Amazing Behind The Scenes Photos of Historic Broadway Shows

Amazing Behind The Scenes Photos of Historic Broadway Shows

Aimee Heidelberg - January 15, 2024

At just about any moment, there is a theater, somewhere, staging a performance of a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. From high school theater productions of The Sound of Music to multi-million dollar, modernized stagings of Daniel Fish’s Oklahoma! in 2019 in London’s West End, the musicals of Richard Rodgers and his lyricist partners Lorenz Hard and later Oscar Hammerstein have left a multigenerational legacy. They changed how the world sees musical theater.

Prior to Rodgers and his partners, musical theater focused on variety shows and vaudeville, or Ziegfeld Follies spectaculars, quick entertainment in short bursts. Rodgers and Hammerstein turned musical theater into laugh-out-loud comedy, tear-jerking drama, serious dance with complex staging, all wrapped into a single plot line with supporting story lines that come together in the end. And in a rare form of transparency, Rodgers allowed cameras behind the scenes to capture the production from development to showtime.

Amazing Behind The Scenes Photos of Historic Broadway Shows
Irving Berlin (at Piano), Eddie Cantor, Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr., And Sammy Lee The Ziegfeld Follies Of 1927. Ny Public Library, (1927, No Known Restrictions).

Capturing Broadway’s Backstage

The magical world onstage belies the demanding work to create a theater production. This photograph is a unique glimpse at the work behind the show before Rodgers opened the backstage to photographers. It shows composer Irving Berlin at the piano, practicing for the 1927 Ziegfeld Follies. Actor and comedian Eddie Cantor (left), producer Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. (middle, behind Berlin), and choreographer Sammy Lee (leaning on piano) surround Berlin.

They are joined by the Ziegfeld Girls, the popular dance troupe at the heart of the Follies. Ziegfeld Follies, a lavish Broadway variety show, featured music, dancing, comedy, and skits. Along with the talented Ziegfeld Girls dancers, the show presented some of the biggest entertainers of the time. The Follies counted W.C. Fields, Eddie Cantor, Fanny Brice, Josephine Baker, and Buddy Ebsen among its alumni over its annual run in the early 1900s.

Amazing Behind The Scenes Photos of Historic Broadway Shows
Richard Rodgers at rehearsal for The Sound of Music. New York Public Library (1959, no known restrictions).

Richard Rodgers Collection

The New York Public Library acquired papers and photographs from the archives of Richard Rodgers, one of Broadway’s most successful and prolific musical theater composers. His collaborations with Lorenz Hart and Oscar Hammerstein helped shape musical theater in the early to mid-1900s with shows still produced on a regular rotation today. Their songs still ring out from thousands of stages, from local theaters to revivals in some of the grandest theaters in the world.

Rodgers and his partners created prolific shows like Oklahoma! South Pacific, The King and I, Flower Drum Song, and the ubiquitous The Sound of Music. The photographs from the Rodgers collection, and others who captured the behind-the-scenes moments, lift the curtain for a peek at the massive effort to put together a spectacular show. They show Rodgers and his colleagues engaged in the business and labor of entertainment.

 

Amazing Behind The Scenes Photos of Historic Broadway Shows
Richard Rodgers at rehearsal for The Sound of Music. New York Public Library (1959, no known restrictions).

Creating a Show

This image shows Richard Rodgers and his partner Lorenz Hart collaborating with producer Dwight Deere Wiman on the music for By Jupiter. Unless producers are putting on a variety show or a jukebox musical where the show is based on pre-existing songs, shows will start with a story that unfolds over multiple acts, interspersed with songs audience members continue to hum long after the show is over.

While some shows come from original ideas, many are loosely based on existing material. Some of the most popular musicals are based on existing enduring stories. My Fair Lady retells the Pygmalion myth. Into the Woods combines fairy tales into a musical comedy. The Sound of Music is one of the best-known musicals and based on a real family under European political strife during Nazi rule in 1930s Austria. And Richard Rodgers is one of the best-known composers of these musicals.

Amazing Behind The Scenes Photos of Historic Broadway Shows
Richard Rodgers and Larry Hart. NY Public Library, Billy Rose Theater Collection, no known restrictions.

