June 10, 2023: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
Between 41st and 66th streets there are forty-two legit Broadway theatres (this includes the Palace, currently under renovation and scheduled to reopen in June 2024, as well as the Times Square Church, formerly the Mark Hellinger, which may never be restored as a theatre again, though one can always hope).
About half of these theatres are named for individuals (one for two of them), with many whose careers go back a century or more. A number bear meaningless names like Lyceum and Ambassador and the Shubert Organization, which own both, hold tight to these titles. When the John Cort was renamed for James Earl Jones last fall, it was a first for the Shuberts since 2005. That’s when the Plymouth and the Royale were swapped out for the Gerald Schoenfeld and Bernard Jacobs, the men who transformed the theatre business upon taking over leadership of the various Shubert properties in 1972. And those renamings had been the first since… well, forever. They’re just not big on the practice.
The Nederlander Organization, landlords of nine houses, aren’t really into this sort of thing either, though they recently renamed the Brooks Atkinson for Lena Horne, in an attempt to assuage diversity issues raised over the years.
However, the Jujamcyn Organization has renamed three of the five theatres it owns beginning in 1990, when the Ritz was upgraded and named for the respected author and critic Walter Kerr. They followed with exchanging the Beck for caricaturist Al Hirschfeld (2003) and the Virginia for playwright August Wilson (2005).
I own no theatres. But I do have strong feelings about who’s been chosen for the honor and who hasn’t. I also care mainly (and deeply) about those who still should. As a game, I often think of new ones that will pay tribute to certain historic Broadway figures, highly tuned to their connection to a specific space. For the purposes of this column, I’ve turned it into a project; a wish list, really.
Here then, strictly out of personal passion, are people I would like to see have their names adorn Broadway theatres. Gone are a few like the Minskoff (a real estate family) and the Vivian Beaumont (a philanthropist). This isn’t out of any animus whatsoever. I simply feel the people I’ve replaced them with are more worthy, that’s all. I’m not trying to be mean or cancel anybody.
You’ll see twenty-nine new names here. Six theatres retain the same marquees; six new honorees are alive and well and active members of the Broadway community; and five luminaries, already with theatres named for them, relocated in an effort for greater meaning and purpose.
Hey, it’s all subjective. So here they are, purely for pleasure and enjoyment, in a southern to northerly direction:
NEDERLANDER — The Lena Horne.
It makes more sense to rename the Nederlander, where Lena Horne had her greatest success in The Lady and Her Music forty-two years ago, than the Atkinson, where she once appeared in a play, not a musical, which lasted a week eighty-seven years ago. Dance With Your Gods may have marked her Broadway debut as “A Quadronne Girl,” but far more significantly, she OWNED the Nederlander when she graced its stage with the full range of her talents on display. Playing there in her autobiographical musical for thirteen months, she transformed what was never any producer’s first choice into the place everyone wanted to be. I saw Lady and Her Music twice in New York, once in L.A. and once in London. I’d see it again tomorrow if I could.
NEW AMSTERDAM — The Jerome Kern
I have only been inside the New Amsterdam once (The Lion King in 1997). Believe it or not, only three other shows have played there since 1937 (the theatre devolved into a seedy movie house for years). That said, my one time there was a doozy seeing Lion King from a house seat at the height of the hysteria surrounding its opening. Rescued from degradation by the Walt Disney Company in the mid-90s, they showed what $36 million can do in taking a long abandoned theatre and polishing it like a jewel, revealing possibly the most beautiful interior of any on Broadway. For my money, having a name like the New Amsterdam, the early name for New York City, is like calling a theatre the Manhattan (and yes, of course, there was one back in 1875) Composer Jerome Kern is the perfect candidate for a theatre if just for Showboat alone. The grandest of a trio still standing since 1903, the New Amsterdam makes for a fitting testament to this extraordinary songwriter. Kern also contributed songs to five shows that played there from The Ziegfeld Follies of 1916 to Roberta in 1933.
HAIMES — The Todd Haimes
This name change occurred last week when, in a wise and loving tribute, the Roundabout Organization announced they were removing the American Airlines as the name of its flagship theatre and renaming it for Todd Haines, the company’s longtime leader who died last month. The airline’s sponsorship was appreciated, but the unsaid quid pro quo of free advertising for the last quarter century didn’t sit right with a lot of people. Built in 1918 as the Selwyn, the theatre was one of a host of 42nd Street houses that proliferated the block in the early part of the twentieth century before all lost their luster. Instrumental as a producer for decades via his guardianship of the Roundabout, and a beloved member of the community, here’s to the Haimes thriving with plays and musicals in the years to come.
