Firsthand: Jennifer Ashley Tepper, Author of The Untold Stories of Broadway
In a TM exclusive, the theater historian and author writes of the fascinating steps she took to develop her new book.
For The Untold Stories of Broadway, I interviewed over 200 theater professionals.
I talked to Broadway's greatest actors, directors, writers, designers, and producers. I also spoke with important professionals who aren't interviewed as often, including Broadway's greatest musicians, stagehands, house managers, press agents, ushers, and stage-door attendants. I interviewed people who started working on Broadway this year and people who have been working on Broadway since the 1940s.
My goal was to present the history of the 40 theaters that light up the Great White Way, through show folks' personal stories. Instead of learning the facts and statistics about the Richard Rodgers Theatre, I wanted readers to hear firsthand accounts from those who worked there on Finian's Rainbow (1947), Chicago (1975), and In the Heights (2008), as well as many of the shows in between. This first volume of four tells the stories of the Al Hirschfeld, August Wilson, Lyceum, Mark Hellinger, Marquis, Neil Simon, Richard Rodgers, and Winter Garden Theatres.
It was my great joy to also learn the secrets of each theater as I explored. In between the stories from today's Broadway pros, I share my own discoveries about the personalities and places I got a glimpse at.
Did you know that the ensemble-dressing-room drawers at the Marquis Theatre have been autographed by actors from the venue's last 15 productions? Did you know that there's a tunnel between the Broadhurst Theatre on 44th Street and the Schoenfeld on 45th that for decades has allowed actors in each to go visit one another? Do you know which Broadway theater has an office with a hidden panel in the wall that leads to what used to be a Prohibition-era speakeasy?
I have always been fascinated by the offices and hidden rooms on top of and attached to so many of the Broadway houses. When I interviewed lighting designers Ken Billington and Jason Kantrowitz, we chatted in their office, which is attached to the August Wilson Theatre on 52nd Street. When the theater opened in 1925, it was the home of the Theatre Guild; the adjacent offices also belonged to the Guild. Oklahoma! rehearsed there in 1943! At the end of a hallway on the top floor, there was an unmarked door. "We can't open it," Ken and Jason said. "But it leads directly to the theater."
Months later, backstage at the August Wilson I interviewed Jersey Boys swing Jared Bradshaw. We climbed all the way up to the top floor, and I got to help the fly man Ron test some cues for that night's show. Then I saw an unmarked door. Jared twisted it open — and we were in Ken and Jason's office hallway!
The past and present of Broadway, and all of the people who have worked on it, are connected in fascinating ways. I still can't believe I got to sit down with 200 of Broadway's best and learn so many favorite tales from their adventures on the Great White Way — and I can't wait to share them.
The Untold Stories of Broadway, Volume 1, by Jennifer Ashley Tepper, will be released on Tuesday, November 12. To pre-order your copy, click here.