Music by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart

Richard Rodgers, born in New York City in 1902, started composing as a young boy, creating songs for amateur shows put on by his boy’s club. Rodgers attended Columbia University, where he met Lorenz Hart, a lyricist, in 1918. They quickly formed a rapport, and the two scored the 1919 varsity show, Fly with Me. Rodgers left Columbia to study music at the Institute of Musical Art (later called Julliard) and continued collaborating with Hart.

Their first collaborative success, the musical revue Garrick Gaieties, hit theaters in 1925. Rodgers and Hart were soon putting out a remarkable two shows each season. Their partnership led to a new form of musical theater, where serious dance, such as ballet and jazz, became integral parts of the show. The two produced some of the most familiar tunes of American songwriting, ‘My Funny Valentine’ and ‘The Lady is a Tramp.’

Amazing Behind The Scenes Photos of Historic Broadway Shows
By Jupiter, by Richard Rogers And Lorenz Hart (1942) Richard Rogers Collection, NY Public Library, No Known Restrictions.

Broadway’s By Jupiter

In 1942, Rodgers and Hart composed By Jupiter, their longest running production with 427 performances in its initial run. The show is a musical comedy set in ancient Greece. Greek warriors travel to the land of the Amazons to capture the Sacred Girdle of Diana for Jupiter, king of the gods, from Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons.

Captured by her tribe, the Greeks find that gender roles are reversed in their land. Women rule the land, fight in battle and are baffled by the idea of equality for men. Amazon men tend the household and children, knit, and buy new hats. Despite their different lifestyles, love blossoms between Antiope and Theseus and the Amazons and Greeks learn about love. In the end, the Queen’s husband Sapiens, in possession of the girdle, and the Amazons agree to hand it over to the Greeks.

Amazing Behind The Scenes Photos of Historic Broadway Shows
Lorenz Hart (l), Richard Rodgers (on piano) And Pianist Margot Hopkins (background) rehearse By Jupiter. New York Public Library Richard Rodgers Papers (1942, No Known Restrictions).

Curtains fall on Rodgers and Hart

As By Jupiter went into production, Hart and Rodgers frequently conflicted. Hart suffered from depression and alcoholism and would disappear for weeks. By 1943, the problems became too much for Rodgers. In 1942, Rodgers started composing a musical version of Lynn Riggs’ play Green Grow the Lilacs, which they crafted into the Broadway classic, Oklahoma! Hart’s declining condition led Rodgers to work with lyricist Oscar Hammerstein, albeit with Hart’s blessing.

Hart claimed he couldn’t connect with the rural setting for the show, but attended the opening and warmly congratulated the pair. As Rodgers and Hammerstein found wild success, Hart suffered. His beloved mother passed away in early 1943. After a night of heavy drinking, Hart was found in a New York hotel room, violently ill with the pneumonia. Lorenz Hart, Rodger’s friend and collaborator since his teens, passed away in 1943, the result of the alcohol and pneumonia.

Amazing Behind The Scenes Photos of Historic Broadway Shows
Oscar Hammerstein, c. 1940. Public domain.

Additional Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein

 

As By Jupiter started production, Rodgers approached Oscar Hammerstein to collaborate on Oklahoma! centering on the fight between cowboys and farmers in rural Oklahoma. Hammerstein told him that if Hart could and would do the work, Rodgers should stay with his longtime partner, as it would kill Hart to be left out. But if Hart couldn’t work, Hammerstein was willing to step in. Hammerstein had been an operetta lyricist for most of his career to that point, but when he met Rodgers he quickly adapted to the comedic musical form.

The show proved a fast success, as were many of their subsequent works, such as a 1957 television production of Cinderella, Carousel (1945), Me and Juliet (1953), among other, even more famous works. Over their long-term partnership, the two would earn thirty-four Tony Awards, fifteen Academy Awards, and multiple other honors, including Pulitzer prices, Grammy awards, and Emmy awards.

Amazing Behind The Scenes Photos of Historic Broadway Shows
Young men wait to audition for The King and I. NY Public Library, Billy Rose Theater division (c. 1951, no known restrictions).

