At This Theatre: Studio 54
It’s a special Broadway miracle that live theatre is seen on the stage of Studio 54 in the 21st century. That’s because few theatres looked as far gone as Studio 54.
Built in 1927 as the Gallo Opera House, Studio 54 is possibly the most famous of the Broadway theatres to be returned to legitimate use in the late 20th and early 21st centuries after many years standing empty or employed for other purposes. For the brief time that it was the most famous/notorious club of the disco era, few imagined that it could ever be a legitimate theatre again; indeed, few recognized it as the shell of a theatre at all. Nevertheless, despite all its sins, Studio 54 was never demolished and rebuilt like other “saved” playhouses. When you sit in Studio 54, you’re inside the actual original auditorium space.
The house was built by Italian-born opera entrepreneur Fortune Gallo to house a complement to his traveling San Carlo Opera Company, which he dreamed would someday take its place alongside the mighty Metropolitan Opera. The architect was Eugene DeRosa, designer of the Apollo Theatre on 42nd Street. The auditorium was located on the Fifty-third Street side of the block, but visitors entered through a doorway on Fifty-fourth Street that led down a hundred-foot marble and mirror promenade to their seats. There was a single balcony, but it was divided into forward mezzanine and rearward “balcony” sections. The Gallo arrived near the end of the classic Times Square theatre-building boom of 1904-28 and thus had little time to find its footing before the tsunami of the Great Depression swept over Broadway.
The Gallo Opera House began its assault on the Met on November 7, 1927, with a grand production of La Bohème that failed to attract an audience and closed after less than three weeks. This was a profound blow to Gallo, who had built his reputation as someone who knew how to attract general audiences to opera performances. With supreme irony, in view of the Gallo’s aspirations and the theatre’s original name, it has never again presented an opera. The closest was a revival of the musical The Threepenny Opera in 2006.
Before the end of 1927 the space’s name had been adjusted to “Gallo Theatre,” and it had endured two further high-toned flops. The first was Sophocles’ Electra, with Margaret Anglin in the title role, recreating a performance she had given elsewhere earlier in the year. The production also featured two actors who would later have theatre awards named after them: Antoinette Perry as Clytemnestra and Clarence Derwent as Guardian. Despite their presence, the production opened Dec. 1, 1927, and gave only 12 performances.
The Irish Players followed quickly on December 19, with Sara Allgood in a revival of Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock, which expired before the end of January 1928. It went on like this. Things never really improved for the Gallo Theatre, which hosted 14 Broadway openings in the ensuing five years, all failures.
Perhaps the best-known and most regrettable of these was Rainbow (November 11, 1928), Oscar Hammerstein’s eagerly anticipated follow-up to the classic Show Boat, which had opened the previous December at the Ziegfeld Theatre. Set in the Gold Rush-era West, the musical featured Charles Ruggles and Libby Holman, the latter of whom introduced the torch song “I Want a Man.” But the Phillip Goodman production was plagued with disharmony among composer Vincent Youmans, librettist Laurence Stallings, and producer Phillip Goodman. Hammerstein, who also functioned as director, was ill during part of the tryout, and the result that opened at the Gallo Theatre was a mess. Literally so: a donkey named Fanny who was included in the production for verisimilitude relieved itself during a love scene on opening night, thus summarizing Fate’s entire attitude toward the Gallo during this period. Rainbow, called an “unfortunate debacle” by The New York Times, closed after 29 performances. Youmans never again had a hit, and Hammerstein fled back to his songwriting partner Jerome Kern. Choreographer Busby Berkeley later abandoned Broadway for Hollywood, where he made film-musical history.
The Gallo Theatre lineup for the rest of the Depression continued the litany of failure. Paul Frank’s “continental comedy” Ladies Don’t Lie was offered to the public October 10, 1929, as the first in a series of 12 “popularly priced plays” by Radiant Productions, but with the stock market slide that month, the public didn’t feel like paying even the discount price, and plans for the other 11 Radiant productions evaporated.
