musical.” (You can place the letters of the answer physically on a crossword pattern on the wall by artist David Kwong.)

This crazy jukebox, designed by Derek McLane, is meant to illustrate all jukebox musicals, but specifically “Ain’t Misbehavin'”

A room dedicated to those who died from AIDS, created in partnership with Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, includes a wall of names of those who died, and another wall with squares created for the AIDS Quilt, as well as a wall about “Angels in America,” Tony Kushner’s play that takes place during the AIDS crisis.

A three-dimensional collage that evokes the set of the musical “Rent” in a room designed by Paul Clay that also features a working payphone, a lamppost encrusted with tiles (exactly like the ones that existed in the East Village in the 1980s) and several videos, as well as an old video camcorder in a case.

Puppets and masks from The Lion King

costumes from “Hamilton”

The first floor, designed by David Rockwell, is all one room really, entirely given over to “The Making of a Broadway Show,” featuring short video interviews and texts (with readable, eye-level fonts!) explaining the many different “backstage” specialists that work to make a show happen, from dramatists to stagehands to marketers. The photograph above is of the exhibit for sound designer. “Maybe you struggle to relate to some of the specialized jobs you’ve heard about in the exhibition, yet you still have a burning passion to work in the theatre,” says a final wall label. “Theatre has a place for you.”

10 things I learned

On the walls of the staircase up to the third floor,  where the exhibition officially begins:

Often costume changes happen too quickly for a performer be able to go back to their dressing room, So the show sets up a “quick change station” or booth in the wings (on either side of the stage, just out of view of the audience)

When the term “Broadway” took root in the late 1800s and 1900s it encompassed more than just legitimate theater (i.e. musicals and plays), but multiple stage forms

“On the last day in a show, many cast members will sign the underside of their countertop with the name of the show and the date of their final performance.”

In the Playbill Hall:

Amid the list of shows, is a pillar presenting statistics for the year 2018-2019 season (before, in other words, the pandemic.) Most of these I’d heard already. Almost 15 million attended a show; 35 percent of Broadway audiences are local. But did you know: “The small group of people who attended 15 or more shows during the 2018-2019 season comprised 5% of the audience but accounted for 28% of all tickets sold.”

On the timeline wall: In general, the selection of information on these walls, which is more or less evenly divided between musicals and plays, reflects curator Ben West’s focus on three threads in Broadway’s development: the changing consciousness of the times as embodied in the shows; the work of Black and female artists all along; the outside influences on the legitimate theater, from minstrel shows to vaudeville to nightclubs.

Olga Nethersole was arrested and put on trial in 1900 for portraying a seductive woman in “Sapho,” a play by Clyde Fitch, accused of offending public decency.  Her defense: “Knowledge, as we all know, is the strongest safeguard against sin.” (The wall label oddly doesn’t mention – but I looked it up – that she was acquitted.)

The Folies Bergere, a combination restaurant, theater and music hall, unofficially inaguruated New York’s nightclub craze in 1911.

In 1921, Alma Sanders, “one of the growing number of female authors active on the musical stage,” co-wrote the musical “Tangerine,” which imagined an island where women go to work and men stay home. Ironically, Sanders’ husband filed for divorce, testifying that her success had “turned her head” and that she “refused to keep house any longer.”

In 1944, “Anna Lucasta,” with a Black cast, moved from the basement of the New York Public Library branch in Harlem to Broadway, one of a small but steady stream of plays bringing Black talent to Broadway . But playwright Philip Yordan had originally written the play about Polish-American characters.

The wall label for “Hair” – all the shows with their own rooms or corners have wall labels with some basic information, and sometimes tantalizing tidbits

“Hair” debuted Off-Broadway at the Public Theater, which I knew. What I didn’t know is that it was the inaugural production of Joseph Papp’s new theater.

“Hair” became an international hit, which I think I knew. What I didn’t know is that it was translated into the language of each country in which it was performed, and that this was “a relatively new concept at the time.” 

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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