Museum of Broadway: Plenty of Substance behind the Pizzazz
By Sandy MacDonald
I will admit that I approached The Museum of Broadway prepared to sneer. Just what Times Square needs, I groused: another cheesy tourist magnet! But no, it’s an actual museum, a good one, and absolutely fascinating. If you’ve dipped into New York City’s theatrical offerings any time in the past, oh, 300-odd years, memories will assail you at every turn.
I found myself floored on the topmost level of the four-story caracol that is the MOB when I spotted a 1954 poster for Peter Pan. Theatre and I go way back, which means that – like most aficionados – I have my own Broadway, and I’m a big, insufferable snob about it. Growing up in New York, I was fortunate to get a taste of pretty much everything from the mid-‘50s onward – with one major exception. I shunned Hair because, being a practicing hippie at the time, I considered it a shameless commercialization (clearly my loss).
For what it’s worth, the room dedicated to Hair’s memory features a mural in a color palette that is way too pallid. I also question the need for actual cornstalks in the Oklahoma-tribute passageway. But these are niggling objections compared to an array of documents, photos, artifacts, costumes, and reconstituted stage sets that is simply staggering. Kudos are due co-founders Julie Boardman and Diane Nicoletti (both are Broadway producers) and to “resident historian” Ben West, whose book The American Musical is due out next year. It’s a noble undertaking, tastefully executed.
That’s the format: chronologically sequenced showrooms. After taking in a very brief video intro on the top floor (outlining how the theatre district migrated ever northward, having started out in the Financial District), you’re free to descend through a winding series of displays at your own pace. Some offer selfie opps (shudder): e.g., Doc’s soda counter from West Side Story, the pay phone from Rent … If reenactments are your jam, go for it!
For me the riches lie in the well-researched, sensitively presented background material – some of it going way back. One “early” room takes a deep dive into the 19th-century tradition of “coon shows” – appalling in retrospect, and no doubt even then, but what talent got showcased so early on! Racial equity on Broadway is still a work in progress (no thanks to retrograde critics like the late John Lahr), but this season is resplendent with voices long ignored or outright suppressed.
Floor by floor, friendly docents – mostly young, perhaps aspirants in their own right – are standing by, prepared to answer questions and encourage you to get hands-on, when appropriate. The pilgrimage concludes with “The Making of a Broadway Show”: an array of detailed displays showing how the magic is made, via lights, costumes, sound … Take a fledgling theatre-lover there, and it’s pretty much guaranteed that they’ll get “bit.”
I’ve heard some grousing about the ticket price: timed entries, $39 and up per person (only $25 for the first Tuesday of the month). On the plus side, you can take your time taking it all in – no one will be hustling you through. Best strategy: Schedule your visit between a matinee and an evening show, for which you can nab half-price seats at the TKTS booth a block over. You’ll be doing everyone a favor: the theatres still operating at less than full capacity post-Covid, the performers and techies who are powering through, and most of all your own theatre-loving self.
Sandy MacDonald is a travel writer and theatre critic. A Nantucket summerer for 25 years, she divides her time between the island and New York City. Her website is www.sandymacdonald.com and she is currently contributing to NewYorkStageReview.com.