A comprehensive academic study of the industries behind theatrical Broadway.
Historian Timothy R. White considers an unexamined intersection of urban history and theater history in Blue-Collar Broadway: The Craft and Industry of American Theater. Broadway as his subject is both a geographical area in New York City and a representation of theater in the United States; his focus is the crafts and trades that have supported Broadway in both its meanings over the years. He writes, “This de facto ‘factory,’ churning out shows for national consumption, has yet to be given its due in history books and is little understood as the mighty industrial district it truly was [in its heyday].”
Just as a magician never reveals his tricks, actors and producers have never been eager to divulge to audiences what goes on behind the scenes. But as White shows, for every singing, dancing actor who treads the boards, myriad supporting players are necessary. Stagecraft covers the craftspeople (carpenters, painters, seamstresses, milliners, costumers and designers) who produce the backdrops, painted scenery, furniture, drapes, props, costumes, wigs and makeup, working with a variety of raw materials, such as lumber, paint, fabric. Later in history, lighting and sound riggers and technicians joined this list (in fact, the arrival of electric lighting prompted improvements in costumes and scenery, since they could now be seen clearly). These craftspeople were then challenged by the ascension of alternate media (radio and, to a lesser extent, film and television) to find new roles.
Blue-Collar Broadway details these trades, their history and their products, and the industrialization and unionization that came with the concentration of theater in New York City’s Broadway district. White shows how stagecraft industries played crucial roles in history, from early American theater’s geographic dispersal to the Broadway heyday, and through a growth of regional theaters that decreased Broadway’s dominance. He also offers new explanations for patterns of crime and prostitution in Times Square’s recent past, using the context of theater craft.
White’s voice is academic and no-nonsense, and a reader purely interested in the most entertaining angles of his entertainment subject may find his writing a bit dry. But examinations of specific plays (Evita, Oklahoma!) brighten the mood, and White is not without a certain subdued humor. Certainly any fan of theater history, economics, the patterns of urban New York City or general urban history will find his meticulous research stimulating. Blue-Collar Broadway is appealing for its sincere and thorough attention to a key, little-known industry.
This review originally ran in the December 8, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.