The Museum of Broadway, a new Times Square attraction, chronicles the colorful history of New York theatrical fare and provides peeks behind the scenes
Until I entered the Jukebox Musicals gallery at the Museum of Broadway, I didn’t know what a jukebox musical was. There I learned the meaning of the term, and, thanks to a video showing current jukebox musicals on Broadway, realized that what I was about to see that very night at the Broadhurst Theatre—“A Beautiful Noise, the Neil Diamond Musical”—was just such a show.
Catching a Broadway performance, either a musical or straight play, is one of the top reasons to visit New York City. And now, with the recent opening of the sparkling, interactive Museum of Broadway in Times Square, visitors can immerse themselves in the lore of the world’s most fabled theater scene as told through costumes, props and other artifacts, plus photos, video clips, text and show tunes playing in the background.
The museum, which debuted in November 2022, appeals not only to theater buffs but to anyone interested in tapping into the cultural history of New York or the energy generated by the bright lights of Times Square. It is located on West 45th Street, next to the Lyceum Theatre.
Broadway comprises 41 theaters within a 25-block radius of Times Square. A total of 39 shows will be offered in what is being hailed as a vibrant 2023 spring season.
Museum-goers start in Playbill Hall, which spotlights each show currently playing, everything from “A Beautiful Noise” to a revival of “Funny Girl.” Next, a five-minute, big-screen movie documents how New York theater evolved from a single playhouse in lower Manhattan three centuries ago to the present Times Square theater district in midtown.
Memorable Musicals Take Center Stage at the Museum of Broadway
Jukebox musicals, I found out from the museum exhibit, are productions featuring a set of well-known popular songs rather than an original score. Prime examples are “Jersey Boys,” “Mamma Mia!,” “Rock of Ages,” “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical,” “Million Dollar Quartet” and “Moulin Rouge.” Such shows are often based on the life of an entertainer, like “A Beautiful Noise” (Neil Diamond) and “MJ the Musical” (Michael Jackson). Strains of “This Joint is Jumpin’” (from “Ain’t Misbehavin,” a collection of songs written or recorded by Fats Waller) wafted through the gallery during my visit.
Inevitably, folks find themselves humming along while perusing exhibits on their favorite shows, whether it’s “Phantom of the Opera,” “West Side Story,” “Hello, Dolly!” or Disney’s “The Lion King.” Or maybe you’re a fan of “Cats,” “Rent,” “Cabaret,” “A Chorus Line” or “Fiddler on the Roof.” Exhibits throughout the second and third floors, following a timeline that starts in 1732 and continues into the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries, focus on trends of the period while highlighting hundreds of shows and people involved in their production. It seems there’s something on every classic musical you can think of.
The Rodgers & Hammerstein gallery pays homage to the team’s first great musical, “Oklahoma!” (1943), in a farmyard set complete with hay bales and a fake cornfield. There’s a video interview with the show’s choreographer, Agnes de Mille, and hand-rotated information blocks provide facts on other R&H musicals, including “The Sound of Music,” “The King and I” and “South Pacific.”
Museum of Broadway Spotlights the Early Days of New York Theater
In displays covering the early 1900s, guests get a look at two giants of the American stage—George M. Cohan and Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. It was Cohan (honored by a statue in Times Square) who wrote the lyrics to the memorable songs “Give My Regards to Broadway” (from “Little Johnny Jones,” 1904), “You’re a Grand Old Flag” and “The Yankee Doodle Boy.” He was not only a lyricist and composer but a producer, director, choreographer and entertainer as well.
Ziegfeld staged the Ziegfeld Follies, a series of lavish musical/comedy revues best known for chorus girls in glitzy costumes. On display in the Ziegfeld room are gold shoes, a gold purse, tiara and other rare items worn by Follies dancers—all discovered in 42nd Street’s New Amsterdam Theatre when Disney Theatrical Productions bought it in the 1990s.
Indeed, the Museum of Broadway is rich in artifacts. Among treasures you’ll run across:
- The iconic red dress worn by the little orphan star of “Annie”
- Colonial-style costumes from “Hamilton”
- A pair of sparkly red boots worn in “Kinky Boots”
- Aladdin’s lamp from “Aladdin”
- Props and costumes from “Hair”
- Jewelry from “Moulin Rouge the Musical”
- An “Evita” wig worn by Patti LuPone
- A gown worn by Bernadette Peters in “Hello, Dolly!”
- Tickets and programs to Tony Awards ceremonies, along with a Tony statuette.
Visitors to the Museum of Broadway who remember the hippie era and counterculture revolution recall with fondness (or disgust) the first rock musical, “Hair,” which made it to Broadway in 1968 (after an off-Broadway debut). Delivering a message of peace and love, the show caused controversy with sexually charged lyrics, profanity and a scene where the entire cast came on stage nude. “Hair” paved the way for other rock musicals, notably “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Godspell.” Its most memorable songs: “Aquarius/ Let the Sun Shine In” and the title song “Hair.”
