Blue-Collar Broadway: The Craft and Industry of American Theater

Blue-Collar Broadway: The Craft and Industry of American Theater

Blue-Collar Broadway: The Craft and Industry of American Theater

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.

Timothy R. White begins his history of the theater industry with the dispersed pre-Broadway era, when components such as costumes, lights, and scenery were built and stored nationwide. Subsequently, the majority of backstage operations and storage were consolidated in New York City during what is now known as the golden age of musical theater. Toward the latter half of the twentieth century, decentralization and deindustrialization brought the emergence of nationally distributed regional theaters and performing arts centers. The resulting collapse of New York's theater craft economy rocked the theater district, leaving abandoned buildings and criminal activity in place of studios and workshops. But new technologies ushered in a new age of tourism and business for the area. The Broadway we know today is a global destination and a glittering showroom for vetted products.

Featuring case studies of iconic productions such as Oklahoma! (1943) and Evita (1979), and an exploration of the craftwork of radio, television, and film production around Times Square, Blue-Collar Broadway tells a rich story of the history of craft and industry in American theater nationwide. In addition, White examines the role of theater in urban deindustrialization and in the revival of downtowns throughout the Sunbelt.


It is said that good magicians never reveal their secrets. This has certainly been true on Broadway, where the virtuosos of stagecraft have built scenery, costumes, lights, and other components for decades but left few clues about their work. Theater historians have gathered some information about these physical components and the stagecraft of putting them together, but most studies of scenery, costumes, or lights focus on design rather than construction or implementation. Despite a rich scholarship of theater history, there exists scant published information about how and where American craftspeople actually built such products. Perhaps this is because no party is sufficiently interested in knowing such details. Why investigate the sources of lumber or the carpenter pay scales for Death of a Salesman when one could discuss Jo Mielziner’s clever scenic design? When Jule Styne’s rousing score, Jerome Robbins’s brilliant staging, or Ethel Merman’s clarion voice is available for study, why would anyone care about the costume fabric sources used for Gypsy? Such questions of craft often pale in comparison to more exciting questions of artistry.

Another reason not to dissect the construction and craft of Broadway is that this strips the Great White Way of its mystery and magic. As any good magician will explain, details of a hat or sleeve can ruin the allure of an elegant trick. So it goes on Broadway, where stage lighting is said to be best when not noticed, where scene shop foremen have held their secrets close for decades at a time, and where costume designers rarely discuss the small armies of seamstresses who bring their designs to fruition. Design has reigned supreme in most histories, and craftspeople have generally stayed out of the spotlight.

Had anyone developed a special curiosity about the people who hammered, painted, and sewed behind the scenes in the commercial theater . . .

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