LYRIC — The Gower Champion
Having opened with Ragtime in 1998 as the Ford Performing Arts Center (more corporate sponsorship), this theatre was forged out of two Broadway houses, the Lyric and the Apollo. It has since been renamed three times (it’s formerly been the Hilton and the Foxwoods), then redesigned and newly dubbed the Lyric in 2014, when it was reconfigured for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (it now seats 1,622). Its longest running tenant prior to its current offering was the 2001 revival of 42nd Street, originally directed by Gower Champion, the innovative dancer/choreographer, whose signature-style stagings for Bye, Bye Birdie, Carnival, Hello, Dolly!, I Do! I Do!, The Happy Time and Mack & Mabel made them essential theatre experiences. Even the mean-spirited John Simon was a fan, once stating that “everything Champion directs demands to be seen.” A theatre in his name makes a lot of sense and 42nd Street as its location feels right for it.
STEPHEN SONDHEIM — The Thornton Wilder
I’ve never felt comfortable with the place where the old Henry Miller once stood, upon its rebirth, being named for Stephen Sondheim. Yes, a Sondheim Theatre must light up Broadway, but one he has absolutely no association with? That burns me (and I know I’m not alone). In actuality, the Henry Miller, built in 1918, doesn’t exist anymore. Only its facade remains while its interior is entirely new. To honor the tradition of the theatre’s most famous production, name it for Thornton Wilder. Our Town, which opened there in 1938, is unquestionably one of the most important plays of the twentieth century. Also the author of The Skin of Our Teeth and The Matchmaker, Wilder was a humanist and a highly inventive playwright who many writers owe a great debt. See further down the list for where Sondheim gets resettled.
ST. JAMES — The Rodgers & Hammerstein
Yes, there’s already a Richard Rodgers Theatre (the former 46 Street), but many were angered when Oscar Hammerstein didn’t receive co-billing upon its renaming for Rodgers. Yes, the great composer also wrote with Larry Hart (and a few others post-Hammerstein’s death), but his collaboration with Oscar marked a progressive boldness in his work, as well as far richer and more classic musicals. Who can really argue that Rodgers and Hammerstein’s names not be enshrined on a marquee? Or that the St. James, built as the Erlanger’s in 1927, and where Oklahoma! held court its entire five-year run in the mid-40s, is the perfect location? It’s also not for nothing that both the The King and I and Flower Drum Song opened there, too.
HAYES — The Harvey Fierstein
The Little Theatre was built in 1912, and now claims the distinction as the smallest house on Broadway (597 seats). It was haphazardly rechristened for the actress Helen Hayes, after the former theatre that was named for her, the Fulton (originally the Folies-Bergere, if you can believe it), was demolished. Hayes didn’t really like her name stuck on the Little, where she never played. For one thing it was run down at the time and bore the status as the runt of the litter in the theatre district. Now that the Second Stage Company owns it, they’ve shortened the name to the Hayes for some unexplained reason. The person for whom this theatre should be named is Harvey Fierstein, a tireless innovator, arts champion, and human rights activist. His Torch Song Trilogy played its entire three-year run there and was the first play with openly gay themes to win the Tony Award, which he followed up the next year with La Cage Aux Folles, the first musical with openly gay themes to win the Tony.
HUDSON — The Jason Robards
One of the three aforementioned oldest theatres on Broadway, the one-hundred-twenty year old Hudson recently underwent a $10 million renovation to return as a legit theatre for the first time since 1968. This intimate house for plays and musicals is just begging to be renamed for a theatrical giant and I nominate Jason Robards, who played there in Lillian Hellman’s Toys in the Attic in 1960. Robards is the male actor who still holds the record for the most Tony nominations (eight) and even though he counterbalanced his career with major film and television work, his dedication to the theatre remained unwavering until his death in 2000.