In the “Hair” exhibit, guests can pose as “flower children” on a swing. Other Instagram-able photo ops at the Museum of Broadway also include sitting—on a stool at Doc’s Drug Store in the “West Side Story” room and on a cabaret chair in the “Cabaret” exhibit.
After the timeline galleries, guests get a detailed look at what goes on behind the scenes in “The Making of a Broadway Show,” a room that features text and short video interviews with backstage specialists who do the sound, lighting, costuming and other jobs.
Broadway Musical Pays Tribute to Neil Diamond
A few hours after learning what a jukebox musical was, I witnessed a great one from Row 6 of the Broadhurst Theatre, listening to the hits of Neil Diamond performed by Will Swenson. Easily imaginable as the real guy, the guitar-strumming actor/singer starring in “A Beautiful Noise, the Neil Diamond Musical” certainly has captured the movements and the voice, a voice that has been described as “gravel wrapped in velvet.”
Just as the sequin-outfitted rock superstar electrified concert audiences over five decades, Swenson and the ensemble of singers and dancers sweep the theater crowd into frenzied euphoria. Judging by the whoops and hollers in the room, ticket holders obviously feel the presence of Neil himself. The woman next to me belted out a shrill “Woo-hoo!” after every number.
Neil Diamond Hit Songs Captivate Fans
For many of us in the audience, the songs formed part of the soundtrack of our lives. Song after song, I was struck with the sheer number of hits that Neil Diamond wrote and performed over the years, and we heard a lot of them that night, some crooned by other members of the “Beautiful Noise” cast. The show started with the heart-pumping “America” (from the 1980 movie “The Jazz Singer,” starring Diamond in his acting debut), and the first act ended with a rousing sing-along to “Sweet Caroline” (released in 1969). The evening’s repertoire also included:
- “Cherry, Cherry” (1966)
- “Solitary Man” (1966)
- “Brooklyn Roads” (1967)
- “Shilo” (1967)
- “Thank the Lord for the Night Time” (1967)
- “Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show” (1969)
- “Holly Holy” (1969)
- “Cracklin’ Rosie” (1970)
- “Soolaimon” (1970)
- “Song Sung Blue” (1972)
- “A Beautiful Noise” (1976)
- “Forever in Blue Jeans” (1978)
- “September Morn”(1979)
- “Play Me” (2002)
- “Pretty Amazing Grace” (2008) and many more
A member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Songwriters Hall of Fame, Diamond has sold more than 140 million albums worldwide. The Grammy Award winner charted 39 Top 40 singles and 16 Top 10 albums.
The catalog of hits was quite an accomplishment for a Jewish boy from humble beginnings in Brooklyn, a city borough just a subway ride away from the Broadway theater where fans today pay him tribute.
Joyous Broadway Musical Has a Serious Side
Most in the audience are there to hear favorite tunes and sort of relive their own lives, but “A Beautiful Noise” also has a dramatic element woven in. Besides Swenson as “Neil Then,” another actor (Mark Jacoby) plays “Neil Now,” an elderly man looking back at his life in sessions with a therapist.
Poignant scenes explore Neil’s early struggles as a songwriter trying to make it in the New York music world, his two failed marriages and lost connections to his children, and the inner conflict of feeling famous and adored but restless and unsatisfied. He expresses regret in sacrificing family life for a career of songwriting, recording and touring. Perhaps the show’s most touching number is “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers” (1977), a duet done with the gorgeous Robyn Hurder, who plays Neil’s second wife, Marcia Murphey.
Neil Diamond’s Heartfelt Message to Broadway Audiences
Shortly after completing the second leg of his 50th Anniversary World Tour, Neil Diamond announced his retirement in January 2018. In a letter to audience members about the making of “A Beautiful Noise, the Neil Diamond Musical,” the 82-year-old artist says, “It wasn’t until the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease prematurely ended my touring career that I seriously considered the prospect” (of a Broadway musical). He went for guidance to friend and colleague Bob Gaudio, a one-time member of the Four Seasons who co-produced and orchestrated the music for both the “Jersey Boys” jukebox musical, which made its Broadway debut in 2005, and the 2014 film version. Gaudio is a co-producer/orchestrator of “A Beautiful Noise.”
As for framing the show in the context of therapy sessions, the letter continues, “I loved the idea and never shied away from talking about my years of psychoanalysis. Sitting in the theater and watching the show has itself been therapeutic: reliving some joyful and some painful parts of my life, wishing perhaps that if I could only make a few edits in the script, it would change some of the reality of what I was seeing. But in the end, coming to terms with my life and accepting it has somehow come full circle.”
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By Randy Mink, Senior Editor
Lead Photo – Will Swenson plays the title role in the Broadway show “A Beautiful Noise, the Neil Diamond Musical.”