The Gallo was hastily rebooked with a revival of Harry James Smith’s comedy A Tailor-Made Man, which had the misfortune of opening October 21, 1929, just three days before Black Thursday, when panic selling caused financial markets to collapse, beginning the Depression. Ironically, Grant Mitchell was playing a tailor who winds up saving a ship-building company. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to save his little theatre company, which went out of business after eight performances.
And that was enough for the ironically named Fortune Gallo. Unable to find a viable tenant for his pretty theatre, and unable to pay its mortgage like so many others living in that calamitous time, Gallo lost his playhouse to foreclosure just a few weeks later. He took the San Carlo Opera back on the road until 1950, and Gallo himself lived to age 81, dying in 1970. The new owner renamed the space the New Yorker Theatre and reopened it on May 12, 1930, but Fate wasn’t fooled. The inaugural production of Henrik Ibsen’s rarely produced drama The Vikings met the same fate as all of Gallo’s offerings and closed after eight performances.
The turkey parade continued under the new name. An all-Greek revival of Sophocles’ Electra flopped after eight performances, just after Christmas 1930. Roger Wheeler’s melodramatic thriller Gray Shadow limped through 39 performances starting March 10, 1931, with The Times quoting an opening-night audience member saying that the proceedings became so tedious that he had begun to wish his own throat was being cut. It was followed quickly by Young Sinners in April 1931 and Harry Chapman Ford’s Ebb Tide in June 1931.
Forbes Randolph produced, directed, and co-wrote an all-black musical revue called (apparently inaccurately) Fast and Furious, with music by Harry Revel, lyrics by Mack Gordon, and sketches by a variety of writers — including Clinton Fletcher, Zora Neale Hurston, Jackie “Moms” Mabley, and Clinton “Dusty” Fletcher — that barely kept audiences coming back for seven performances following the September 5, 1931, opening. The Spanish Theatre of Madrid occupied the New Yorker for several weeks in spring 1932, but the result was more mala suerte.
Elusive scat singer Gertrude Cox, known to the jazz world as “Baby Cox,” starred in a notable disaster that brought to a thundering close the first chapter of the theatre’s life. Titled Hummin’ Sam, this musical about life at a Kentucky racing stable opened and closed in a single performance on April 8, 1933 — a bad run even by Gallo standards. For the record, the show had music and lyrics by Alexander Hill and a book by Eileen Nutter.
In the superstitious world of the theatre, the Gallo/New Yorker was now firmly established as cursed and became unbookable. However, in the long run, the theatre actually proved to be very, very lucky. Many other playhouses on the fringe of the Times Square theatre district were demolished in the mid-20th century. But over the next 70 years the old Gallo managed to evade the ever-swinging wrecking ball like the hero of a video game. The first lucky leap came in 1933 when the building temporarily passed out of the world of legitimate theatre and became a nightclub and restaurant, gaudily rechristened the Casino de Paris and operated by ambitious songwriter/impresario Billy Rose, husband of Fanny Brice. Rows of seats were ripped out and tables installed, and whatever remained of New York’s nightlife finally deigned to pass down the long mirrored arcade into its welcoming precincts. The club became known also for its “Green Carnation Boys” — male taxi dancers identified by a flower in their lapels — who were paid to dance with unaccompanied women. It wouldn’t be the last time there was dancing in the theatre’s former orchestra section. But even Rose, with his flair for showmanship, wasn’t able to make the theatre pay. Persistent labor problems eventually led him to wash his hands of the place.
The owners tried to take another crack at legitimacy in 1936, briefly renaming the theatre the Palladium, possibly hoping to duplicate the success of the London emporium of the same name. That hope was quickly extinguished, and the building was rented to the WPA’s Federal Theatre Project in 1937 and renamed the Federal Music Theatre. Under director Dr. Nikolai Sokoloff, the theatre hosted dance, singing, and instrumental concerts at “popular prices” of 50 or 25 cents. There was also a weekly Composer’s Forum, showcasing the works of various songwriters. Like the rest of President Franklin Roosevelt’s WPA, the theatre depended on federal subsidy for its existence, and the entire Federal Theatre Project was defunded in 1939.
