A walk through New York's theatre district brings the characters of the stage to life, writes Mark Kennedy.

Visitors to Times Square looking for some theatre history may be discouraged by flocks of Elmo impersonators, Statues of Liberty and Naked Cowboys. A good guide is as important as a stiff elbow.

Guides can tell you where Barbra Streisand made her Broadway debut, which Broadway theatre is haunted by a former Ziegfeld girl wearing a green dress and which theatre was strictly segregated.

I jumped aboard four walking tours of the theatre district.

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BROADWAY UP CLOSE

Highlights:

Ducking inside the massive AMC Empire 25-movie complex on 42nd St to find a hiding former Broadway theatre inside; story and photos of the secret apartment above the Belasco Theatre; hearing about the bizarre shenanigans atop a theatre built by Oscar Hammerstein I; learning why the colours of Equity cards constantly change.

Programme:

Three tours, each about 1 hour, 45 minutes.

Cost:

US$48 per adult, children (12 and younger) $41.

Days:

Every day at 11am.

Selling point:

Smart, funny and fascinating tours by founder Tim Dolan, a theatre veteran with an infectious style.

Accommodates:

Up to 15 people.

Visual aid:

iPad packed with photos.

Audio:

Guides wear a small speaker.

Meeting point:

Depends which tour you take, but the first one starts at the Nederlander Theatre on 41st St between Seventh and Eighth Avenues.

Why choose them:

"It has to be a tour guide who is passionate and it is their life. That's important to me," Dolan says.

Online:

broadwayupclose.com

DISNEY ON BROADWAY: BEHIND THE MAGIC

Highlights:

Access to Disney Theatrical props at the New Amsterdam Theatre, including a chance to wear the coat from

Mary Poppins

; get into Ariel's seashell tub from

The Little Mermaid

; handle some carbon graphite masks from

The Lion King

; and examine a fancy shoe from

Beauty and the Beast

.

Programme:

2 hours, 30 minutes.

Cost:

$100 per adult; children (3-11) $90.

Days:

Friday, Saturday and Sunday mornings.

Selling point:

The only tour to get you inside a Broadway theatre and to handle some real props.

Accommodates:

Up to 25 people.

Visual aid:

Laminated photos.

Audio:

Each person gets a headset to hear the guide as well as listen to snippets of songs.

Meeting point:

Duffy Square at 46th and Broadway by the George M. Cohan statue.

Why choose them:

Stephen Oddo, co-founder of parent company Walks of New York says: "You can find information pretty easily on your own. To be able to go into a theatre, that's a whole different story."

Online: takewalks.com/new-york-tours

INSIDE BROADWAY TOURS

Highlights:

Gossip on actress Ethel Barrymore (she hated clutter and, weirdly, applause); visiting the Hotel Edison where a scene from

The Godfather

was filmed; learning about theatre superstitions ("break a leg" and not saying "Macbeth" out loud).

Programme:

1 hour, 45 minutes.

Cost:

Adults $48; children 12 and under, free.

Days:

Every day at 4pm.

Selling point:

Cheerful, knowledgeable guides, all working actors and theatre fans.

Accommodates:

Up to 20 people.

Visual aid:

Laminated photos.

Audio:

Guides wear a small speaker.

Meeting point:

Duffy Square at 46th and Broadway by the George M. Cohan statue.

Why choose them:

"It's the authentic, immersive nature of our tour," says Andrew Luan, the founder.

Online: insidebroadwaytours.com

WALKIN' BROADWAY

Highlights:

The story of the night Bill and Hillary Clinton went to Chicago; honouring Firehouse Engine 54, which lost many on 9/11; listening to Judy Garland sing

Plays the Palace

outside the Palace Theatre; the story of 20-year-old Julie Andrews' fitful start in

My Fair Lady

; finding out why there are so many Irish pubs near Times Square; learning how the TKTS booth works and getting a list of tips on finding discounted theatre tickets; listening to hits written in the Brill Building outside the Brill Building.

Programme:

90 minutes.

Cost:

Adults $41, children (6-12) $28.

Days:

Daily at 9.30am, 11.30am and 2pm.

Selling point:

Guides are working actors who treat the tour like a show, complete with songs, impromptu dancing and recorded stories from Broadway royalty.

Accommodates:

Up to 26 people.

Visual aid:

None.

Audio:

Each person gets a headset to hear the guide as well as an impressive collection of show tunes and snippets of interviews with figures such as Chita Rivera, Hal Prince and Alan Menken.

Meeting point:

The Actor's Chapel (239 West 49th St, between Broadway and Eighth Avenue)

Why choose them:

"Hearing the music of the musicals while you do it, brings it to life," says co-founder Don Frantz, a Broadway producer.

Online:

walkinbroadway.com

CHECKLIST

GETTING THERE

United Airlines

flies daily from Auckland to New York, with Economy Class return flights starting from $2404.43. Valid for travel until June 19 and from October 15-December 15.

ONLINE
VisitTheUSA.com
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