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S is for Saint ....

Stephen Sondheim. Rhymes with genius, brilliant and demigod. We can only pray that he lives to be 109, so he can see the film version of “Merrily We Roll Along.” Devotees often refer to him as St. Stephen.



IN THE WORLD of theater,  "the book" is not a novel or a memoir, "transfer" doesn't mean switching colleges, and "eleven o'clock" almost never comes an hour before 12. Even more important, the difference between Broadway and Off Broadway isn't geographical -- and a lot of people don't know that. Let us help.


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“The greatest showbiz book ever written.” That's what the headline for Frank Rich’s 2014 article in New York magazine said. It’s an autobiography by the playwright and theater director Moss Hart (1904-61), it was published in 1959, and nobody has topped it yet.

ACTORS' EQUITY ASSOCIATION   The union that represents stage actors and stage managers. It was founded in 1913 at the Pabst Grand Circle Hotel (which was in Columbus Circle, where the Time Warner Center now stands) and today has more than 50,000 members.

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ALS, HILTON   A theater critic for The New Yorker since 2002. A New York City native, Mr. Als won the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 2017. He is also the author of "White Girls" (2013).                                                                


BLACK BOX THEATER  A black box theater is an extremely simple,  plain, stark and flexible space. We like wisegeek's description: "The room which contains the theater is typically square and painted black, because black is a neutral color which will not clash with costumes, sets, and lighting. The floor is flat and open, allowing people to arrange seating however they desire, and many black box theaters are designed to accommodate risers and platforms to create a raised stage, if desired."

BOOK It refers to the dialogue – the spoken words – in a musical. Example: “Cats” is often spoken of as an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. In fact, the music is by Sir Andrew, the lyrics are by Charles Hart, and the book is by Sir Andrew and Richard Stilgoe.

Clearer example: Tina Fey in a 2018 promotional video for "Mean Girls," whose book she wrote, explains, "I was in charge of the talking parts."

If you hear someone refer to a show as a “book musical,” that simply means that it has dialogue and a plot. What’s not a book musical? A concert passing itself off as a “real” Broadway show. (The opinions expressed here are those of the founder, editor and publisher.)


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BRANTLEY, BEN  Theater critic of The New York Times, now and forever. Brantley, a native of Durham, N.C., was made chief critic in 1996.  Brantley's power is such that an entire (unaffiliated with The Times) website, Did He Like It?, exists simply as a roundup of his -- and only his -- reviews of the big shows.                                                                                   

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An avenue in New York City that runs from Lower Manhattan (the financial district, a.k.a. Wall Street) through the northern tip of Manhattan, through the Bronx and a few miles into the suburbs (Westchester County). It is one of the oldest roads in the city, having begun as an Algonquin Indian trail. Early Dutch settlers named it Brede Weg (yes, Broad Way). The area from roughly 41st Street to 54th Street is considered the Broadway theater district.

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Missionary Positions

"The Book of Mormon" opened at the 1,000+-seat Eugene O'Neill Theater in 2011.

In general, a Broadway production is one that takes place in New York City in a theater with 500 or more seats. (Also see Off Broadway and Off Off Broadway.) Most Broadway theaters are not, in fact, on the avenue but on side streets between Broadway (or Seventh Avenue) and Eighth Avenue. Example: The Shubert is at 225 West 44th Street. The Gershwin is at 222 West 51st.

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Don't Buzz at Me

Patti LuPone, anti-cellphone activist, in her "Evita" days.


Seriously, turn yours off before Act I begins. Don’t just put it on silent. And don’t forget to do the same thing after intermission. Should your device “go off” during the performance, everyone in the theater will hate you. And God help you if you’re seeing a show with Patti LuPone; at Lincoln Center, she once snatched a phone right out of the hand of an audience member who was texting during a performance. She was hailed as a hero.

CURTAIN It seems like a simple word. “It’s an 8 o’clock curtain” means that’s when the stage curtain (real or metaphorical) goes up and the action of the show begins. But if you are going to a play or musical or whatever with an 8 o’clock curtain, you do not — repeat, do not — have an 8’o’clock curtain call. The curtain call takes place at the end of the show, when all cast members present themselves downstage to the audience and take their bows.