Returning to legitimacy in 1939 again under the name the New Yorker Theatre, this house hosted a notable production, The Swing Mikado, the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta in an all-black adaptation that had originated at the Chicago Federal Theatre Project. Dr. Harry Minturn and arranger Gentry Warden staged the production in Chicago and later transferred it to Broadway with Maurice Cooper as Nanki-Poo and Herman Greene as Ko-Ko. After two months at the New Yorker starting March 1, 1939, this production transferred to the 44th Street Theatre, where it completed its run. Its success inspired an imitator, Billy Rose’s The Hot Mikado.
The final legitimate stage production at the New Yorker came and went in spring 1940: Medicine Show, by Oscar Saul and H. R. Hayes. When the show closed on May 11, 1940, after a dismal 35 performances, the building stood empty until 1943 when it was leased by CBS-TV, which renamed it yet again. The great lady now had to put up with being called CBS Radio Playhouse No. 4, and then, after World War II, as CBS Studio No. 52.
Under that name it hosted several TV classics from the 1940s through the 1960s, including "The Jack Benny Show," "Ted Mack’s Original Amateur Hour," and even part of the run of children’s classic "Captain Kangaroo." Several pioneering TV game shows were taped here for a time, including "Password," "What’s My Line?," and T"he $64,000 Question." Among other Broadway theatres that spent some time as radio and/or TV studios: the Ambassador, the Belasco, the Cort, the Helen Hayes, the Bernard B. Jacobs, the Eugene O’Neill, and even the Broadway.
In a sense, the broadcast era saved many of these theatres. Nicolas Van Hoogstratten, author of the indispensable book Lost Broadway Theatres, said he doesn’t mind so much when Broadway houses are temporarily sequestered for other uses, as long as they’re not destroyed.
By the 1970s much television production once based in New York had moved west to Burbank and surrounding towns in Southern California. CBS found it had less and less use for Manhattan studios and put many of them up for sale. A soap opera called "Love of Life" was produced at CBS Studio No. 52 until 1974, when CBS decided to concentrate production elsewhere. The theatre was put on the market.
In late 1976 a pair of restaurateurs named Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager got the idea to open a nightclub that would use only recorded music (to keep expenses down) and serve expensive drinks (to maximize profits). They found the ideal space in the old TV studio on Fifty-fourth Street, its Broadway roots all but forgotten. And that is how they gave it the name by which the whole world came to know it: Studio 54. They pulled out the boxes, painted over the murals, covered the architectural details with plywood and plaster, and installed high-tech lighting and sound equipment that required considerable modification of the old theatre’s amenities. The exterior marquee was encased in metal panels, leaving only the Art Deco numerals “54.”
Studio 54 opened April 16, 1977, with a star-studded guest list including future regulars from the showbiz, clothing-design, and art worlds, including Liza Minnelli, Andy Warhol, Halston, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Deborah Harry, and Brooke Shields. These and many more sashayed down the long promenade onto the dance floor, which made everyone feel like a movie star on the red carpet at the Oscars. The following week the disco hosted a birthday party for celebrity Bianca Jagger, at which the birthday girl made her entrance astride a white horse. The stunt helped establish the club as the last word in hedonistic excess, and it began its ascent to become the nightlife capitol of the world.
Schrager was the money man and stayed in the background. Rubell became the face of Studio 54. He wasn’t the first to employ a velvet rope and snooty doormen to keep out the unhip, but he raised it to a ruthless art. Only the hottest stars and the most beautiful of the beautiful people were permitted entrance. Wannabes would line up along 54th Street hoping to convince doorman Marc Benecke (often aided by Rubell himself) that they made the grade. A lucky few were permitted entrance. As for the rest, Rubell would cut them off at the knees, often with grotesque insults. Fortune Gallo must have been spinning in his grave at the treatment given to potential paying customers in 1979, when they had been so scarce in 1929.
What drew them? A simple combination of sex, drugs, and extremely loud music. This was the era when the baby boomers were at their physical peak, A Chorus Line, which opened in 1975, had shown just how good people could look while dancing, and Saturday Night Fever, which opened on December 19, 1977, reinforced the notion. And it was a place where straight and gay people could boogie side by side.
