A History of Broadway and theater in New York City
Perform explores the history of New York City Broadway theater through costumes, historic photographs, drawings, ephemera, and other objects from the Museum’s Theater Collection—recognized as one of the finest, most comprehensive, and most significant archives of its kind in the world. The exhibition illuminates the collaborative and thrillingly diverse art of theater-making, and tells the stories of the entrepreneurs and ingénues, the performers and the producers, the designers, songwriters, and others behind the curtain, revealing how each has helped to shape, enliven, and habitually reinvent—compulsively and competitively—live performance in New York City. Visitors will discover how the city has shaped theater, and, conversely, how theater has shaped the city, for some two hundred years.
Perform makes vivid the range and diversity of participants who have comprised Broadway. The exhibition begins with the Park Theater of 1830, to the minstrel shows, vaudeville, burlesque, and musicals that thrived from the 1830s through the 1950s, to the ultimately splintered venues scattered throughout the boroughs catering to audiences in locations real and symbolic (Off-Broadway, Off-Off- Broadway, BAM).
The confluence of culture, creativity, conditions, and coincidence in New York City that has resulted in groundbreaking theater is a focus of the new exhibition. Examples include the story of Bob Cole (1868-1911) and Billy Johnson (c. 1858-1916), who challenged the white theater establishment by creating the first full-length musical written, performed, and produced by African-Americans, A Trip to Coontown (Third Avenue Theater, 1898); the first collaboration of Richard Rodgers (1902-1979) and Oscar Hammerstein II (1895-1960); and the prolific partnership of Harold Prince (b. 1928) and Stephen Sondheim (b. 1930).
Highlights of the exhibition also include:
• Mrs. Potts’s costume from the 1993 stage production of Walt Disney’s 1991 film Beauty and the Beast, a glittering confection of pearlescent pigment, silk, pearls, beads, lace, and kydx vacuum-formed medallions. The result of the collaboration of some 40 people including designers, fabricators, and technicians, the costume was originally too wide and too rigid to fit through a backstage door;
• a spectacular "gypsy robe." This ceremonial garment is worn by a selected cast member on opening nights of Broadway shows and is decorated with memorabilia before being passed to another show. On view is the gypsy robe from the 1987-89 Broadway season, featuring mementoes from shows including Les Miserables (1987), Starlight Express (1987), Cabaret (1987), Phantom of the Opera (1988), and Three Penny Opera (1989), among the 11 other productions represented on the robe.
Among some 50 objects from the Museum’s collection, and amid other artifacts and ephemera on view, are the bronzed tap shoes of Bill "Bojangles" Robinson (1878-1949), a ukulele owned and played by Sophie Tucker in the mid-20th century, Eddie Cantor’s tube of Stein’s Black Face Minstrel Make-up, and a souvenir book on the life and career of Paul Robeson. Photographs of such celebrated Broadway legends as Ethel Merman, Chita Rivera, Robert Redford (he starred on Broadway before making the transition to film), Barbra Streisand, Bette Midler, Bernadette Peters, and Charles Busch, among others, illustrate the role of New York City in shaping the lives and careers of actors and in confirming the status of those who have also succeeded elsewhere.
The evolution of Times Square is highlight through a selection of historic photographs from the late 1920s and early 1930s by The Byron Company and from the Gottscho-Schleisner collection. The role of lighting is dramatized through photographs and by segments of an actual news zipper from the Times building and an early neon display.
The exhibition concludes with a revelatory examination of how New York City is portrayed on stage, as seen through costumes, drawings, artifacts, and ephemera related to On The Town (1944), Guys and Dolls (1950), A Chorus Line (1975), Rent (1996), The Producers (2001), and other shows.
Perform was made possible by a generous grant from the Bodman Foundation. Additional support was provided by: Lynn Angelson, Mr. and Mrs. Roger S. Berlind, the 42nd Street Development Corporation, the Joelson Foundation, James A. Lebenthal, and Bruno A. Quinson.
See Perform featured on SundayArts, the weekly on-air, online arts and culture showcase from Thirteen.