At This Theatre: Richard Rodgers Theatre
Through the efforts of producer Alexander H. Cohen and the Nederlander Organization, the former 46th Street Theatre was renamed the Richard Rodgers in 1990, in honor of the late composer whose music brightened more than three dozen Broadway musicals.
During the 1920s, brothers Irwin S. and Harry I. Chanin, who ran a lucrative construction firm, became interested in show business. They built six legitimate theatres in the short span of five years. One of these was called Chanin’s 46th Street Theatre, located at 226 West Forty-sixth Street, and spent many years known simply as the 46th Street Theatre.
The architect was the very busy Herbert J. Krapp, and this time he came up with a novel notion. Instead of building the orchestra level in the style of other theatres, he had the seats — from Row L on — slope upward so that theatregoers in the rear of the orchestra had an excellent view of the stage. The rear section of the orchestra was really as high as a mezzanine, and patrons in that section had to climb stairs to reach their orchestra seats.
According to Brooks Atkinson in his book Broadway, the Chanins made critics feel welcome by putting nameplates on the seats they occupied on opening nights. For their opening attraction on Christmas Eve 1924, the brothers chose the 1924 edition of the Greenwich Village Follies, which was not new. It had already played at the Shubert and Winter Garden theatres, and it stayed only briefly at the new house.
This theatre was to have a curious history in its early years. It had a policy of booking shows that had played in other theatres first, and, on occasion, these shows had interrupted runs. This was the case with the 46th Street Theatre’s second booking. Is Zat So?, the long-running comedy about boxing, moved in from the 39th Street Theatre in February 1925 and played until mid-December. On Christmas Eve the latest edition of the Greenwich Village Follies opened here and ran until March. Then, on March 15, 1926, Is Zat So? reopened at the theatre and stayed until the end of July.
In September 1926 the lurid melodrama The Shanghai Gesture moved here from the Shubert and stayed for three months. This was followed by the eminent French team of Sacha Guitry and his wife, Yvonne Printemps, in two plays by Guitry: Mozart and a short piece, Deburau. The stars alternated these plays with another comedy by Guitry, L’Illusioniste. The French company of actors was highly praised.
In March 1927 a tingling thriller called The Spider excited audiences with a novel device. The scene of the play was a vaudeville house, and the murders took place in the audience, with policemen, detectives, and nurses running up and down the aisles during the performance. A theatregoer could attend this play with the wonderful apprehension that he might be seated next to the murderer.
The 46th Street’s next tenant, Baby Mine (1927), lasted only 12 performances, but it attracted publicity because it marked the return to the stage of Roscoe (“Fatty”) Arbuckle, a famed movie comic whose film career was ruined by a notorious sex murder case. The New York Times reported that the actor was given “an extremely cordial reception.”
September 6, 1927, saw the opening of this theatre’s biggest hit to that date — and one of the 1920s’ most famous musicals. It was the spirited Good News, by the rah-rah team of DeSylva, Brown, Henderson, and Laurence Schwab. To get the audience in the mood for this youthful football scrimmage, the ushers wore college jerseys, and the musicians in George Olsen’s nifty jazz orchestra delivered school cheers before the overture. The sappy plot about a dumb football player who has to be tutored in order to pass an exam and be allowed to play in the season’s biggest game was enlivened by such durable musical comedy songs as “The Best Things in Life Are Free,” “Lucky in Love,” “Just Imagine,” and two rousing showstoppers, “Good News” and “The Varsity Drag,” both sung by a fabulous flapper named Zelma O’Neal.
The four creators of Good News scored again in 1929 when they brought Follow Thru to this theatre. This time the subject was golf, and they paired Zelma O’Neal with the likable comic Jack Haley, later to achieve immortality as the Tin Man in the film The Wizard of Oz. Their big number was the infectious “Button Up Your Overcoat.” Good News ran for 551 performances; Follow Thru for 401. The latter show had a sensational tap dancer in the cast: the young Eleanor Powell.
Christmas night 1929 brought a platinum gift to the 46th Street Theatre: the Broadway debut of Ginger Rogers as Babs Green, a wealthy young thing who stopped the show with a song called “Hot and Bothered.” The musical was called Top Speed, and it ran for 104 performances.