Its legendary exclusivity made Studio 54 even more popular, but there was a practical reason to restrict occupancy, as well. The club wasn’t all that big. It had a capacity of only 700 people. The orchestra section, which had once held rows of seats, now became the main dance floor, bathed in pulsating lights from a half-dozen towers of red and orange bulbs, and from strobe units distributed around the periphery. The scene came to be imitated by discos around the world. The deejay was located in the mezzanine, overlooking the dance floor. The proscenium was still there, though covered. Hung with a Mylar-tinsel curtain, the stage was sometimes used for live performances but sometimes also became another level of the dancing floor.
A large hanging sculpture of a leering crescent moon presided over the Studio 54 saturnalia. A mechanical spoon would swing up to the moon’s nose and deliver a line of sparkling, cocaine-like white bulbs, which would cause the moon to light up with delight. It mirrored the action in the private VIP lounge located on the second level, also known as the sex room. Whole books and films could be made about this period, and indeed they have been, notably The Last Party, by Anthony Haden-Guest, and the 1999 film 54, with Mike Myers as Steve Rubell.
In the end, despite their fortune and fame, Schrager and Rubell operated Studio 54 for a scant 33 months. Rubell’s profligate spending (including on his own drug habits) and Schrager’s haphazard accounting brought the IRS down on them. Both men were arrested and each wound up spending more than a year in prison each. Studio 54 closed February 4, 1980, with — what else — a huge party. A second incarnation of the club opened in 1982. Long after disco music died, the disco ball spun here, with a new generation of celebrities and dance lovers trying to recapture a wisp of the old craziness. Studio 54’s “last dance” was danced in March 1986.
New owners offered the space as a nightclub and occasional concert hall under the names The Ritz and the Cabaret Royale. A 1994 renovation only drove the site deeper into debt, and once again, the wolf of demolition was at the door.
In 1998 the space got reinvented once again. It was leased by Roundabout Theatre Company, which had started in 1965 as an Off-Broadway institutional theatre and had eventually moved to Broadway, first at the Criterion Center in Times Square in 1991. Later (2000) it would move into its own renovated small Broadway theatre on Forty-second Street (named for sponsor American Airlines). In 1998 Roundabout rented Henry Miller’s Theatre on Forty-third Street for a revival of Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret.
They liked Henry Miller’s partly because it had become run-down and shabby, which made an ideal setting for Sam Mendes’s “environmental” production of the musical, set in a seedy Berlin nightclub in the 1930s. Henry Miller’s had even served time as a disco called Xenon. However, the owners of Henry Miller’s wanted to tear it down and build a new theatre on the site, meaning Cabaret had to find a new home, or close.
Studio 54 had a biography almost identical to Henry Miller’s and was in similar crumbling shape. Roundabout and Mendes took one look at the mess and fell in love. The tawdry, deteriorated glory of the old theatre seemed tailor-made, to cite the title of its last legitimate show, for the likes of Cabaret. After nearly 60 years in the wilderness, Studio 54 was born again as a legitimate theatre. Aside from removing some of the plywood, turning the VIP lounge back into a mezzanine, and repairing the restrooms, Roundabout and Mendes left the squalor more or less as they found it. Cabaret reopened at Studio 54 on November 12, 1998. Among those who followed Natasha Richardson into the role of Sally Bowles was the now grown-up disco baby Brooke Shields.
The long run of Cabaret ended January 4, 2004, after 2,377 performances, more than twice that of the original. In 2003 Roundabout struck a deal to buy Studio 54 for $25 million, with the help of a city-backed bond issue, according to the New York Daily News. Starting April 22, 2004, with the Broadway debut of Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s Assassins, Roundabout began offering limited runs of larger shows than its American Airlines Theatre space on Forty-second Street allowed. The menu contained a mixture of plays, musicals, and even one solo show — two per season, fall and spring. It was a rare season that failed to include at least one Sondheim revival.