MAJESTIC — The Harold Prince
None other than Carol Burnett herself has launched an online campaign to rename the Majestic for Harold Prince, perhaps the most important theatrical figure in the second half of the twentieth century. I personally wrote not one, but two letters to the Shuberts over the years to rename it for Prince and both went unanswered. Built in 1927, it’s been a favorite among dozens of producers and directors who favor its enormous and sloped orchestra. Prince, over almost anybody else, deserves a theatre. That it be the Majestic is such a no-brainer it isn’t even funny, what with The Phantom of the Opera, which he directed, recently ending its thirty-five year run there. This one of all I’m suggesting probably has the best chance of happening at some point. Why it wasn’t done in Prince’s lifetime will forever be a mystery.
BROADHURST — The Terrence McNally
George Broadhurst, a Brit born in 1866, became wealthy in America as a playwright, producer and director. When the theatre he named for himself opened in 1927, he co-owned it with the Shuberts until his death in 1952. Playwright Terrence McNally, the recipient of five Tonys (four competitive and one for lifetime achievement given to him the year before his death in 2020), is thoroughly deserving of the honor of a theatre named for him. His last two plays were produced at the Broadhurst, Anastasia (2017) and a revival of Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune (2019) His contributions to the theatre, which reach as far back as 1963, are voluminous and essential.
SHUBERT — The Michael Bennett
All ten musicals Michael Bennett choreographed on Broadway were nominated for the Tony Award. Think about that for a second. His A Chorus Line is the quintessential Broadway musical. That he died at forty-three from AIDS, robbing us of decades of potential future accomplishments, remains a tragedy. No other theatre than the Shubert will do, the flagship home of the organization, built in 1913.
MINSKOFF — The Andrew Lloyd Webber
Named for Sam Minskoff and Sons, real estate developers who tore down the old Astor Hotel, built a large office tower on the spot in 1973 that also houses a 1,696 seat theatre. The Lion King is its current tenant, seemingly from now till doomsday. There is no denying Andrew Lloyd Webber’s contribution to the musical in terms of employment for thousands and the pleasure he’s given millions. Sunset Boulevard played here and to designate it the Andrew Lloyd Webber is just and appropriate.
BELASCO — The Clifford Odets
The 19th and early 20th century impresario David Belasco’s resplendent theatre on West 44th Street opened in 1907, the second of two theatres he built and named for himself. Its most extravagant feature is a ten-room duplex penthouse apartment above it where he lived (his ghost is said to haunt the place). The Belasco could be my very favorite theatre. If you’ve never been inside, make it a point to correct that quickly (Sean Hayes in Good Night, Oscar is playing through July). Rather than Belasco, I suggest it be named for Clifford Odets, whose 1935 Group Theatre production of Waiting for Lefty was a game changer. And guess what? He followed that with three plays which all opened there as well: Awake and Sing, Golden Boy and Rocket to the Moon. Case closed.
HIRSCHFELD — The Arthur Miller
In 1953, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible opened at the former Martin Beck, built in 1924 (self-named by the vaudeville promoter who built it). Miller belongs on 45th Street alongside the other great playwrights you’ll soon see follow. As the person who also gave us All My Sons, Death of a Salesman, A View From the Bridge, After the Fall and The Price(among others), any question of his worthiness is indisputable. As for Al Hirschfeld, considering his presence is felt in practically every single theatre, it’s not essential this be the one which honors him. I have a better idea for “the Line King” … scroll on.
GOLDEN — The Edward Albee
The John Golden, built as the Theatre Masque in 1927, got its new name when its eponymous producer bought it in 1936. It’s where Edward Albee’s The Goat, Or Who is Sylvia? opened in 2002, winning the author one of his two Tony Awards for Best Play (he also won three Pulitzers). Thus, the Golden makes the perfect venue for Albee, whose Zoo Story, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and A Delicate Balance are but three of the fine works that gave voice to one of America’s most gifted dramatists. An intimate house, the theatre is also where the glorious revival of Three Tall Women was presented in 2018 (which Albee did not live to see, his having passed in 2016).
JACOBS — The Tennessee Williams
The Royale, built in 1927, has a wide stage in an average size house that works nicely for both straight plays and musicals. When The Ferryman played there in 2018, its Tony Award winning set of a small house’s interior was so superbly crafted, it convinced me I lived in it. As previously mentioned, it was named for one of the co-heads of the Shubert Organization in 2005. That a theatre bears a lawyer’s name, and not Tennessee Williams, needs rectifying. Perhaps the finest male writer of women’s roles and a lyric poet of the highest order, Williams’ works will be revived for as long as Broadway exists. It is apt that this is the theatre where The Glass Menagerie relocated in 1946, having first opened at the Playhouse (demolished in 1969). The Night of the Iguana and Slapstick Tragedy also opened at the Royale/Jacobs as well. That there has been no Tennessee Williams Theatre has always been a crying shame. This will correct it.
