What performers take off (and put on), as told in 33 photographs and the words of Jesse Green, co-chief theater critic for The New York Times. “Some dressing rooms are shrines to self-love,” he writes. “More pertinently, they are assembly lines for reinvention.”


The cast of “A Chorus Line” The Booth Theater was turned into a makeshift dressing room for the hundreds taking part in the musical’s record 3,389th performance at the nearby Shubert Theater. Sept. 29, 1983.CreditFred R. Conrad/The New York Times

Sandy Duncan Backstage on opening night for a revival of “Peter Pan,” Ms. Duncan continued playing the boy who wouldn’t grow up. Sept. 6, 1979.CreditAssociated Press Ian McKellen and Jane Seymour The co-stars of “Amadeus” share an opening-night embrace at the Broadhurst Theater. Dec. 17, 1980.CreditMarilyn K. Yee/The New York Times
Hugh Panaro The actor prepared to play the title character of “The Phantom of the Opera” at the Majestic Theater. Feb. 7, 2012.CreditSara Krulwich/The New York Times
Josephine Baker The African-American singer and dancer performed at Henry Miller’s Theater in a rare return home. April 10, 1964.CreditJohn Orris/The New York Times Al Pacino He won a Tony Award for “The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel,” at the Longacre Theater. April 26, 1977.CreditJack Manning/The New York Times

About the last thing a dressing room is is the room where actors get dressed.

First, it’s where they get undressed. It’s where, along with extraneous layers of clothing, they remove the extraneous layers of self they bring into the theater. It’s where they take themselves off.

When I used to visit backstages frequently as part of my job, I saw performers in every kind of semi-nudity. It’s no different now: Coed locker-room shamelessness is the rule. In the long galleys where ensemble members prepare, there’s really no choice — no privacy, no modesty. Men parade in their dance belts, and women in silk robes casually gapping. The chatter down the row of mirrors is just as uninhibited.

But even in the star quarters, which are rarely as glamorous as one might wish, actors spend less time putting on makeup than scraping off their public personas. One star who invited me to drop by — a soignée veteran of musicals that regularly featured her in sequins — enjoyed her dressing room as a place to release her inner grandma. She wore flowery housecoats and fluffy slippers.

When I followed another into her windowless new palace on the first day of stage rehearsals, she did not quail at its industrial-strength ugliness but did gasp at the floor-to-ceiling mirrors a previous tenant had glued to a wall. She asked her assistant whether they might be ripped down or covered up. A dressing room was no place to see oneself.

Vanessa Williams The singer and actress getting ready for “Sondheim on Sondheim” at Studio 54. April 4, 2010.CreditChester Higgins Jr./The New York Times
Mary Martin Backstage at the Majestic Theater, the actress looked through a stack of telegrams congratulating her on the last day of her run in “South Pacific.” June 2, 1951.CreditWilliam Eckenberg/The New York Times
Maurice Evans One of the leading Shakespearean actors of his day, Evans became Falstaff for “Henry IV, Part 1” at the St. James Theater. Circa January 1939.CreditWilliam Eckenberg/The New York Times Sarah Jessica Parker She was the third actress to play the red-headed orphan during the original run of “Annie” at the Alvin Theater. March 6, 1979.CreditAssociated Press
Raul Julia His dressing room for “Nine,” at the 46th Street Theater, was decorated by the show’s set designer, Laurence Miller. Feb. 10, 1983.CreditVic DeLucia/The New York Times
Lin-Manuel Miranda “In the Heights,” at the Richard Rodgers Theater, was the first Broadway show for the composer, lyricist and actor. March 20, 2008.CreditTony Cenicola/The New York Times

Not everyone feels this way. Some dressing rooms are shrines to self-love, certainly. It takes a lot for an actor to throw away flowers dangling notes of praise.

More often, though, dressing rooms are other things: nurseries, clubhouses, makeshift trysting spots. Conference centers for hash-outs with agitated authors. Publicity offices with stacks of photos that still need signing. Impromptu rehearsal studios. Kennels. Napatoriums for two-show days. Ramen kitchens, botánicas, graveyards for humidifiers.

More pertinently, they are assembly lines for reinvention. Even if actors arrive solo, sometimes hours before curtain, they aren’t alone for long. Here come the wig handler, the dresser, the sound technician with his condom-wrapped microphone packs. Knock, knock: It’s the director’s assistant with a performance note. The co-star complaining about last night’s stepped-on joke.

But at some point, dressing rooms are places of silent, solitary work. Except for the Elphabas of “Wicked,” who need mechanical green-spraying, most actors put on their own makeup; it’s part of a tradition going back to the ancients. A designer will usually have provided the template; many’s the facial diagram I’ve seen perched on the mirror showing exactly how the transformation should happen.

