BROADWAY IS MUSEUM QUALITY By Peter Filichia
No, it doesn’t offer quite a lotta Roman terra cotta or livin’ lava from the flanks of Etna that the eponymous title character of BARNUM had promised you.
However, the Museum of Broadway is of more interest to us theater fans than his establishment ever could have been.
Considering how crowded this 45th Street emporium has been since its November 15th opening, apparently there is a show fan born every minute – and each may want to spend every minute there.
What fun there is to be had sauntering through the chronologically arranged rooms and seeing replications of Playbills, window cards and so much more.
Look at an early Playbill from PINS AND NEEDLES in 1937 when it was a mere amateur show. SEESAW maintained that “it’s not where you start – it’s where you finish,” but PINS AND NEEDLES proved it better. It soon went pro and by the time it closed in 1940, it had become the longest-running musical in Broadway history.
In addition to artwork, many a window card offers a reviewer’s quotation. (Brooks Atkinson in the Times called NEW GIRL IN TOWN “A Broadway musical jamboree!”) There are fun descriptions provided by p.r. personnel: PETER PAN was “The gay new musical hit.” As for RAISIN, yes, it was Tony-winning Best Musical with a marvelous score, but it fibbed when it called itself “the biggest smash hit musical in years.”
The window card for FROZEN will confuse a few who will say, “Swoosie Kurtz wasn’t in that!” Ah, but 14 years before the Disney musical, Kurtz starred in a serious play by the same name. It received a Best Play Tony nomination and deserves to be remembered.
Doing an Al Hirschfeld exhibit with replications of his drawings is a no-brainer, but someone wisely thought to include the window cards for which he drew the logos. Those include big winners (MY FAIR LADY), big losers (PORTOFINO) and worse losers such as BONANZA BOUND, which shuttered in Philadelphia – where it didn’t get much brotherly love after “Opening on Christmas Night,” says that card, before redundantly adding “Dec. 25.”
Window cards aren’t limited to Broadway. One lets us see that those conjoined twins we came to know in SIDE SHOW were billed as “San Antonio’s Daisy and Violet Hilton – The Sensation of Vaudeville.”
Then there are photographs galore. One shows that Sophie Tucker’s engagement at the Palace saw her name embossed in enormous letters on two banners that were about three times taller than the marquee over which they sailed. Need any more proof that Ms. Tucker didn’t have to worry about any competition from Roxie Hart?
Don’t miss the picture of the creators of GYPSY in their theater seats watching a rehearsal along with guest Gypsy Rose Lee. Frankly, she looks wary of what she’s seeing. Jule Styne, though, sports a big smile as Jerome Robbins exhibits a cautious one. Arthur Laurents appears nervous. And Stephen Sondheim? The expression on his face suggests that he’s already thinking about a show where he could write the music, too.
One panel about the late 1960s offers a photograph of a Tony-winning money-machine (Pearl Bailey urging everyone to “Put on Your Sunday Clothes”), a Tony-winning money-loser (HALLELUJAH, BABY!), and a Tony-ineligible money burner (BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S, to which a surprising amount of space is given).
The most bittersweet photo has William Johnson and Judy Tyler smiling away in PIPE DREAM. They couldn’t know that they’d both be dead less than a year after the show had closed.
Costumes abound from head (the Phantom’s “Masquerade” plumed hat) to toe (Patti LuPone’s shoes from ANYTHING GOES and some kinky boots). You knew that a red dress worn by some Dolly Levi would be on hand; here, it’s Bernadette Peters’.
Newspapers once relied on steel plates on which images and lettering were set in reverse so when the plate was pressed onto paper, it would create the correct mirror image. Guess which one comes from a Sondheim show.
“MERRILY!” you exclaimed because it went backwards in time. You’re wrong: it’s FOLLIES, which makes more sense, for it received much better reviews that had no trouble filling a full page of a newspaper.