When an actor or a crew member says "We're dark on Mondays," that means that particular production has no performance on that night of the week. The theater is closed. The lights aren't turned on. It's dark. Monday is the most common night of the week for Broadway musicals and plays to be dark.

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The open-air theater in Central Park where Shakespeare in the Park productions are performed. The closest entrance is at 81st Street and Central Park West. The Delacorte opened in 1962.

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If you’re standing on a stage, “down” is closest to the audience.

DRAMA DESK AWARDS  Given since 1955 by the Drama Desk organization, which was founded in 1949. The Drama Desk Awards, originally named the Vernon Rice Awards (in honor of a theater critic for The New York Post), are distinguished by including Broadway, Off Broadway and Off Off Broadway productions, in competition with one another. The annual ceremony has been held in recent years at Town Hall.

DRAMATURG   (Sometimes spelled dramaturge) There’s a good deal of disagreement on exactly what a dramaturg does. Possible duties include in-house critic, text analyzer, diplomat, researcher, ego-smoother, critical thinker who provides “literary, cultural and artistic” insight. This Huffington Post article examines the job at length. 

DREAM BALLET  An all-dancing, non-singing production number in a stage musical, usually performed by expert dancers rather than the actors who play the characters in the rest of the show. The first is believed to have been in Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Oklahoma!" in 1943, choreographed by Agnes de Mille.


Queen of Cups

Photograph from the collection of the publisher. Lids stored separately.

Thanks to the introduction of sippy cups for grown-ups some years ago, many New York theatergoers are now able to take their wine or whiskey or other favorite beverage from the theater bar back to their seats and enjoy it during the performance. In many theaters (including those owned by Shubert), you can bring back your sippy cup to the next show you see (at any theater owned by the Shubert organization) and get a considerable discount (e.g., a $15 small white wine may be only $10 if you bring your special cup).

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Wig Moment

Douglas Hodge belting out "I Am Wht I Am" in "La Cage aux Folles."


ELEVEN O’CLOCK NUMBER (THE)  The big song near the end of the show that knocks everybody’s socks off. Something of a misnomer now, because Broadway curtains used to go up at 8:30 p.m. Now they can be 7 p.m. or 8 p.m., depending on the night of the week, and hardly any shows are four hours long. (That's Douglas Hodge in the photo, belting out "I Am What I Am," the indisputable eleven o'clock number in "La Cage aux Folles.")

ENTRANCE APPLAUSE  All that some big stars have to do to get applause is to walk onto the stage in their first scene. You can usually tell a lot about that night's audience by whether people known for their stage work are welcomed with as much entrance applause as visiting movie and TV stars. Sometimes people even applaud the set; that is a very good sign for the designer's awards chances. 

EQUITY  See Actors' Equity Association. 

EQUITY HOUSE  "House" means theater, of course, and "Equity," in this case, refers to Actors' Equity Association, the union. When a small or new theater becomes an Equity house, it's a big deal (and the rules are a little complicated), as explained in this article from The  Cleveland Plain Dealer.  But the term is pretty much synonymous with theater professionalism.     



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GYPSY   For as long as anyone here can remember, the dancers in any Broadway musical’s chorus have been referred to as gypsies. Although most of those dancers don’t spend their lives wandering from city to city (the stereotype that inspired the name), they do wander from show to show, often making long, fruitful careers. Some times are harder than others (witness the characters in "A Chorus Line"). The nickname was an affectionate one and a point of pride, but as the 2017-18 Broadway season neared its close, Equity called for its retirement. Many Romany people who immigrated from India centuries ago and have long lived with the name consider it an ethnic slur.