Broadway Audition Calls

When a Richard Rodgers musical is about to go into production, it brings out swarms of hopeful actors. This image shows the multitudes of boys and young men vying for a role in the original run of The King and I, first produced at the St. James Theater in New York in 1951. The line extends from the entrance door, outside the theater, and down the block. The group gathered to wait their turn on stage are a diverse bunch.

Some dress with businesslike seriousness in their best suits and ties, others go for a more casual look with a sports jacket and collar unbuttoned. One saucy-looking boy wears a casual jacket and stands in an informal pose. Some look excited to go in, others look bored, yet others look nervous to audition for such a major production.

Amazing Behind The Scenes Photos of Historic Broadway Shows
Richard Rodgers, Irving Berlin, Oscar Hammerstein, And Helen Tamiris watch hopefuls audition at St. James Theater. Library Of Congress (1948, No Known Restructions).

Auditioning for Broadway’s Elite

Imagine entering an audition and facing these three profoundly serious, stoic men who are literally there to judge you against countless others hoping to win the same role. Not only are they the pinnacle of seriousness, but they are also Broadway royalty. On the left, Richard Rodgers smokes a cigarette as he watches an audition. In the middle is Ziegfeld Follies and musical legend Irving Berlin. On the right, lyrical genius Oscar Hammerstein.

This image captures them watching what for them may have been one of so many auditions for one of their shows. The long ‘cattle call’ lines are often prescreened by a casting team. Limited numbers of candidates are called back to audition for the main production team. Rodgers patiently smokes a cigarette while Berlin and Hammerstein look on with polite indifference. After watching hundreds of potential actors and singers, these days must have been exceedingly long indeed.

Amazing Behind The Scenes Photos of Historic Broadway Shows
Young man auditions for The King and I. Billy Rose Theater Collection, NY Public Library (c. 1950, no known restrictions).

Audition Process

Today, an audition for a Broadway musical requires membership in the Actor’s Equity Union, a headshot, résumé, and a demo reel. Potential actors perform a two-minute monologue and if it is a musical, candidates will need to sing a specified number of bars from a song and perform a choreographed combination. This photograph shows that the process hasn’t changed much since the 1950s. It is a unique glimpse into the audition process for the production of The King and I.

The young man in the picture is singing his piece for the audition team as a pianist accompanies him. It appears that the scenery is already being built as the auditions take place. Additional boys, possibly candidates for the same role, stand in the wings and watch the audition. With any luck, they will be called back for the next round of auditions, a process that continues until the production team selects its final cast.

Amazing Behind The Scenes Photos of Historic Broadway Shows
Richard Rodgers Interviews Sandra Salinas And Andrea Applebome For The Original Production Of The King And I. NY Public Library (1951, No Known Restrictions).

Cast List

The lucky few who are selected out of the hundreds – possibly thousands – who auditioned for the role may get one of few types of parts. They may be cast as a swing, standby, or understudy, all who learn multiple roles and are prepared to step in if an actor or ensemble member is sick or otherwise unable to perform for a show. They may be cast as an ensemble member, a chorus role to support the main action and give the world of the show depth and motion. Or they may be a cast as a principal actor, a primary or secondary character with lines and more prominence in the show.

The audition process for theatrical roles is highly competitive, with only a fortunate few selected from the possibly thousands who audition. Successful candidates may land roles as swings, standbys, or understudies, prepared to step in if a performer is unable to go on. Others may find themselves as ensemble members, providing support and depth to the main action. The luckiest individuals secure principal roles, embodying primary or secondary characters with lines and adding significant prominence to the production.

Amazing Behind The Scenes Photos of Historic Broadway Shows
Script read through for No Strings. NY Public Library, Billy Rose Theater collection (1962, no known restrictions).

Read-Through of Broadway’s No Strings

For those fortunate enough to be cast in the show, their work begins with a script read-through. This familiarizes them with the show and gives the cast a chance to get to know their colleagues. This image shows the script read-through of No Strings, which debut on March 15, 1962. The show starred Diahann Carroll as Barbara, a beautiful American fashion model from Harlem living in Paris. Barbara meets David, played by Richard Kiley, a Pulitzer Prize winner suffering writers block.

