“Making of a Broadway Show” is the last stop in the newly opened Museum of Broadway, but its contents and design are pivotal to understanding the intimate and intricate human realities — and possibilities — behind everything floors above it.
“You go to a show and see this performance, and it’s so many people’s blood, sweat and tears. It’s several years, sometimes, for a show to even get to Broadway. That wasn’t on my radar growing up. I had no idea I didn’t have to be the actor,” says Tony-winning producer and museum co-founder Julie Boardman about the inspiration for the exhibit. “But the whole world opens up to you in this. You walk through this stage door and get to learn about these different people’s jobs. You learn how a show goes from a blank page.”
It’s an effort, according to longtime friends Boardman and fellow co-founder Diane Nicoletti (who has got two decades of experience producing brand activations and fan experiences for the likes of the Super Bowl, Comic-Con and SXSW), that will hopefully inform and inspire those interested in theater to consider paths frequently less visible.
“We have interviewed over 130 people who work on Broadway in the trenches,” Boardman explains of the museum’s bottom floor experience, which was “built from within the community” and involves over 300 contributors. “You get to learn what they do and how they got their start — what inspires them — and some words and advice for people looking to get into the field.”
Part of the larger four-story, 26,000-square-foot self-guided museum at 145 W. 45th St. (aptly in the midst of Time Square and next door to the oldest continuously operating theater, the Lyceum), the “Making of a Broadway Show” exhibit is a tribute to every on and offstage element of the creative machine behind a Great White Way production.
Dedicated sections for dramaturgy, directing, choreography, costuming and makeup, music, scenic design, props, lighting projection and sound, stagehands and stage management showcase the real work that has brought plays and musicals to life for decades across Broadway stages in everything from Hadestown to Hairspray.
There are even stops dedicated to theatrical photographers, like Joan Marcus, who have captured productions for decades and the advertising and PR people, like Matt Polk, who market them. Between those casting calls, ladders and lightboards, visitors can interact with elements of the production process. That includes a pathway that moves you from the backstage to the literal stage where you can look out into the house of various Broadway theaters.
Museum guests can also hear directly from people who have worked within each respective stage of the production experience, with contributions from mainstays like writer Lynn Nottage, actresses Ali Stroker, Chita Rivera and LaChanze, multihyphenate Lin-Manuel Miranda, costume designer Linda Cho, projection designer Peter Nigrini, director and choreographer Jerry Mitchell, and more.
And not just through audio or video elements. The written word at the exhibit’s final stop, “The Lifecycle of a Broadway Show” wall, sees Broadway community members explain how a show moves from its early stages of writing to a life beyond the Great White Way.
From the classic dressing room makeup mirror to the rehearsal room dance bars to the writer’s chair, it’s a design vision that Boardman and Nicoletti turned to Tony-winning scenic designer and award-winning architect and Rockwell Group founder David Rockwell to envision. The trio, according to Boardman and Nicoletti, had been working together since the museum’s early conception, which dates back to 2017.
“David has the unique talent of being an architect as well as a Broadway designer, so he was someone that we went to early, even to just pitch the concept of the museum,” Nicoletti says. “He really enjoyed the idea of highlighting all of the backstage talent because he is part of that community.”
The designer and his Rockwell team (Daniel Marino, Andrew Lazarow, Eda Yetim, Furqan Jawed, Alex Huffman and Antonio Harris), along with decorator and props supervisor Faye Armon-Troncoso, video director and editor Nolan Doran and associate editor Karl Sonnenberg, helped shape not just what occupies the space but how visitors will navigate it.
“The Making of a Broadway Show,” like much of Rockwell’s work, is inspired by his childhood, having grown up with a choreographer for a mother who started small community theaters in the “private, separate U.S. suburbs” before moving the family to Mexico, where he says his interest in “how space can create real-time community” only grew.
“My interest in storytelling and my real interest in design is how it can connect people, both the people making and receiving it, in the cases of theaters, in restaurants, hotels and airports,” Rockwell, who started his career as an architect before getting into stage design in the late ’80s, shares. “And I have an outsider’s appreciation of how incredible the [theater] world is and now an insider’s point of view of how things get made.”
That experience with duality is likely why the exhibit itself, described by the designer and architect as “a longform expression of a very nonlinear process,” is so dynamic. Visitors enter the space through a set of stairs where they are “surrounded by the world of posters and artwork” — a space Rockwell says is reminiscent of the Great Wall at Shubert Alley — before entering through the stage door. It’s an environment the exhibit designer wanted to feel like the compressed space of an actual backstage.
“There’s one part of being backstage in our job — design and exhibit — that totally overlap, and that is compression,” he says. “When you’re backstage, you can’t believe how compressed everything is and how much the choreography backstage in some cases is more interesting than what’s happening in front because we’re seeing all these shifts and moves.”
As a result of the exhibit’s size and its focus, Rockwell built real movement into the artificial backstage. “When I started out as an architect in New York, most of the spaces I got to work on were upstairs or downstairs because that’s where people could afford to put a restaurant or club,” he explains. “Working in backstage spaces, you realize how important it is to be able to move things, move people. So we have the same graphics on the floor, which are stage notations, that help guide people. We’re using a lot of the same devices that are used backstage to encourage what order to see things in.”
One can wind their way through both the technical elements of backstage like the call board and early stages of production — think script and music writing — before making their way to the actual stage. But it’s at this point that Rockwell’s design takes its most interesting navigational turn. After snapping a photo stage center next to the famous ghost light, guests are spun into yet another behind-the-scenes look featuring the literal set production tools, makeup techniques, marketing designs and more from the various departments whose work is embodied through that very stage.
“In one area that’s dedicated to the dramatists, we have handwritten notes of people in their process, figuring out what ends up becoming the song or words. We have a chair made out of these incredible lyric sketches,” Boardman says. “There’s a moment from Beetlejuice where you get to see how the production works to transform this one moment in the show. And you can see how a model is actually built as well as the handcrafting and beading that goes into all the different costumes.”
For Rockwell, it’s moments captured within tributes to Robin Wagner’s model for Dream Girls, the light plots of A Chorus Line or the handwritten notes and mark-up sketches from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and A Street Car Named Desire, that offer some of the exhibit’s most special moments.
“There’s a place where you can take a photograph of yourself looking into a house — a projection of the inside of the theater. The borders overhead are painted by Joe Forbes, and if you look up, it shows the steps he uses to create a beautiful drop. The one closest to you is quite detailed, and if you go more upstage, it breaks down a process,” Rockwell explains. “He’s painted everyone’s beautiful backdrops, but no one ever asked him to paint his own.”