Author Q&A: Timothy White, Blue-Collar Broadway

15261Timothy White is the author of Blue-Collar Broadway: The Craft and Industry of American Theater. Behind the scenes of New York City's Great White Way, virtuosos of stagecraft have built the scenery, costumes, lights, and other components of theatrical productions for more than a hundred years. But like a good magician who refuses to reveal secrets, they have left few clues about their work. Blue-Collar Broadway recovers the history of those people and the neighborhood in which their undersung labor occurred.

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Penn Press: If you had to give one reason for the longstanding invisibility of the behind-the-scenes workers with regard to other published Broadway narratives, what would it be?

Timothy White: I think the number one reason would be the efforts made by theater artists themselves, including actors, directors, and producers, to maintain the mystique of their work. For many decades, theatergoers have been encouraged to look at stage shows as delightful concoctions of talent, made wonderful by the “magic” of the theater, rather than as the carefully crafted, meticulously built, and rigorously rehearsed products that they really were.

Have workers associated with other aspects of theater, such as scenery or costumes, actively attempted to keep craftspeople from being more noticeably appreciated?

There is an interesting dynamic between scenic and costume designers and the craftspeople who build components. Designers know that they will be judged on their artistry, and will become the public face of both successful and disappointing designs. They take more risk but stand to reap greater rewards. Craftspeople and shop owners go into a project knowing that they will be appreciated, but only within the industry and behind the scenes. They can be respected and appreciated for their skill, their efficiency, their business acumen, and yes, even their artistry, but not in any public way that would earn them a Tony Award.

What is it about New York City that allowed the theatricality of Broadway to manifest there instead of another metropolitan area?

New York producers from the early 20th century, such as the Shubert Brothers, did an excellent job of building up the Broadway brand through newspapers and other advertising. They did such a good job, in fact, that Americans have referred to the theatricality of a big, commercial show as “Broadway” for decades, even when the show is built and performed in another metropolis such as Seattle or Denver.

Why did Oklahoma!, of all musicals, allow for Broadway to become “a theater district” from morning to night?

Oklahoma! was built in an age when it was standard practice for every stitch and swatch of theatrical material to be collected in the Times Square district and crafted into a finished show. As the seamstresses, scenery painters, and other craftspeople for this show went to work, shopped for supplies, and visited each other’s shops to check in on a show’s design, they made the theater district thoroughly theatrical morning, noon, and night.

What do you feel caused Times Square to become a site of adult entertainment, specifically in the 1970s and 1980s? Do you feel that this activity denigrated “Broadway” as a theatrical entity?

The 1970s and 1980s were the decades when dozens of theater-related businesses in Times Square closed, consolidated, or left for the suburbs. In their wake, they left behind many empty or underutilized buildings interspersed among Broadway’s theaters. Although there were many complex causes for the local uptick of adult entertainment in the ’70s and ’80s, this fallow landscape was a major part of the equation. Having these adult activities in Times Square definitely denigrated the “Broadway” brand, since it was so deeply rooted in that district. Many suburbanites and tourists who wanted to continue seeing Broadway shows seem to have been flabbergasted by the in-your-face nature of adult Times Square.

Were there any famous or well-known individuals who were renowned for their ties to stagecraft?

John Barrymore was praised by contemporaries in the 1920s for being devoted to stagecraft, and for making sure that all of the finished components were just right for the show. An actress named Maude Adams became famous in 1931 for helping the Century Lighting company to invent a new light bulb, adjustable in brightness and color with just the turn of a knob.

How large a part did evolving technological processes play into the changes in Broadway shows?

Technology, particularly for lighting and scenery, played a huge role in propelling Broadway forward at several points. Towards the end of the 19th century, bright light bulbs replaced gas lamps in many Broadway theaters, wreaking havoc on the well-worn, recycled backdrops and costumes of the day. Most could not withstand the well-lit scrutiny of this new technology and had to be replaced by newly crafted components. Again in the 1980s and 1990s, the technology of automated scenery gliding smoothly across the stage brought about a revolution in what Broadway shows were supposed to look like, and also their cost.

Do Broadway audiences tend to prefer traditional craftwork over more advanced or flashy artistry, or do most not notice the difference?

I think audiences are smart about flashy, high-tech production gimmicks, and only prefer them if the show in which they appear is actually good. The great director and producer Harold Prince once quipped that he had “never seen a show that was made a hit by its scenery or costumes.” When traditional, old-school costume and painting craftwork appears on Broadway in an excellent show, I doubt that audiences miss the technology of bigger budget shows.

How involved were playwrights and/or actors with those who worked in stagecraft? Are there any standout examples?

There are many great examples of playwrights and actors taking an interest in stagecraft, and helping to elevate a show’s artistry. From what I’ve read, Arthur Miller’s collaborations with scenic designer Jo Mielziner for Death of a Salesman in 1949 were definitely a standout example. As Mielziner designed the scenery of Willy Loman’s home, documents suggest that Miller was heavily involved. The play was a tour de force of writing, but the built production itself was also very well received.

What do you think of Broadway as it stands today? Are there still remnants of what occurred in the 1970s and 1980s?

To assess Broadway today, I like Moss Hart’s characterization of a “fabulous invalid,” still kicking up her heels. There is much to celebrate in the crafting and writing of excellent shows in the 21st century, and there are places like the New 42nd Street Studios that are vital incubators of modern Broadway. The criminality and adult entertainment aspects of Times Square from the 1970s and 1980s have largely been erased from the district, and are only visible through select few buildings or rare incidents.

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Timothy R. White teaches history at New Jersey City University. Blue-Collar Broadway: The Craft and Industry of American Theater is available now.

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