SCHOENFELD — The Tom Stoppard
The Real Thing opened in 1984 at the Plymouth (prior to it being renamed the Schoenfeld) and was Tom Stoppard’s biggest hit. This octogenarian is now on the eve of winning what most prognosticators believe will be an unprecedented fifth Tony Award for Best Play (his fourth one marked an achievement no one else has managed either). One of the great writers in the English language, this Czech-born Brit has been a part of the Broadway scene since 1967 and continues to dazzle as his latest, Leopoldstadt, has proven this season.
BOOTH — The Harold Pinter
Born one hundred and ninety years ago, the actor Edwin Booth is the oldest person with a theatre named for him. Built in 1913 and one of the smallest Broadway houses, the Booth has favored everything from a one-person play like Robert Morse in Tru, to the fifteen member ensemble of the musical Sunday in the Park with George. With Eugene O’Neill the only Nobel Prize laureate with a theatre named for him on West 49th Street, why not make British playwright Harold Pinter the second? His third Broadway production, the brilliant and enigmatic The Birthday Party, opened at the Booth in 1967. Audiences forever seem confused by exactly what Pinter is getting at, but directors and actors can’t get enough of him. His comedies of menace are filled with dread and knotty dialogue that have made him the envy of playwrights from David Mamet onward. Many imitate him, but there has only been one Harold Pinter.
Now allow this visual to take hold. Picture yourself standing outside the Booth (now the Pinter) and looking west down the south side of 45th Street towards a Murderer’s Row of playwrights: The Pinter, The Stoppard, the Williams, the Albee and the Miller. There’s method to my madness.
LYCEUM — The Nathan Lane
Since making his Broadway debut more than forty years ago in a 1982 revival of Noel Coward’s Present Laughter, Nathan Lane’s stage career has been a marvel of high and low comedy as well as searing drama. Besides Coward, he’s done classics (Sheridan and Shakespeare), absurdism (Samuel Beckett, Taylor Mac), comedies (Neil Simon, Terrence McNally, Kauffman and Hart, Simon Gray, David Mamet), drama (Jon Robin Baitz, Tony Kushner), and musicals (Stephen Sondheim, Frank Loesser and Mel Brooks). He has appeared in twenty-four Broadway shows (if you count Angels as two plays, which it is) and seventeen off-Broadway. Boy, have we been fortunate in his having made that kind of commitment. The Lyceum is where Lane gave his achingly nuanced portrayal of Chauncey in Douglas Carter Beane’s The Nance here. This one hundred twenty-year old playhouse is ripe for the picking. Pick Nathan.
IMPERIAL — The Mary Martin
The Imperial, built in 1923, is where fifteen years later, a twenty-four year old young woman from Weatherford, Texas took to the stage in a fur coat (and little else) and warbled a Cole Porter tune titled “My Heart Belongs to Daddy.” The show was Leave It to Me, and from that night on, Mary Martin was a star of the first magnitude, leading the way in such classics as One Touch of Venus, South Pacific, Peter Pan, The Sound of Music and I Do! I Do!. If this leaves you worried I may have forgotten to consider Ethel Merman’s connection to the Imperial, I didn’t. Be patient and read on.
MUSIC BOX — The Irving Berlin
This couldn’t be easier since it was Berlin who bought the land for $300,00 over a hundred years ago where the Music Box is situated. With producer Sam H. Harris as his partner, they built it and together produced the Music Box Revue as its first tenant. A Jewish immigrant from Imperial Russia, who arrived in America at the age of five, young Israel Beilin rose from nothing to become one of the most prolific and greatest composer-lyricists of all time. He co-owned the Music Box until the day he died at age 101 in 1989. The theatre demands to be named for him. And for continuity’s sake, Irving Berlin’s Music Box has a nice ring to it, don’t you think?