As their love grows, Barbara’s career takes them to some of the most glamorous places in Europe. But David knows it will have to end. While David knows he has to leave and return to his writing in the United States, Barbara built her career in Europe. She had to stay. They part on good terms, with “no strings” attached to the memory of their relationship.

Amazing Behind The Scenes Photos of Historic Broadway Shows
Cast of No Strings at rehearsal (1962). NY Public Library, no known restrictions.

No Strings Broke New Ground on Broadway

Rodger’s production of No Strings broke barriers by depicting an interracial relationship. When the show debuted in 1962, interracial marriage was still illegal in many states. It wouldn’t become legal throughout the country until it went before the Supreme Court in the Loving v. Virginia case in 1967.

The show also broke ground in another way. Carroll’s role as Barbara Woodruff won her the Tony Award for best actress is a musical production, the first African American woman to win the award. In this image, Carroll rehearses the musical numbers with Richard Kiley, who played her love David Jordan. Richard Rodgers accompanies them on the piano, while other members of the production team look on.

Amazing Behind The Scenes Photos of Historic Broadway Shows
Chorus Showgirls Learn And Practice Their Dance. Billy Rose Theater Collection, Ny Public Library (early 20th Century, No Known Restrictions).

Ensemble Rehearsals

This image shows a showgirl ensemble practicing with their choreographer in studio space for an unknown production while the production team lingers in the background, c. 1920s. As the principals work out their lines and stage blocking (where they are supposed to stand and move onstage), the ensemble is also rehearsing. These rehearsals typically start in a studio.

It helps ensure the ensemble has a chance to learn their dance, fine-tune it to the music, work on precision and timing, and ensure everyone knows their part. Studio space has mirrors to let the dancers watch themselves and how they move with the group as a unit. Once the dancers are familiar with the musical numbers and have rehearsed it to the choreographer’s satisfaction, they will move to the big stage to practice their cues and become familiar with how their role will interact with the set design.

Amazing Behind The Scenes Photos of Historic Broadway Shows
Robert Alton (choreographer), far left, with dancers in rehearsal for By Jupiter. NY Public Library (1942, no known restrictions).

Dance Rehearsals

After meeting the rest of the cast and going over the script, the show has many moving pieces to put together before its debut. In this image, the ensemble dancers for By Jupiter learn their choreography from Robert Alton, studying his direction intently to ensure every movement the do on stage is precise and adds to the visual aspect of the show. They will rehearse the moves hundreds (if not thousands) of times over the course of a month or two to ensure it is perfectly done.

The dancers need to practice everything to the last detail; how high to kick, how fast to spin, how high to leap. While they make it look easy when they are onstage, performing the show with the costumes, music, and lights all in place, it takes an incredible amount of athleticism and endurance to perform a musical dance sequence.

Amazing Behind The Scenes Photos of Historic Broadway Shows
Ray Bolger (cast as Sapiens) demonstrates his athleticism in rehearsal for By Jupiter. NY Public Library (1942, no known restrictions).

Broadway’s Ray Bolger

Actor and Dancer Ray Bolger demonstrates the athleticism and precision needed for his principal role as Sapiens in the production of By Jupiter. Executing a leap like this requires power, precision and excellent timing to avoid ending up sprawled on the floor with an injury. Ray Bolger may be more familiar to audiences as the Scarecrow in the classic musical film The Wizard of Oz (1939). But Bolger featured in Broadway musicals since his debut in The Merry World in 1926.

Bolger moved seamlessly between Broadway and film throughout his career. His Broadway career lasted until 1969, in the role of Phineas Sharp in the show Come Summer at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater. His movie and (later) television career lasted until 1985 when he contributed to a documentary called That’s Dancing! He performed until shortly before his death in 1987.

Amazing Behind The Scenes Photos of Historic Broadway Shows
Ray Bolger rests between scenes during By Jupiter rehearsals. NY Public Library (1942, no known restrictions).

