A Master Class in Broadway History

A Master Class in Broadway History

Sitting in a Broadway theatre and waiting for the houselights to go down, most audience members don’t usually think about who designed the theatre or what other shows have appeared on that stage. But a new multimedia project from the City of New York aims to change that.

Created by the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment, in partnership with The Broadway League, Spotlight on Broadway allows audiences to experience Broadway in a way they never have before: by going on stage and behind the curtain to hear from the men and women who have devoted their careers to Broadway. Through an innovative website — SpotlightonBroadway.com — and a series of 40 short videos, each profiling a different Broadway theatre, renowned performers including Angela Lansbury, Chita Rivera and Joel Grey, along with composers, producers, directors, costume designers and other creative professionals, share their stories of working on Broadway. Theater historians and architects also provide rich insight into how Broadway came to be what we know today.
“We wanted audiences to truly appreciate the unparalleled talent and dedication that goes into a Broadway show and to learn about these legendary theatres that are such an integral part of New York City’s media and entertainment industry,” said Katherine Oliver, commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment. “Spotlight on Broadway is like a master class in New York City theater.”

Many of the interviews featured in the video series take place in the very theatres where the actors have tread the boards and dazzled audiences. Kristin Chenoweth, who originated the role of Glinda in Wicked — a show that celebrates its 10th anniversary on Broadway this month — is interviewed from the seats of the Gershwin Theatre with Wicked’s elaborate set as the backdrop. Later in the same video, Wicked’s Tony Award–winning scenic designer Eugene Lee explains how he was inspired to create the set after he tossed an old clock down the stairs and springs and sockets flew into the air. The clockwork motif has now become a familiar sight to the millions of audience members who have passed through the Gershwin’s doors.

In the video focused on the Broadhurst Theatre, Joel Grey, who won a Tony for his role of the MC in Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret as well as an Academy Award for the film version, recalled his impressions of appearing on stage at the Broadhurst when Cabaret opened there in 1966.

“The Broadhurst is large yet very intimate,” said Grey. “It is one of my favorite theatres, and it probably has something to do with Cabaret.” Later in the video, Grey recounts his journey to the role that changed his career. “I couldn’t get a job on Broadway for the longest time,” he said, until he got a call from director Hal Prince. When Grey first heard the opening notes to the song that would become “Willkommen,” Grey remembered thinking, in understatement, “That’s good!”

The videos are also a treasure-trove of interwoven history, revealing shared links between Broadway greats. Back when the Stephen Sondheim Theatre was known as Henry Miller’s Theatre, it was the home of the Broadway debut of Thornton Wilder’s seminal play Our Town in 1938. The theater also saw Angela Lansbury’s first appearance on a Broadway stage in Hotel Paradiso in 1957.

Angela Lansbury, in another video, describes her first impressions of Sweeney Todd, for which she won a Tony Award in 1979: “This was an unexpected opportunity, and I read it and I thought, This is the most unusual and innovative and different kind of musical. It’s an opera. This is going to take some real oomph.”

The Spotlight on Broadway story of the Nederlander Theatre recalls how, in 1996, the Nederlander Organization had plans to renovate the theatre, which was first built in 1921. But producer Kevin McCollum had an unusual request. “I don’t want it painted,” he remembered saying at the time. “This is Rent.” The Pulitzer Prize– and Tony Award–winning musical would go on to call the Nederlander Theatre home until its final performance in 2008, after more than 5,000 shows.

The videos feature fun moments too, like nine-time Tony winner Tommy Tune at the St. James Theatre finding the balcony seat where he saw Carol Channing in Hello, Dolly! for the first time. Spotlight also traces the trend of renaming theatres after theater executives, critics, actresses and impresarios.

SpotlightonBroadway.com documents the ornate architectural details of the theatres with galleries of photos showcasing marquees and murals. A Spotlight on Professions section of the website sheds light on occupations such as a fly man or dance captain and features information and a series of conversations with union members as they discuss their careers on Broadway. A mobile version of the site is also available for visitors to explore Broadway on the go.

Spotlight on Broadway originally grew out of an idea from actress Arlene Dahl, who wanted to commemorate the achievements of those who spent their careers on Broadway. Dahl was honored with a Spotlight on Broadway Award last fall and appears in the video about the Palace Theatre.

During future trips to Duffy Square, the triangle bound by Broadway and 7th Ave between West 46th and West 47th Streets in Times Square, visitors will have the opportunity to see the official Spotlight on Broadway permanent installation — an in-ground map made out of granite and steel depicting the geography of all 40 Broadway theatres. It provides a unique look at the Theatre District and its universal appeal to audiences from around the world.

Perhaps Harvey Fierstein, who appears in a number of Spotlight videos, sums up the excitement of Broadway best: “I’ve been on Broadway for 30 years, and I’m still as wide-eyed about ‘Oh, look who’s coming’ and ‘Oh, look who’s playing here.’ I still get that thrill.”

With Spotlight on Broadway, audiences are just a click away from experiencing that thrill for themselves.