RICHARD RODGERS — The Gwen Verdon-Chita Rivera
With the choice to have Richard Rodgers’ name on the St. James alongside Oscar Hammerstein’s, a replacement becomes necessary for the Rodgers on West 46th Street. Built in 1925 it was first called… wait for it… the 46th Street. I have great personal affection for this theatre because it’s where I saw my very first Broadway show fifty-six years ago, I Do! I Do!, starring Mary Martin and Robert Preston. Like the Majestic, the Rodgers shares raked orchestra seating, much adored by directors and designers. Both were designed by architect Herbert J. Krapp, the man with far more theatres to his credit than any other. Eleven Tony winning Best Plays and Musicals have opened at the 46th Street, including Guys and Dolls, Damn Yankees, How To Succeed, 1776 Fences, Lost in Yonkers, In the Heights and Hamilton. I propose renaming it for two great ladies of the musical theatre who have sixteen Tony Award nominations and seven awards between them: Gwen Verdon and Chita Rivera. Co-stars of the original production of Chicago in 1975, they are the perfect combination to pair on its marquee. Friends since they appeared in 1953’s Can-Can (Verdon featured, Rivera in the chorus), it’s also fitting that four of Verdon’s biggest successes played the theatre — Damn Yankees, New Girl in Town and Redhead, in addition to Chicago. It also happens that Rivera made her Broadway debut at the 46th Street as a replacement in the chorus of Guys and Dolls. For added measure, Verdon-Rivera nicely trips off the tongue.
MARQUIS — The Al Hirschfeld
The Marquis is built on land where three Broadway theatres once stood: the Bijou, the Morocco and the Helen Hayes. The protests expressed by the community prior to their demolitions couldn’t save them but had one silver lining, as landmark status was granted to every remaining theatre still standing in order to prevent future travesties. Though few cheered the Marquis when it opened in 1986, a smash revival of the 1930s musical Me and My Girl helped ease the pain. As mentioned, the unmatched caricaturist Al Hirschfeld could have any theatre named for him due to his ubiquitous presence on Broadway for eighty years as an artist covering plays and musicals almost exclusively for the New York Times. The grand old man lived to age one hundred, either sketching quietly in the rear of the orchestra during previews or dressed to the nines at hundreds of opening nights. At the Marquis, with its extensive outer lobby area larger than any other theatre, his drawings could be showcased in plentitude for all to enjoy.
LUNT-FONTANNE — The Lunt/Fontanne
No reason to change the name of this theatre, formerly the Globe and originally built in 1910. It was re-christened in 1958 for the married team of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, who reopened the theatre with Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Visit. The premiere acting couple of their day, it is said they ushered in an era of naturalism with their unique timing and use of overlapping dialogue, influencing a new style of acting. In spite of producers wanting to split them up as a means to star them each in a separate play per season the Lunts only cared about appearing opposite one another — and did so for thirty years. I have often stated a preference, if offered a trip in the proverbial Time Machine, to attend the opening night of The Visit, which marked their last time appearing on stage together. By general consensus, it is considered the apotheosis of their genius.
LENA HORNE — The Neil Simon
If Lena Horne’s name were enshrined atop the Nederlander where it belongs, then the former Brooks Atkinson Theatre needs renaming. Built in 1926, it was first named for the English actor/manager Richard Mansfield. Atkinson, the longtime theatre critic of the New York Times, received the honor upon his retirement in 1960. The forth show to play there under its new marquee was Neil Simon’s very first comedy, Come Blow Your Horn (1961). Counting revivals, Simon’s name has appeared on forty-one marquees over the past sixty years. There are those who think his plays are out of fashion, and yet the revival of Plaza Suite last season, starring Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker, was a smash. Yes, there already is a Neil Simon Theatre five blocks north, but I’m relocating him (you’ll discover why later).
SAMUEL J. FRIEDMAN — The Mike Nichols
I can’t help but be a little bit in love of the symmetry of naming the theatre across the street from where a new Neil Simon would go in order to honor the great Mike Nichols. The former Biltmore, built in 1925 and now owned by the Manhattan Theatre Club, renamed it in 2008 for Samuel J. Friedman, a Broadway publicist who died in 1974. An extensive $35 million redesign was partially funded by the Friedman family, whose generosity has supported MTC for more than forty years. 1963’s Barefoot in the Park marks the spot where the first of many collaborations between Mike Nichols and Neil Simon began. Running nearly four years, it was also the start of Nichols’ one-of-a-kind and historic directing career. The rest is history.
