At This Theatre: Broadway Theatre
Today’s Broadway Theatre (at 1681 Broadway) is also one of the few legitimate theatres originally built as a movie house. B. S. Moss, a mogul who operated a chain of movie houses that also featured vaudeville, built this theatre in 1924. Designed by architect Eugene DeRosa, the house had one of the largest seating capacities (1,765) of any theatre on Broadway, thus making it ideal, in later years, for the staging and performing of musical comedies.
It also served for many years as the northern outpost of the Times Square theatre district until a refurbished Studio 54 (formerly the Gallo Opera House), one block north, returned to legitimacy in 1998.
When this movie/vaudeville palace opened on Christmas Eve 1924 it was called B. F. Moss’s Colony Theatre. By 1930 Moss realized that the talkies were killing vaudeville, and he converted his house to a legitimate theatre called the Broadway. At this time, he placed an ad in PLAYBILL in which he stated that his new playhouse “embodies an ideal not only for the theatrical profession, but equally for the public it serves. This ideal combines the magnitude, luxury and courtesy of the theatre with the comforts and charm of the drawing room. Every modern device for the production of greater entertainment has been incorporated into the physical perfection of the New Broadway. This insures not only more pretentious [sic] productions, but a price scale that is within the reach of every man’s pocketbook. It is the aim of the management to make this theatre the last word in theatrical entertainment — the brightest spot on Broadway.”
After that credo, Moss had to come up with something glittering for his first legitimate show. He chose The New Yorkers, a very sophisticated “sociological” musical by Cole Porter and Herbert Fields in which a Park Avenue woman (played by the true blueblood Hope Williams) dreams that she’s in love with a bootlegger. The show opened on December 8, 1930, and the critics liked it, especially the outlandish clowning of Jimmy Durante. The gold-plated cast also included Fred Waring and his Pennsylvanians; Ann Pennington; Frances Williams; Charles King; and Rags Ragland, who sang a Porter song called “I Happen to Like New York” that Bobby Short popularized years later. Another song from this show, the sensuous “Love for Sale,” was banned on the radio as obscene. Despite Moss’s claim that his price scale would suit every man’s pocketbook, he charged a $5.50 top, which was quite high in 1930. He soon had to lower his prices, but the Depression was on, and after 20 weeks The New Yorkers closed at a financial loss.
The Broadway’s next show was a new edition of Earl Carroll's Vanities (1932), with the up-and-coming comic Milton Berle, deadpan comedienne Helen Broderick, and the beautiful ballerina Harriet Hoctor. Outstanding features of this revue were the spectacular neon effects by a young genius named Vincente Minnelli, plus a hit tune, “I’ve Got a Right to Sing the Blues,” by Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler. But times were bad and the show ran for only 11 weeks.
After a dud called The O’Flynn in 1934, the Broadway went back to showing talkies. Then in 1940 it went legit again and began a policy that it was to pursue on and off during the rest of its history. It became the last stop for big, hit Broadway musicals that were nearing the end of their runs. They would move to the huge Broadway Theatre and offer seats at lower prices until their runs came to an end. This began with the Rodgers and Hart musical Too Many Girls, which moved here from the Imperial in 1940.
A great theatrical event occurred at the Broadway on July 4, 1942. America was at war, and Irving Berlin, who had written a famed World War I soldier show called Yip, Yip, Yaphank, now came up with another. It was This Is the Army, and its opening night at the Broadway was one of the greatest in the history of the theatre. All proceeds from the show went to Army Emergency Relief. Singer Kate Smith, who had immortalized Berlin’s “God Bless America,” paid $10,000 for two seats. Berlin himself appeared in the revue, repeating his world-famous number “Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning,” from his earlier soldier show. The cast of This Is the Army consisted of professional actors who were in the armed services, and their wives. Many of these performers later became famous on stage and screen. Berlin’s score had such standout numbers as “I Left My Heart at the Stage Door Canteen,” “I’m Getting Tired So I Can Sleep,” and the rousing title tune.
Later in 1942 the hit comedy My Sister Eileen moved in from the Biltmore, and in 1943 Gertrude Lawrence returned from a tour in her psychological musical Lady in the Dark and played for three months at the Broadway in this Moss Hart/Kurt Weill/Ira Gershwin classic. This was followed by a revival of The Student Prince and the San Carlo Opera Company in repertory.
On December 2, 1943, Billy Rose brought his production of Carmen Jones to this theatre, and the critics flipped. Oscar Hammerstein II, who was back on top with Oklahoma!, conceived the offbeat notion of doing an all-black Carmen set in a parachute factory in America’s South during World War II. The experiment worked, and the show ran for 503 performances.
