New York's new theatre museum is a real crowd-pleaser.
The lights dim, a hush falls. And then, bam! A knock-your-socks-off opening number transports you to a different world. When you go to see a Broadway show, whether it is Miss Saigon or SIX, a big opening is almost obligatory. So it is a bit of a surprise that a walk through Manhattan's new Museum of Broadway starts in a distinctly low-key way: on a stairwell, in fact.
Stairwells, it turns out, play an important role in many productions. Display panels explain that with most theatres short on space backstage, performers do their pre-show warm-up in the stairwell. A few steps into your self-guided tour and you are already immersed in the Broadway experience.
When the Museum of Broadway opened late last year in the heart of the theatre district, on West 45th Street hard by Times Square, Broadway was still recovering from a 15-month COVID-19-related shutdown, the longest in its history.
It was a dark period for an industry that plays a significant role in New York's economy. Broadway contributes $US14.7 billion ($23 billion) to the local economy - that's on top of ticket sales - and creates 96,900 jobs.
The mood of the museum is defiantly celebratory.
Despite that, the mood of the museum is defiantly celebratory. Whether you are a hardcore fan of musicals or just enjoy an occasional theatre outing, this impressive collection of props, photos and videos highlighting the colourful history of both Broadway and its most famous shows is hard to resist. Among the oldest exhibits are dazzling costumes rippling with rhinestones and feathers from the Ziegfeld Follies, the vaudeville variety shows introduced by Florenz Ziegfeld Jr in 1907 that helped create modern musical theatre. Just as intriguing as the costumes (and there are plenty of others on display, including outfits worn by the likes of Hugh Jackman and Meryl Streep, Glenn Close and Bette Midler) is the behind-the-scenes info. Did you know that, with the exception of key characters such as Elphaba in Wicked, most performers do their own make-up? Or that a typical wig can cost more than $US2500?
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As you move through the various floors the stories behind groundbreaking productions such as Oklahoma!, West Side Story, Hair, Rent and Hamilton are revealed. Video interviews with writers, producers, designers and directors explaining the process of bringing a musical to life are interspersed with exhibits including the moulds used to create masks for Phantom of the Opera. Some galleries pay tribute to dramas that have been Broadway hits, from Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman to Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire, but overall the focus is firmly on musicals, from Show Boat and A Chorus Line to The Lion King and Hamilton.
Like any good Broadway hit, the museum does occasionally switch to a minor key. One display is devoted to the effect the AIDS epidemic of the late 1980s and early 1990s had on the Broadway community, with quotes giving a sense of how devastating it was to live through. "You would go into rehearsal and before you could get to previews, friends, colleagues and co-workers would have disappeared," says one anonymous insider.
Overall, however, this museum is a true feel-good experience: the perfect curtain-raiser before catching a show at a nearby theatre. themuseumofbroadway.com