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New York Public Library shares world's large archive of theatre recordings in new exhibit

Playwright David Henry Hwang with actors John Lone and Tzi Ma on the set of The Public Theater production of "The Dance and the Railroad" in 1981. (Martha Swope/Billy Rose Theatre Division)
Playwright David Henry Hwang with actors John Lone and Tzi Ma on the set of The Public Theater production of "The Dance and the Railroad" in 1981. (Martha Swope/Billy Rose Theatre Division)

The world’s largest collection of live theatre recordings turns 50 this year. To celebrate, the New York Public Library, which curates the massive collection, is welcoming guests to its new exhibit called “Focus Center Stage.”

Of the more than 8,000 titles featured in the collection, about 4,500 are recorded productions. Curator Patrick Hoffman says he wishes every production could be taped for the archives, but that it isn’t financially feasible.

“We select what we believe are the outstanding productions on Broadway, off-Broadway,” Hoffman says. “And we’ve also taped in regional theaters over the years, too.”

Composer Stephen Sondheim with actors Bernadette Peters and Mandy Patinkin at rehearsal for the Broadway production of “Sunday in the Park with George” in 1984. (Martha Swope/Billy Rose Theatre Division)

The first show taped for the collection was an off-Broadway rock musical from the ‘70s called “Golden Bat,” featuring an all-Asian cast. From there, the collection grew, with the addition of well-known productions like “Angels in America,” “A Chorus Line” and “Equus,” as well as shows by playwrights Lorraine Hansberry and Tennessee Williams.

Along with the collection’s Broadway productions are actor and director interviews and rare photographs. That footage includes a conversation between a giggly young Liza Minnelli and songwriting greats John Kander and Frank Ebb. Kander and Ebb joke about the first time they met Minnelli, teasing her about the jeans and “ratty black turtleneck” she wore at the time.

“It’s a pretty momentous meeting,” Hoffman says, “considering that Kander and Ebb really became Liza Minnelli’s signature songwriters. And they go on in the clip later to talk about the very first song that they played for her. It was ‘Maybe This Time.’ ”

The trio would go on to collaborate, with Kander and Ebb writing the music for “Cabaret,” and her return to Broadway in “Liza,” which included Minnelli’s iconic songs – “Maybe This Time,” “New” and “Ring that Bell.”

Other archival footage includes an interview with actor Christine Ebersole in front of a live audience. She speaks about auditioning for the role of Guinevere in the production of “Camelot” alongside Richard Burton as a terrified 25-year-old.

“He kissed me lightly on the cheek when he met me and we started to read,” Ebersole said. “You have the rational voice inside you that says, ‘Gosh, I’m standing across from Richard Burton reading with him.’ And then there’s the hysterical little girl that still continually lives inside, ‘Oh my God, it’s Richard Burton!’ ”

Costume designer Patricia Zipprodt with director and choreographer Bob Fosse at rehearsal discussing costume sketches for the Broadway musical “Big Deal” in 1986. (Martha Swope/Billy Rose Theatre Division)

Contemporary playwright Lynn Nottage, the only woman to win two Pulitzer Prizes for her work on Broadway, (for “Ruined” in 2009 and “Sweat” in 2017) is also included in the archival footage. Hoffman says Nottage’s inspiration to write plays came after seeing photographs of women entering a battered women’s shelter while she was working for Amnesty International. Nottage says the photos made her desperate to help.

“I saw these photographs and I knew that there was nothing we as an organization could do,” Nottage said. “But as a human being, I felt like I needed to respond to those images. And so I closed my door and I wrote a play.”

Hoffman explains that the exhibitions don’t contain full productions — instead, it’s a kind of “amuse-bouche,” where guests can view samples of the shows that have been recorded over the years.

“It’s really a wonderful taste of what the collection has. If there’s something in the show that piques your interest, then you can go upstairs to the Theater on Film and Tape Archive screening room on the third floor and sit down and watch that title,” Hoffman says. “We just ask that you have a New York Public Library card.”

“Focus Center Stage” runs through February at the Public Library’s Library for the Perming Arts at Lincoln Center.


Director and choreographer Michael Bennett with actors Jennifer Holliday and Sheryl Lee Ralph at rehearsal for the Broadway musical “Dreamgirls” in 1981. (Martha Swope/Billy Rose Theatre Division)

Baayork Lee in the original production of “A Chorus Line” in 1975. (Martha Swope/Billy Rose Theatre Division)

Playwright Wendy Wasserstein in 1992. (Martha Swope/Billy Rose Theatre Division)

Director and choreographer Tommy Tune on the set of the Broadway musical “Nine” in 1982. (Martha Swope/Billy Rose Theatre Division)

Karyn Miller-Medzon produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Peter O’Dowd. Jeannette Muhammad adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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