On the Town with Chip Deffaa: At the Museum of Broadway
The Museum of Broadway is such a great idea that you wonder why no one ever created such a place before. Co-founders Julie Boardman and Diane Nicoletti deserve lots of credit, praise, and thanks--even if the brand-new facility isn’t yet quite where it needs to be.
Everyone who loves theater owes a debt of gratitude to Julie Boardman and Diane Nicoletti. About five years ago, they got the idea of creating a museum in the theater district, dedicated to Broadway. They would raise the funds themselves, hoping to create a self-sustaining operation. The museum they have co-founded has now opened. And it’s a winner!
Oh, I’m not saying it’s perfect. Nothing in this world is quite perfect. And like all new ventures, the museum is experiencing some growing pains. (Later in this piece, I’ll suggest some ways that the museum could be made even better.) But what they’ve achieved thus far is mighty impressive. There are a few kinks to be ironed out, but this is a major addition to the theater district.
If you’re into theater at all, you owe it to yourself to visit the new Museum of Broadway, 145 W. 45th Street (right next door to Broadway’s venerable Lyceum Theatre). You can order tickets online at http://www.themuseumofbroadway.com/tickets or by phone from Telecharge, 212-239-6200 or 800-447-7400. Tickets are around $39.00.
Broadway has long needed a museum like this. Kudos to Boardman and Nicoletti to investing five years of their lives to making this a reality. Julie Boardman has impressed me ever since I first met her about a dozen years ago. (We had a mutual friend—one of my favorite people in the whole world.) She was then working on the Broadway musical Wonderland. And her tremendous zest for life and all things connected to theater registered strongly with me; I felt like: This is a kindred spirit.
In the years since, she’s become an important Broadway producer. And she’s secured backing for this museum from a terrific cross-section of the theater community—everyone from Jamie deRoy to Riki Kane Larimer, to the Shuberts, the Nederlanders, and Jujamcyn Theaters. She’s even secured support from Concord Theatricals (which publishes some of my plays). This is not a government-funded museum. Boardman and co-founder Nicoletti (who’s helped produce assorted events and fan experiences, ranging from The Game of Thrones Fan Experience to Comic-Con) put this together on their own, as entrepreneurs. And it looks great!
I hope this museum lasts forever. Celebrities have been stopping by to check out the new Museum of Broadway. (I’m going to share a shot of Ben Vereen, who’s starred in such Broadway shows as Pippin, Jesus Christ Superstar, Fosse, and Wicked, happily spotting his picture in the museum.) And I don’t blame them!
I spent two hours at the museum the other day. I wish my schedule had permitted me to stay longer. But I’ll have to make a return visit. For the most part, I enjoyed those two hours immensely. I left feeling that I’d only just begun to check out all of the museum’s displays. They have more than 1,000 theatrical props, costumes, artifacts, posters, and photos on display, filling assorted rooms on several floors–some 26,000 square feet of floor space in all. And they pack as much as possible into those 26,000 square feet. I left wondering: How come no one thought of creating a museum like this before? It fills a real need. And, despite some glitches, they’ve executed this project with flair.
Here, in no particular order, are some things I enjoyed seeing at the museum.
In the Hello, Dolly! display, I read telegrams sent to Carol Channing, Broadway’s original “Dolly,” on opening night back in 1964. I enjoyed seeing once again one of the classic Al Hirschfeld caricatures of Channing. Hirschfeld—whose career as an artist spanned nine decades–drew her more than any other performer; Carol Channing told me that she was his favorite person to draw because to him she seemed to be almost like a caricature come to life; Carol used to proudly display Hirschfeld drawings of her in her home—she owned a fine array of originals.
And the museum exhibit includes the red dress that Bette Midler and Bernadette Peters wore when they descended the staircase in the climactic “Harmonia Gardens” scene of the 2017-2018 Broadway revival of Hello, Dolly!
The iconic red dress from the original production of the musical Annie, on display in another room, was also immediately recognizable. It’s got to be one of the best-known costumes in the world. (I might add, though–that was one moment during my visit to the museum when I suddenly, unexpectedly felt rather old. Because I overheard some young patron of the museum remark on how “ancient” that red dress had to be–that to her it was really “history,” coming from a show from so very long ago. While to me, it feels like Annie opened just a little while ago. I still remember so vividly when that brand new show opened in 1977; I did a newspaper interview with the likeable dog from the production, “Sandy,” along with Sandy’s owner/trainer, Bill Berloni, at their home. The amiable dog didn’t really have a whole lot to say, but I really enjoyed spending the time with good old Sandy for his first-ever newspaper interview, and I got his autograph/paw print.)
