Celebrating 40 Years of West End and Broadway Theatre at London's V&A

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 Rob Howell’s miniature set model box for Matilda the Musical

London and New York's world-celebrated theatrical heritage comes to life in a wonderful exhibition

Boundless lifts the curtain on the story of the world’s greatest theatrical hubs in a new free show

The start of the V&A’s new glitzy – and free – exhibition, Curtain Up! is a dazzling assault on the senses. Theatrical spotlights spin overhead as nighttime city street noise curls around you – sirens wail, cars and taxis beep impatiently, people shout and chatter over the traffic. You walk in under a shower of show programmes, over a giant A to Z map of London’s Theatreland, vivid in red and black. Large-scale photographs of city high-rises cover the walls, while magnificent props and costumes fill the space. One is almost prompted to walk in waving jazz hands. 

An original sketch for a costume for Phantom of the Opera by Maria Bjornson.An impressive and varied collection of posters, costumes, artefacts and recordings that represent the biggest shows in West End and Broadway history have been curated for this display by the V&A and the New York Public Library, designed by RFK Architects and Tom Piper (Tower of London poppies installation), to celebrate the unique connection between London and New York’s theatre districts as part of the 40th anniversary of the Olivier Awards. 

Most exciting is the opportunity to go behind the scenes to understand how an entire theatre company – from back-of-house to centrestage – contribute to an award-winning production with script-writing, production, direction, design (lighting, sound, set, and costume), music, choreography processes and the evolution of technology all explored in an interesting way.

Correspondence and material relating to the original 1970s Evita production includes budget sheets detailing every expense – production costs were, intriguingly, two-thirds higher in New York. 

An original sketch for a costume for Phantom of the Opera by Maria Bjornson.There’s a touching letter written by Ian McKellan on a napkin in 1980 to his Amadeus understudy offering words of support and rehearsal notes for The History Boys: “The boys’ files should be 3 x A4 and as the play progresses, should get fuller. There should be numerous section dividers and tags. The director would like to see some sample files as soon as possible”. And “We will need a small tube of Sweetex sweeteners for Mrs Lintott (Miss De La Tour) for the staff room scenes”.

An exhibition charting the rise of an awards ceremony could potentially be quite short, and risks being bland, but the mix of material is rich and the immersive elements spread throughout keep it upbeat and engaging. It’s also a hit with kids who love trying their hand at sound engineering on a soundboard blasting out tunes from Hairspray. 

Elsewhere, you’ll be hard pressed not to jig your way through a mirrored corridor towards a giant screen showing the finale of the 2013 production of A Chorus Line, before backstage lighting cues snap you back to reality. 

But let’s not overlook the stars of this display: the costumes, including those from Disney’s The Lion King,  designed by Julie Taymor; William Ivey Long’s work for Chicago and The Producers; and Christopher Oram’s costume designs for the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies.

It’s an exciting display, which ends in a similarly theatrical fashion as it begins, with plenty of noise and flashing lights in a spectacular mini rendition of A Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, a seven-time Olivier award winner.

Inset illustrations: Original sketches for costumes for Phantom of the Opera by Maria Bjornson.


Six show highlights

1. Original costume designs for Phantom of the Opera 

Designer Maria Bjornson created elaborate costume and romantic set designs for The Phantom of the Opera with a £900,000 budget. The production today remains one of the longest-running shows on Broadway and the second-longest running West End musical in history, after Les Miserables.

The fully-realised Matilda the Musical set

2. Matilda the Musical set designs

Rob Howell’s designs for the RSC production of Matilda the Musical which won seven Olivier Awards and five Tony Awards.

3. Life-size puppet from War Horse

Three puppeteers are needed to work the head, heart and hind of this life-size design from the Handspring Puppet Company for the National Theatre’s award-winning production War Horse.

4. Top hats from A Chorus Line

Iconic accessories from the original 1967 Broadway production of A Chorus Line which won both the Tony Award in 1976 and the inaugural Olivier Award in the same year for Best New Musical.

5. Dress worn in The Audience

Dame Helen Mirren wore this costume designed by Bob Crowley for her role as the Queen, for which she won both an Olivier (2013) and Tony Award (2015) for Best Actress.

6. Ian McKellan’s letter to his Amadeus Understudy

The actor offers words of support to his Amadeus understudy, written in 1980 on a napkin.

Curtain Up! Celebrating 40 years of Theatre in London and New York’ is on at the V&A in London until 16 August.


Cost: free.

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