The third time proved to be the charm for Assassins, Sondheim and Weidman’s musical about the sensitive subject of people who have attempted to assassinate U.S. presidents. The original 1991 Off-Broadway version at Playwrights Horizons couldn’t get backing for a Broadway transfer, and then an aborted 2001 production was withdrawn by the writers after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Roundabout got Assassins a seat at the Broadway table on April 22, 2004. Michael Cerveris played John Wilkes Booth, Neil Patrick Harris played the Balladeer. Various other killers and aspirants were played by Marc Kudisch, James Barbour, Denis O’Hare, Alexander Gemignani, and Mary Catherine Garrison on a carnival set by Robert Brill. The “cursed” theatre and the “cursed” musical now found blessed success together. The show ran more than 100 performances and won a handsome five Tony Awards, including Best Revival of a Musical, Best Direction of a Musical (Joe Mantello), and Best Featured Actor in a Musical (Cerveris).
Another Sondheim/Weidman revival followed on December 2, 2004: Pacific Overtures, the story of the opening of Japan to the West in the mid-19th century after two centuries of self-imposed isolation from the rest of the world. Roundabout’s revival was notable for being staged by Japanese director Amon Miyamoto, billed as the first Asian to direct a Broadway musical. B. D. Wong (M. Butterfly) and original 1976 cast member Sab Shimono (Mame) were featured. The “Next” sequence at the end, in which Japan is shown quickly building into its modern self, explicitly referenced the atomic bombing that ended World War II. The production was nominated for four Tony Awards, including, for the second year in a row, Best Revival of a Musical. The Gallo/New Yorker/et cetera/Studio 54 had finally fully been welcomed into the Broadway family nearly 80 years after Fortune Gallo first dreamed of it.
At this time Roundabout finally dispensed with the nightclub tables that it had been using since Cabaret and installed rows of seats on stepped risers to create the kind of raked seating that 21st-century audiences prefer. The renovation left Studio 54 with 944 seats. The swanky promenade, which is broken into three segments by doorways, was repurposed as a mini museum, offering background on the current production as well as on Roundabout Theatre Company itself. A concession stand also was added to the promenade for the sale of T-shirts, mugs, and other merchandise related to the show and the company.
The year 2005 at Studio 54 was dominated by dramas from two 20th-century American masters, Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill. In April, Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire got its eighth Broadway production in the half century since its 1947 debut. Director Edward Hall cast the role of Stanley Kowalski against type, employing doughy actor John C. Reilly instead of the ripped Marlon Brando type audiences had come to expect. Dreamy Blanche DuBois was played by Natasha Richardson in what no one would have guessed was her final Broadway appearance; she would die in a skiing accident the following March 18 at age 45. She had played several doomed heroines (Anna in Anna Christie, Sally Bowles in Cabaret) for Roundabout, so audiences didn’t perceive anything unusually foreboding about this one. Amy Ryan earned a Tony nomination for her performance as Stella.
Gabriel Byrne played the punctilious Cornelius Melody, who gradually sheds the cloak of civilization, in the December 8, 2005, revival of O’Neill’s A Touch of the Poet, directed by Doug Hughes.
Writer Bertolt Brecht didn’t flinch from the world’s horrors, and in his work he often seemed to seek out the ugliest sides of his characters. Director Scott Elliott’s April 20, 2006, production of Brecht’s musical with Kurt Weill, The Threepenny Opera, tried perhaps a little too hard to show not just the dark side of the piece, but the even darker side. The in-period static staging didn’t help, and performances from stars Alan Cumming, Cyndi Lauper, Ana Gasteyer, and Jim Dale showed the strain. Actually written during the time period of Cabaret, and in the style pastiched by Cabaret, this Threepenny Opera didn’t go down nearly as well with Roundabout audiences and remains on many subscribers’ “least favorite” list. Nevertheless, Tony nominations were forthcoming for Dale and for the production as a whole for Best Revival of a Musical; it lost to The Pajama Game. It was the closest thing to opera at the theatre since La Bohéme back in 1927 and gave Roundabout a little taste of the old Gallo luck.
The December 14, 2006, revival of Bock and Harnick’s triptych musical The Apple Tree starred Brian d’Arcy James as a sturdy Adam, Kristin Chenoweth as a sparkling Eve, and Marc Kudisch in yet another of his gleeful villain roles, this time as the Serpent.