I also liked seeing on display in the museum dance shoe–quite small!–that once belonged to the noted director/choreographer/dancer Michael Bennett. And Patti LuPone’s wig from Evita (1979). And the familiar costume created for the character of “Mark Cohen” (originally played by Anthony Rapp) in Rent (1996). And the costume that a young, not-yet-famous Meryl Streep wore when she made her Broadway debut in Trelawny of the Wells at the Vivian Beaumont Theater in 1975. (I wonder how it wound up getting saved? Very few costumes actually do get saved.)
The costumes that I personally enjoyed seeing the most were the two colorful costumes from The Ziegfeld Follies–remarkably well-preserved considering that they’re over 100 years old. To me, they truly represented history. And it was also very cool seeing a calling card inviting the recipient to see legendary producer Flo Ziegfeld at the New Amsterdam Theater. I would love to see more really old items on display in the museum. The museum, generally speaking, focuses much more on more recent years than on the early years of Broadway; and, for me, showing more rarities from the olden days—if they could be found–would make the museum that much more interesting.
But there’s quite an intriguing array of artifacts to be found within the museum from Avenue Q puppets to the Broadway AIDS Quilt from the 1980s, to a unique art installation honoring The Phantom of the Opera with 13,917 crystals hanging on strands—one crystal for each performance of Broadway’s longest-running show. More crystals will be added for each additional performance up unto the production’s closing date, which is now scheduled for April 16, 2023.
I was particularly fascinated by one extremely intricate, wonderfully detailed scale model of the Gershwin Theater (which has long been home to the musical Wicked), showing all of the goings on, on stage, back stage, off stage, beneath the stage, in the audience, and lobby, and so on. You can see everyone busily at work on Wicked, from wardrobe workers in the basement… right down to set designers showing producers a scale model of the very model that we’re looking at!
It’s a good-sized model, more than five feet in width, designed by Edward Pierce, Associate Scenic Designer of Wicked. And there’s so much to see, just in this unique model—which took four workers seven weeks to build–you need to take your time to fully savor it.
The museum covered George M. Cohan—the multi-talented master showman of early Broadway–accurately and fairly, and I give them great credit for that. The vintage photos chosen are rare, beautifully reproduced, and attractively arranged. The synopsis of his career gets the facts right in succinct fashion. There are also rare Cohan sheet music covers on display. But one is already missing, and the museum is less than a month old! There’s a blank spot to the right of the “Yankee Doodle Boy” sheet music. That blank spot worried me. Has one sheet-music cover already gotten lost or stolen? (Some people may well try to steal mementoes from the museum. When I directed my first show at the 13th Street Theater, the theater’s owner, Edith Wright, cautioned me not to use expensive props because some audience members may steal them; I couldn’t imagine anyone trying to steal a prop from the stage of a theater until I saw it actually happen. If the museum needs any sheet music, I have virtually all of Cohan’s music in my collection.)
And Cohan is summed up with a wonderfully apt, well-chosen quote from Oscar Hammerstein II: “Never was a plant more indigenous to a particular part of the earth than was George M. Cohan to the United States of his day.” John Kenrick, an expert on Cohan, is a curator for the museum—they’re lucky to have him!—so I shouldn’t be surprised that they’ve captured Cohan well. He’s one of the very first subjects covered by the museum, so it makes a great “first impression” that he’s handled so well.
If I may make one suggestion: Cohan was famously honored with a Congressional medal for his “contributions to the American spirit.” And that medal was long displayed in the original Lambs Club building. It was sad when the Lambs Club had to give up their building and place many items they owned into storage, as they searched for a new, more modest and affordable spot to call home.. But someone from the Museum of Broadway ought to reach out to the Lambs Club. If they still have the famous Cohan Congressional medal in storage some place—if it hasn’t vanished with all of the passing of time and the relocation of the club—the museum ought to see if they can borrow it and add it to their display. It’s an important bit of history; it ought to be seen by the public; and the museum would be a perfect place for it.
Noted producer Florenz Ziegfeld—another major figure of early Broadway history– is treated very well in the museum. But an awful lot of Broadway history is then glossed over rather superficially. The years from 1927-1943 are covered quickly in one little room. The years from 1943-57 likewise get just one room. The years from 1957-66 also get a room. But the museum gives much more room to shows produced since then. The years 1968-68, for example, get a room of their own—that is to say, those two years are given as much space as was given to the 16 years from 1927-43. So a lot of important early Broadway history winds up getting lost in the shuffle.