The enterprising songwriter Billy Rose became a producer in November 1930 by putting his illustrious wife, Fannie Brice, into a revue, Sweet and Low, to which he also contributed some excellent lyrics. Brice was a standout, assisted by George Jessel and James Barton.
Another college musical, You Said It, breezed into the 46th Street Theatre on January 19, 1931, bringing Lou Holtz, Benny Baker, and the Polish sexpot Lyda Roberti. Roberti stopped the proceedings with her torrid singing of Harold Arlen’s “Sweet and Hot.”
In 1932 the Chanins lost the 46th Street Theatre and their name no longer graced the marquee. The radiant Margaret Sullavan appeared briefly that year in a drama called Happy Landing and was praised by critic Brooks Atkinson as having fine possibilities as an actress. Two shows from other theatres — Of Thee I Sing and Autumn Crocus (Richard Nixon’s favorite play) — were next, followed by a hit comedy, She Loves Me Not, by Howard Lindsay, which took place at Princeton. The lunatic plot involved a nightclub singer (Polly Walters) who hides out in a Princeton dorm because she is wanted as a witness to a murder. Burgess Meredith and John Beal played two students, and the merry campus lark sang for 367 performances.
In October 1934 young actor Henry Fonda finally played a part that attracted attention — Dan Harrow in The Farmer Takes a Wife — and his performance got him whisked off to Hollywood to repeat his role in the film version of this play about the Erie Canal. Another future Oz star, Margaret Hamilton, went with him to repeat her performance as Lucy Gurget.
Cole Porter’s smash musical Anything Goes moved here in the summer of 1935 from the Alvin (minus Ethel Merman). For several years after this, the 46th Street Theatre had a series of undistinguished plays.
In September 1938 Olsen and Johnson brought their insane show Hellzapoppin’ to this theatre. The critics hated this rowdy vaudeville revue, but Walter Winchell kept plugging it and turned it into a hit. It was quickly moved to the Winter Garden, where it became Broadway’s longest-running musical (1,404 performances) until its record was surpassed by Oklahoma!
The 1930s went out in style at this theatre with a ribald Cole Porter triumph called DuBarry Was a Lady (1939). The trumpet-voiced Ethel Merman and the baggy-pants clown Bert Lahr played dual roles in this royal fantasy: She was a nightclub singer, May Daly, and DuBarry in the dream sequences; Lahr was Louis Blore, a washroom attendant, and Louis XV, king of France, in the dream scenes. The cast also included Betty Grable, Benny Baker, Ronald Graham, and Charles Walters. Porter’s hit songs were “Do I Love You?” and “Friendship.”
Porter and Merman struck another lucky vein with their next musical, Panama Hattie, at this theatre. It opened in October 1940 and ran for 501 performances. For the first time in her fabulous career, Merman received solo star billing. Her supporting cast included Arthur Treacher, James Dunn, Betty Hutton, Rags Ragland, and little Joan Carroll, who stopped the show with Merman in their charming duet “Let’s Be Buddies.” The chorus line for this musical featured such up-and-coming talents as June Allyson, Betsy Blair, Lucille Bremer, Vera-Ellen, Constance Dowling, and Doris Dowling.
In March 1945 an unusual play, Dark of the Moon, called “a legend with music,” opened to some negative reviews, but the public found this sexual drama — about a witch boy (Richard Hart) who wants to be human so he can marry Barbara (Carol Stone) — fascinating, and it ran for 318 performances.
In 1945 the successful revival of Victor Herbert’s The Red Mill moved here from the Ziegfeld Theatre and remained for a year. On January 10, 1947, the joyful Finian’s Rainbow opened and played for 725 performances. This entrancing fantasy about a leprechaun (David Wayne), an Irishman (Albert Sharpe), and his daughter (Ella Logan) was the work of Burton Lane, E. Y. “Yip” Harburg, and Fred Saidy. The memorable score included such delights as “How Are Things in Glocca Morra?,” “If This Isn’t Love,” “Old Devil Moon,” “Look to the Rainbow,” “When I’m Not Near the Girl I Love,” and “Something Sort of Grandish.”