Major stars of two generations were featured in the May 9, 2007, revival of the 1963 Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt musical 110 in the Shade, adapted by N. Richard Nash from his own play The Rainmaker. Audra McDonald played the buttoned-up Lizzie, and John Cullum played her father, who tries to help her come out of her shell with the arrival of Starbuck, a man claiming the ability to bring rain to their drought-stricken Texas town. It was a tribute to everyone’s performance that the nontraditional casting of the African-American McDonald was barely noticed. A gorgeous poster of McDonald’s rain-spattered, smiling face became a favorite with collectors. Paul Gemignani conducted with a glorious delicacy that was captured on the cast album.
October 2007 saw a full-scale revival of Terrence McNally’s gay-bathhouse farce The Ritz, starring Kevin Chamberlin (Seussical) as Gaetano Proclo, who hides out from his murderous mafia family in the aforementioned bathhouse; Brooks Ashmanskas as Chris; and Rosie Perez as the irrepressible Googie Gomez, who performed an off-key, off-color, and off-kilter medley of show tunes, losing a shoe in the process.
For its February 2008 offering, Roundabout imported London’s Donmar Warehouse Theatre production of Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park With George, starring Daniel Evans as George and Jena Russell as Dot, both of whom earned Tony nominations. The production used a drastically stripped-down five-musician orchestra and minimal sets but will be remembered for the animated drawings designed by Timothy Bird and the Knifedge Creative Network to show George Seurat’s progress on his masterpiece A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte in Act I and his fictional grandson’s computerized “chromolumes” in Act II.
From the minute it was announced that Jersey Boys’ Tony-winning tough guy Christian Hoff would incarnate the title role of consummate “playa” Joey Evans in Pal Joey, all of Broadway believed it to be inspired casting. Excitement increased when Roundabout announced Stockard Channing would be playing sugar mama Vera Simpson. Previews were already under way in December 2008 when director Joe Mantello and the producers announced that Hoff had injured himself and the role would be assumed by understudy Matthew Risch. Hoff insisted he was fine. Channing and costar Martha Plimpton (as Gladys Bumps) earned Tony nominations, as did set designer Scott Pask (who set the story beneath a curving el track) and the production as a whole. But there was a strong sense of unfulfilled promise about the proceedings.
Two of the greatest comic masters of their generation, Bill Irwin and Nathan Lane, tackled Samuel Beckett’s masterpiece Waiting for Godot in a wrenching April 30, 2009, production set on an arid, boulder-strewn set by Santo Loquasto. Their comic interplay with John Goodman as Pozzo was among the highlights of the production, but the sole Tony nomination went to John Glover as the infinitely abused Lucky.
Actress Carrie Fisher, best known as Princess Leia in the Star Wars films, laid bare the tawdry details of her life in the comically self-deprecating October 2009 solo show Wishful Drinking, which she had been developing in theatres across the United States over several years. Filled with anecdotes about her calamitous romances and experiments with drugs and alcohol, the wry litany proved so popular it extended into early 2010.
The cause of celebration in April 2010 was the opening of Sondheim on Sondheim, James Lapine’s multimedia salute to his collaborator, the composer of many great musicals of the late 20th century — not to mention one of the mainstays of Studio 54’s miraculous renaissance. Barbara Cook, Vanessa Williams, Tom Wopat, Leslie Kritzer, Norm Lewis, Erin Mackey, Euan Morton, and Matthew Scott were the privileged performers who got to sing the Master's songs eight times a week. It was also from the stage at Studio 54 during the run that Roundabout announced the rechristening of its Henry Miller's Theatre to the Stephen Sondheim Theatre.
A production of Britain's Kneehigh Theatre that also played at St. Ann's Warehouse before its Broadway debut was director/adaptor Emma Rice's beautifully conceived Brief Encounter. Based on Noël Coward's play Still Life and his screenplay of Brief Encounter, this lushly romantic production was a hit with both critics and audiences.
Donna Murphy displayed her protean talents in playing a Yiddish theatre performer, Raisel, in her prime and also as a doting grandmother (Bubbie) in the new musical The People in the Picture. It featured music by Mike Stoller (of the songwriting team Leiber and Stoller) and Artie Butler and book and lyrics by Iris Rainer Dart.