The policy of moving hit shows to the Broadway continued with Mike Todd’s Up in Central Park, which moved from the Century Theatre in 1945 and stayed for nine months. The operetta Song of Norway moved from the Imperial in 1946, and the propaganda play A Flag Is Born transferred from the Music Box.
Late in 1946 Duke Ellington collaborated with John LaTouche on a version of The Beggar’s Opera, which he called Beggar’s Holiday. It starred Alfred Drake and featured Avon Long and Zero Mostel (who got panned); it was not a success.
The year 1948 brought a revival of The Cradle Will Rock, also starring Alfred Drake, which moved from the Mansfield. Leonard Bernstein appeared in this as a clerk. The Habimah Players from Palestine (soon to be Israel) presented a repertory of The Golem, The Dybbuk, Oedipus Rex, and other plays in 1948.
In the summer of 1949, concert impresario Sol Hurok brought a dancing/singing show from Madrid called Cabalgata for a three-month engagement.
Olsen and Johnson of Hellzapoppin’ and other zany revues tried out a new one here called Pardon Our French in 1950, but even with French beauty Denise Darcel in the show it managed to run for only 100 performances. Where’s Charley?, the Ray Bolger smash from the St. James Theatre, ended its run here; then a revival of Marc Connelly’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play The Green Pastures arrived in 1951 but lasted only 44 more performances. Mae West wiggled in with a revival of her play Diamond Lil (1951), which didn’t fare too well; nor did revivals of the Gertrude Stein/Virgil Thompson opera Four Saints in Three Acts (1952) and the black revue Shuffle Along (1952). The Pulitzer Prize-winning musical South Pacific transferred from the Majestic and ended its run here, chalking up 1,925 performances.
Les Ballets de Paris and Spanish dancer José Greco played the Broadway in 1954, and there was the premiere engagement of Gian Carlo Menotti’s opera The Saint of Bleecker Street, a powerful religious work that ran for 92 performances. More dance companies paid visits — Katherine Dunham, Azuma Kabuki Dancers and Musicians — before Sammy Davis Jr. opened in the popular musical Mr. Wonderful in 1956. With comic Jack Carter, Chita Rivera, and Pat Marshall in the cast, the musical recorded 383 performances.
Mel Brooks and Joe Darion made a musical of Don Marquis’s archy and mehitabel, called Shinbone Alley, but Eartha Kitt, Eddie Bracken, and others could not turn it into gold. The Most Happy Fella dropped in from the Imperial to end its long run and stayed for three months. A boxing musical, The Body Beautiful, with a score by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, went nowhere and closed to make room for Les Ballets de Paris, the Beryozka Russian Dance Company, and the Old Vic, imported by Sol Hurok, doing Henry V, Twelfth Night, and Hamlet.
In May 1959 one of the Broadway Theatre’s milestones arrived. It was Ethel Merman in Gypsy, and it offered the great singer her most memorable part — Rose, the pushy mother of Gypsy Rose Lee and June Havoc. With a book by Arthur Laurents, a soaring score by Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim, and choreography and direction by Jerome Robbins, this tough show about show business has become a classic of the American musical theatre. Merman’s eleven-o’clock number — “Rose’s Turn” — was electrifying, as was her belting of “Everything’s Coming Up Roses.” The Broadway Theatre was extensively renovated for this engagement, and the house had one of its most impressive and historic bookings.
In 1963 Tovarich was notable for offering Vivien Leigh in her musical-comedy debut, with Jean-Pierre Aumont as her costar. Leigh won a Tony for her delightful performance, and the show ran for 264 performances. Noël Coward’s musical The Girl Who Came to Supper (1963) was almost as boring as the play from which it was adapted (The Sleeping Prince). It starred Florence Henderson and José Ferrer, but it was music hall singer Tessie O’Shea who woke up the audience and was awarded with a Tony for her efforts.
The Obratsov Puppets, the Folies Bergère, and a revue starring dancer Zizi Jeanmarie were booked in the early 1960s. Alexander H. Cohen opened his lavish musical Baker Street in 1965, with Fritz Weaver as Sherlock Holmes, Peter Sallis as Dr. Watson, Martin Gabel as the nefarious Professor Moriarty, and Inga Swenson as the love interest. Hal Prince directed the show, which had a rare (for the time) four-color PLAYBILL cover and ran for nine months.