ETHEL BARRYMORE — The Lorraine Hansberry
Ethel Barrymore, sister to John and Lionel, were members of a family dynasty; descendants of the Drews and Barrymores that populated the American stage for decades. Ethel, born in 1897, appeared in some fifty plays in her sixty-year career. The Shuberts honored her in 1928 when they named a new theatre on West 47th Street for her. But I have another great lady in mind to pass the torch to and that’s Lorraine Hansberry. To my mind, her piercing drama, A Raisin in the Sun, which opened at the Barrymore in 1959, is a perfect play. Testaments to its timelessness (even if that’s a sad statement of affairs due to its subject matter) can be summed up by its two Broadway revivals, three filmed versions, and an off-Broadway production at the Public Theatre this past season. Hansberry only had two other plays produced in her lifetime, one of them posthumously (Les Blancs) and the other, The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, currently being revived for the second time on Broadway. Her death from cancer in 1965, at age thirty-four, silenced her poetry and brilliance way too soon, but Raisin lives on. The representation her name on the theatre where her landmark play first opened is proper and fitting. Even if this had been the only play she ever wrote… what a play!
PALACE — The Bob Fosse
When the Palace returns all spiffed up and elevated three stories (in a major architectural achievement, even if it is to allow for an indoor mall underneath), it should be renamed for Bob Fosse. It was his production of Sweet Charity in 1966 that transformed the old vaudeville house, first built in 1913, into a legit theatre. It’s also the stage upon which he shot the now legendary opening scene in his über-autobiographical 1979 film All That Jazz. Nominated for twenty (!) Tony Awards across four different categories (director, choreographer, actor and book writer), Fosse won nine. What a talent!
LONGACRE — The Julie Harris
One of the most beloved actors to ever grace the stage, Julie Harris was a constant presence on Broadway for decades. In her one-person show, The Belle of Amherst, her portrayal of Emily Dickinson won her a fifth Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play, a milestone no one else has accomplished in that single category. Belle played the Longacre which, like the Palace, was built in 1913. Its name was what the district now designated Times Square was called prior to the New York Times building its headquarters there in 1905. A beloved and dedicated theatre veteran, Harris also played the Longacre in a trio of plays — The Lark (1955), Mademoiselle Colombe (1956) and Little Moon of Alban (1960).
WALTER KERR — The Lloyd Richards
Lloyd Richards was the director of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, the Dean of the Yale School of Drama, Artistic Director of the Yale Repertory Theatre, the head of the National Playwrights Conference at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center, and the man who staged the first productions of six August Wilson plays on Broadway. Also a producer and actor, he was one of the leading Black theatre figures of the twentieth century whose contributions should not be forgotten. For my taste, this beauty of a theatre which opened as the Ritz in 1921, would be better served by Lloyd Richards’ name on its marquee than a theatre critic. In an interesting twist, after its renovation and renaming for Walter Kerr in 1990, the theatre opened with The Piano Lesson, which Richards directed.
JAMES EARL JONES — The James Earl Jones
Eminently worthy of the honor, it is significant that Jones received this recognition in his lifetime. Though his health prevented him from attending the ceremony last fall, this ninety-two year old giant of an actor is well aware that the Cort Theatre, built in 1921 and lovingly restored, is where he made his Broadway debut in 1958. It was a one-line part in Dore Schary’s Sunrise at Campobello (“Mrs. Roosevelt, supper is served”). This wonderful video was shown at the dedication in which Jones tells a story about that one line. I first saw him at the age of twelve, where his Jack Jefferson in the monumental Great White Hope blew me out the back wall from my seat in the last row of the balcony. With his having appeared in twenty Broadway shows, playing the lead in nearly all of them, I count myself blessed that I saw him in ten of those twenty.
EUGENE O’NEILL — The Eugene O’Neill
Although there are other theatres where O’Neill’s works have been performed more frequently than the Forrest (renamed for the playwright in 1959, six years after his death), any Broadway house carrying the name Eugene O’Neill would be meaningful. Often cited as the father of modern American drama, his plays continue to appear on Broadway and will forever forward as they are ripe for reinterpretation and draw major actors to the well-written roles they provide. Long Day’s Journey into Night (six Broadway productions) and The Iceman Cometh and A Moon for the Misbegotten (five each), confirm his enduring popularity.
AMBASSADOR — The Kander & Ebb
Though the Chicago revival, which opened in 1996, played two theatres before settling in comfortably at the Ambassador for twenty years, West 49th Street feels like its always been its home. It’s the only Broadway house designed on a side angle due to the way the parcel of land was situated, forcing its architect to twist the auditorium inside. The result is a theatre that doesn’t square up with the building itself; an odd shape that carries its own peculiar charm. With Chicagohaving no end in sight, it’s more than obvious the longest running composer-lyricist team in Broadway history be awarded here. “Wilkommen” to The Kander & Ebb.
