Growing up in Boston in the 1960s, Richard C. Norton was singularly fortunate to see new musicals of the 1960s and 1970s before they arrived on Broadway. Early works by John Kander and Fred Ebb, Harold Prince, Michael Bennett, and Stephen Sondheim, among others, encouraged his interest in theater. He began collecting original cast albums, books, sheet music, and ephemera like playbills and posters. Richard has donated his now expansive collection to UC Santa Barbara, elevating the prestige and research potential of the UCSB Library Performing Arts Collection.
“My fascination with musical theater ran counter to my peers’ interest in rock ‘n’ roll,” lamented Richard. “In hindsight, I rebelled against the rebels!”
Richard is a self-taught musical theater historian. He worked for Theatre Now, the largest Broadway manager in the early 1980s, then dabbled in producing and investing. Curious and methodical by nature, he wrote the three-volume and nearly 3,000-page “Chronology of American Musical Theatre,” published by the Oxford University Press. His collection includes approximately 35,000 discs, 800 unpublished typescripts, 150,000 programs and playbills, 35,000 pieces of sheet music, and 2,000 reference books, all representing regional, national, and international musical productions.
The UC Santa Barbara Library’s Performing Arts Collection contains over 300,000 historical sound recordings and over 150 archival collections containing manuscripts, letters, photographs, scrapbooks, artwork, and other primary source documents that document and support research in the performing arts.
“I’m increasingly aware that materials for newer musicals can be found very easily online,” said Richard. “Much of what I am donating to UC Santa Barbara cannot be easily found on the internet — a problem I’m familiar with as I research. I like to think that I’m adding to the available information base for scholars in the future.”
Private collectors seek mutual understanding when looking for a home for their collections. Richard felt that kinship with curator David Seubert and other library staff as he explained how he shapes and references his collection, and how he hopes scholars will be able to use it.
“Richard’s collection is one of the finest of its kind and puts UC Santa Barbara on par with the likes of the Harvard Theater Collection of the New York Public Library as a repository of primary source material documenting American musical theater history. Working with Richard on bringing the collection to UCSB has been a great pleasure, as Richard not only understands the significance of his archive, but also the needs of the institution in preserving and making the collection accessible,” said Seubert.
Richard describes his library as a working collection, the size and complexity of which lends itself to research and serendipitous discovery. When working on any project, he starts with his own collection before turning to outside sources.
“It’s going to be interesting to see how UC Santa Barbara makes its collections available to future scholars,” said Richard. “Will they be researching at home on their computers? I have no idea, but I’d like to be around to find out.”