New York City is home to one of the greatest theatre districts in the world: Broadway. But across the ocean from the Great White Way lies London’s West End, a world-class theatre scene on its own that's home to some of the greatest theatres and productions of all time. Throughout the history of these two powerhouse theatre districts, certain shows have managed to find success on both sides of the pond. Now, two institutions on each side of the Atlantic have joined together to celebrate these theatrical successes with a new exhibition, Curtain Up: Celebrating the Last 40 Years of Theatre in New York and London, which opened this week at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts.
The New York cast of A Chorus Line in 1976. On view in Curtain Up. Photo: Martha Swope / © The New York Public Library.
Arriving at the NYPL following its debut at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London earlier this year, Curtain Up! celebrates the plays and musicals that have found success with both British and American theatregoers over the past 40 years. Created to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the Tony Awards and the 40th anniversary of London’s Olivier Awards (which honor success on the West End), the new exhibition features transatlantic successes that range from A Chorus Line in the 1970s through to current hits like Matilda the Musical and Kinky Boots.
Drawing on the incredible resources of both the NYPL and V&A’s theatre collections, the exhibition consists of fascinating costumes, set models, video footage, and other artifacts showcasing the design and performances behind some of these hit shows, including everything from Roger DeBris’ Chrysler building dress in The Producers to a stage manager’s call sheet for Cats. Though clearly limited by the artifacts that were available to display, resulting in a far heavier emphasis on productions from the past 15 years, the exhibition showcases a strong variety of both iconic and unexpected musicals and plays. The most well-known musicals all make an appearance here—Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables, Wicked, The Lion King, and A Chorus Line, among others—but the exhibition also gives weight to lesser-known hits like Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia and Stephen Sondheim’s Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece Sunday in the Park with George.
By bringing together such a range of artifacts and productions, Curtain Up! is an exhibition that will appeal to a wide spectrum of visitors. Casual theatre fans who just want a quick overview will be able to recognize iconic shows and take in the variety of eye-catching costumes and designs on display in a short visit. But the more serious theatre fan will also find plenty to enjoy here, with fascinating objects on display to pore over and enough video footage to satisfy musical theatre devotees.
This video footage is perhaps one of the biggest highlights of the exhibition. The Library for the Performing Arts’ Theatre on Film and Tape Archive is one of the best theatrical resources in the world, featuring an incredible number of full recordings of Broadway shows from the 1970s through today—most of which cannot be seen anywhere else. By using this vast archive, along with the V&A’s own video collection, Curtain Up! is filled with valuable footage that most theatre fans are unlikely to see anywhere else. From the 2008 revival of Sunday in the Park with George and the 1994 revival of Carousel to footage of the original production of A Chorus Line in 1975, the exhibition makes moments from Broadway history available to the public in a way that only the NYPL truly could.
By bringing together these videos and artifacts from both sides of the pond, the exhibition solidifies the strong connection between these two theatre districts and the shows that demonstrate how similar they can be. But as someone who has lived in and been involved in theatre in both London and New York, I’ve learned that while these two theatre heartlands have their similarities, there are also vast differences between the two. Though many shows manage to find success on both sides of the Atlantic, there are also many that don’t, and both the economics and culture of theatre in each city has its own particular distinctions. The exhibition does hint at some of these differences—one caption notes the geographic difference between the two (the West End, unlike Broadway, is not defined by a particular geographic area) and that plays tend to do better than musicals in London (the reverse is true in New York), while another notes that the Olivier Awards, unlike the Tonys, also award dance and opera productions. But as a whole, the exhibition treats the two theatre worlds as being largely similar, and it feels like a bit of a missed opportunity to not make it more clear how each city’s theatre district is unique unto itself.
In the face of the artifacts and variety of shows on display, however, this feels like a minor quibble. Curtain Up! succeeds at what it sets out to do, bringing two major cultural institutions together to bridge the international divide and connect the US and UK theatre worlds using the shows that manage to conquer both. Much like the shows that it sets out to showcase, this collaborative exhibition is a transatlantic success.
Curtain Up: Celebrating the Last 40 Years of Theatre in New York and London will be on display at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts through June 30, 2017. For more information about the exhibition, visit curtainupexhibition.co.uk.