WINTER GARDEN — The Stephen Sondheim
When West Side Story opened in 1957 at the Winter Garden, Stephen Sondheim was its lyricist. At twenty-seven years old, he was hoping to make his mark as a composer, but time took care of that. Follies, which opened at the Winter Garden in 1971, might be his masterpiece. It’s also where Angela Lansbury starred in a pitch-perfect Gypsy (the other show for which he wrote lyrics only), and his Pacific Overtures provided a visual feast upon the Winter Garden’s wide stage. Besides Angela Lansbury (and she’s up next), there’s no other choice for whom to rename the Winter Garden than Sondheim. It’s a far more auspicious location than the one that bears his name now on West 43rd. It’s also one of just two theatres that have entrances facing directly out on Broadway (there used to be three, but the Palace will have an entrance on West 47th when it reopens). This change will obviously never happen, but I like to think of Sondheim’s name easily viewed whenever anyone is in the theatre district, rather than tucked away on a side street.
GERSHWIN — The Angela Lansbury
And here we are. Angela Lansbury most definitely deserves a Broadway theatre. The Uris (named for the real estate brothers who built the skyscraper in which its housed) opened in 1972 with the far-out Via Galactica. It was an attempt by Galt MacDermot to follow-up Hair, the sensational musical that was positively bursting with his great songs. Hair ran more than four years, Via Galactica lasted one week. In one of its most desperate cries for attention, the ensemble of more than thirty actors were forced to bounce up and down on trampolines throughout the show in an effort to simulate the weightlessness of outer space. A far weightier choice in a name came in 1983, when the Uris was newly dedicated to George and Ira Gershwin. Totally appropriate and hard to argue with, I would still venture to offer Lansbury as a superior choice due to her strong association with the theatre. It’s not only where Sweeney Todd and her magnificent Mrs. Lovett held forth, but she also played there in short runs of The King and I (three weeks only while Yul Brynner took a vacation in the spring of 1978), and a Mame revival, with her once again laying claim to the role that made her a musical theatre sensation
CIRCLE IN THE SQUARE — The Circle in the Square
Also housing a school for young actors that utilizes its 840-seat theatre for teaching purposes, this uniquely shaped stage, unlike any other on Broadway, should maintain its name. Paul Libin and the late Ted Mann are the producers who founded it, an off shoot of a smaller version of it they developed in 1950s Greenwich Village, where the first wave of what we now call off-Broadway was born. If at some point, the uptown version comes to be called the Mann-Libin Circle in the Square, you’ll hear no complaints from me.
TIMES SQUARE CHURCH — The Jerome Robbins
This probably won’t happen (but never say never), as the Mark Hellinger Theatre, was sold in 1989 by the Nederlander Organization to the Times Square Church after a string of flops made them believe it was a better deal than having it empty much of the time. Since then, the church has had regular services there and, thankfully, has lovingly attended to keeping its interior beauty intact. Built in 1930 as a movie theatre, it was the first in New York specifically designed for talkies. In a perfect world, it would return to house Broadway shows again like My Fair Lady, which opened there in 1956. Though Jerome Robbins had nothing to do with that classic musical, nor did he ever work on the Hellinger stage, it can’t be argued that he was a vital force to be reckoned with as both choreographer and director. He was also a tyrant, but Gypsy and West Side Story will remain forever as shining examples of his genius in both functions, each owing a large part of their success to his vision. Many were angered when he left the theatre for the ballet world after his triumph with Fiddler on the Roof in 1964, and for good reason. He stayed vital for twenty-five more years and could have lent his considerable talents to any number of shows in that time, but it wasn’t meant to be. He returned one final time in 1989 to helm the revue Jerome Robbins’ Broadway, for which he won his fifth and last Tony Award.