Exhaustion, Broadway Style

This image shows a side of Bolger audiences rarely get to see; exhausted and reclining in the theater’s house seats, without his usual jovial expression. His exhaustion is evident in every part of him, polar opposite of the high-energy, constantly moving, “nimble, rubber-legged” persona he is known for. Rehearsals for a Broadway show, especially dance rehearsals, can be exhausting.

Especially when the dance numbers require acrobatics, leaps, jumps, precision footwork, and moves that require quick, intense motion to propel the cast across a stage. Even backstage activity can be exhausting, scurrying to ensure they are in the right part of the theater for their next cue, sometimes including a costume or makeup change, or helping move scenery to ensure the show runs on time. Broadway performers become endurance athletes, their sport set to music.

Amazing Behind The Scenes Photos of Historic Broadway Shows
Rehearsal for Oklahoma, c. late 1960s. Public domain.

More Dance Rehearsals

Despite the fatigue, repetitiveness, and strain of practicing and performing in a musical number, the dancers practice to make it look effortless. In this image from dress rehearsals for Oklahoma! dress in the late 1960s, most of the dancers have a broad smile on their face, concealing what they may be feeling beneath the surface. The dancers are practicing the nightmare ballet sequence from Oklahoma! where the main character, Laurey, must choose between two suitors, Curley and Jud.

She falls asleep after drinking an elixir she hopes will help her choose, but instead propels her into a bad dream with a terrifying wedding and being thrust into a world of vice and hedonism complete with a saloon and scandalous dancing girls. The sequence moves from serene to joyful to nightmarish, a testament to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s innovative storytelling technique.

Amazing Behind The Scenes Photos of Historic Broadway Shows
Jo Mielziner (set and lighting designer) and scenic painter at work on By Jupiter. NY Public Library (1942, no known restrictions).

Sets and Scenery

As the actors sweat through their dance steps and the musicians play until their fingers bleed, work has been underway to create the scenery that will make the story come to life. Creating sets and scenery is an architectural adventure. Scenery needs to transport the audience to the world depicted in the story. The sets need to create the physical world of the story, and in many cases, it has to be easily and quickly moved and changed as the story advances.

In this image, set and lighting designer Joe Mielziner consults with the scene painter as they bring the mythological world of By Jupiter to life. The scenery is adorned with Greek-style characters, inspired by the ancient art of the time (held up by Mielziner), helping create the mythological world.

Amazing Behind The Scenes Photos of Historic Broadway Shows
(l) Sound board at Seattle Center, Vera Project. Joe Mabel, GNU license 1.2.(r) Electric batten with stage lights. KeepOnTruckin (2007, GNU license 1.2).

Sound and Lights

While the dancers are training, musicians practicing their timing, set designers are coordinating the backdrops and set pieces, and the principals are memorizing their lines, the sound and light crew are busy ensuring microphones work, sound equipment like microphones and sound boards are working properly, lighting cues are perfectly timed, and the light colors reflect the mood of the show. An ill-timed light could leave a principal in the dark during a key scene.

A missed light or sound cue could change the entire tone of a pivotal moment. Sound and lights are one of the most crucial elements to creating the tone and setting of the scene and require a highly technical mind to work equipment like that in the photo. If they’ve done their jobs right, the audience will be able to read the main character’s emotions not just by the actor’s work, but through sound and visual cues.

Amazing Behind The Scenes Photos of Historic Broadway Shows
Costume designer Irene Sharaff reviews costumes woth the production team for By Jupiter. NY Public Library (1942, no known restriction

Costumes

Costumes transport a character from their everyday lives and into the mindset of a character. The costumers start the design process early, often before the show is even cast. They start by learning the tone of the show, understanding the time, place, and manner of the plot. They familiarize themselves with the anticipated movements in the musical numbers to ensure the costumes will move with the dancers.

Each actor and ensemble member are measured, and a costume is fitted for their shape, either being sewn new or by altering an existing outfit. In this image, costume designer Irene Scharaff meets with (from left) Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, producer Dwight Deere Wiman, director Joshua Logan and choreographer Robert Alton to show her concepts for the Broadway production of By Jupiter.