You may say that you expected such items in any museum dedicated to Broadway. Ah, but the curators and powers-that-be obviously took the advice that Helen dispensed in OUT OF THIS WORLD: “Use Your Imagination.” Would you have thought to replicate Doc’s candy story as seen in WEST SIDE STORY? Someone did down to boxes of Colgate toothpaste, Kellogg’s Corn Flakes and Hershey’s Cocoa all in their 1950s-era packages. A nearby ad insists that Chesterfield cigarettes are milder than other such smokes.
(Perhaps, but apparently not mild enough.)
Max Bialystock’s desk is here, too. Considering its spanking brand-new look, it’s clearly the one he bought after he had raised his SPRINGTIME FOR HITLER money.
HAIR was a musical for swingers, so you swingers will be accommodated – on a playground swing that you’re invited to use. Have a good time after or before you follow the yellow wood stairs to THE WIZ exhibit.
When you see how Rodgers and Hammerstein’s first musical is handled, you may exclaim “You’re doin’ fine, OKLAHOMA!” To set the mood, there are corn stalks as high as a you-know-what’s eye. Nearby is a worksheet on which Hammerstein listed words that would rhyme with surrey. Hence, curry, flurry and hurry are there, as is furry which Hammerstein eventually crossed out. No, it “rhymes” on paper, but not on the ear.
Another Rodgers and Hammerstein exhibit offers four-sided boxes with sticks in the middle so that you can twirl each around and see a picture on one side and information on the other. The SOUTH PACIFIC photograph shows Mary Martin involved in a hygienic activity.
And what would exhibits on musicals be without music? While you’re in the room celebrating the 1950s’ hit BELLS ARE RINGING, you’ll hear the future from the next room via WEST SIDE STORY’s prologue. Once inside, you’ll see the filmed moving silhouette of a dancer doing Jerome Robbins’ choreography, which you’re encouraged to ape.
As Walter Marks taught us in BAJOUR, “Words, words, words; words are they key.” There are hundreds of thousands explaining the exhibits. Boris Aronson’s letter is telling as he tells Hal Prince what the set of COMPANY should be.
You’ll inevitably disagree with some opinions. No, DARLING OF THE DAY was not one of “a barrage of unsatisfactory new works” of the 1967-68 season. It was a terrific musical that failed after falling victim to every possible bad break. (The cast album verifies its worth.)
A cute board with magnetized letters encourages you to work out anagrams of Sondheim titles. (Quick! Which one can be extracted from “A Showy Centennial”?)
There are originals and photocopies of worksheets that remind us how much effort goes into the creation of musicals. Here’s the speech that Harvey Fierstein wrote that included the words “I Am What I Am” that Jerry Herman appropriated in his LA CAGE AUX FOLLES first-act closer. Check out some Ed Kleban lyrics that didn’t make it into A CHORUS LINE (or, for that matter, A CLASS ACT, either). We find that Tony was originally to sing to Maria that naïve assumption that “Nothing Can Touch Us.”
Quotations are positioned above many a display. A most stirring one comes from George C. Wolfe. While working on BRING IN ‘DA NOISE, BRING IN ‘DA FUNK, he noted that “When art is created, it is not created strictly by an individual. A culture, a people, a time and a place created it.”
A section is devoted to those behind the scenes, who work the prop tables and use hardware. “A pneumatic spray gun is an indispensable tool,” we’re assured.
Even the restrooms are Broadway-themed, with nods to SWEET CHARITY, MOULIN ROUGE and a certain 2001 musical that you might expect to see given the room’s purpose.
As celebratory as the museum is, it doesn’t shy away from referencing the impact that AIDS has had on the Broadway community. One room lists the names of some who had succumbed. A section of the famous AIDS Quilt shows the logos from MAME, 1776, NINE and even YOUR OWN THING. But DEAR WORLD had the best idea by quoting one of its lyrics on its panel: “Get well soon!”
And what sign greets you as you leave? Why, “So Long, Farewell.” However, that wasn’t the song I was humming upon my exit: “Be Back Soon” seemed much more appropriate.
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com. His new book – THE BOOK OF BROADWAY MUSICAL DEBATES, DISPUTES, AND DISAGREEMENTS – is now available on Amazon.