How do you narrow down 300 years of Broadway history? Fortunately, Ben West trained for the task.
When the founders of the new Museum of Broadway first approached West in 2019 about creating the narrative journey of the museum, which follows Broadway’s development from 1732 to the present day, West has already spent the past five years tracking the evolution of the American musical spent. archives across the country. A musical theater artist and historian, West’s book The American musical coming out later this year.
Co-founders Julie Boardman and Diane Nicoletti have already selected the game-changing shows to which the museum will devote room-sized exhibits – the Ziegfeld Follies, The Wizand Rent between them. West’s task was to write and design the “Timeline Walls” placed between the rooms, each wall capturing several decades of Broadway history through a mix of text, images and quotes. The walls have more than 750 assets, highlighting more than 500 productions and more than 100 artists.
West spoke with TheatreMania about chronicling a vast and complex history, appealing to seasoned theatergoers and newcomers alike, and the story of roller skating on Broadway.
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
There’s an endless amount of Broadway history contained within the task you’ve been handed, and I’m sure there’s a ton you couldn’t include. How did you go about narrowing it down?
On the musical front, the backbone of the museum is the evolution of the American musical. Within it there are three underlying themes: the American musical as a reflection of American consciousness; repositioning African-American and female artists as part of that evolution throughout, although they are often segregated or overlooked in traditional histories; and the role of outside influences such as vaudeville, minstrelsy, burlesque and nightclubs, and how these were also part of the definition of Broadway in the early 20th century. So I didn’t look at it in terms of narrowing down the history as much as presenting a comprehensive history by following those underlying themes and trends that occurred throughout.
The timeline walls strike a balance between acknowledging offensive works of the past, or institutional barriers artists faced, while still celebrating the achievements of the artists working under those circumstances. For example, there is a section on 1920s musicals with mostly black casts that highlights those performers, while also acknowledging that white performers wrote the shows. Can you talk about finding that balance throughout the museum?
For me, it stems from telling an accurate history. There are also, dare I say, overlooked white male artists that people passing through the museum won’t know by name, or won’t remember, who were an integral part of the theater’s evolution .
But specifically on the African-American and female front, it’s a difficult period. Even with something like minstrelsy, there’s this very interesting duality. Today, most individuals identify minstrelsy as blackface and grotesque, racist caricatures of African American life. This is the extent of our modern knowledge of minstrelsy, to a great extent. Which is accurate, and cannot be denied.
However, it is also very interesting as an art form because it is the foundation of the American musicals we enjoy today. Over the 1800s, minstrelsy developed comedy, it developed song, it developed dance on the American coast. It also opens doors for Black artists. And the art form itself is evolving. For example, when we get to the turn of the 20th century, many of the songs we have in minstrel shows are not inherently race songs. These are pop songs that can still be heard today.
For example, there is a great song called “You Made Me Love You,” by Jimmy Monaco and Joe McCarthy, that was used in a minstrel show in the 1910s. And that song has nothing to do with race. I mention this because this idea of complication and duality is something that continues through the turn of the 20th century.
There is also a perception that black performers in the early 1900s had to wear blackface to appear on stage. And this is not true, as an absolute rule. Similarly, there is a perception that black performers, especially in vaudeville, which was an important institution in the first three decades of the 20th century, were confined to a lower-class Black-specific circle, the TOBA [Theatre Owners Booking Association]. In fact, there were a number of black performers who performed alongside white performers in major vaudeville on Broadway. And many of these individuals did not perform in blackface.
It’s just a very complicated period, so for me it’s about trying to present an accurate history with a lot of grounding and a lot of context, and using documented articles, documented interviews, documented photographs to tell that story. And this is part of the reason why my research is focused on primary sources – newspaper articles, manuscripts, original documents, as opposed to reference books or documentaries.
How did you ensure that the timelines were accessible to visitors with little or no familiarity with Broadway, while also appealing to theater fans who walk in with a lot more knowledge?
For me it was about digestible bites. I used a main copy block that devotes two or three paragraphs to a specific theme or trend happening in that time period. But then in addition to that there are milestone boxes, which are a short paragraph about a specific moment, and there are quotes, and there are lyrics.
All the elements on the wall are meant to work together. For example, something can be addressed in a box that is not addressed in the main text. One of them happens on the wall of 1927, which has a box about concert dancing that is integrated into the legal stage. People definitely know Agnes de Mille and the ballet Oklahoma! But over a little over a decade before, there is a very active moment from concert dance to the musical stage. It’s not that Oklahoma! just happened out of nowhere. Showboat didn’t just happen, it’s not the first book musical. It is an artistic advance.
Another fun example is that in the 1983 wall there is a milestone case about roller skates. Because Starlight Express happen that year, but Starlight Express isn’t the first time we’ve seen roller skates on Broadway. So there is a box that goes back decades about the history of roller skating on Broadway.
Also on that wall is talk of a show that no one might have expected to be featured, which is Tango Argentinotalk about how amazingly successful that dance piece became, and the trend it was a part of, because after that we have a number of Spanish and Latin dance-driven shows emerging on Broadway.
So there is a lot to be exposed by people who already know a lot about musical theatre. And likewise, I am hopeful that I have presented the history in such a way that it is digestible for those who are just being introduced to it.
What you said about Oklahoma! emphasizes that Broadway rarely if ever discovers any new form, it only brings that form to a new level of public consciousness. When something “new” hits Broadway, it builds elsewhere.
Often there is a great interest in saying, “What is the first?” or “This is the first!” Like saying that Company or Cabaret was the first concept musical. But actually none of them are. First off, what is a “concept musical”, that’s a term I won’t support…
…I think that’s why there’s a note in the Company room after referring to it as a “concept musical” adding: “Although some say it’s more accurate to call it a …”
… a “narrative revue.” Yes, that one was me. [laughs] The only thing in the museum that I owned were the timeline walls, but I gave extensive feedback on many historical elements, so in some cases I wrote suggestions that ended up being used. Because it’s just more complicated than just saying “concept musical”! It’s just a bigger discussion.
Hopefully people will also see that what we think of as Broadway today is not actually what Broadway was. So vaudeville, for example, was Broadway! For a decade and a half, it was Broadway. Minstrelsy was literally on Broadway; in 1908 it opened the New York Theater on Broadway. Broadway is vast in terms of all the different forms it has taken.