By SHARON EBERSON
NEW YORK, N.Y. — My return to New York after more than three long years away was a three-day, four-show whirlwind (reviews to come) that had to include time for the newest member of the Big Apple theater community: The Museum of Broadway.
The showcase that opened in November covers four floors and 26,000 square feet with memorabilia, displays and immersive experiences, referencing hundreds of individual productions.
According to NPR, it all came together when Tony Award-winning producer Julie Boardman and Diane Nicoletti, who has created fan experiences for Game of Thrones and Marvel, were chatting and Boardman mentioned that one of her investors asked why there wasn’t a Broadway museum.
From that moment, they were off and running, gathering “internationally renowned artists, designers and theater historians to create an interactive experience that highlights groundbreaking moments in Broadway history …”
The result leans very heavily in the direction of musical theater. There are some plays and playwrights who get more than a cursory mention – Eugene O’Neill’s A Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, August Wilson … but mostly, this is a museum dedicated to all aspects of musicals on Broadway, starting in the 1700s.
Entering on a timed ticket, I feared my companion and I would be overwhelmed by guided groups launching at the same time. But we stayed ahead of them on a Friday morning, and often felt like we had whole rooms to ourselves.
A short, informative film provides the overture, explaining how the New York theater district moved uptown from its roots in lower Manhattan. I admit that the lack of mention of the Yiddish theater scene was glaring to me, as it would be to anyone in the know. I was satisfied, however, when I was told by two docents that the same lament has been expressed by other visitors, and it was noted that the museum is in its infancy and feedback is welcome.
As you leave the film and enter the museum proper, there are walls lined with articles, photos and artifacts of the earliest known performances, including vaudeville and minstrel shows.
I was particularly fascinated by newspaper clips and images of the fanfare around The Black Crook – the villain practices “black magic” – which in 1866 was billed as a musical comedy, the first in the modern notion of a book musical. It was hugely successful, playing a 3,200-seat theater in lower Manhattan.
And that’s before the room-to-room, floor-to-floor flow really gets going. If you’ve been to the August Wilson Center exhibition A Writer’s Landscape, you will recognize the targeted foot-traffic flow, with no space wasted.
Various shows get their own spaces, with re-creations of scenes designed for photo ops. Among the highlights of these are stalks of corn “as high as an elephant’s eye” for Oklahoma!, Doc’s soda shop from West Side Story, a platform from the set of Rent, Max Bialystock’s desk from The Producers and, for the Hair display, a groovy backdrop to a working swing.
Docents in some spaces have scripted remarks for passersby, including the West Side Story room. There’s no mention that this is the scene of Anita’s traumatic encounter with the Jets. However, there is an ongoing video of an animated female figure on a red background, dancing to America. Visitors are encouraged to dance along and videotape themselves.
In fact, all areas are open to picture-taking and optional interaction.
One piece that is hands-off but fabulous is a design that looks initially like hanging strands of crystals. The installation, created by the German artist Ulli Böhmelmann, is made up of 13,917 crystals from a Phantom of the Opera chandelier. If you view it from a certain angle, the crystals form the image of the mask that is a symbol of the long-running Andrew Lloyd Webber blockbuster,
Pittsburgh native Stephanie D’Abruzzo, top center, starred in Avenue Q.
Craftsmanship is celebrated throughout the museum, from seeing the costumes up close and realizing the intense detail and beadwork of, say, the dress worn by Bernadette Peters when she succeeded Bette Midler in Hello, Dolly, From an early production of Show Boat to the singular sensations of A Chorus Line, iconic costumes are among the visual touchstones to ooh and aah over.
One of the highlights for this diorama admirer is a four-sides model of the Wicked set that is astonishing in its detail. Diorama’s abound here, much to my delight, including particularly artful ones of the In the Heights and Natash, Pierre and the Great Comet sets.
Pittsburgh connections are rarely hard to find when it comes to Broadway, but it may take an eagle eye in some of the brimming spaces.
What jumped out was a Ragtime Playbill signed by composer Stephen Flaherty of Dormont and, in the Avenue Q display, a photo of Tony nominee Stephanie D’Abruzzo, of Peters Township. There is a full wall of a quilt honoring the work of Broadway Cares, whose executive director is Pittsburgh native Tom Viola.
At the Museum of Broadway, you can sit at Max Bialystock’s desk while gazing at a slew of Tony Awards in a nearby cabinet — The Producers won a record 12.
I admit to having an “I want” number playing in my head as we neared the end; “I want more Sondheim, more Mary Martin and Julie Andrews. More Alan J. Lerner. Did I miss Barbra? …”
I think that’s a good thing, to be left wanting more. Especially in a new museum that isn’t just a history museum. Nearing the end, there is a wall with recent Tony winners and empty slots that look ahead for several years to come.
Before returning to the gift shop/entrance/ext, the final room – perhaps my favorite – it’s devoted to The Line King, Al Hirschfeld. To others, it may seem like a lot for one man when, say, Steven Sondheim, doesn’t have his own such dedicated space.
But to someone who as a youngster loved seeing Broadway stars through his eyes, as well as counting the Ninas in his New York Times illustration, it was a very satisfying finale.
Paul Tazewell’s fabulous costumes from The Wiz Live! in 2015 are represented
by a dress worn by a denizen of Emerald City.
It seems unbelievable that this is the first permanent exhibition space dedicated to Broadway in New York City. It’s a bit pricey compared to other museums – $39 vs. $20 for the Metropolitan Museum of Art or $35 for Pittsburgh’s Warhol Museum, for example.
But if Broadway is your jam and you can afford it, The Museum of Broadway goes all out to reel you in and keep you occupied for at least a couple of hours.
Museum of Broadway, 145 W. 45th Street, NYC. Tickets start at $39 at https://www.themuseumofbroadway.com/tickets#/ Accessibility info: https://www.themuseumofbroadway.com/accessibility.
The delightful Al Hirschfeld room is the grand finale at the Museum of Broadway,
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Categories: Arts and Ideas, Feature Stories
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