Meet the "Blue-Collar" Workforce Who Keeps Broadway Going

News   Meet the "Blue-Collar" Workforce Who Keeps Broadway Going
“Blue-collar” and “Broadway” are not words you immediately associate with one another. While one brings up images of the grit, dirt and sweat that go along with challenging, hands-on jobs, the other has connotations of glitter and glamor.

But author Timothy R. White found plenty of blue-collar work in and around Broadway in his new book titled, yes, “Blue-Collar Broadway.” The tome focuses on the businesses and tradespeople behind the creation of the shows that adorn Times Square, the folks that rarely command the spotlight and get little credit beyond the lines of small type found within the Playbill.

“That tiny print was a gold mine for my project,” said White, who teaches urban history at New Jersey City University, and whose first book this is. “Anyone who builds anything on Broadway is in that tiny print.”

That includes set builders, costumers, wig makers, shoe makers, lighting hangers and just about every other niche theatre trade you can think of.

The research and writing that went into creating the book took White five years. Along the way, he interviewed such noted professionals as veteran costume designer William Ivey Long and Neil Mazzella at Hudson Scenic, the huge production design company located in Yonkers, NY.

Not that White minded the long hours of work. “I love Broadway,” he said. “It’s such a joyous industry.” He said he has been going to the theatre since he was young. “I’m a big Broadway buff. I always loved doing theatre and going to theatre.”

One might imagine that a book about the backstage artisans of Broadway would be focused on businesses located in the theatre district in midtown Manhattan. And, indeed, that would have been the case, had White written his book in 1950. But times and economics have changed.

“I think the work has been scattered to many corners in the United States and around the globe,” said White. “It’s been lifted out of Midtown and cast out across the country. They’re still working for Broadway, but they’re doing it upstate and elsewhere.”

The reasons for this are many. In the 1980s and 1990s, Broadway began to draw some of its attractions from productions that began at regional theatres. In those cases, the physical components of the shows were first made in cities other than New York. But the biggest motivating factor that led to the Midtown exodus of theatre workers was the rising cost of doing business in that area. Faced with escalating rents, companies decamped to other neighborhoods and other cities where they could do their work with lower overhead costs.

That migration led, in part, to the economic and cultural collapse of Times Square in the 1970s, according to White. The sort of small, walk-up buildings that had once been perfect for a Broadway costumer or wigmaker were now left vacant, rendering the many-roomed structures vulnerable to drug peddlers and pimps. “The were perfect places for crime to colonize,” argued White.

To illustrate the way Broadway-oriented businesses have emigrated from Manhattan to others cities, other states and, in some cases, other countries, White devoted two chapters to how two different musicals were put together: the original production of Oklahoma!, which opened on Broadway in 1943; and Evita, which premiered on Broadway in 1979.

“It really shows the incredible change in how Broadway shows were built,” he stated. “It was really a stark contrast.” Through his research, he pinpointed every laborer who worked on Oklahoma! “Every single one of them was in Midtown near Times Square.” That had changed by the time Evita was mounted nearly 40 years later. “For Evita, things were made in San Francisco, London, uptown New York. It was national, it was global; it was a much different production.”

To buttress these chapters, White interviewed first-hand participants in the two shows. For Oklahoma!, he spoke to original star Joan Roberts, who played Laurie. For Evita, he talked to original ensemble member Peter Merinos.

Merinos, he said, “gave a feeling for what it was like,” right down to the overused period dresses that would become “odorific” whenever the chorus girls would start to dance in them.

Despite the contributions of Roberts and Merinos, White chose not to focus too much on actors in his overview of “blue-collar Broadway,” even though performers work as hard as any backstage professional, and are often paid a working-glass salary.

“I definitely included them in the story,” he said. “But what I did was emphasize the interaction between the actors and the craft workers. For instance, the ease with which Celeste Holm got fitted with her costumes in Oklahoma!, as compared to 1999, where maybe the costumer an actor wants to talk with may be in another city.”

For his next book, White is contemplating an examination of the “value of the flop show” to the city’s economic health. And what value could a failed Broadway production possibly have?

“I’m finding a lot of people got paid prior to opening night,” he observed, “particularly the makers of the production components.”

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