Explore Theater’s Best at NYPL’s “Curtain Up” Exhibit


“Curtain Up” is on view until June 2017. (ERIN O’FLYNN/ THE OBSERVER)


For many Fordham College at Lincoln Center (FCLC) students, the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts (NYPL) offers a change of scenery when they get a little tired of studying in Quinn Library.  Students walk through the revolving doors, turn right and go upstairs to do homework in the midst of quiet, book-filled aisles. This month, however, there is a reason not to go straight to the second floor and get to work. The library is showing “Curtain Up: Celebrating that Last 40 Years of Theatre in New York and London.” Entry is free, and no library card is required. The exhibition, featuring artifacts from some of the most iconic shows to hit New York and London, boasts materials from all departments of the theatre—fashion, literature and tech enthusiasts alike will find the short walk across Lincoln Center well worth it. 

Upon entering the exhibit—located at the back of the first floor of the building—one is faced with a wall of brightly lit screens displaying prominent artists and stars (such as Lin-Manuel Miranda and Sutton Foster) discussing their work on the red carpets of Tony and Olivier award-winning shows. These two awards, the most prestigious in New York and London theatre, respectively, decorate the records of almost all of the shows represented. 

Deeper in the library, observers find themselves in a gallery bursting with theatre history. Mannequins loom into view, arrayed in costumes from the original 1997 production of “The Lion King.”  The sun from the show, made out of 30 ribs of Aluminium and silk, hangs on the wall.  Other items on display include the dress Helen Mirren wore to play Queen Elizabeth in the 2013 production of “The Audience,”  a pair of feathered breeches from the 2001 ballet/drama “Swan Lake” and the quintessential red boots from the 2013 Tony-Award winning musical “Kinky Boots.”  Visitors might want to make a habit of looking up while viewing the exhibit; the library makes use of a smaller gallery space by suspending Mary Poppins’ costume from the 2004 musical “Mary Poppins” and Idina Menzel’s Elphaba costume from the original 2003 production of “Wicked.” Both “Wicked” and “Mary Poppins” won Tony awards for their costuming.

A second room features another selection of history-making artifacts; most notable are the Phantom’s mask and masquerade costume from the 1986 production of “The Phantom of the Opera.” This production was the first to implement two now-iconic moments: the falling chandelier and the boat ride across an underground lake. Michael Crawford won the Tony for his portrayal of the Phantom, and the musical, which is still playing at the Majestic Theatre, has gone on to become the longest running show on Broadway. A letter from Harold Prince, an American producer and director, to Andrew Lloyd Webber, the composer of “Phantom,” is also shown, concerning another of Webber’s celebrated musicals, “Evita.”

This isn’t the only letter worth looking at in the exhibit—valuable documents are all around the gallery, including Ian McKellen’s note to his understudy in 1980’s “Amadeus,” the original design for the famous “Les Miserables” barricades and the script and rehearsal notes from the first 1993 production of “Angels in America.” 

For the technically-minded, NYPL has curated a collection of gorgeous, intricately detailed set models. Among them are 2007’s “War Horse,” 2008’s “In the Heights” (featuring Lin Manuel Miranda), 1994’s “Carousel” and 2012’s “Matilda.” In the corner stands the sound design booth from “Hairspray.” Each of the five shows are Tony award recipients—“Hairspray” has garnered the most with eight Tony wins in 2003. With screens around the room showing video clips straight from the stage, visitors can see why the shows are so acclaimed.

As visitors exit the exhibit, they will find vintage Olivier and Tony awards: a physical representation of everything the many shows have accomplished. “Curtain Up” will be on display until June 2017 at the NYPL. Next time you’re studying upstairs, take a break to experience 40 years of theater history gathered in one place.