Throughout the hallways, suites and lounges of the Civilian, a new 27-story, 203-room hotel one block from Times Square, guests can experience everything about Broadway except the music. (Though it’s easy to imagine a concert or cabaret singer would also perform there.) It’s a veritable shrine to Broadway design, spearheaded by innovative set designer David Rockwell.
What’s unique about the Civilian — which has been welcoming guests since November but is still completing some dining rooms — isn’t that it uses its proximity to Broadway as a thematic springboard. The originality lies in the array of talented artists brought in to advise and contribute to a hostel that owes almost as much to curation as to commerce. Tony Award-winning set, costume and lighting designers such as Rachel Hauck (Hadestown), Christine Jones (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child), Paul Tazewell (Hamilton), Clint Ramos (Eclipsed) and Jules Fisher (“Pippin” and eight others) are among those recruited by Rockwell (“Hairspray,” “Into the Woods”) for the project.
Broadway has an “Into the Woods” for eternity
Also a hotel and restaurant designer – the interior of Danny Meyer’s Union Square Cafe was one of the projects of his company, the Rockwell Group – Rockwell speaks of the artwork, props and models of sets he collected in the Civilian as if he were the custodian an underestimated legacy. (The building itself is by New York firm Gwathmey Siegel Kaufman Architects.) “The collection is designed to take an ephemeral world,” Rockwell said, “and give it a sense of permanence.”
Broadway has venerable watering holes like Joe Allen, the West 46th Street restaurant adorned with posters of famous flops, and Sardi’s, the historic spot on West 44th adorned with the caricatures of Broadway luminaries. But the Civilian raises the bar for Times Square hangouts bathed in a theatrical aesthetic. One example is the “Company Wall” – an exhibition of paintings and photographs by artists, theater professionals and students, reminiscent of a text from Stephen Sondheim’s score for “Company”. “It’s a city of strangers, some come to work, some to play,” begins the inscription, taken from the song “Another Hundred People.”
On the wall above are depictions of New York street scenes, as well as more abstract notions of the teeming and isolating qualities of city life. Among them are drawings by Boris Aronson from the set for the original 1970 production of Company, a bleak cityscape of scaffolding and elevators considered a major advance in modern stage design.
“I’m absolutely mesmerized by this place,” said Christine Jones of Chicago-based Zoom, where she fine-tunes the set of the Broadway musical version of The Devil Wears Prada. She added that it was particularly touching that work by Tony Walton, the adored Broadway set designer who died in March, was on display at the hotel. “It’s really moving to go upstairs and see his drawings on the wall,” Jones remarked. “And that it takes place in an environment that is not a museum. It’s a place where we will come and have a drink after our shows.”
Located on West 48th Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues, The Civilian is a project by hotelier Jason Pomeranc, who sees it as a place where theater people and theatergoers can meet. (Rooms at the Civilian range from $239 to $409 a night on weekends, and they start at $179 on weekdays.) “It’s not just the pre- and post-theater dinners, it’s actually the creatives hanging out there, make it their place and inject energy into the building,” said Pomeranc.
The theatrical atmosphere begins at the side of the road, when you’re faced with a domed facade made of reclaimed brick — according to Rockwell, it pays homage to the exterior of the Al Hirschfeld Theater (formerly Martin Beck) three blocks away.
“It’s a hotel that’s about community,” Rockwell said as he took me on a tour of dining areas, bars, guest rooms — and what’s known as the Olio Collection. Community indeed: The Broadway production of Take Me Out threw its cast party at the Civilian; Singer/comedian Randy Rainbow threw a birthday party, and to mark the end of his run in the off-Broadway revival of Little Shop of Horrors, actor Skylar Astin celebrated with his co-stars there.
The narrow lobby is lit by rows of overhead lightbulbs, giving the feeling of walking under a theatrical canopy; A bench made of wooden seats salvaged from an old Buffalo theater lines a wall opposite a reception desk.
There are photos everywhere: in the restaurant, in the bar, in the corridors of the guest rooms, by Broadway photographers including Bruce Glikas and Sara Krulwich, by Audra McDonald, Bette Midler, Barbra Streisand and so on. Alan Cumming and Natasha Richardson, stars of an acclaimed 1998 ‘Cabaret’ revival directed by Sam Mendes, emerge in one image; Judy Garland, seated in one audience, looks out into another.
Costume designer Clint Ramos stepped out of his comfort zone to take part in the project, drawing three Broadway theaters for the Sconce Gallery. “I love his kind of loner, his kind of very individual way of advocacy and activism,” Ramos said of Rockwell. His pencil portraits of the exteriors of two theaters, the Hudson and the Barrymore, and the interiors of a third, Circle in the Square, are etched into mounts alongside those of set designers such as Scott Pask, Mimi Lien, and Neil Patel. Nearby is the theater that Hauck drew for the simple reason that Walter Kerr drew it because its multi-faceted, swirling set for Hadestown is on his stage.
“I felt a little intimidated because obviously my primary medium is the model, not the sketch,” Hauck said. “So I thought I could do one and this one means the world to me, this theatre.”
Rockwell asked Tazewell, Oscar-nominated for his costume design for the film remake of West Side Story, to help him curate the items in the glass cases in the Blue Room — a cozy medium dark blue space with leather banquettes and velvet satin finishes , which now houses parts of Rafiki’s costume from The Lion King and perfume bottles from She Loves Me.
“Most people who watch Broadway shows don’t give much thought to what happens to those plays after a show closes or a cast member leaves a production,” Tazewell said. “It’s like ‘Hamilton’, we have a huge warehouse that contains all the garments from different productions. But then there are those parts that you really want to hold and lift.”
Lighting designer Jules Fisher has extensive collections of scenic designs; he loaned the Civilian three drawings by Walton and two by Aronson. He laments that many design studios today prefer the iPad to the drawing board: “There is no human touch, no human hand,” he said.
Perhaps the Civilian and Rockwell remind people of Broadway design traditions?
“The fact that this hotel features theatrical craftsmanship is unusual,” Fisher said. “David is a persuasive person.”
That persuasion extended to the American Theater Wing, a philanthropic organization that advances theater education (and runs the Tony Awards with the Broadway League). With Rockwell’s encouragement, the wing became an advertising partner, an arrangement that resulted in an unusual financial bonus for the nonprofit: Every time a guest books a deluxe room, the wing receives a small percentage of the revenue.
“It’s a match made in heaven in partnership terms,” said Heather Hitchens, the wing’s president and chief executive officer.
“These are things that you’re not going to see just anywhere, for people who love the behind-the-scenes look,” she said of Civilian’s immersion in design. “For someone who loves theater, it’s a really non-intimidating way to immerse yourself. Because audiences are hungry for more than just going to the show and coming back.”