OnStage New York Columnist
Theatre is too expensive, and not as great as it used to be. That’s not true. There’s a lot of truly great stuff going on, and there are a lot of ways to get significant discounts on tickets. But being nostalgic (and cheap) come with the territory of being a theatre person, which is why the free exhibit Curtain Up: Celebrating the Last 40 Years of Theatre in New York and London is such a great way for theatre people to spend some time (and no money) between seeing shows. The Society of London Theatre, London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, and the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center have joined forces to mark the 40th anniversary of the Olivier Awards and the 70th anniversary of the Tony awards with an exhibit of artifacts from shows that have won both. It’s magical enough that, after you’ve explored it, even though it’s free, you may want to put a dollar or two in the donation box just outside the gallery.
It’s raining playbills as you enter the exhibit, which is in the front part of the Performing Arts Library between the Metropolitan Opera and the Lincoln Center Theatre complex. Playbills hang from the ceiling in a pattern that seems to lead to a pile on the floor against the south wall, though that may just be playbills that fell and got swept aside. I was tempted to look through it and maybe take some for my collection, but I did not nor do I endorse such an act. Next to a larger than life Olivier Award is the display for the first represented show, The Phantom of the Opera, which features costume designs, archival video footage, a Red Death costume worn in the West End in 2011, and the mask worn by Michael Crawford when he originated the role on Broadway. It was my personal favorite part of the exhibit, but there was so much more.
Costume pieces from The Lion King, Kinky Boots, and Chicago, set models from Sunday in the Park with George, Arcadia, Warhorse, and Matilda, the sound board from Hairspray: there’s so much to explore, and not just obviously fun stuff like the African-inspired masks that spring off the heads of actors playing lions. Though even the not obviously fun stuff is fun. Looking at that sound board, one can imagine what it must be like to know what each of those knobs, buttons, and the things that you push up and down do, which microphones they control, and in what sequence you have to push or turn them. Looking at the “Costume Bible” for Blithe Spirit, one can consider how much thought went into every inch of fabric used.
And looking at the life-sized Tonys and Oliviers, one can consider what it might be like to win one, or even both. Yes, there are the giant ones to pose with, the Olivier at the beginning of the exhibit and the Tony at the end, but in a display case are the trophies themselves, in various forms. Before the Olivier was the Olivier, and adopted the face and bust of the man it was named for (as Henry V), it was a humanoid sculpture called a Society of West End Theatre Award. If I had to complain about one thing, it would be that this seems like a wasted opportunity to put original Tony Awards on display. They weren’t always mounted medallions. Surely someone could have found one of the old cigarette lighters or 14-carat-gold compacts that were handed out at the first Tony Awards ceremony in 1947 to add to the display.
Other highlights of the exhibit include a short corridor with mirrors on both walls and a barre and a row of gold colored hats mounted on one side. Can you guess which show that represents? A Chorus Line, one of the milestones of musical theatre, won the first Musical of the Year Olivier award in 1976. Archival footage, the only footage the audio of which is intended for all to hear (the rest of the audio/visual displays come with headphones), plays on the wall at the far end of that little hallway. After you pass the Lion King costumes, before you enter the last room where there’s a giant Tony to pose with, look up. Mary Poppins and Elphaba, or at least their costumes, are defying gravity over your head (or maybe they are fastened to the ceiling somehow; yeah, that’s probably it).
The exhibit runs through June 30th, but it’s the kind of thing you may want to go to a few times, especially since it’s free, or may want to take friends to see, or may want to pop into to get out of torrential rain. I’ve been five times, at least once for each of those reasons, and I may go again. Another free exhibit, if you’ve got more time to kill, is across Broadway at the American Folk Art Museum. You can have a day of culture.
Whatever kind of theatre person you are, actor, writer, director, designer, stage manager, there’s something for you. Theatre is a tangible, in the moment, present experience, but you usually don’t get to get so close to it as when the costumes and set pieces are just a few inches from you and standing completely still for you to take in every detail. Theatre is not usually about stopping and taking a breath, taking a moment, but this exhibit is. And as you leave the library, in case you missed it as you came in, the fixtures from the studio of Al Hirschfeld, the man who drew Broadway and whose name and likeness grace that Broadway house on 45th Street west of 8th Avenue, are still on display, as they have been for years. One more piece of Broadway history to take in before you go.
Aaron Netsky is a Freelance Writer, Editor, and Photographer for Atlas Obscura. His writing has also appeared on Slate, TheHumanist.com, Thought Catalog, and Medium. He has written a few novels, including one about musical theatre, and he has worked in a variety of jobs off- and off-off-Broadway. Check out his personal blogs (http://cantonaut.blogspot.com and http://366days366musicals.tumblr.com) and follow him on Twitter @AaronNetsky.