Seven Jewish highlights from the new Museum of Broadway


New York Jewish Week

The Museum of Broadway in the heart of Manhattan’s Theater District (New York Jewish Week)

There’s a reliably funny Twitter account called @JewWhoHasItAll, which imagines a universe where nearly everyone is Jewish and those who aren’t are the outliers. That’s the sensation I got on a visit to the Museum of Broadway, which opened on Nov. 15.A three-story tribute to the Theater District located in its very heart, it is organized around a series of rooms dedicated to landmark musicals and plays.

You’d have to be culturally illiterate not to notice how many of the most celebrated creators are Jewish: In addition to the musical tributes, wall placards single out the contributions of Stephen Sondheim and the director Harold Prince, a corner devoted to “Fiddler on the Roof” and a gallery celebrating Joe Papp (born Joseph Papirofsky) and his Public Theater, that reliable pipeline of breakthrough Broadway shows.

The museum, whose opening was delayed by COVID-19, is a collaboration with Playbill, Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS (supported by a portion of the stiff $39 admission charge), the Al Hirschfeld Foundation, Concord Theatricals and Goodspeed Musicals.

Its approach is chronological, with a timeline that pulls visitors from room to room — from vaudeville through Broadway’s “Golden Age” up to the present.

Among the paraphernalia and stagecraft are a number of Jewish highlights.

Here are seven:

Rodgers and Hammerstein
Past the cornstalks celebrating the ground-breaking 1943 musical “Oklahoma!” is a wall display showcasing the duo’s most important collaborations, including “Carousel,” “South Pacific,” “The King and I,” “Flower Drum Song” and “The Sound of Music.” Rodgers, working with Hammerstein and before him Lorenz Hart, wrote more than 900 songs and 41 Broadway musicals.

Notes on ‘West Side Story’
Choreographer Jerome Robbins (born Jerome Rabinowitz)originally proposed that the show focus on a star-crossed love story between a Jewish girl and an Irish boy, but he and his fellow Jewish collaborators — composer Leonard Bernstein, lyricist Stephen Sondheim and playwright Arthur Laurents — soon felt the interfaith idea had already been exhausted in plays like “Abie’s Irish Rose.” When the show premiered in 1957, the gangs were Puerto Rican and a medley of ethnic whites.

Florence Klotz’s costume ‘bible’
Costume designer Florence Klotz frequently collaborated with Prince and Sondheim. Born in Brooklyn, Klotz would go on to win six Tony awards. The museum includes a whole floor dedicated to “backstage” talent: stage managers, prop masters, set designers, writers and more.

A shrine to ‘Company’
Sondheim and Prince emerge as the museum’s lodestars. “Company” (1970) was a largely plotless exploration of urban anomie. The museum calls it a “frank, even painful look at modern life,” attuned to the upper-middle class theater-goers who, it says, are the “backbone” of the Broadway audience.

A tribute to Joseph Papp
Joe Papp flipped the script on how shows made it to Broadway: His Public Theater produced edgy off-Broadway plays that drew audiences downtown and then transferred that same buzz to the “Big Stem.” Papp, a son of Yiddish-speaking parents who grew up in a Brooklyn slum, founded the New York Shakespeare Festival. A section includes costumes and posters from productions that originated at The Public, including wildly popular revivals of “The Pirates of Penzance” and “The Threepenny Opera.” Two other musicals developed there —
“Hair” and “A Chorus Line” — get their own tribute rooms.

Al Hirschfeld’s barber chair
The museum has an entire gallery dedicated to the work of artist Al Hirschfeld and his caricatures of Broadway stars and productions from 1923-2001. His pen-and-ink drawings were a visual shorthand for “Broadway,” and it would sometimes seem that the stars he drew would come to resemble his drawings, not the other way around. On display is a barber chair similar to the one he used in his studio (the original had fallen apart by the 1990s).

Stage set from ‘The Producers’
You can sit behind a desk and pretend you are Broadway producer Max Bialystock, who was played by Nathan Lane in the phenomenally successful 2001 musical adaptation of Mel Brooks’ 1967 film about the worst musical ever staged for Broadway. The display is a reminder of the show’s impact and not only on ticket prices: It proved the viability of adapting movies for Broadway and earned a record-setting 12 Tony Awards.

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