In theater, history has always been important. Live performance leaves little behind it but memory and lore. So Broadway, in a sense, is always a ghost town; at night, when theaters are dark, electric bulbs set on stands—known as ghost lights—are placed center stage to placate the spirits that are said to haunt its houses. These lights are the conceptual flip side of the ones more often associated with Broadway: The flashing lights of theater marquees, which shine out the message of the new and the now.
The ambitious Museum of Broadway, which opened this week, celebrates both kinds of light. Fittingly, it is situated right between Broadway’s oldest venue, the Lyceum Theatre, and one of the district’s newest hotels, the Hyatt Centric Times Square. Its three floors of displays, which take about 90 minutes to navigate, include beautiful costumes, illuminating documents and photographs, and tasty bursts of detail; other parts of it seem aimed at Broadway newcomers and tourists, including tributes to well-known shows and immersive spaces that call out for selfies. (It also includes a space for temporary exhibits, where sketches from decades of work by the peerless Broadway illustrator Al Hirshfeld are currently on view.)
If you’re a theater fan, it’s a must-attend: You will love some of it, get annoyed by some of it and argue about some of it with your friends—and that, after all, is a Broadway tradition, too.
Here are five things to do when you visit the Broadway Museum.
1. Marvel at the costumes
Of the historical items on display at the Museum of Broadway, none as are thrilling as the original costumes. Designed to be seen from afar, they are even more spectacular up close, where you can gape at the colorful feathers and flowers that once adorned showgirls in the Ziegfeld Follies and gasp at an especially bizarre get-up from Cats. (Trust me: Even by the standard of Cats, it is weird.) Red is the dominant color, from the iconic frock from Annie and Cassie's rehearsal togs from A Chorus Line to the magnificently ornate gown worn by Bernadette Peters in Hello, Dolly!
2. Dive into some favorite shows
The Museum of Broadway delivers healthy doses of fan service in sections devoted to particular musicals of note. The West Side Story room is a highlight—it includes original notes from the creation of the show, as well as a video panel with silhouetted dancers illustrating some of Jerome Robbins's original choreography—as is the Phantom zone, which features gorgeously lavish costumes, a creepy monkey prop and a hanging shower of crystal strings that reveals, from a certain angle, a floating image of the Phantom's mask. (Less effective: an odd tribute to the set of the most recent revival of Company.)
3. Read up on Broadway history
The hallways of the museum are lined with panels of historical information, ordered chronologically: collages of vintage photos, show posters and cast album covers buttressed by text that explores the state of the art from the 18th century to today. In a museum that focuses mostly on musicals, this is where plays get at least a little bit of attention, and the early timeline laudably includes the work of Black artists who were working on a segregated track; individual figures of import are occasionally singled out for special panels. The emphasis throughout is on writers, directors and producers, not performers. This is the museum at its wonkiest, in both the American and British senses of the term: Theater geeks will enjoy the inclusion of deep-cut rarities, curiosities and flops; but also, several of the curatorial decisions seem quizzically off-balance. (Some of the wall’s time periods span up to 20 years; others cover only two or three.) But the combination of the familiar and the obscure helps ensure that all of the museum’s visitors, from hardcore fans to newbies, will come away having learned a few things.
4. Take a peek behind the curtain
One of the most visually striking displays at the Museum is a scale reproduction of the Gershwin Theatre, where Wicked is playing, that allows you to see it from backstage as well as from the front. Even better, though, is the section of the museum that follows one floor down from there: Dedicated to the behind-the-scenes side of Broadway—costume and set design, lighting, sound, orchestrations—this area is a treasure trove of original sketches, plans and models that provide fascinating glimpses into the creative artistry that goes into what we see onstage.
5. Yes, pose for selfies
You're not above this. Don't pretend you're above this. The Museum of Broadway has set up numerous immersive spots that are ripe for Instagram portraiture: Doc's drugstore from West Side Story, Max's office from The Producers, a junky art sculpture from Rent. Not all of the conceptual display ideas work out: The memorial room for artists lost to AIDS is moving, but a magnetic crossword puzzle meant to be filled with the names of Sondheim musicals is just a mess of letters. (And although they’re a common go-to for musicals these days, do we really need a whole room with a sculpture of a jukebox on a pedestal?) The best Insta opportunities, for my money, are the simplest interactive ones: Let your hair down on the Hair swing! Multiply yourself in a hall of mirrors at the Chorus Line display! There's no shame in making yourself the star of the show for a moment.
The Museum of Broadway is located at 145 W 45th St, between Sixth and Seventh Aves, and is open from 10am to 10pm daily. Tickets cost $39–$49 and can be purchased here.