And some of early Broadway’s top artists, stars who did their all-time greatest work in the theater—Al Jolson, Ethel Merman, Katharine Cornell, Lunt & Fontanne, Helen Hayes—are barely represented. Jolson’s picture is just one of many in one room—and smaller in size than some photos of other stars who were never as popular or influential as he was on Broadway. He was, unquestionably, Broadway’s biggest star in the second and third decades of the 20th century, and no performer since him ever had the prominence on Broadway that he had in his day.
Jolson alone in Broadway history enjoyed the freedom to add or drop any songs he wished, at any time, from his shows. He set countless box-office records in his day, sometimes doing three shows in one day to meet demand. He made “the road” almost as important as Broadway because he, unlike most before him, would take his entire company on tour after their Broadway run ended. And between Broadway and the road, he could headline a show like Sinbad or Bombo for several years, making them—as the trades noted—the longest-running musical productions of the period.
Jolson’s producers, the Shuberts, eventually gave up on even hiring an understudy for him. He alone among stars wound up working without an understudy; if he didn’t want to go on—whether he felt ill or just wanted to take the company to the racetrack with him for a day– they’d cancel the performance at his request. If he wanted to throw away the script at a performance and simply sing for the rest of the night, he could—and did—do that. George Burns told me—and there’s plenty of contemporary documentation to back him up—that everyone in the business accepted that Jolson, in his prime was “the world’s greatest entertainer,” just as the Shuberts always billed him. Burns told me: “Had you seen Jolson on stage in his prime, you would have wanted to retire, Chip—anyone would have wanted to retire—because you would have known instantly you could never be that great.” To see Jolson represented simply by one headshot as if he were just another player misrepresents Broadway history. And Jolson would have died to see Eddie Cantor given more prominence in the museum than Jolie. I love Cantor’s work, and he was the closest thing to a rival that Jolson had on Broadway. But even Cantor, to his dying day, always insisted that Jolson (whom he called “the King”) was the greatest entertainer he’d ever seen.
Katharine Cornell devoted herself so totally to Broadway—where she was long hailed as “the First Lady of the Theater” (a title Helen Hayes got after Cornell retired; no one has such a title today)—she is now almost forgotten. She repeatedly turned down offers to do movies; she lived for Broadway. But since the fans who cheered her acclaimed performances on stage in the 1920s, ’30, and ‘40s are virtually all now gone, that’s all the more reason for a museum to honor her. She’s a Broadway legend who deserves acknowledgement. And she’s also one of the few stars from the old days who saved her costumes. Princeton University’s theater library (where I once worked) has one. Not on display—tucked safely away in storage. It is complete. And it’s history. Maybe it could be borrowed for display?
Ethel Merman, too, merits more attention. She was one of the greatest Broadway performers I ever saw “live.” Another artist who, for decades, helped define Broadway. Film didn’t capture her well. And our greatest songwriters—Irving Berlin, the Gershwins, Cole Porter—delighted in writing songs expressly for her, tailored to her unique voice.
In various different ways, at various different times, Williams & Walker, Sissle & Blake, Lunt & Fontanne made significant contributions to Broadway that might well be highlighted.
These various artists made such important contributions, they merit a bit more attention in a museum devoted to Broadway.
It’s also a bit puzzling to me why the museum, at present, gives so much attention to certain shows. Here’s one example. I enjoyed The Wiz as much as anyone (And Bill Brown, who wrote the libretto of The Wiz, was a friend and mentor of mine for five decades–the first person I sent my first play to, for his advice.) But for the life of me, I can’t understand why the museum gives so much attention to The Wiz while ignoring many other shows that were much bigger success, artistically and commercially. Bill Brown was certainly happy for his show’s popularity. It ran on Broadway from 1975-79. It was a fun show. But Brown was under no illusions that it was one of Broadway’s masterworks. Yet it’s given prominent attention at the museum. (Is it being played up to help promote the forthcoming big revival of The Wiz that has been announced?) If we want to get history right at the museum, incidentally, the original Broadway production of The Wizard of Oz—a huge sensation in 1903-1905—was actually a bigger, more impactful hit in its day than its 1970s retelling The Wiz.