NEIL SIMON — The Ethel Merman
Renamed for Neil Simon in 1983 while his Brighton Beach Memoirs was playing there, the Alvin Theatre (an amalgamation of the first names of producers Alex Aaron and Vinton Freeley) was built in 1927. Three years later, in 1930, a twenty-two year old girl from Queens (born Ethel Zimmermann) sang “I Got Rhythm” in the Gershwin’s Girl Crazy and stopped the show cold. Overnight, Ethel Merman became a star of the first order, appearing later at the same theatre in three musicals by Cole Porter, Anything Goes, Red, Hot and Blue and Something For the Boys. There has been no one else like her in the history of musical theatre (and there may never be another). From the moment she hit the stage she was a star, never anything but top billed, and never in a supporting role. When Merman was in a show, she was the show!
AUGUST WILSON — The August Wilson
With his ten-play cycle, each taking place in a different decade of the twentieth century, August Wilson lived to complete what can only be called a masterwork. He died in 2005 from liver cancer and wrote his final play Radio Golfduring his illness. Known as The Pittsburgh Cycle, these dramas of life in that city’s Hill District reflect Wilson’s poetry and mysticism, as well as his fierce sense of theatricality and flair for pungent comedy. He won two Pulitzer Prizes and one Tony Award, with Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Fences and The Piano Lesson among his finest achievements. It was announced in September 2005 that the Virginia Theatre, formerly the Guild and the ANTA, would be renamed for Wilson. He died the next month with a ceremony and unveiling two weeks after his death. May it remain forever the August Wilson.
BROADWAY — The Cole Porter
The Broadway Theatre might be most famous for two things: Walt Disney’s Steamboat Willie, a landmark cartoon that ushered in Mickey and Minnie Mouse and premiered there in 1928, and second, the mega- musical Miss Saigon, which ushered in the $100 theatre ticket in 1991. In 1930, the Broadway played host to The New Yorkers, a hit Cole Porter musical that starred Jimmy Durante. So powerful was Durante’s stardom at the time, the show was built around him and he took credit for five of its seventeen songs (his “specialty” numbers). But The New Yorkers also produced two Porter hits, “Love for Sale” and “I Happen to Like New York,” that proved to be perennials. A towering talent, a theatre named for him would be delightful, delicious and de-lovely.
STUDIO 54 — The David Merrick
There’s no one for whom it can be said bears a profound connection to Studio 54 as a theatre. First built as an opera house in 1927, its other iterations was as a TV studio and infamously as the cocaine-fueled discotheque in the late 1970s. It was reborn as a legit theatre in 1998, when it housed the revival of Cabaret, designed as the setting for that show’s Kit Kat Klub. Though David Merrick never won any popularity contests, it’s not a reason to deny naming a theatre for him. As a producer, he did more for the theatre than any other individual in the latter part of the twentieth century. And sure, the St. James would make sense (his office was above it and it’s where his Hello, Dolly! played for seven years), but sorry Mr. Merrick, Rodgers and Hammerstein take precedence. His shows were always first class and Merrick’s long string of hits included dramas, comedies and musicals. Just a few of the titles show his eclectic taste and strong nose for sniffing out a quality show: The Matchmaker, Gypsy, Becket, Marat/Sade, Oliver!, Promises, Promises! and 42nd Street were some of this other memorable productions. It would probably make him turn in his grave that after all these years a theatre would be named for him and not be on 44th or 45th Street… but he was notoriously hard to please anyway.
VIVIAN BEAUMONT — The Lillian Hellman
When Lincoln Center opened in 1965, a part of its campus was the first new Broadway theatre built since 1928. Named for the philanthropist Vivian Beaumont Allen, the theatre was a rarity with a thrust stage placing its audience on three sides. Jo Mielziner, the acclaimed scenic designer, along with the Finnish-American architect, Eero Saarinen, collaborated on it and argued furiously. The result was a very large space that stumped many directors, with few understanding how to handle its dimensions. It took until the tenth try for its first success, a revival of Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes, directed by Mike Nichols and starring Anne Bancroft and George C. Scott. Hellman was the most audacious female playwright of the 1930s, 40s and 50s, whose initial effort, The Children’s Hour, shocked audiences of its day with lesbianism (or at least the fear of its stigma) its controversial subject. It was too bold for the Pulitzer committee and lost the Prize due to one of the judges’ refusal to even see it. Hellman’s thorniness made her a contentious individual her entire life, but her contribution to mid-century American theatre is indelible and puts her in the pantheon.
That’s all, folks. For those who stuck with me till the end, I thank you.
If you enjoyed this, please check out Up in the Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway, available at Amazon.com in hardcover, softcover and e-book. Also, please follow me here on Medium and feel free to email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.