Theatrical capital makes a home for its souvenirs. London's Theatre Museum displaying only 10 percent of its items at any one time

It was an opening to do the Bard proud. A regular curtain-raiser on a plot as twisted as a Jacobean thriller, with an ending as sweet as suits the comedies.

Besides, it all went up on the anniversary of Shakespeare's birth - April 23, to be exact. Britain's first-ever Theatre Museum finally premi`ered.

It was a most welcome, if overdue, debut here in the world's theater capital. For the first time, one of the most comprehensive assemblages of theater artifacts and memorabilia is open to the public - a glitzy, nostalgia-laced collection that ranges from drama to dance, grand opera to pop, circus to pantomime.

``Theater is Britain's great heritage, and it's one of the great ironies that [London] was among the last cities to get a permanent [theater] archive,'' says Alexander Schouvaloff, director of the Theatre Museum.

Indeed, it took much backstage maneuvering to get this show going. Half a century of on-again, off-again wrangling between government and museum officials as antagonistic as Tudors and Stuarts almost killed the opening of the $6.48 million museum.

Technically a branch of the venerable Victoria and Albert Museum (and a pet project of the museum's retiring director, Sir Roy Strong), the Theater Museum was labeled ``a luxury, albeit a charming one,'' in a less than star-struck government report.

A carefully orchestrated public outcry eventually reversed the tightfisted administration's position, and official groundbreaking began in 1984.

Now, firmly ensconced in the slickly renovated Edwardian edifice that was the former flower market in bustling Covent Garden, the Theatre Museum is just steps away from the West End, the city's commercial theater district, in a block already occupied by the Royal Opera House and the Drury Lane Theatre.

Small, decorative, and ideally situated for walk-in tourists, the museum is a treasure-trove of thespian treats - a wildly varied cache of costumes, composers' scores, and kitsch that will appeal to the scholar as well as to the stage-struck.

``We're trying to present the [theatrical] forms so that the visitor's imagination can work on them,'' says Dr. James Fowler, chief archivist of the Theatre Museum. ``We are not providing a substitute for live theater. In the theater, even last night's performance is history.''

Unlike theatrical archives in Paris, Moscow, and New York, the emphasis here is on the public gallery space. Although only 10 percent of the permanent collection can be displayed at any one time, the exhibition has been designed with the theater fan firmly in mind.

There's no elitist feeling here; the original Andrew Lloyd Webber score of ``Jesus Christ Superstar'' and the sequined platform shoes worn by rock musician Elton John sit upstage from the title page of Congreve's ``The Way of the World'' and an original manuscript of Sheridan's ``The School for Scandal'' - something for anyone with the remotest interest in the performing arts.

Indeed, the ground floor of the museum evinces an especially lighthearted ``My Fair Lady'' look. Anthony Holland's splendid renovation is heavy on the gilded columns, flesh-colored marble, and trompe l'oeil painting.

And the towering ``Spirit of Gaiety,'' a 17-foot statue rescued from atop London's demolished Gaiety Theatre, is an imposing if festive frontispiece for the lobby, setting the tone of a Victorian music hall.

There is also a small restaurant, a bookshop, and, most usefully, a theater box office, where West End show tickets are available on a first-call basis. The overall effect is akin to the rest of Covent Garden and reminiscent of the restored South Street Seaport in New York - ``cute-ified'' commerce in an historical setting.

To reach the heart of the museum's permanent collection, one must wend one's way down to a subterranean rabbit-warren exhibition space.

It is here, in narrow, spot-lit aisles, that the permanent exhibition - actually three separate collections, from the British Theatre Museum Association, Museum of the Performing Arts Trust, and the Victoria and Albert's own Enthoven Collection - comes into its own.

Objects range from diminutive paintings, such as a tiny 1770 watercolor of David Garrick (1717-79) performing in ``Much Ado About Nothing,'' to life-size costumes and props, such as Julie Andrews's Edwardian finery from ``My Fair Lady.''

One of the most informative displays is a chronological record of the British stage and its corresponding international influences from Shakespeare's day to the present.

It is no mean trick, however, to imbue lifeless props and faded costumes with the glamour of live performance, and the Theatre Museum does not always succeed.

While the current exhibit, a temporary display of rare costume designs for the court ballet of Louis XIII, is particularly suited to the museum's dark, intimate spaces, other displays such as the costume exhibit can seem cramped. Nonetheless, the museum's undeniable strength is in its unabashed eclecticism - portraits of Shakespeare, commedia dell'arte masks, Mick Jagger's onstage getups. It's all here - a tangible record of one of the richest theatrical legacies.

Despite the museum's much-heralded opening, some problems linger.

The acting community has not rallied around the museum as expected, and there is a continuing question about money. The museum opened with a deficit, and insufficient funds precluded one of most prestigious purchases - Jacques Emile Blanch's show-stopper portrait of Nijinsky. But admission fees from an estimated 250,000 visitors annually should permit the museum to break even.

The Theatre Musuem is open to the public Tuesdays through Sundays. Access to the library is by appointment.

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