The Devils, a dramatization of Aldous Huxley’s nightmarish book about diabolism in 17th-century France, scared theatregoers away from the box office in 1966, although it starred Jason Robards Jr. and Anne Bancroft. A musical version of Richard Llewellyn’s famed novel How Green Was My Valley, retitled A Time for Singing, was also unsuccessful that year. The Lincoln Center revival of Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun, with its original star, Ethel Merman, and a new Berlin showstopper, “Old Fashioned Wedding,” was so popular that it moved here in 1966, to be followed by the Winter Garden hit Funny Girl, which ended its long run here.
After the Harkness Ballet played an engagement, Kander and Ebb’s new musical version of the hit comedy The Happy Time (1968) opened and offered a Tony Award-winning performance by Robert Goulet. It was brilliantly directed by Gower Champion and attracted much publicity because of an incident that occurred on opening night. Clive Barnes, the critic for the New York Times, was delayed on a plane, and the first-night curtain was held until he arrived. His critical colleagues disparaged excessive favoritism.
Cabaret and Mame moved in from other theatres to finish their long runs (1968-69), and a new musical, Purlie, based on the hit play Purlie Victorious, opened in 1970 and ran for 688 performances. Cleavon Little and Melba Moore won Tony Awards for their engaging performances. In 1972 Fiddler on the Roof, the multi-award-winning musical, moved here, and on the evening of June 17, 1972, it became the longest-running show in Broadway history up to that time (3,225 performances). By the time it ended its run shortly thereafter, it had reached 3,242 performances.
The creators of Hair, the enormously popular rock musical, opened their newest, Dude (1972), which required that the Broadway Theatre be drastically reconfigured, with tons and tons of dirt brought in to create a bare-earth playing area, and bleachers constructed to replace theatre seats. It was all for naught. The critics buried this disaster, and the Broadway had to be restored to normalcy.
In 1974 Candide, Leonard Bernstein’s musical version of Voltaire’s classic that had flopped on Broadway in 1956, came to the Broadway in a revised version. With additional lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a new book by Hugh Wheeler, it was tried out first at the Chelsea Theatre Center of Brooklyn, with dynamic, arena-style staging by Harold Prince. It was so successful that it was transferred to the Broadway Theatre, where it triumphed for almost two years. The house was again reconfigured, this time into a labyrinth, with the audience seated on many levels and the action occurring all over the theatre. Prince won a Tony Award for his galvanic staging, but so many seats were removed for the experimental arrangement that the show struggled to turn a profit.
An all-black revival of Guys and Dolls, with new orchestrations, proved popular in 1976-77. This was followed by another hit black musical, The Wiz, which transferred here from the Majestic and stayed for more than a year and a half. A new musical, Saravà, which moved from the Mark Hellinger, played for four months in early 1979 and was followed by the phenomenal Evita, by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, with revolutionary staging by Harold Prince. It won seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical.
After Evita ended its long run, a new production of the musical Zorba moved in, starring Anthony Quinn. Lila Kedrova, a featured actress in the show, won a Tony Award for her performance. In 1984 Yul Brynner made his last Broadway appearance in a revival of The King and I, which had earned him a Tony Award in 1952. On this occasion, he was accorded a Special Tony.
Another 1984 musical did not fare as well at this theatre. It was a new version of the old Ziegfeld show The Three Musketeers (with a revised book by Mark Bramble). It lasted only nine performances. Also ill-fated was Big Deal in 1986, Bob Fosse’s last Broadway show. He wrote the book, directed, and choreographed the musical, which was based on the film Big Deal on Madonna Street. The score consisted of hit songs of the past by a battery of composer/lyricists. Although Fosse won a Tony Award for his choreography, the musical danced for only 62 performances.
In 1987 a blockbuster from London, Les Misérables, opened and won eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical of the season. The French songwriting team of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg (with Herbert Kretzmer) created this musical version of the Victor Hugo classic about a man, Jean Valjean, who steals a loaf of bread and spends the rest of his life on the run from single-minded police inspector Javert, across a terrain of poverty and revolution. This epic set the standard for the quasi-operatic “megamusicals” of the 1980s and 1990s.
Boublil and Schönberg also provided the next blockbuster at this theatre, Miss Saigon (with co-lyricist Richard Maltby Jr.), which retold the story of Madame Butterfly, but set in the context of the Vietnam War. It opened in April 1991 (Les Misérables moved to the Imperial Theatre and continued to flourish) and won Tony Awards for its leading actor (Jonathan Pryce), its leading actress (Lea Salonga), and its featured actor (Hinton Battle). When Miss Saigon finally closed on January 28, 2001, after 4,095 performances, it had become the longest-running show in the history of this theatre.