Amazing Behind The Scenes Photos of Historic Broadway Shows
Jason Wingreen, Miriam Green and Emilie Stevens backstage applying makeup during the stage production Girl on the Via Flaminia. NY Public Library, Billy Rose Theater Collection (1953, no known restrictions.

Makeup

Makeup and prosthetics can turn a young person into someone decades older. It can create literal monsters, or give them a desirable, glamorous look. But it has another purpose. When the audience sees an actor on stage, there is a distance between them. The actor is also awash in bright lights. Between the distance and the lights, the actor’s face can appear washed out. Stage makeup exaggerates their features to define them, so they can be seen from anywhere in the audience.

Up close, it looks overdone, but from a distance, it appears exactly right. Many actors and dancers have perfected their own makeup techniques and do it for themselves rather than waiting for a makeup artist. Some cannot, especially if special effects makeup or prosthetics are involved. This image shows a group of actors doing their own makeup for Alfred Hayes’ show, The Girl on the Via Flaminia.

Amazing Behind The Scenes Photos of Historic Broadway Shows
Jason Wingreen, Miriam Green and Emilie Stevens backstage applying makeup during the stage production Girl on the Via Flaminia. NY Public Library, Billy Rose Theater Collection (1953, no known restrictions.

Publicity shots

As the production gets closer to opening night, attention turns to marketing and ticket sales. The actors will take publicity photos to give potential audience members a preview of what they might see in the show. In 1959, Rodgers and Hammerstein took members of the production team for The Sound of Music to the hills of Vermont.

The actors were put into their 1930s Austrian costumes. Actress Mary Martin, in her role as Maria, and several of the children, bound across the hills while the cameras snapped. This image, with Maria running, surrounded by the children in her charge, would inspire the artwork for the 1965 film version starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer.

Amazing Behind The Scenes Photos of Historic Broadway Shows
Exhausted dancers rehearse By Jupiter. NY Public Library (1942, no known restrictions).

Down Time

Exhausted dancers rest in their down time during rehearsals for By Jupiter. One woman stretches out on a bench, still wearing her tap shoes, to grab a few quiet moments. A man smoking a cigarette looks on, embraced by a grinning woman as they recoup their energy for their next cue. A pile of dirty ballet shoes lies under the shared bench.

While it could not have been particularly comfortable, the group would need to stay close by in case the director or choreographer calls them back onstage to run another number. Being cast in a show is thrilling, but it is extremely physically demanding for the performers, crew members, and everyone involved in showtime.

Amazing Behind The Scenes Photos of Historic Broadway Shows
Richard Rodgers conducts a rehearsal of South Pacific. Billy Rose Theater collection, NY Public Library (1949, no known restrictions).

Broadway Sitzprobe

A sitzprobe is a rehearsal where the cast of the show comes together with the orchestra or musicians to sing and play through the show’s music. There are no costumes, no dance, no lines, just the music, as if they were recording an album. It’s an opportunity for the musicians and the cast to get to know each other, to make sure they are working as a team and understand the musical cues and sounds they will experience during the show.

USC School of Dramatic Arts professor Elsbeth Collins says, “Usually, it precedes the first dress rehearsal and follows an orchestra or pit rehearsal, which is a read-through of the score with the full orchestra and conductor.” In this image, Rodgers conducts an orchestra rehearsal to ensure the music for South Pacific is a success.

Amazing Behind The Scenes Photos of Historic Broadway Shows
Backstage at the Fox Theater in Seattle, Washington. HABS survey archive, c. 1933. Public domain.

Getting to Know You…

As opening night creeps closer, the production moves from the rehearsal studio space and into the actual theater. The actors, musicians, crew, and technicians get to explore the set and theater and get comfortable with the venue. The actors see the set and props in full for the first time. The sound and light technicians adjust their equipment to the venue. It’s usually the first time actors have seen each other in costume and makeup, and that can be a shock.

Some makeup transforms the actors so much their co-workers don’t recognize them when seeing it for the first time! The cast and crew walk themselves through the show, learning where their props will be, how to get to the part of the stage where their next entrance will be, and work with any special effects, like trap doors and rigging they may need to navigate during the show.

