Departure lounge ramblings on music, places, climate change and stuff outdoors

O What A Beautiful Mornin’

The Museum of Broadway made for a gently educative departure-day lunch break after a busy week in New York. Charting the genesis of the world’s most famous theatre district, on what the venue recognises as Lenape land, the museum takes the visitor on a chronological entertainment journey filled with song, costume and, opening nights.

New York theatre put down its first roots in what is now the city’s financial district at the southern tip of Manhattan. Over many nineteenth century decades it gradually migrated to its current mid-town berth in Times Square (which I have only belatedly realised is not a rectangular open space in the European style, but a section of street blocks bisected by Broadway’s diagonal journey from 42nd to 47th streets).

The Museum takes the visitor through both the physical development of Broadway and the theatre genres that have defined its different eras, as well as an engaging final section on the back-stage craft of theatre production.

After learning about the dominance of the racist Black and White Minstrel Shows in Broadway’s mid-nineteenth century genesis, it was interesting to understand how some of the most enduring of the musicals of the early 20th century starred African Americans (I lingered awhile to hear Paul Robeson singing ‘Old Man River’, celebrating the 1927 launch of Showboat) or featured sympathetic central Black characters (Porgy and Bess).

What occupied most of my time in the Museum of Broadway thereafter were the rooms lovingly devoted to pivotal individual shows. Having recently been stunned by the bleak revival of Oklahoma (London West End version) it was surprising to learn that the original 1943 production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s first collaboration was enjoyed as a form of escapism prelapsarian pleasure from the pressures of World War Two.

Stylised realism was behind the success of the 1955 production of West Side Story, which portrayed a city riven by gang conflict that would have been familiar to contemporary audiences. To recreate on stage the tension that was palpable on the streets, the actors portraying the Jets and Sharks were forced to rehearse separately, building up a tribal mentality, and were animosity between the two groups was actively encouraged by the director.

Hair, first staged in 1968, was deliberately provocative in a different way, setting out to unsettle traditional audiences with its anti-war proselytising, hippy themes, and on-stage nudity. The section of the museum devoted to Hair are the most vibrant and colourful and, with a sub-plot of environmentalism, feel very contemporary.

An enthusiastic and talkative museum guide assured me there were “a tonne of Brits” towards the end of the museum. More accurately there were features aplenty devoted to the musicals of Andrew Lloyd Webber, whose shows started to dominate Broadway from the 1980s onwards, with the huge success of ‘Cats’ and ‘The Phantom of the Opera’. Lloyd Webber remains the only writer to have four shows being simultaneously staged on Broadway.

I ran out of time to linger in the sections devoted to stage-craft, but tourists were enjoying participating in the simulated dance classes, or observing the every-detail-matters back-stage planning that underpins a successful show.

All in all, a great way to spend an hour or two in song-filled rooms.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Basic HTML is allowed. Your email address will not be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS

%d bloggers like this: