New York for the Theater Nerd

Brian Sloan

(Updated 01/10/2019)

New York City is the number one destination for theater fans, and the reasons go well beyond Broadway (although, yeah, you should definitely see a Broadway show while you’re in town). Since the early 1900s, the City has served as a crucible for the nation’s greatest playwrights; Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams all lived in New York and created their greatest work here, as did some of the top songwriters of the 20th century, like Rodgers and Hammerstein. And all their creative work got the world’s attention in the City’s historic Broadway houses.

For true theater nerds, we’ve put together a comprehensive guide that will give you a deeper dive into the City’s rich scene. Whether you’re an actor, a drama student or just a serious fan of all things theater, these are the experiences you won’t want to miss.

Courtesy, The Band's Visit

The Show’s the Thing

Broadway, of course, is where you can see the most famous and spectacular offerings of New York City’s thriving theater scene. But just a couple subway stops north of Times Square, there’s Lincoln Center—which has three houses doing a mix of musicals, major dramas and more intimate shows. If you want to see next season’s hits or check out bolder experimental fare, Off-Broadway is the place to go. Midtown Manhattan has plenty of theaters showcasing up-and-coming talents (like those at Second Stage) alongside revivals of classic works (which you might see at Signature Theatre).

In Chelsea, the Atlantic Theater Company is known as a breeding ground for groundbreaking new plays and musicals; 2018 Tony winner The Band’s Visit first launched at the company’s Linda Gross Theater. In the East Village, the Public Theater has been a hub for the latest in avant-garde theater with its Under The Radar Festival, new musicals like Fun Home and a little show called Hamilton. There’s also Joe’s Pub, named for Public founder Joseph Papp, which is a great place to see newer talent in a cozy cabaret space that serves cocktail, snacks and full meals.

Across the East River, St. Ann’s Warehouse in Dumbo has a newish space on the Brooklyn waterfront. It showcases innovative productions like Taylor Mac’s A 24-Decade History of American Pop Music and a deconstructed Oklahoma! with a country twang (coming to Broadway in March). In downtown Brooklyn, the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) is known for its Next Wave Festival (which has showcased big names like Cate Blanchett in 2009’s A Streetcar Named Desire) and for nontraditional stagings (Broadway director Ivo van Hove has been a regular).

The City’s outdoor summer scene is dominated by Shakespeare. Foremost among those productions is Shakespeare in the Park, at Central Park’s Delacorte Theater. But don’t miss out on more experimental programs, like Shakespeare in the Parking Lot, that keep the Bard accessible.

New York Theatre Workshop. Photo: Joan Marcus

What Is Theater…

New York City’s downtown stage scene is known for boundary-breaking pieces that expand audiences’ conception of what theater can be. The East Village’s Fourth Arts Block, the name for 4th Street between Second Avenue and Bowery, hosts a number of venues that do just that. You’ll find the home of the legendary La MaMa, which started in the 1960s with radical productions that obliterated the fourth wall. There’s also the New York Theatre Workshop, which has been operating for more than 30 years and made its name with a ragtag musical called Rent. Next door’s Kraine Theater highlights DIY productions, especially one-person shows. With a downtown feel but a Midtown location, Upright Citizen Brigade, in Hell’s Kitchen, is given over mostly to improv and sketch comedy. Another place you might catch future SNL or Netflix stars is The PIT, in Gramercy.

Courtesy, TDF Costume Collection

The Story Behind the Drama

If you want to learn more about the history of theater and what happens behind the scenes, the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts is not to be missed. In addition to having an incredible collection of books and hosting occasional exhibits, it’s home to the Theatre on Film and Tape Archive, where you can watch most Broadway—and other theatrical—shows from 1970 on. Though the library is open to the public, the archive is technically for research purposes only; if you’re a student or a theater professional you should be good to go.

Another fun stop is the TDF Costume Collection Rental Program, at Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens. They have more than 80,000 items, all available for rent if you’re putting on a show yourself. But you can just come to browse the outfits and see some costume sketches by well-known designers.

Show Shopping

While you can pick up plenty of show posters, coffee mugs and other branded knick-knacks during your show’s intermission, the true theater nerd will always want more. The number one destination is One Shubert Alley, where you can find a wide range of posters and paraphernalia from shows past and present. Its sister store, Theatre Circle, has a little more space for scripts and sheet music. The Drama Book Shop, NYC's most beloved stop for plays and songs, will close in January 2019 with plans to reopen in a new location later in the year thanks to new owners, a team of theater notables including Lin Manuel-Miranda. Dancers in the know will want to visit the flagship Capezio store for all kinds of leotards, dance accessories and even tap shoes.

Green-Wood Cemetery. Photo: Tagger Yancey IV

See the Theatrical Sights

Given NYC’s rich theatrical history, there are plenty of places for a thespian pilgrimage. In the center of Times Square, there’s a statue of George M. Cohan— famous for penning “Give My Regards to Broadway” and many other classics. Also in the Theatre District, you can stop by Sardi’s to see the current stage stars alongside those from the past, with their iconic Al Hirschfeld caricatures hanging on the red walls. Joe Allen on Restaurant Row is probably the best boîte in Midtown for celebrity spotting. Don’t miss its collection of posters from famous flops—Moose Murders, anyone?

Head downtown to stroll the Playwrights’ Sidewalk at the Lucille Lortel Theatre in the West Village, where the names of more than 50 legendary dramatists—including Edward Albee and Arthur Miller—are embedded in the pavement. Also in the Village is the famed HB Studio, where Uta Hagen taught for decades and the likes of F. Murray Abraham and Debbie Allen got their start; you might stop by for a rehearsal or a reading of a work in progress. In Chelsea, the Stella Adler Studio is still teaching the same Method that Marlon Brando learned in the 1940s. It’s mainly a place for classes and auditions, but spring and fall student performances are open to the public. On Washington Square, you’ll find the Provincetown Playhouse, where Eugene O’Neill had his first productions in early 20th century. The renovated space puts on NYU student shows.

If you’re interested in seeing some theatrical legends' final curtain call, you’ll find Leonard Bernstein’s grave at Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery and Irving Berlin, among other performers, interred at the Bronx’s Woodlawn Cemetery.

Marie's Crisis. Photo: Phil Kline

NYC Is a Cabaret

To sing some show tunes yourself, consider a visit to Marie’s Crisis in the West Village. It’s a lively stand-up-piano bar where patrons are urged to “sing out, Louise!”—and where you may also spot Broadway stars like Darren Criss belting out their own favorites. Across Seventh Avenue is another Village classic, The Duplex, with its downstairs sing-along lounge and upstairs cabaret space. In the East Village, actual Cabaret star Alan Cumming has his own hangout called Club Cumming. The venue hosts a show tune night on Mondays and other funky cabaret-style events throughout the week. In Midtown, Don’t Tell Mama is a classic for pre- or postshow drinks and songs, plus a full lineup of cabaret acts in the backroom. Offering a more luxe experience, Café Carlyle is an upscale supper club that features an all-star roster of crooners.