|Should you go?|
|Time spent||137 minutes|
|Best thing I saw or learned||The “Oklahoma!” exhibit contains a small, framed, handwritten scrap of paper that contains every rhyme Oscar Hammerstein could think of for “surry,” including “occur he,” “furry,” “chauffeur-y,” and “arbitrury” [sic]. It’s not my favorite song but the peek it provides into his songwriting process delights me.
When I discovered New York was getting a Museum of Broadway my first reaction was “Wait, why don’t we have one of those already?” It seems an obvious and overdue subject for a New York museum. I felt a little on the fence about it given my aversion to “museum in name only” experiential entertainment offerings. If they hand out flyers for it in Times Square, and charge $69 for “daily anytime entry,” can it be a legitimate museum? But, I figured I should take a look.
The Museum of Broadway is appropriately on West 45th Street between 6th Avenue and Broadway. It would be amazing if it were in a defunct theater, but instead it occupies four windowless floors of what I’d guess used to be office space. Very friendly staff greet visitors on the ground floor, then send them up three flights of stairs (there’s an elevator if needed) to start the museum experience.
Ease on down the exhaustive wall timeline
Like an IKEA, visitors to the Museum of Broadway follow a very directed journey. While people can meander at their own pace, there’s only ever one way to go. Instead of a series of gallery spaces, the bulk of a Museum of Broadway visit consists of a sequence of rooms and hallways that offer a chronological tour of the New York theater scene from its earliest days to the present.
Visitors arrive at the top floor and spend a quick minute getting a welcome from a docent and a quick quiz: What makes a Broadway theater a Broadway theater? That’s followed by a welcome video promoting the awesomeness of live theater, and then visitors are turned loose at the start of the timeline, in about 1890.
The timeline panels are text heavy and extremely detailed. Some of the early ones distinguish between plays and musicals, but later panels tend to run together, as though the curators realized they were running out of both time and space. No sane visitor has a prayer of reading all of them. Rather, I suppose, you just look for things that catch your eye, favorite shows or stars, or key moments in Broadway history.
For example, in the midst of a busy panel covering the mid-1970s I was stopped in my tracks by a picture of Frank Langella and Maureen Ackerman dressed as giant lizards (!) in a 1975 Edward Albee (!!) play called “Seascape” that somehow won the Pulitzer Prize (!!!). If more Broadway shows had giant lizards in them, I’d probably see more Broadway shows. “Godzilla: The Musical,” anyone?
Timeline sections are very smartly punctuated by installations related to specific shows or (in a few cases) people. These feature specially commissioned art, actual costumes, props, or other artifacts, and occasionally video interviews and interactive features. And, perhaps inevitably, prompts that this spot or that spot would be great opportunities to take a selfie.
Stars of the show
These show-focused installations were generally fantastic. I won’t spoil them all, but will share a few personal highlights.
- An anagram crossword puzzle that makes a fitting tribute to Stephen Sondheim.
- A couple of Julie Taymor’s fantastic puppets from “The Lion King.”
- In honor of the longest-running show in Broadway history, an art piece consisting of 13,981 crystals (one for each performance!) suspended in such a way that if you stand in the exact right spot they form the Phantom of the Opera’s mask. As obsessive and magical as Andrew Lloyd Webber himself.
Acts II and III
The timeline sequence is quite long, taking up the first two floors of the museum. Eventually visitors arrive at the present, which features a model set for “Wicked” and a couple of costumes from “Hamilton.” That makes this the most self-referential entry yet on the Hamilton Museum Tour of NYC. (Other notable stops include Hamilton Grange, the Morris-Jumel Mansion, and Trinity Church.)
The timeline ends with a few empty columns for 2023, 2024, and 2025, suggesting that either the museum, Broadway, New York City, humanity, or the planet only has a few years to go. We’ll see.
I wonder about the amount of time and space spent on Broadway’s relatively ancient history. Broadway’s post-90s, post-Disney renaissance felt rushed, which I found odd given that’s the era most visitors are most likely to know and connect with.
The floor below the timeline sections shifts gears. It combines multimedia, interactive displays, and artifacts to break down all the behind-the-scenes parts of a production. Different sections illuminate writing, props, costumes, scenery, lighting, and all the rest of the many pieces that make up a theatrical production.
For those who dream of producing, directing, or even marketing (yep, marketers get love, too) a show, this section provides provides immense, even overwhelming, amounts of information on how the sausage gets made.
Visitors then descend one final staircase to the ground floor and exit through an inevitable gift shop.
Should you visit the Museum of Broadway?
The Museum of Broadway was created with passion and love — obsession may not be too strong a word — for its subject. This is a place geared for people who love the theater, and who already know something about it. On the other hand, total novices may be bewildered or bored. Moreover, although worlds better than those cynical, experiential quasi-museums that separate tourists from their money, this is unquestionably one of New York’s most expensive museums.
Nonetheless, the Museum of Broadway delivers a mix of erudition, surprises and delights, and showbiz pizazz. I’m not the biggest Broadway fan and still spent over two engaging hours there. Anyone who was a theater kid in high school, who gets excited when they get tickets to a show, or who has a shoebox full of old Playbills, will find a visit worthwhile.
That said, I do mean “a visit.” The biggest downside to the timeline layout is it makes for a fairly static experience. There is a small space for temporary exhibits. Currently it features “Chicago,” which at 26 years is (post-Phantom) Broadway’s longest running show. But unless the curators find ways to change things up periodically, I’m not sure that even big Broadway fans will feel much need to see this show a second time.
|Address||145 West 45th Street, Manhattan|
|Cost||General Admission: $34-$41 or more (!!) My advice: take advantage of the discount on Tuesdays and avoid the service charge by not buying tickets in advance.|
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