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The Untold Stories of Broadway Theaters

Jennifer Ashley Tepper
Jennifer Ashley Tepper
Photo: Matthew Murphy

Millions have flocked to New York's Broadway theaters over the years to be enraptured by the amazing performances and music that have made it the center of the theater world. But while most have entered these hallowed halls to listen to the lullaby of Broadway, historian Jennifer Ashley Tepper decided to write about it. In her new book, The Untold Stories of Broadway Volume 1, Tepper shares the stories of eight of Broadway's iconic theaters in the words of several generations of their alumni.

We spoke to Tepper--who you may know as the producer and driving force behind the Broadway archivist treat of a show If It Only Even Runs a Minute which highlights the under-appreciated songs and shows of Broadway's past--about putting together the book and hearing the secrets of Broadway.

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Do you recall the first show you ever saw? I think the first show I ever saw was the national tour of A Chorus Line when I was a little kid in Florida.

Do you remember the impact it had on you? It's really funny. I loved it so much. I was so seized by cast recordings. I was not in the center of where shows happen, I grew up in Florida. I do remember seeing it as a kid and being completely blown away and excited by all of that.

At what point did your interest in Broadway shows become an obsession? I think that it was theater summer camp, which is true of many kids. Joining a summer camp for theater, we did Annie and Bye Bye Birdie. Learning those shows made me want to learn about more shows. "Oh, Charles Strouse wrote this. What else did Charles Strouse write?" Or "Oh, Jason Alexander starred in this, what else has he starred in?" And that started me on my own path of researching musicals and learning about them, finding cast recordings and reading books.

Were your friends and family pretty supportive in this passion? Yes, my family loves the theater. No-one in my family is in the theater, I come from a family of clothes and medicine, but everybody loves going to the theater and singing around the house, so everyone's always very supportive.

When did you decide to transfer this passion into a book? I feel the idea for this book was in my head for years and years before it was actually on a page. I started to say I wanted to write a book about the theater when I was assistant director of Title of Show, which was 2008 right after I graduated college. I took copious amounts of notes during the experience and I scribbled in my notepad the whole time. I thought the book might be about that experience, but after working on theater projects with so many different people, and I've been fascinated by the specific histories of Broadway theaters, it came to me that this was the perfect idea for a book.

The book's said to be the first in a series that will cover the history of 40 theaters in total. What made you decide on which theaters would be the first eight found here? I interviewed all these people and I asked them about all of the theaters they've worked in. I collected information about a variety of theaters, not just these eight. In collecting all these interviews and these stories, I found the eight theaters in the book were the ones I had the fullest stories about. I had stories of these theaters from every decade, every profession and a variety of topics.

Is there anything you learned while writing the book that you found particularly shocking? There are different kinds of shocking. One of my favorite things I found out was, I was very eager to ask questions about all of the hidden spots in all the theaters. So many of these theaters have hidden alleyways to get to another theater or hidden rooms and things underground. I had no idea that in The Music Box, which is Irving Berlin's theater that in his office, which is now the house manager's office, is a secret room Irving Berlin built during prohibition that was a full bar. It's a classic hidden panel in a Broadway theater. Hearing stories about that was exciting and I plan to see it before I finish the music box story. The other thing that was surprising and exciting was talking to people who didn't get interviewed as often like the house managers, the doormen and the ushers and really learning about their experiences. A lot of those people are stagehands who've been there from so many shows who have incredible stories and know everybody. The doormen could stand in the middle of a studio and be the most popular person in New York because everybody knows the doormen because you see them everyday. They're the stories that are not usually told.

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Jennifer Ashley Tepper outside Winter Garden
Jennifer Ashley Tepper outside Winter Garden
Monica Simoes

Given the often mythologized legends of Broadway, is there anything you found during the interviews that dispelled any sort of myths? There were a lot of things like that, but they were into specific stories about shows. I talked to Hal Prince about Follies having an intermission or not and he was very funny. He said he changed it so many times back in 1971 that he doesn't remember if it ended up an intermission or without an intermission. That's kind of like theater lore, remember when the Follies revival happened and they wee trying it both ways. It's funny, these little things about developing shows that over the years become really important to people who pay attention to theater and hear the creator's perspective about those changes.

After hearing these decades and decades of stories, what's the biggest difference between Broadway today and theaters' past? It's funny, the more I do these interviews and work in these theaters, it's so much more the same than it is different. I started talking to people about environmental productions of the 70s and shows where the band played on stage and danced around at the Winter Garden before the show started, and people think that that environmental theater vibe is being invented on Broadway right now with people sitting on stage and interacting. It's really not, it's been around for so long. Things that are carried on that people don't realize are carried on from past traditions. I think one of the biggest differences is social media. Even writing the book a lot of connections were made because of Facebook, because of Twitter, because a of a friend introducing me. Having that level of acknowledgeability where people can find out who you are and that you're legit from the internet lends itself to how we spread the word about shows. There's a lot in the book about how the internet changed how shows are develop because of word-of-mouth spreading in both good and bad ways.

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