This post was first published on December 8, 2015 as part of The Green Room on www.newmusicaltheatre.com.
This week’s blog is inspired, as everything is these days, by Hamilton. I recently discovered a historic gem in my own neighborhood and was thrilled to find out it had ties to everyone’s favorite contemporary musical. Then I began to realize that NYC is the birthplace not just of American Musical Theatre, but also of so much history! Let’s dive in and see how those two things connect. These are the 7 best NYC historical sites that cameo in musicals.
1. The Morris-Jumel Mansion (65 Jumel Terrace, NY, NY 10032)
This beautiful mansion was the first place to start ideas rolling in my head. It’s conveniently located just a few blocks from my apartment, so I catch a glimpse of it every day on the way to the supermarket or the subway. This mansion once served as George Washington’s headquarters during the Revolutionary War because it has awesome views of both the Hudson and the Harlem rivers. The strategic location is credited with helping Washington plan a successful approach for the Battle of Harlem Heights. Built in 1765, it has earned the title of “Manhattan’s Oldest House.” The house changed owners a couple of times before falling into the hands of Stephen Jumel and his wife Eliza Bowen. After her husband’s death, Eliza married…Aaron Burr! Everyone’s favorite anti-hero!
If you’re visiting the mansion, I recommend taking the C train to 163rd and exiting onto 163rd and Saint Nicholas. Once you pass the supermarket, you can take the steps right up through the Sylvan Terrace carriage houses. These apartments were once the homes of feed dealers and other people who did business with the Morris-Jumel Mansion, and they have since been restored and used as backdrops in Boardwalk Empire. It’s also rumored to be haunted!
2. Trinity Church Cemetery (Multiple locations: 75 Broadway; 155th Street and Riverside)
I couldn’t resist throwing another Hamilton gem into the mix. This cemetery, which consists of three separate burial grounds, is where Alexander Hamilton, his wife Eliza, and her sister Angelica are all buried. Their graves can be found at the Trinity Churchyard at Wall Street and Broadway. Broadway legend Jerry Orbach, along with famous historical figures like John Jacob Astor IV (famed victim of the Titanic), are buried further uptown at the Trinity Church Cemetery and Mausoleum. That burial ground is actually near the Morris-Jumel mansion, at 155th and Riverside. The third burial ground belonging to Trinity Church holds one partial body that may be of interest to theatre fans: that of actor George Frederick Cooke. His skull was used in one of Edwin Booth’s famed productions of Hamlet.
The Trinity Church Cemetery has a great website that offers walking tours and brochures for finding famous people’s graves. The Washington Heights location offers stunning views of the river.
3. Chrysler Building (405 Lexington Avenue, New York, NY 10174)
Every little orphan is familiar with Miss Hannigan’s infamous command: “I want this floor to shine like the top of the Chrysler Building!” It’s unlikely that the orphanage floor ever attains quite the same gleaming quality as the special non-rusting steel with which the top of the Chrysler Building is coated. Built in 1928 to house the headquarters of the Chrysler Corporation, the building held the record for tallest building in the world…for less than a year, when the Empire State Building surpassed it. However, the Chrysler Building does still hold the record for tallest steel-supported brick building in the world.
The details on the Chrysler Building are pretty impressive for a building of its time period. Its Art Deco style was meant to mirror the automobile manufacturer it housed; you can see hubcaps, radiator caps, and other car parts echoed in the design of the building.
4. Christopher Street
The very first number of Wonderful Town is dedicated to this exciting and exotic street in New York City. Filled with history, Christopher Street is famous for both its residents and its riots. When the characters of Wonderful Town would have been living there in the 1930s, Christopher Street was the height of the shipping industry. This explains how the gals meet so many sailors!
Although Christopher Street is famous for the Stonewall Riots, the street is noteworthy in its own right. It is the oldest street in the West Village, once part of an old estate. This estate was given as a wedding present to Charles Christopher Amos – for whom Charles Street, nearby, is named. Christopher Street is also home to the Lucille Lortel, an off-Broadway theatre known for its production of The Threepenny Opera and the original 1969 Dames at Sea.
5. Skid Row (The Bowery)
If you’ve ever wondered why you can’t find Skid Row from Little Shop of Horrors on a map, there’s a good reason: it’s not an actual street. Skid Row, both in Los Angeles (the original setting of the piece in the 1960 film) and in New York (where the musical takes place) is just a nickname for a run-down area of town. In New York, from the 1940s to the 1970s, the Bowery was considered “skid row.” Though it’s now a gentrifying area filled with restaurant supply stores, the Bowery was once a hotbed of prostitution, alcoholism, and other violent crime.
The Bowery isn’t completely dark, though. It’s also famous for CBGB, a music club that RENTmakes reference to; the Bowery mural; and the Bowery Poetry Club. If Seymour had lived on Skid Row in more modern times, he might have found a more artistic outlet for his anguish.
6. West Side Story Album Cover (418 W. 56th Street, between 9th and 10th Avenues)
The 1957 West Side Story original cast recording’s album cover is famous. It features a young Carol Lawrence (Maria) running down the street followed by Larry Kert (Tony). The exact location of their frolic is actually a lot easier to find than one might think: the photo was taken at 418 W. 56th street. You can figure that out by carefully scrutinizing the garbage can that the lovers are running past; it has the address right on it!
This Hell’s Kitchen address is near Columbus Circle and Central Park, and right off of Broadway. Next time you’re seeing a show, get off one subway stop early and take a little detour to visit this famous spot on the sidewalk.
7. Coney Island
My grandparents took me to Coney Island once when I was a kid. My brother and I chickened out of riding the Cyclone (the country’s oldest wooden roller coaster), probably played on the beach, and ate Nathan’s hot dogs. It was like being at a big state fair, an atmosphere I’m familiar with after growing up with the LA County Fair and Texas State Fair. But Coney Island has been drawing thrill-seekers and families alike for about two hundred years!
In the 1800s, Coney Island was filled with hotels and resorts. But in the late nineteenth century, up until the end of World War II, it was full of lights, money, booze, glamor, and fun! The main characters of On the Townend up there after a long day of subway chases and enjoy numerous dance clubs. What Chip, Ozzie, and Gabey miss out on is the aquarium (not built until 1957), the Coney Island Elephant (destroyed in 1896), and the vast beaches! However, the famed Phantom of the Opera does make a hideout on the Coney Island Pier in Andrew Lloyd Weber’s dark sequel toPhantom of the Opera, Love Never Dies.
What are your favorite NYC landmarks that double as musical theatre references?