Throughout the hallways, suites, and lounges of the Civilian, a new 27-story, 203-room hotel one block from Times Square, guests can deal with everything Broadway but the music. (Although it’s easy to imagine a concert or cabaret singer headlining, too.) It’s a veritable sanctuary of Broadway design, helmed by innovative set designer David Rockwell.
What’s unique about the Civilian — which started receiving guests in November but is still finishing some dining spaces — isn’t that it uses its proximity to Broadway as a thematic springboard. The originality lies in the range of talented artists who have been brought to consult and contribute to a hotel industry that owes almost as much to curation as to commercialism. 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 Rockwell (“Hairspray,” “Into the Woods”) has recruited for the project.
Broadway has an “Into the Woods” for the ages
Also designer of hotels and restaurants – the interior of Danny Meyer’s Union Square Cafe was one of the projects of his company, the Rockwell Group – Rockwell talks about the artwork, props and set designs he he gathered into the Civilian as if he were the keeper of an underrated legacy. (The building itself is owned by New York firm Gwathmey Siegel Kaufman Architects.) “The collection is dedicated to taking a fleeting world,” Rockwell said, “and giving it a sense of permanence.”
Broadway has venerable watering holes such as Joe Allen, the West 46th Street restaurant adorned with posters of legendary flops, and Sardi’s, the historic West 44th spot festooned with caricatures of Broadway luminaries. But the Civilian raises the bar for Times Square gathering places bathed in a theatrical aesthetic. One example is his “Company Wall” – an exhibition of paintings and photographs by artists, theater professionals and students that evoke a lyric 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 of the set from the original 1970 production of “Company”, an austere cityscape of scaffolding and elevators that is considered a giant leap forward for modern stage design.
“I’m absolutely enchanted by the place,” Christine Jones told Zoom from Chicago, where she’s polishing the set for the Broadway-bound musical version of “The Devil Wears Prada.” She added that it was particularly moving that the work of Tony Walton, the revered Broadway decorator who died in March, would appear in the hotel. “It’s really moving to go upstairs and see his drawings on the wall,” Jones observed. “And that it happens in a setting that is not a museum. This is a place we will come to and have drinks after our shows.
The Civilian, located on West 48th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues, is a venture of hotelier Jason Pomeranc, who sees it as a place where theater people and audiences can mingle. (Civilian rooms range from $239 to $409 a night on weekends, and weekdays start at $179.) building with energy,” Pomeranc said.
The theatrical vibe begins on the street side, as you gaze up at an arched facade of reclaimed brick — a tribute, according to Rockwell, outside the Al Hirschfeld Theater (formerly the Martin Beck) three blocks away.
“It’s a hotel that speaks to a community,” Rockwell said as he showed me around the dining rooms, bars, guest rooms — and objects in what’s been called the Olio Collection. “Community” Indeed: The Broadway production of “Take Me Out” held its cast night 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 there with his co-stars.
The narrow lobby is lit by rows of bulbs overhead, giving the feeling of walking under a theater marquee; a bank of wooden seats salvaged from an old theater in Buffalo line a wall opposite a reception desk.
Photos hung everywhere: in the restaurant, at the bar, in the corridors of the rooms, by Broadway photographers including Bruce Glikas and Sara Krulwich, Audra McDonald, Bette Midler, Barbra Streisand, and so on. Alan Cumming and Natasha Richardson, stars of a famous 1998 revival of “Cabaret” directed by Sam Mendes, watch in one frame; Judy Garland seated in one audience looks into another.
Costume designer Clint Ramos stepped out of his comfort zone to take part in the project, designing three Broadway theaters for the sconce gallery. “I like his kind of maverick, his kind of very individual brand of advocacy and activism,” Ramos said of Rockwell. His pencil portraits of the exteriors of two theatres, the Hudson and the Barrymore, and the interior of a third, Circle in the Square, are etched into luminaries alongside those of set designers such as Scott Pask, Mimi Lien and Neil Patel. Nearby is the theater Hauck chose to design, the Walter Kerr, for the simple reason that his multifaceted, swirling set for “Hadestown” is on his stage.
“I felt a bit intimidated, because of course my main medium is the model, not the sketch,” Hauck said. “So I was like, I can do one and this is this one that means the whole world to me, this theater.”
Rockwell asked Tazewell, an Oscar-nominated costume designer for the West Side Story remake, to organize the items with him in the display cases of the Blue Room – a cozy medium-dark blue space with wooden banquettes. leather and velvet and satin finishes, which now house parts of Rafiki’s costume from “The Lion King” and perfume bottles from “She Loves Me”.
“Most people who go to Broadway shows don’t think much about what happens to those plays after a show ends or a performer leaves a production,” Tazewell said. “It’s like with ‘Hamilton’, we have a huge warehouse that has all the clothes from different productions. But then there are those pieces that you really want to hold and elevate.
Lighting designer Jules Fisher has extensive collections of scenic designs; he lent the Civilian three drawings by Walton and two by Aronson. He laments the preference in many design studios these days of the iPad over the drawing board: “There’s no human touch, no human hand,” he said.
Maybe the Civilian and Rockwell will remind people of Broadway design traditions?
“Having this hotel feature theater crafts is unusual,” Fisher said. “David is a persuasive person.”
This persuasion extended to the American Theater Wing, a philanthropic organization that advances theater education (and administers the Tony Awards with the Broadway League). With Rockwell’s encouragement, the wing became a promotional partner, an arrangement that led to an unusual financial bonus for the nonprofit organization: with each reservation of a luxury room, the wing receives a small percentage of revenue.
“It’s the perfect marriage in terms of partnership,” said Heather Hitchens, Wing President and CEO.
“These are things that you don’t go to see anywhere, for people who love behind the scenes,” she said of Civilian’s immersion in design. “For someone who loves theatre, it’s a really unintimidating way to immerse yourself. Because audiences are hungry for more than going to the show and coming back.