I must stress, these are all relatively minor complaints for a museum that offers abundant rewards. And I would not want any of reservations I’m voicing to discourage you from visiting the museum. The museum, to its credit, celebrates not just the writers, directors, and stars of Broadway, but also everyone working behind the scenes, from publicists to designers. And you can learn a lot.
Guides are present in the various rooms, to answer questions and tell you a bit about items on display. The guides varied wildly in their helpfulness. I’d recommend that the museum take as much care in selecting and training guides as they would in casting and directing a play. The guides, after all, are representing your brand. And the quality of a museum visitor’s experience will depend as much upon the contributions of the guides as upon the exhibits. A good guide can make a enormous difference.
I went to the museum with a friend. By far the best guide we encountered, we both agreed, was a fellow named Malcolm Hollis, a recent graduate of the New York Conservatory for Dramatic Arts who really gave 100%. He added so much to the day.
When we entered his domain—a room celebrating two dance-driven musicals, West Side Story and A Chorus Line—he greeted us, with most-welcome theatrical flair, by doing a pirouette! And he spoke with such enthusiasm about every artifact in the room, he made us feel fortunate to be there. It felt like this treasure-filled space was not only the most important room in the museum, but quite possibly the most important room in the whole Universe. Or something pretty close to that.
I couldn’t help sharing in his sense of wonder as he appreciatively showed us a hand-written letter from Stephen Sondheim to Leonard Bernstein; a hand-typed (on onion-skin paper) script from the original Broadway production of West Side Story, and an original “Jets” jacket to go with it; Kelly Bishop’s original costume from A Chorus Line; and a photo of Ann Reinking—oh, how I miss her!–in A Chorus Line.
And when Hollis spoke of the dancing in the original Broadway production of West Side Story, he did not merely credit famed director/choreographer Jerome Robbins (who is usually, but not quite accurately, given sole credit), he noted that Peter Gennaro contributed choreography as well. Gennaro often gets overlooked, but he helped create some of those iconic dances. Now this is the sort of nuance that might only matter to serious theater devotees. But I like the fact that Hollis knew—and got right—that detail. The museum could use a few more guides with his passion for theater. His energy—and eagerness to talk theater—really added a lot. (If an actor with that kind of energy showed up for an audition I was running, I’d cast him in the show at once–or create a part for him to play, if need be. It’s fun to be around that kind of enthusiasm.)
By contrast, the worst guide whom we encountered—who seemed so unhappy, so obviously to be having a bad day—told us nothing helpful at all, nothing more than advising us to check out the exhibits and videos in the museum. Well, we could do that whether or not that guide was present. It’s much more fun if you have a guide who’s eager to talk with you, and ready to answer questions. That interaction is rewarding. I mean, we could just as easily stay home and watch theater-related videos.
I’d encourage the museum to try and find ways to make the experience for visitors more interactive. If you didn’t just have displays honoring great choreographers but hired a good dancer to teach interested patrons a classic move or two from that choreographer’s repertoire, I know some patrons would love that. Or give them a chance to sing a Broadway number they like, in the original arrangement, or perhaps as a virtual duet with a Broadway star. The more reasons you can give patrons a reason to be there—and not merely watching theater-related videos at home—the better! I want to see busloads of tourists descending on this museum.
I have one final criticism to make, though. I hate having to write this. I’ve never had to write anything like this in a review or column before, but it needs to be said. Towards the end of my visit, I walked downstairs to use the restroom. But when I entered and saw toilet paper on the floor and urine on the toilet seat, it was so off-putting that I turned around and decided I would find a clean restroom elsewhere in Times Square.
I’ve been going to Broadway shows regularly since I was a kid, some six decades ago. I’ve never encountered a poorly maintained restroom in a Broadway theater. Nor in any New York nightclub, cabaret, or restaurant. Even supermarkets know you have to maintain clean facilities if you want loyal patrons.
I want the museum to succeed. Most new business ventures do not succeed. You need to get every detail right, from having knowledgeable, helpful guides to making sure restrooms are well-maintained. It’s not enough to have great artifacts on display. I remember how excited I was when the Jazz Museum opened in midtown, years ago. It, too, had great artifacts. I thought it would last forever. But it was not able to sustain itself.
You want every visitor to the Museum of Broadway thinking as they leave: What a great time I had! I can’t wait to get back! I left the museum thinking: Where’s the closest venue with clean public restrooms?
For me, this is an important museum, with much to offer. But they’ve still got some improvements to make. I write that as a friend, who hopes they’ll make the museum all it could be.
Leave a comment