“Curtain Up” Exhibition at NYPL Lincoln Center — A New Spin on A Tale of Two Cities?

Since London (where LFW will soon be wrapping up) has been called a “mirror-world” of New York City, it makes sense that the current exhibition (through June 30) at The New York Public Library For The Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, “Curtain Up: Celebrating The Last 40 Years of Theatre in New York & London” focuses on long-running shows that have won (or been nominated for) awards in both cities. The Tony awards are currently in their 70th year while the Olivier’s are in their 40th, making this a good time to compare and contrast the two symbiotic theatre districts: Broadway and the West End. A Tom Piper “street map” combining elements of the two, is underfoot as you enter the space.

Costumes for “Chicago” 1997

Through costumes, costume sketches, set design models, prompt scripts, video clips and other interesting objects, tales of some of the great productions of our collective consciousness are illustrated. The exhibition was co-curated by NYPL and the Victoria and Albert Museum, in partnership with the Society of London Theatre.

Model of Stage for “Matilda”

The exhibition traces elements of elaborate versus more simple set design, the invention of Tharon Musser’s digital automated lighting design, as well as the rise and fall of the British “mega-musical.” After the elaborate excesses of many of the ’70s and ’80s spectacles, the ’90’s trend was towards a more “pared-down style of presentation, with minimal scenery,” according to Tony Kushner’s notes of “Angels in America.”

Costume for Queen Elizabeth II in “The Audience”

Some of the highlights: if you are a fan of “A Chorus Line,” you will not want to miss the hall of mirrors displaying the top hats worn in the finale along with the original video next to a poster of its iconic stars director/writer/choreographer/dancer Michael Bennett and Donna McKechnie.For “Phantom of the Opera” buffs,

Costume designs for “The Phantom at the Opera” 1986

Set and Costume Designer Maria Bjornson’s costume sketches are on display as well as a life-size Phantom costumed as the masked Red Death, worn by actor/comedian Michael Crawford on both sides of the Atlantic. Who could forget the iconic effects including the crashing of the huge theatre chandelier or the underground lake boat ride? — all made possible by a design budget of close to $1.2 million.

 Bob Gaudio “Dawn” from “Jersey Boys” &  Lola’s “Kinky Boots”

The ballet costume worn by Rudolph Nureyev in Romeo and Juliet at the 1977 London Festival Ballet, which toured to the Metropolitan Opera House here can be viewed just a few steps away from Lola’s “Kinky Boots” (2013). The red boots which form the letter “K” in the show’s official logo have become as iconic as the white mask used for “Phantom of the Opera.”From a male “Swan Lake” dancer’s costume to costume design sketches for Ann Reinking as Roxie Hart in her 1996 appearance in “Chicago,” from Judi Dench’s attire in 1987’s “Antony and Cleopatra,” to a large room of “Lion King” costumes, the wearable items alone run the gamut of theatrical genres.

Suspended from the ceiling are Elphaba from the 2003 musical “Wicked” and Mary Poppins in her bright red coat which she wears for the “Step in Time” London rooftops scene, as she did in the Disney movie.

Jeff Hamlin

Interestingly, the day that I visited happened to be when Jeff Hamlin (original stage manager for “A Chorus Line” as well as “South Pacific,” “Dreamgirls,” “War Horse” and many other shows) was giving a talk. Hamlin, who had a background in Shakespeare festivals and originally wanted to direct, “dished” a bit on working with/being hired by Michael Bennett (“he liked that I was so buttoned down”), as well as composer Marvin Hamlisch (“In rehearsals he would do riffs on the theme song ‘One’ as it would be played by Tchaikovsky, Mozart or Bach”). He spoke of the many luminaries who frequented the audience — names like Katharine Hepburn, Raquel Welch, Nureyev, even Mayor LaGuardia attended the show — often sitting in the aisles.

Ballet costume for Rudolph Nureyev in “Romeo & Juliet” 1977

As far as humorous tidbits he recounted a tale from when the musical was in its first previews at the Newman Theatre (before it moved to the Shubert). Upon noticing that there was rumbling underground train noise during an important soliloquy, Bennett asked Hamlin to please get them to change the train schedule. “I wasn’t about senior enough to tell him ‘you’re living in a fool’s paradise,'” said Hamlin. He recalled Bennett’s preferred rehearsal attire — jeans, white tennis shoes, football jersey and baseball cap, which is how he remembers him now.

Red Death costume designed for “The Phantom of the Opera” 1986

Hamlin, who later became production manager, spoke of the logistical struggle of trying to recreate the perfectly timed computerized lighting system (the first of its kind) when the production moved to the Shubert. “We had to push through offices on the second floor, known as the mummy room,” he said. What was uncovered there was fantastic: original documents signed by George Cohan, Erte costumes, letters from the Shubert to chorines — many of which Hamlin ended up revisiting when they magically appeared at the Schubert in L.A. on one of his visits out there.

Show posters

Then there was the time the flu hit the Chorus Line cast, which unfortunately lacked sufficient understudies. Right before the performance the long list of who was substituting for who was read however the main characters Sheila and Cassie shared only one understudy. “They had to make an announcement that the role of Sheila was to be absorbed by others, which we did by having various castmates deliver her lines.”

After all, the show must go on…

Laurel Marcus

OG journo major who thought Strunk & White's "The Elements of Style" was a fashion guide. Desktop comedienne -- the world of fashion gives me no shortage of material.

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