Amazing Behind The Scenes Photos of Historic Broadway Shows
Richard Rodgers and Yulk Brynner sit down during rehearsals of The King and I as a crew member works behind them. Billy Rose Theater Collection, NY Public Library.

Tech Rehearsals

Tech rehearsals give the crew time to iron out problems with the practical parts of the show. The actors walk through their parts, but they aren’t the main focus. The goal is fine tuning the music in the theater space. The lighting cues are perfected, especially how the light interacts with the performers.

The props are placed in their show-ready positions, and the actors learn where the props are, where the props need to be at the end of the scene, how to get to wardrobe for their next scene, and other details for their show. The crew learns how much time they have to move scenery, raise and lower backdrops. These technical rehearsals give these key features a chance to correct any last-minute problems before opening night.

Amazing Behind The Scenes Photos of Historic Broadway Shows
Shirley Jones during dress rehearsals of Oklahoma! Department of State, public domain.

Dress Rehearsals

Opening night is close. All of the components of the show have come together, the tech run-throughs have fixed minor issues, now it’s time for the full-dress rehearsal. The dress rehearsal puts cast, crew, and musicians together to run the show as if it were an actual performance. The actors practice their hair, makeup, and costumes. The scenes are checked for final blocking.

The directors use this as a chance to see the show as the audience will see it and make any last-minute changes before the show premiers. In this photo, director Joshua Logan, Richard Rodgers, producer Dwight Deere Wiman and producer Richard Kollmar discuss the rehearsal of By Jupiter, making sure their vision is polished to perfection onstage. The cast, crew, and production team will soon find out if their months of effort are worth it as opening night approaches.

Amazing Behind The Scenes Photos of Historic Broadway Shows
Joan Roberts (Laurey) and Celeste Holm (Ado Annie) backstage in production of Oklahoma! NY Public Library, Billy Rose Theater Collection (1943, no known restrictions).

Broadway dressing rooms are space-intensive

Principal cast and celebrities may have a dressing room of their own to warm up and prepare for a show. Their dressing rooms may be big enough to accommodate guests after a show and be decorated with luxurious interior design. But the ensemble usually won’t have that amount of space. The dressing room space is at a premium in many theaters. Ensemble cast and many other roles share a dressing room.

They fight for space in the mirror, smack into each other during costume changes, and grab the wrong makeup tube. It can be crowded, chaotic, with countertops full of makeup, hairdressing gear, coffee cups, and personal mementos, but it can also be a place of fun and camaraderie. This backstage image from Oklahoma! shows principals Joan Roberts (Laurey) and Celeste Holm (Ado Annie) slipping out of their character shoes and tending their feet in a backstage dressing room.

Amazing Behind The Scenes Photos of Historic Broadway Shows
Performance of Oklahoma! (1943). Library of Congress, public domain.

Showtime!

And the Opening Night arrives at last! Whether a preview or an opening, it’s time to show the frutis of all that hard work. As the audience settles into their seats, the action backstage is at a fever pitch; makeup is checked one last time. Singers and actors do their vocal exercises. Dancers stretch their muscles and check their shoes one more time. The performers in the first scene take their places, taking care to stay far enough behind the curtain to avoid being seen.

They position themselves just so to see how full the house is for the night. The crew, having set up for the opening scene is already thinking ahead to the next scene change. The lighting and sound crew is ready to flip the switch. The house lights dim, and the overture swells. It’s time. This thrilling moment for the cast of 1943’s premiere of Oklahoma! led to long-lasting success and a staggering longevity most musicals only dream of.

Amazing Behind The Scenes Photos of Historic Broadway Shows
Mid-run rehearsal of A Connecticut Yankee starring Lew Fields, playing at the Vanderbilt Theater on Broadway (1928). Public domain.

Mid-Run Rehearsals

Broadway shows, especially those that run for a significant amount of time, are always evolving, sometimes even after they have opened. Showrunners watch audience reaction, gauging what gets the biggest laughs, whether their dramatic moments are hitting the right notes, whether audience members are crying at the right time. In this image, a rehearsal of A Connecticut Yankee, the cast gathers in costume to watch the principal cast run newly written lines during a mid-run rehearsal. In some cases, the production team feels the show needs a little extra work to respond to audience feedback and reviews, a mid-run rehearsal can help get the show to where they want it to be.