Alan Jay Lerner and Kurt Weill supplied the next musical at this theatre, but Love Life (1948), starring Nanette Fabray and Ray Middleton, was only a moderate success. An opera version of Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes, called Regina, by Marc Blitzstein, starring Jane Pickens, Brenda Lewis, William Warfield, and Priscilla Gillette, could muster only 56 performances in 1949. Arms and the Girl (1950), a musical version of the play The Pursuit of Happiness, was more successful, running for 134 performances. It had a score by Morton Gould and Dorothy Fields, and a book by Herbert and Dorothy Fields; it starred Nanette Fabray, Pearl Bailey, and Georges Guetary.
A landmark musical, Guys and Dolls, opened here on November 24, 1950, and stayed put for three years. Earning some of the most vociferous (and unanimous) raves in the history of Broadway, the show escorted audiences into Damon Runyon’s urban Neverland of gamblers, gangsters, nightclub singers, and Salvation Army soul-savers who supplied the heartbeat of old Times Square. Based on a story and characters by Damon Runyon, with a book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows, a superb score by Frank Loesser, and witty direction by George S. Kaufman, the show won eight Tony Awards, was named Best Musical by the New York Drama Critics Circle, and ran for 1,200 performances.
In 1954 the lovely Audrey Hepburn illuminated the theatre as a water sprite in Giraudoux’s Ondine, staged by Alfred Lunt and costarring Hepburn’s husband, Mel Ferrer. The play won four Tony Awards, including Best Actress (Hepburn), Best Director (Lunt), Best Costume Designer (Richard Whorf), and Best Set Designer (Peter Larkin).
A revival of the 1936 Rodgers and Hart musical On Your Toes, starring Vera Zorina, Bobby Van, and Elaine Stritch, did not wear well in 1954, but Maxwell Anderson’s frightening play The Bad Seed fascinated audiences for 334 performances. Little Patty McCormack, as a sweet-as-taffy murderess, got rid of some of the cast. Nancy Kelly, who played her mother, won a Tony Award for her bravery.
From May 5, 1955, until mid-March 1960, this theatre might as well have been renamed the Gwen Verdon Theatre. The great singer/dancer reigned here in three musicals: Damn Yankees, New Girl in Town, and, after a break for three short-run plays, Redhead. Verdon was rewarded for her bravura talents by winning Tony Awards as Best Actress in a Musical in all three shows. The hit musicals also won Tonys for the other creative talents involved.
Highlights of the 1960s at the 46th Street Theatre included Maurice Evans in the musical Tenderloin (1960), and the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying (1961), by Frank Loesser, Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock, and Willie Gilbert. Starring Robert Morse and Rudy Vallee, the parody of corporate life played for 1,417 performances.
Do I Hear a Waltz? (1965), the moderately successful musical version of The Time of the Cuckoo, was the sole collaboration between songwriting legends of two generations: Richard Rodgers (music) and Stephen Sondheim (lyrics). Arthur Laurents supplied the book, and the musical starred Sergio Franchi, Elizabeth Allen, and Carol Bruce. It ran 220 performances, but there was no love lost between the two tunesmiths, who rubbed each other the wrong way.
Mary Martin and Robert Preston teamed for the two-character musical I Do! I Do! (1966), based on the hit play The Fourposter, with a libretto by Tom Jones and music by Harvey Schmidt. The last musical of the 1960s at this theatre, 1776, the Sherman Edwards/Peter Stone depiction of events leading up to the signing of the Declaration of Independence, was awarded a Tony for Best Musical and ran for 1,217 performances.
The happy 1971 revival of the 1925 musical No, No, Nanette brought Ruby Keeler back to the stage in triumph. It ran for 861 performances, far surpassing its first Broadway production, which registered only 329 showings. Keeler sang and tapped and won many accolades for her comeback. Also in the cast was her old friend Patsy Kelly, plus Helen Gallagher, Bobby Van, Jack Gilford, and Susan Watson.
A 1973 revival of The Women did not win favor, but Raisin, a musical adaptation of Lorraine Hansberry’s play A Raisin in the Sun, fared better, running for 847 performances and being named Best Musical in the Tony Awards. Virginia Capers also won a Tony for her performance as the family’s matriarch. The 1975 revival of Private Lives, starring Maggie Smith and John Standing, directed by John Gielgud, won raves and stayed for three months.