Elizabeth Taylor in her dressing room at the Martin Beck Theater during the production of “The Little Foxes.” 1981.CreditRivka S. Katvan
Eddie Cantor The popular vaudeville comedian, dancer and singer tinkering backstage during the run of “Kid Boots” with his radio valise (essentially a receiver and loudspeaker in a suitcase). Circa 1924.CreditKadel & Herbert Edna Wallace Hopper and Shirley Booth Hopper, left, starred in the first production at the now-demolished Empire Theater. Booth starred in the last. May 24, 1953.CreditRobert Walker/The New York Times
Alice Ripley Playing the manic-depressive mother in “Next to Normal,” at the Booth Theater, was a gut-wrenching experience for the actress. May 18, 2009.CreditRichard Perry/The New York Times
Mae West Playing the title character of her play “Diamond Lil,” West put on some prop jewelry in her dressing room. Circa 1949.CreditThe New York Times
Samuel E. Wright The actor, who originated the role of Mufasa in “The Lion King” at the New Amsterdam Theater, has another major Disney credit: Sebastian the crab in “The Little Mermaid.” July 11, 2001.CreditSara Krulwich/The New York Times
Liza Minnelli The actress and singer made her Broadway debut in “Flora, the Red Menace,” at the Alvin Theater. June 23, 1965.CreditMeyer Liebowitz/The New York Times Frank Langella After playing the undead Transylvanian count in “Dracula” at the Martin Beck Theater, the actor took on the same role in the movie version. Nov. 3, 1977.CreditJack Mitchell
Helen Hayes For her role opposite Richard Burton in “Time Remembered,” at the Morosco Theater, Hayes won the Tony for best leading actress in a play. May 1958.CreditDennis Stock/Magnum Photos
Katharine Cornell Along with Helen Hayes and Lynn Fontanne, Cornell was considered one of the first ladies of Broadway. Here she prepared backstage at the Coronet Theater (now the Eugene O’Neill) for “The Firstborn.” May 1958.CreditDennis Stock/Magnum Photos
Harvey Fierstein on the Backstage Nests of Broadway
The writer and actor describes how he fashions his dressing rooms into “explosions of color and life.”

Idina Menzel The actress spent more than a year playing the original (and green-skinned) Elphaba in “Wicked,” still running at the Gershwin Theater. May 5, 2004.CreditSara Krulwich/The New York Times
Peter Falk Paddy Chayefsky’s “The Passion of Josef D.,” in which Falk transformed himself into Stalin, lasted just 15 performances at the Ethel Barrymore Theater. Jan. 14, 1963.CreditThe New York Times
David Cassidy and Shaun Cassidy The teen heartthrobs (and half-brothers) performed together as separated-at-birth twins in “Blood Brothers,” at the Music Box Theater. Aug. 24, 1993.CreditJames Estrin/The New York Times Ethel Merman The role of Dolly Levi in “Hello, Dolly!” was originally written for Merman. Nine years after turning it down, the actress joined the show at the St. James Theater. Sept. 3, 1970.CreditNeal Boenzi/The New York Times
Matthew Broderick A Broadway novice when he starred in Neil Simon’s “Brighton Beach Memoirs” at the Alvin Theater, Mr. Broderick won a Tony for best featured actor.  April 1, 1983.CreditBarton Silverman/The New York Times

The magic isn’t in the mascara. Nor is it to be found, at least not at first, in anything that’s added. It’s in what’s taken away. In front of the dressing room mirror, an actor’s own hair will often be secreted in a stocking cap, his 5 o’clock shadow spackled away, her freckles powdered to nothing. Looking at themselves disappearing, they may find their character getting ready to enter.

Later come the costumes and warm-ups, the guests and Champagne — even the press. Among them over the years have been photographers for The New York Times, catching classic performers in the act of becoming someone.

But first, before they can become someone, they have to become no one.

Patti LuPone Backstage at the Vivian Beaumont Theater, LuPone became Reno Sweeney, the nightclub singer at the heart of “Anything Goes.” It was also where she later got ready for her wedding.  July 10, 1988.CreditJonathan Atkin for The New York Times
Jake Shears The former frontman of the glam-rock band Scissor Sisters put on the signature footwear for his role in “Kinky Boots” at the Al Hirschfeld Theater. Jan. 22, 2018.CreditVincent Tullo for The New York Times
Gertrude Lawrence Backstage on opening night of “Skylark” at the Morosco Theater, the star was embraced by the producer John Golden. Oct. 11, 1939.CreditWilliam Eckenberg/The New York Times Charles S. Dutton The actor received a Tony nomination for his performance in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” which ran at the Cort Theater. Oct. 10, 1984.CreditLarry C. Morris/The New York Times
Ben Platt The actor decompressed backstage at the Music Box Theater after a performance of the musical “Dear Evan Hansen,” a month before winning a Tony. May 8, 2017.CreditDamon Winter/The New York Times

Betsy Horan is a Betsy Horan is a digital photo and video editor at T Magazine. Jesse Green is the co-chief theater critic for The New York Times.

Edited, reported and designed by Lorne Manly, Scott Heller, Carrie Gee, Alicia DeSantis, Michael Paulson, Joshua Barone, Ken Jaworowski, Nick Donofrio and Nakyung Han.

Inside Broadway Dressing Rooms
Broadway Stars Getting Ready, Then and Now
Six visits to six theaters, with decades between them, but the energy backstage is a constant.

Harvey Fierstein on the Backstage Nests of Broadway
The writer and actor describes how he fashions his dressing rooms into “explosions of color and life.”