This dynamic process ensures that the production remains finely tuned to audience preferences. Illustrated in a rehearsal for “A Connecticut Yankee,” the cast, adorned in costumes, attentively watches the principal cast deliver newly written lines during a mid-run rehearsal. This practice exemplifies a proactive approach by the production team, demonstrating a commitment to refining the show based on audience feedback and critical reviews, thereby striving to elevate the overall theatrical experience.

Amazing Behind The Scenes Photos of Historic Broadway Shows
Mary Martin meets Baroness Maria Augista von Trapp, at a party for The Sound of Music. New York Public Library (1959, no known restrictions).

Broadway Legends Meet

The Sound of Music enjoyed a successful run after its 1959 Broadway opening. Despite Boston critic Elliot Norton decrying it as, “silliness, stiffness and corny operetta falseness of the script,” it had record-breaking ticket sales. But even more special, star Mary Martin had the support of the most important critic of the time. During the previews in New Haven and Boston, a woman would stand up and offer vibrant applause.

The same woman stood up as soon as Martin took her Sound of Music curtain call at the Broadway premier. The woman was the real Maria Von Trapp, the real-life inspiration for Martin’s character. Her enthusiastic reception of the musical and Martin’s depiction of her onstage led to this special backstage moment when Mary met her real-life counterpart.

Amazing Behind The Scenes Photos of Historic Broadway Shows
Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein pose in front of the St. James Theater marquee for The King and I. NY Public Library (c. 1951, no known restrictions).

Broadway Shines a Little Dimmer

As The Sound of Music entered its third rehearsal week, Oscar Hammerstein created the requisite “emotional heart wrenching” moment every musical has. But it wasn’t part of the show. During a physical, doctors discovered the award-winning lyricist had stomach cancer. He continued to work, although he had to miss some of the early runs of the show.

He had written the last full song he would ever write, “Edelweiss,” a love song to Captain Von Trapp’s homeland. Hammerstein passed away from the cancer in 1960, at age 65. The theater community showed Hammerstein the same love he showed the community. The theater lights that made Broadway glisten every night were dimmed for a full minute in Hammerstein’s honor.

Amazing Behind The Scenes Photos of Historic Broadway Shows
Portrait of Richard Rodgers at the St. James Theater, 1948. No known restrictions.

Curtains for Rodgers

Over his decades-long career, Rodgers became one of the first to achieve the EGOT goal (those elite who earned awards in the four major performing arts realms, Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony awards). By 1984, only Rodgers and actresses Rita Moreno and Helen Hayes had achieved all of those awards. Rodgers passed away at his New York City home on December 30, 1979. In March of 1990, the 46th Street Theater became the Richard Rodgers Theater, with gallery space dedicated to the influential composer and his partners. Rodger’s perspective on his impact on the performing arts can be summed up by his thoughts about his legacy. He once quipped, “If someone wants to sing something of min thirty years from now, no one will be happier than my dead body.”

Where Do We Find This Stuff? Here Are Our Sources:

Daniel Fish’s Reimagined Oklahoma! revival opens in London’s West End run February 28. Logan Culwell-Block, Playbill.com, 28 February 2023.

Former Ziegfeld Follies girl recalls the glory days. Douglas Martin, The New York Times, 18 October 1996.

From the Alps to the Rialto: The Sound of Music’s Stage Journey. Laurence Maslon, Rodgers and Hammerstein.com, (n.d.)

Go behind the scenes of 9 Broadway dressing rooms. Hannah Vine, Playbill.com, 21 May 2017.

How Rodgers and Hammerstein revolutionized Broadway. Terry Gross, NPR, 28 May 2018.

Length of Broadway rehearsals. Robert Simonson, Playbill.com, 16 August, 2010.

Tech Rehearsals. Byron Mondahl, Royal Shakespeare Company Blog, (n.d.)

The real history behind ‘The Sound of Music.’ Christopher Klein, 1 June 2023.

Why Richard Rodgers matters. Laurence Masion, American Masters, 9 August 2022.

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