Spotlight on Broadway
by Whitney Spaner, 10/23/2013
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New York City construction mogul Irwin Chanin grew up poor in the early 1900s. He loved seeing plays but hated having to enter through the side entrance of theaters—at the time, front doors were only for the rich. After he made his fortune, Chanin and his brother built the Richard Rodgers Theatre on 46th Street, designing the venue with just one entrance, so that everyone—no matter their wealth—had the same glamorous experience. That inspiring story is just one among many to be found at spotlightonbroadway.com, a website launched this week as part of a multimedia project celebrating Broadway's legacy by the Mayor's Office of Media & Entertainment (MOME) in conjunction with the Broadway League.
The site hosts 40 mini-documentaries that chronicle the history of Broadway's 40 theaters. Stories like Chanin's are interwoven with interviews featuring Broadway stars, house staff, historians and architects, as well as archival footage of Broadway shows.
"These theaters are beautiful, historic structures,” says MOME commissioner Katherine Oliver. "The idea was to tell the story of Broadway through these 40 theaters." She hopes that the site will give theatergoers a sense of their seat's place in theatrical history.
"We felt passionate that the story of Broadway could be told in a multimedia format, to celebrate not only the creative [achievements], but the historic and economic development aspects of this great sector of the City," says Oliver, who notes that her first Broadway experience was seeing Yul Brynner in the 1977 production of The King and I at the Uris Theatre. (As detailed in the site's Gershwin Theatre video, the Uris was renamed after the ingenious composer brothers, George and Ira, at the 1983 Tony Awards.) "One of my favorite sections of Playbill is 'At This Theatre,'" says Oliver. "When you're waiting to see the show, you can read about the history of the theater that you're sitting in. This is that same concept, only bringing that theater to life through video."
In the St. James Theatre clip, Broadway legend Tommy Tune finds the exact seat where he first saw the 1964 production of Hello, Dolly! As part of the Gershwin feature, Angela Lansbury recalls being taught all the words to The King and I by Richard Rodgers himself when she played Anna in 1978. And when discussing the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, Brian Stokes Mitchell points out his favorite part of the stage—where he stood when he starred in the 2002 revival of Man of La Mancha. But that's just scratching the surface.
Narrated by stars like Eric Bogosian, David Hyde Pierce and Audra McDonald, the videos also trace the development of Times Square from the roaring '20s—when many of the theaters sprouted up—to the '70s and '80s, when the area was a less savory place. “You get to see what [Broadway] looks like now, but then we go back in time to talk about the restorations that took place in the '90s. Then we go back to the '30s, when Broadway struggled during the Depression, and you get to see what the industry was prompted to do to survive," Oliver says. "There's a real range of stories that emerge as a result of historic times, and then you also get reminiscences from actors reflecting on their personal experiences onstage and in the audiences of these amazing theaters. It's information you're not going to get anywhere else."
The architecture of the theaters is another focus. The site features photos of each that capture their facades, the views from their stages and a collection of intricate design details. "One of the things I learned is that the doors of the Al Hirschfeld are beautifully made and beautifully stylized," says Oliver. "But you never see them, because [they're always open when the audience enters the house, and only shut] once the performance begins. [So] these videos seek to educate theatergoers not only about the craft but [also] about these beautiful palaces."
Later this year a large-scale interactive map of the theaters will be unveiled in Duffy Square to help visitors find their way through today's bustling maze of Times Square. In the meantime, longer, half-hour versions of the Spotlight on Broadway documentaries are scheduled to air on NYC life (channel 25), hosted by Broadway veteran Victor Garber.