GYPSY ROBE   The ceremony began back in 1950, according to The New York Times. On opening night of any musical with a chorus, a particularly colorful robe is presented to the dancer (see Gypsy, above) who has appeared in the greatest number of Broadway shows in the chorus. Various good-luck rituals ensue, and then the robe is passed along to the next chorus musical that opens. The name of the ceremony -- and the garment -- was changed in 2018. It is now known as the Legacy Robe. Waiting to see if that catches on.


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HOLDREN, SARA Theater critic at New York Magazine. She was named to the job in July 2017, two years after receiving her Yale School of Drama degree in directing. She had never worked as a critic before.                                                               

If you’re sitting in the audience, you’re in the house. So this is your left. (Also see Stage Left .)   

Sitting in the audience = being in the house. House right is your right as you sit there and face the stage. (Also see Stage Right.)

Sold out, they say? Theaters hold on to a certain number of seats (usually really great ones in the orchestra) for special friends and whatever kind of V.I.P. you are or can pretend to be. A journalist, for instance, may be able to call a show’s publicists a month or so ahead of time and order house seats for you for your visit. You’ll pay full price, but they’ll be fabulous seats.

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15 Minutes

The second-floor bar at 59E59 Theaters.


The break (usually about 15 minutes) between Act I and Act II, during which theatergoers usually go to the bathroom or the bar, check their cellphone messages or smoke. Referring to intermission as “halftime” will not make you seem like a seasoned theater type.

What the Brits say instead of “intermission.”

“Theater in the round” describes any setup in which the audience surrounds the stage or stage area.

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Honey, Honey

"Mamma Mia!" is all about Abba.


A show built around the music of a particular singer, musician or period.  Something of a derogatory term, although there have been worthwhile jukebox musicals. They include “Mamma Mia!” (Abba), “Jersey Boys” (Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons) and “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” (the Temptations).

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LEGACY ROBE See Gypsy Robe.

LIMITED RUN  You can sometimes recognize limited-run productions by their ads. "16 weeks only!" "7 weeks only!" The default position for most big stage productions in New York is an open-ended run, which means the show keeps playing until people stop buying tickets and it isn't making money anymore. (Or it never was, and the backers finally give up.)

Limited runs are planned ahead of time to close on a certain date, often because the lead actor-actress is a huge star and will only take a certain amount of time away from his-her more lucrative film career to do Broadway or Off Broadway.                                                                                               

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MARKS, PETER   Chief theater critic of The Washington Post since 2002.                                                                                         

See cellphones.



An Off Broadway production, in general, is any one in a New York City theater with between 100 and 499 seats. It has nothing to do with geography. Some Off Broadway theaters, for instance, are actually on Broadway, like the intimate McGinn Cazale (2162 Broadway, just north of 76th Street).

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It’s an Off Off Broadway production in New York if the theater has 99 seats or fewer. Some of those theaters are at 59E59, the Wild Project, La MaMa (in photo), Here and the Flea.

Britain’s equivalent of the Tony. Named for Sir Laurence Olivier (1907-89) and usually presented in London in the spring.

ORIGINAL CAST ALBUM Do not call it a soundtrack. Soundtracks are from films.



Sense of Place

From the "Present Laughter" revival starring Kevin Kline as Noël Coward's brazen alter ego.


A piece played by the orchestra just before a musical begins and intended as an introduction to the show’s music.


A publication that lists the cast and crew members of the Broadway show you’re about to see, along with the number of acts, sometimes the setting (e.g., "New York, 1958," "the present day") and in the case of musicals, the rundown of musical numbers. There are also articles and ads. The usher will give you one. It's free and makes a nice souvenir.

Certain performances shortly before or shortly after opening night to which critics and other members of the press are invited as part of the regular audience. Reviews are based on this performance. For a more detailed explanation of the practice and its development, see “About Press Nights.”

A performance of a stage production before its official opening night. As in, “The show is still in previews, so they have time to make it work.”

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Technically, the proscenium (often the “proscenium arch”) is the part of the stage that frames the action of a play. Today it has come to refer to any configuration in which the audience faces the stage directly.

