Curtain Up on Theater’s Best at NYPL

All the Playbills you ever collected

The excitement of Broadway and West End theater is fully on display at the New York Public Library’s show at Lincoln Center, Curtain Up: Celebrating the Last 40 Years of Theatre in New York and London, closing July 30.

It’s a theater-lover’s fantasy journey through four decades of smash hits that cross-pollinated two shores – costumes, stage sets, video clips, lights, sound, and awards. And as the curators point out, the two theatrical epicenters are mirror images of one another.

The Victoria & Albert (V&A) Museum in London, the Society of London Theaters, and our own NYPL assembled this extravaganza with the help of producers, costume designers, actors, theaters, and other owners theatrical history.

The foyer is awash in Playbills, hanging from the ceiling and piled up in corners. It feels like home. It’s hard to know where to look or what to process first. Is it Michael Crawford’s Phantom mask (direct from his own collection)? Is it the overscale streetplan of Times Square or Shaftsbury Avenue? Lola’s thigh-high hot pink Kinky Boots?

A Chorus Line finale top hats by Theoni V. Aldridge from TDF’s Costume Collection.

Take a short walk-through of the show on our Flickr album.

Look closely for windows into innovative set designs (An Inspector Calls, War Horse) amid towering costumed mannequins. But the overpowering sound throughout is One. Who can concentrate on anything else once you see a corridor sprinkled with glittery top hats overhead and Broadway-sized media screen showing the multi-mirrored finale of A Chorus Line.

Besides being everyone’s favorite musical (the first to win London’s coveted Olivier award), the show ushered in the digital age of theater. When it debuted at the Public Theater, the lighting was the first musical to depend on an electronic light board, which made the transitions just as precise at the choreography.

There are backstage notes for The History Boys, box office totals from Evita, period costumes from the theater’s grande dames, and a brief video showing one of the all-time great moments of inspiration and awe onstage — the seconds-long flash accompanying the finale appearance of the magnificent angel in Angels in America.

Julie Taymor’s 1997 masks for The Lion King’s Scar, Simba, and Nala

The most dramatic encounter is an area populated with costumes and masks from The Lion King and the swan costume from Matthew Bourne’s all-male Swan Lake.

The “fliers” are aloft, too – Marry Poppins and Elphaba – with a big-finish wall of televisions showing coverage of the Olivier Awards, currently celebrating their 40th anniversary.

The result is a theatrical show together that sings, dances, and reminds everyone of what a life in the theater – either as an actor, technician, or audience member – can be.

To prepare for your next visit to the West End, here’s a short primer on the stats, lingo, and facts about theater culture on both sides of the Atlantic:

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