The north wall of the Broadway Theatre faces West Fifty-third Street, where, for most of the 1990s and into the 2000s, the CBS-TV program "The Late Show With David Letterman" frequently staged pranks. A wall of show posters soon appeared there, such as the ones in Shubert Alley. The Broadway’s marquee was sometimes seen on the TV program, and the Broadway Theatre casts sometimes took part in the skits.
The Broadway was quickly rebooked with an unusual attraction, Blast!, a revue of intricately choreographed marching-band performances. This halftime show on steroids marched for 180 performances. The next show at the Broadway had a shorter run but greater success: the solo standup comedy show Robin Williams: Live on Broadway, whose three July 2002 performances were taped for cable television by HBO and edited into a special that included his now classic Scotsman-explains-golf routine. It was nominated for and won five primetime Emmy Awards following its broadcast.
In December 2002, producers Jeffrey Seller and Kevin McCollum, who were enjoying the success of the show Rent, went back to the source material, collaborating with other producers and with director Baz Luhrmann on a Broadway mounting of the Giacomo Puccini/Gisuseppe Giacosa/Luigi Illica opera La Bohéme, about love and death in wintertime Paris. Luhrmann staged the tragedy more like a musical than an opera and attracted music lovers (along with curious Rent fans) for 228 performances.
Monologuist John Leguizamo played a four-week return engagement of his Tony-nominated solo show Sexaholix, starting November 11, 2003.
The Broadway Theatre undulated past her eightieth birthday in 2004 with Bombay Dreams, an original stage musical done in the style of India’s popular “Bollywood” film musicals. Produced by Andrew Lloyd Webber and with a score by India’s A. R. Rahman, the show told the fairy-tale story of a romance between a young man from the slums and his wealthy, high-caste dream girl. Highlights included exotic percussionists located in the boxes, and a traditional dance number in a fountain. Bombay Dreams lasted 284 performances.
Talk-show host and mistress-of-all-media Oprah Winfrey chose the Broadway Theatre as the site of her foray into Broadway producing: The Color Purple, a musical based on the Alice Walker novel and the film in which Winfrey had costarred. First-time Broadway songwriters Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray collaborated with Pulitzer Prize-winner Marsha Norman (’night, Mother) on the inspirational show about a young woman who survives grueling emotional and physical abuse to build a happy and fulfilling life for herself. The musical opened December 1, 2005, and its eye-catching purple marquee reigned over Broadway for 910 performances, a run boosted by frequent mentions on Winfrey’s widely watched TV show.
The wonders of circus-style acrobatics were brought to the legitimate stage from the arena and the big top on June 26, 2008, with Cirque Dreams: Jungle Fantasy, a family show that added the Broadway Theatre to its roster of touring stops. The show, with original music and lyrics by Jill Winters, stayed the summer before returning to the road.
Hollywood’s DreamWorks company tried repeating Disney’s success on the legitimate stage with Shrek the Musical, an adaptation of one of its own animated movie hits. The story of a grumpy and flatulent green ogre transformed by love for a beautiful princess replaced the purple theme of The Color Purple with a green theme that pervaded the theatre and its marquee. “Let Your Freak Flag Wave” and “Who I’d Be” were two of the songs from the lively score by composer Jeanine Tesori and another Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, David Lindsay-Abaire (Rabbit Hole), who supplied both book and lyrics. Opening on December 14, 2008, Shrek the Musical provided a starring vehicle for Brian d’Arcy James (Shrek), Daniel Breaker (Donkey), and Sutton Foster (Princess Fiona), along with juicy character roles for some of the top comedic actors of their generation, including Christopher Sieber, John Tartaglia, and Jen Cody.
The ambitious spectacle won a Tony Award for its fractured-fairytale costumes by Tim Hatley and ran through January 2010.
On April 25, 2010, this theatre played host to the first Broadway revival of the Burt Bacharach/Hal David musical Promises, Promises, based on the Oscar-winning film The Apartment. Sean Hayes of TV’s "Will & Grace" starred as Chuck Baxter opposite Kristin Chenoweth as Fran, with Katie Finneran stealing the show in her one-scene appearance at the top of Act II. This production interpolated two Bacharach/David pop hits, “I Say a Little Prayer” and “A House Is Not a Home,” to beef up Chenoweth’s role.
Despite its origin as a cinema, the Broadway Theatre possesses a theatrical grandeur that makes it ideal for sweeping musicals and special events.