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The Public Theater, at 425 Lafayette Street in downtown Manhattan. Founded by Joseph Papp in 1967, when he saved the old Astor library from demolition. (Papp had already created the New York Shakespeare Festival in 1954.) The Public also produces Shakespeare in the Park, free stagings of Shakespeare plays at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park.

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American regional theater exists across the United States. Most references to the regionals mean Equity houses, not community theaters that employ amateurs. Some of the best-known regional theaters near New York City are Yale Repertory and Long Wharf, both in New Haven, Conn.; the McCarter in Princeton, N.J.; George Street Repertory in New Brunswick, N.J.; Goodspeed in East Haddam, Conn.; and the Westport Country Playhouse (in photo) in Westport, Conn.

RIEDEL, MICHAEL       A theater columnist for The New York Post from 1998 to 2018. He left The Post to begin a career in radio. His last name rhymes with "needle."                                                                                    

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SHAKESPEARE IN THE PARK  A glorious New York City tradition that we all pray will go on forever. Each summer, the Public Theater presents two major, splashy productions (usually but not always by Mr. Shakespeare) in the open-air Delacorte Theater in Central Park. Tickets are free (that was Joe Papp’s idea) but do require waiting in line, perhaps for hours and hours, to obtain. Major stars like Meryl Streep and Al Pacino (in photo, as Shylock in "The Merchant of Venice") have been known to turn up in the casts. The summer 2019 shows were “Much Ado About Nothing” and “Coriolanus.”  

SHAVIAN One of our favorite adjectives. Pronounced SHAY-vee-uhn, it means relating to Shaw. George Bernard Shaw.

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SHAW, GEORGE BERNARD Irish playwright, critic and sociopolitical activist. Shaw (1856-1950) was born in Dublin but moved to London when he was 20 to seek his fortune. Best known for “Mrs. Warren’s Profession,” “Arms and the Man,” “Candida” (all produced in the 1890s), “Man and Superman,” “Major Barbara,” “Pygmalion” and “Heartbreak House” (all early 20th century). He won the 1925 Nobel Prize in literature for his body of work, “its stimulating satire often being infused with a singular poetic beauty.” He also enjoyed using archaic spellings and eliminating apostrophes.

SIMON, JOHN   The meanest man who ever reviewed legitimate theater. He was the theater critic for New York magazine from 1968 to 2005 and wrote theater reviews for Bloomberg News from 2005 to 2010. A fact not universally known: Simon (1925- ) was born in Serbia, living as a child in Belgrade. English isn’t even his first language.

SIMON, NEIL The king of 20th-century urban Broadway comedy. Simon (1927-2018), a native New Yorker, won three regular Tony Awards – for “The Odd Couple” (1965), “Biloxi Blues” (1985) and “Lost in Yonkers” (1991) – and one special Tony, just for being himself. A number of his other plays are equally famous, among them “Barefoot in the Park,” “Promises, Promises,” “Last of the Red Hot Lovers” and “The Sunshine Boys.” The Neil Simon Theater (formerly the Alvin), on 250 West 52nd Street, was renamed for him in 1983.

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SONDHEIM, STEPHEN    Lyricist, composer, author and god. Born in New York City on March 22, 1930. His Broadway credits, roughly in chronological order, include “West Side Story,” “Gypsy,” “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” “Company,” “Follies,” “A Little Night Music,” “Pacific Overtures,” “Sweeney Todd,” “Sunday in the Park With George,” “Into the Woods” and “Passion.”

SOUNDTRACK  See Original Cast Album. Please.

Theaters still have them. Fans still stand by them after the show. Actors still emerge from them, sometimes giving autographs and agreeing to embarrassing selfies.


Who's on Right?

Chris Cooper, left, is stage right in this scene from "A Doll's House: Part 2." Laurie Metcalf, right, is stage left.

If you are an actor standing onstage (or are on the stage for some other reason), your left is stage left. As opposed to house left. In this photo from "A Doll's House: Part 2," Laurie Metcalf is stage left.

Again, if you are standing onstage, your right is stage right. As opposed to house right. In the "A Doll's House: Part 2" photo, Chris Cooper is stage right.

