Friday, May 9, 2008

A noteworthy exhibit

Even though the name of my blog is Gratuitous Violins, I'm not a very musically inclined person. I love music, don't get me wrong. I've just never played an instrument and I'm far from being an audiophile.

But I am interested in the creative process - all of the musty old typewritten sheets and handwritten notes and sketches that writers and musicians and artists probably never realized would someday be considered history.

So today, I'm at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, at Lincoln Center, on a very rainy day in Manhattan. I just finished walking through an exhibit called Writing to Character: Songrwiters and the Tony Awards.

Now, I'm taking advantage of the library's free Internet access. Yes, all I had to do was show my driver's license, and I could stay connected for 45 minutes. Then, because no one was waiting to use the terminal, they gave me another 15 minutes. Truly, one of the best bargains in New York City.

Anyway, I digress. The exhibit is a a really interesting look at what went into creating some of Broadway's most famous musicals, and what changed from the beginning of the writing process to opening night.

(Although I think I went through the exhibit backward. I started at an old black and white photograph of people lined up on the sidewalk in front of the Imperial Theatre waiting to buy tickets to a show - in pre-Internet days. It's a scene that's almost kind of quaint now.)

The displays basically take you through the process of writing a musical - from the initial idea, to the sheet music, to handwritten notes on the margins of typed up lyrics and pages of dialogue, to sketches for sets and costumes, to the posters, to opening-night gifts and invitations to opening-night parties and congratulatory telegrams. (I guess people send each other congratulatory opening night e-mails today).

You can see some of the sketches for costumes for Fiddler on the Roof, some of the late Jonathan Larson's notes on the characters in Rent, and the flier for the musical before it moved to Broadway, instructions for how the dancers should act in the song "One" from A Chorus Line, and sheet music from Sweeney Todd.

There's also a long memo from producer Leland Hayward to Richard Rodgers about The Sound of Music. (He seemed very fixated on Mary Martin's entrance). One thing I want to point out: Parade composer Jason Robert Brown has very tiny handwriting.

You have to wonder whether an exhibit like this will even be possible 25 years from now. I guess some things, like music, will always be written out. But as we move more and more to a paperless society, will there be scripts with notes in the margins to save anymore?

After the exhibit, I walked across the street from Lincoln Center for lunch at Fiorello's, a terrific recommendation from Bill, the theatergoing buddy of Jan, from Broadway & Me. I had an extremely filling and delicious meal of spaghetti with chunks of grilled yellowfin tuna, tomatoes, peppers and mushrooms, cooked with an abundance of olive oil.

Then, since it was still pouring rain, I walked back to Lincoln Center to see if I could take the Metropolitan Opera tour. Normally, you have to reserve in advance, but if they have space, they'll fit you in. Five of us were waiting, and we all got a spot.

Now, I've never actually seen an opera, but I have read a lot about them through Sarah at Adventures in the Endless Pursuit of Entertainment. She makes a night at the opera sound very thrilling.

I think this was the best backstage tour I've taken in New York City. It's $15, lasts 90 minutes, and it's worthwhile, even if you've never seen an opera. The breadth of what they show you is just amazing.

Our guide was a retired New Jersey judge and opera lover named Gerry. We pretty much went everywhere - dressing rooms, rehearsal rooms, costume shop, the carpentry and metalworking shops, walked backstage. We even stood outside one of the rooms where a rehearsal was going on and listened for a few minutes.

Then, at the end, we walked into the auditorium itself. Wow, what a magnificent place, with five balconies, wood paneling, and plush red velour seats. I'd definitely love to come back and see something there.


Sarah B. Roberts said...

The Met Guild tour IS THE BEST TOUR IN THE WORLD. I hope they let you touch the costumes and look at the labels of names who have worn them before - that's my favorite part. I'll take you with me to a night at the opera next season.

And now regarding "an old black and white photograph of people lined up on the sidewalk in front of the Imperial Theatre waiting to buy tickets to a show - in pre-Internet days. It's a scene that's almost kind of quaint now.)" - you'd be surprised. Since I work at 47th & 6th, I'm often in the theatre district at lunch time. There are always people coming and going from box offices. The day I stood on line for opening night Gypsy tickets, I had to wait over a half hour at the box office there were so many people waiting to buy.

On that note, I have never been to the Met Opera box office when there hasn't been a line on any given day at any given hour.

Bob Kosovsky said...

I agree that the backstage tour of the Met Opera is a fabulous experience - it's like visiting an entire city.

And queuing up outside a theater is not so quaint as you might think. The day after Spamalot opened I tried to get tickets - and the line stretched for nearly the entire block.

Esther said...

You know, I guess because I don't live in New York, I just figured everyone bought their tickets online nowadays. But I stand corrected!

And you're both right, the Met tour was fantastic. It is like an entire city. A lot of backstage tours charge much, much more and don't show you a fraction of what you see on the Met tour. I felt kind of like an interloper, since I was obviously the only one on the tour who'd never been to an opera! But thanks to Sarah's posts, I felt like knew a little bit. At least I recognized some of the names!