When the Boston Opera House reopened 15 years ago, theatergoers could behold the venue’s exquisite renovations — from the restored sculptural plaster to the gold leaf finishes to the tapestries and chandeliers — that brought it back to its original 1928 glory. What they didn’t see was the beginning of what would become a behind-the-scenes tradition that has chronicled the theater’s many staged events, from Broadway touring productions to the Boston Ballet to shows by performing artists, comedians, and assorted troupes.
This artistic historical register — a tradition at other theaters as well — comes in the way of murals that are designed, painted, and sometimes even bedazzled by artists whose compositions have been left on backstage walls, in stairwells, and in nooks and crannies throughout the maze of hallways behind and below the 2,677-seat theater’s large stage.
Talk about a theater geek’s wildest dreams: Look on one wall and you’ll see Maureen McGovern’s signature on a “Little Women” mural from 2006, look on another and you’ll see Adam Pascal’s and Rob McClure’s on a painting of a Renaissance theater from the 2017 production of “Something Rotten!”
There’s a 2016 autograph from John Rubinstein, who played the original Pippin when the show of the same name opened on Broadway in 1972, and appeared in the revival’s national tour in Boston some 44 years later as the lead character’s father, Charlemagne.
And most recently, the incomparable Betty Buckley’s signature adorns a “Hello, Dolly!” mural that includes paintings of the cast and crew members’ dogs — complete with the canines’ names. (Some non-Broadway luminaries have also left their autographs, including former presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton as well as Hillary Clinton, all of whom have given talks at the theater.)
“The murals are a visual documented history that celebrates what has occurred inside the venue and those who were part of that particular moment in the building’s history,” says Ann Sheehan, Broadway in Boston’s director of public relations and community relations. “They’re an extension of the stories happening in the city, in the theater, onstage, and each mural is a new chapter.”
Of the roughly 90 murals backstage at the now-renamed Citizens Bank Opera House, about 75 are from Broadway in Boston shows — starting with the inaugural “Lion King” painting from that show’s eight-month run at the newly renovated theater in 2004.
Some of the artists’ renderings are extremely intricate, others are just downright clever — like a mural from the 2009 production of “Dirty Dancing,” located on a corner wall in a lower level staircase (yes, someone dared to put Baby in the corner).
There’s a “Book of Mormon” mural that has a large, silver mirrored doorbell (think of the song “Hello!”), and pages that add dimension to the “Matilda” mural are from “Alice in Wonderland,” the book Mr. Wormwood takes from Matilda and destroys during the show.
Some of the murals pay homage to Boston, such as those from “Mamma Mia!” and “Cinderella,” which feature local sports’ team logos. And “The Book of Mormon” mural from the musical’s 2013-14 run recognizes the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings.
One of the most impressive murals is a three-dimensional, interactive slide puzzle for the 2014 run of “The Lion King” that was made by Michael Reilly, the tour’s self-described “puppet master,” who created all but the first of “The Lion King” murals at the Opera House, and plans to do another during the current tour that runs through Oct. 27.
“I saw a slide puzzle — a cheap little plastic toy — and something clicked. I went to a lumber store and got some sheeting, wood, paint, and that’s what I came up with,” Reilly says in a recent phone interview. “I was waiting for an opportunity, and Boston is near and dear to my heart — it’s so fun and inclusive — that I wanted to gift that.”
Reilly maintains that while he may do the actual design work, the murals are “very much a group effort,” with the cast and crew giving input.
“I think the murals are really for the backstage people who work in these theaters. They can look at the murals and reminisce about the times they had with the people in these shows,” he says. “But then it’s kind of a special treat, too, for others to get to see some of these murals. It’s almost like the curtain being pulled back on a secret society of touring shows.”
Ben Lipitz, who has played Pumbaa, the gaseous warthog, for 17 years in the Broadway production and on the national tour of “The Lion King,” has signed three of the show’s murals at the Opera House. He says the show’s cast and crew look forward to seeing the backstage artwork when they arrive in a new city.
“It’s part nostalgia and part excitement. It gives me a chance to see who’s been there, to reflect on colleagues and friends who have performed on the same stage. It triggers a lot of great memories,” Lipitz says. “These visual works of art, these visual tapestries, are really great ways to appreciate the history of all of the performers and all of the performances.”
While Lipitz doesn’t know what Reilly, whom he calls “insanely talented,” has in mind for the new “Lion King” mural in Boston, he can’t wait to find out.
“I’m hoping that younger performers than me, when they come back to perform in Boston, they’ll go to find their mural and, when looking at all the names, say ‘Oh my God, I remember Ben!’ ”
The Citizens Bank Opera House has recently added backstage tours. For more information, visit www.bostonoperahouse.com/historical-tours
Juliet Pennington can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.