The British term for what Americans call the orchestra section of the theater. "The stalls," that is.


Once considered a special tribute paid to a truly outstanding performance or production, a standing ovation is now pretty much standard in Broadway theaters. This leaves no way, unfortunately, for an audience to express an opinion that it has just seen true greatness. And once everyone in front of you stands up, you have to stand too; otherwise you can’t see what cute things the actors are doing during their curtain calls. The Washington Post theater critic Peter Marks lamented this back in 1996 (when he was still at The New York Times), but after more than two decades, the article appears to have had no effect.

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Short for Theater Development Fund, a nonprofit group for the performing arts, best known for running the TKTS booths. (That's the Times Square booth in the photo.) You can also join TDF (if you’re any of the following: student, teacher, union member, senior citizen, clergyperson, government employee, nonprofit employee, member of the military) and order discounted tickets ahead of time.

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A thrust stage is one that extends into the audience on three sides. (Fashion runways and beauty pageant runways work this way too.) The thrust style was used as long ago as in ancient Greece but fell out of favor. The Stratford Shakespeare Festival of Canada is credited with bringing it back in 1953.

The main TKTS (pronounced “tickets”) booth is in Times Square, at Broadway and 47th Street. Discounted tickets for both Broadway and Off Broadway productions (sometimes 50 percent off) are available on the day of the show. It involves standing in line. Branch TKTS locations are near Lincoln Center (61 West 62nd Street), at South Street Seaport (190 Front Street) and in Brooklyn (1 Metro Tech Center).

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Six of One

Audra McDonald has won six Tony Awards, and she's only in her late 40s.

The Antoinette Perry Awards for Excellence in Theater, presented annually in New York since 1947. Only Broadway productions are eligible for most of the awards. Named for Antoinette Perry, an actress, director, producer and co-founder of the Broadway League. In recent years, the Tonys ceremony has been held most often at Radio City Music Hall and televised on CBS.

“Oh, yeah, ‘Hamilton’ is going to transfer,” said almost everybody we know when that piece of hip-hop theatrical history opened at the Public in early 2015. That is a theater person’s shorthand way of saying: This show is so good and is being so well received that they’re going to move it to a Broadway theater.

TWO-HANDER Theater term for a play with only two characters onstage. Examples: “Venus in Fur,” “Love Letters,” “Red,” “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune.”



If you’re standing on a stage, “up” is closest to the back of it and farthest from the audience. “That actress really upstaged her co-star” means that the actress stood farther upstage than she was supposed to, forcing her fellow cast member to face her and turn his/her back to the audience. Not nice.

The usher is a nice person who will look at your ticket, show you where your seat is and hand you a Playbill. It is considered polite to wait at the back of the aisle for him or her to approach you and offer to help. Some people, however, will always barge forward on their own. Glaring at them may or may not help modify their behavior.



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Eat Your Heart Out, 'Phantom'!

This murder mystery first opened on the West End in October 1952. Harry S Truman was president, and the young Queen Elizabeth II had just ascended the throne.


The theater district in London. Just as American shows may open Off Broadway or in regional theaters and then transfer to Broadway, British productions do the same, moving to the big time: the West End. There is no known connection to West End Avenue in New York City, but some historians say the avenue was named for the theater district because it was originally meant to be a commercial area, rather than the residential avenue it is now. 

WILLIAMS, TENNESSEE  Southern playwright (1911-83) whose real first name was Thomas and who was born in Mississippi, not Tennessee. Williams won only one Tony Award during his storied career, for “The Rose Tattoo” (1951), but before and after that, he won two Pulitzer Prizes. They were for “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1948) and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” (1955). Other notable works: “The Glass Menagerie,” “Sweet Bird of Youth,” ”Summer and Smoke” and “The Night of the Iguana.”

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ZETA-JONES, CATHERINE  A very pretty Welsh-born movie actress who inexplicably won a Tony Award in 2010. She was named best actress in a musical for her role as Desiree Armfeldt in the 2009 Broadway revival of "A Little Night Music."