© 2024
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

A walk through history on the "Great White Way"

The Museum of Broadway, the first museum dedicated to this home-grown American performance form, celebrated its inaugural year on November 15. Located on 45th and Broadway in the heart of Times Square, Manhattan, the museum was established by Tony Award-nominated Broadway producer, Julie Boardman (who also performed in the national tour of 42nd Street), and Diane Nicoletti, founder of an award-winning fan activation company. Prior to the two college friends’ pursuit of their idea, the multibillion-dollar cultural capital industry, an international tourist attraction, lacked a comprehensive museum. 

Says Boardman, “We were having fun with the idea of what Julie and Diane as 10-year-olds would enjoy. Our combined perspectives identified types of people, ages from child to grandparent. We considered whether visitors were tourists from other countries who don’t speak English (there is an app that translates), have seen a lot of Broadway or have never seen a Broadway show. To be inclusive, we decided on interactive visual storytelling. As we walked the Broadway timeline, the ideas started to unfold. The museum enriches the experience of going to a Broadway show.” 

The 26,000 gut-renovated square feet on the ground floor and two higher floors affords space to exhibit 1,000 original Broadway artifacts, mementoes, rare costumes, props, videos, recordings and photographs that profile over 500 productions. Fifteen immersive exhibits feature musicals, including the Ziegfeld Follies, Show Boat, Oklahoma!, West Side Story, Hair, and Rent. Each pushed creative boundaries, questioned social norms and changed the course of Broadway history. Walls are lined from floor to ceiling with historical context, quotes, and fun facts, while listening stations are located throughout. The Broadway drama is acknowledged, as well as important Black, Jewish and women innovators. 

“The visitor enjoys a backstage experience as they walk up the stairs,” says Boardman. (Elevator service is available.) “You hear and feel what it’s like to be backstage. Calls to places are heard over speakers. You learn about things you wouldn’t know, like wig prep - how to put on a wig. Many wigs can cost upward of $2,500.” A call board, imparting updates, is initialed as performers enter the theater. Performers (stars excepted) apply their own make up according to a designer’s plot. On the last day of a run, performers sign the underside of their countertops in their dressing rooms and come together for a final sing of Happy Trails

The Map Room greets the third-floor visitor who watches a four-minute film about the history of Broadway. Broadway, The Great White Way, was so nicknamed for the numerous white streetlights and the illumination of theaters, installed at the beginning of the turn of the 20th century to discourage crime. Times Square, depending upon the decade, is noted to have experienced ups and downs. The Theater District officially runs from 41st to 54th Streets between Sixth and Ninth Avenues with 41 legitimate theaters each with the requisite capacity of 500 or more seats. Under 500 seat theaters are considered Off-Broadway, no matter their location. 

The Broadway show Timeline leads the viewer from room to room by date. The musical owes its origins to minstrelsy, with influences of vaudeville, burlesque, variety shows, large-scale entertainment, Yiddish theater and opera. 

The museum’s initial interactive exhibit is represented by the Ziegfeld Follies, which ran from 1907 to 1931 after the Folies Bergère of Paris, a song and dance revue with lavish sets and costumes. Replicating the extravagance, walls are covered in pink feathers, Swarovski crystals, and photographs of the scantily clad Ziegfeld Girls. With tunes of the day playing, such as A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody, the room is a testament to the beauty and talent of Florenz Ziegfeld’s showgirls, many of whom became the stars of Hollywood. 

Other memorable exhibits, designed by notable Broadway designers, are Oklahoma!, where visitors stroll through cornstalks, and watch choreographer Agnes de Mille’s famous 1943 Dream Dance; West Side Story, 1957, visitors dance the steps of choreographer and director Jerome Robbins alongside virtual Broadway performers; and Rent, from 1996, thoughts of the producer and casting director are heard on the phone in an original phone booth. 

The AIDS epidemic, a pivotal time for the industry, surrounds the viewer with a wall treatment incorporating the names of those in the community who succumbed to the disease. Angels in America, 1993, Tony Kushner’s cri de coeur, encourages guests to “pause, reflect and remember those we lost,” expresses Boardman. “We dedicate a portion of all ticket sales to Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, recently donating $100,000 on our first anniversary to the cause.” 

SIX, the latest Tony Award-winning hit, expresses a “boldly revisionist narrative,” states Boardman. “We are losing-our-heads excited to showcase this history-making show that brings its unapologetic celebration of female empowerment to life through this exhibit.” Costumes, set installations, broadcasts of the opening-night cast recording, fan art, and the royal throne on which to take selfies rounds out the Timeline. 

The Making of a Broadway Show screens hundreds of interviews with professionals. Says Boardman, “This shows you the job you can have in the theater, even if you’re not on stage.” Composers, writers, producers, directors, choreographers, scenic designers, costume, hair and makeup artists, marketing, press, and advertising executives are included. “In the theater, everything has to propel the journey and the character, every lyric, every note, everything,” observes one professional. 

After a three-hour journey, and there was more to experience. I spill through the boutique selling Broadway merchandise and into center of Times Square, head filled to the brim, ready to take in a show.

Catherine Tharin danced with the Erick Hawkins Dance Company.  She teaches dance studies and technique, is an independent dance and performance curator, choreographs, writes about dance for Side of Culture, and is a reviewer and editor for The Dance Enthusiast. She also writes for The Boston Globe. Catherine lives in Pine Plains, New York and New York City. 

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

Related Content
  • PS 21: Performance Spaces for the 21st Century, in Chatham, N.Y., presents L’Etang (The Pond), the final movement-influenced work of the season on Friday and Saturday. The Open-Air Pavilion Theater, tucked into the 100-acre landscape, is covered but open on three sides. Meadows and trees are glimpsed through the building; cadences of birds, animals and insects are heard while watching a production. Curated by the performing arts explorer and PS21 Artistic Director, Elena Siyanko, performances run until the end of December in the main theater and in the Black Box Theater.
  • The Amanda Selwyn Dance Theatre, in its 24th season, presents an in-process performance of Dance on the Pond, on September 30, from 3-4pm, on the grounds of the private home of Janice Pickering in New Paltz, NY. This performance is in preparation for the company’s upcoming full-length dance, Habit Formed, featuring 10 dancers for the 2024 March premiere in New York City. The work examines the habits of humans; habits that engender both freedom and harm.
  • Kaatsbaan continues with its Fall Festival 2023 through October 1. Kaatsbaan Cultural Park in Tivoli, New York, was founded on 153 acres adjacent to the Hudson River in 1990, by American Ballet Theater stars Martine van Hamal and Kenneth McKenzie, with Gregory Cary and Bentley Rotton. Curated by Adam Weinert, Artistic Director, Kaatsbaan’s outdoor Mountain Stage offers a glorious backdrop for dance.