A musical version of the 1920s play Chicago proved a solid hit in 1975, with dazzling choreography and staging by Bob Fosse and an evocative score by John Kander and Fred Ebb. Starring the sensational Gwen Verdon (in a return to the scene of her 1950's triumphs), Chita Rivera, and Jerry Orbach, it ran for 898 performances. It was nominated for 11 Tony Awards but lost them all, mainly to that year’s juggernaut, A Chorus Line. Chicago would do much better in a 1996 revival, which became one of Broadway’s longest-running shows.
The blockbuster The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas moved to this theatre in July 1978 from the Entermedia Theatre and stayed for 1,584 performances, making it the 46th Street Theatre’s longest-running show. Carlin Glynn and Henderson Forsythe won Tony Awards for their performances.
On May 9, 1982, the offbeat musical Nine opened and promptly won Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Score, Best Direction, Best Costumes, and Best Featured Actress (Liliane Montevecchi). An adaptation of the Fellini film 81/2, this unusual musical had an arresting score by Maury Yeston, an adaptation from the Italian by Mario Fratti, a book by Arthur Kopit, and direction by Tommy Tune. Raul Julia played the Italian film director and lover Guido Contini, a young boy (Cameron Johann) played Guido as a child, and the rest of the cast was composed mainly of the many women in this Don Juan’s life. Anita Morris stopped the show with her torrid number “A Call From the Vatican,” and Karen Akers, Shelly Burch, Taina Elg, Camille Saviola, and Kathi Moss all had spectacular supporting roles.
From 1983 to 1986 Brighton Beach Memoirs, the first part of Neil Simon’s trilogy based on his own family, enjoyed a huge success here and won Tony Awards for Matthew Broderick (Best Featured Actor in a Play) and Gene Saks (Direction).
In June 1986 Jean Stapleton and an all-star cast brought hilarity in a revival of the celebrated homicidal comedy Arsenic and Old Lace. The following year, August Wilson’s powerful play Fences won the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award for Best Play, along with additional Tonys for James Earl Jones (Best Actor in a Play), Mary Alice (Best Featured Actress), and Lloyd Richards (Best Director). In August 1988 Checkmates arrived, with Denzel Washington, Marsha Jackson, Ruby Dee, and Paul Winfield. This was followed by a revival of Garson Kanin’s classic comedy Born Yesterday, starring Madeline Kahn, Ed Asner, and Daniel Hugh Kelly. In the fall of 1989 Dustin Hoffman starred in a revival of The Merchant of Venice, in which he played Shylock for a limited run of 81 performances.
When this theatre was rechristened the Richard Rodgers in 1990, the inaugural production was Rupert Holmes’s short-lived thriller Accomplice, produced by Alexander H. Cohen and his wife Hildy Parks. David Merrick returned to Broadway in 1990 with a revival of the Gershwins’ musical Oh, Kay!, but it ran for only 77 performances. This theatre had an enormous success when Neil Simon’s Lost in Yonkers opened in 1991 and won the Pulitzer Prize, plus the following Tony Awards: Best Play, Leading Actress (Mercedes Ruehl), Featured Actress (Irene Worth), and Featured Actor (Kevin Spacey).
In 1993 The Boys Choir of Harlem and Friends played here; later that year the delightful Fool Moon, starring pantomimists Bill Irwin and David Shiner, amused for 109 performances. Additional hilarity was triggered by Neil Simon’s Laughter on the 23rd Floor, a zany memoir of his early years as a comedy writer for Sid Caesar’s seminal TV series "Your Show of Shows." The stage comedy was brightened by the antics of Nathan Lane, Randy Graff, Mark Linn-Baker, Lewis J. Stadlen, John Slattery, Ron Orbach, J. K. Simmons, Stephen Mailer, and Bitty Schram. It ran for 320 performances.
On March 23, 1995, the 1961 Pulitzer Prize-winning musical How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying returned to this theatre. The famed show was favorably received and won a Tony Award for its star, Matthew Broderick, his second at this theatre. This new How to Succeed ran for 548 performances — respectable but less than the original, which ran for 1,417.
Another hit of the past returned to the 46th Street the following year, but with far greater success. The 1975 musical Chicago, with a score by John Kander and Fred Ebb and book by Ebb, Bob Fosse, and script adaptation by David Thompson, had been acclaimed as a staged concert presented by City Center’s Encores! series in the spring 1996 season. On November 14, 1996, it transferred to the Richard Rodgers Theatre (where the 1975 original opened) with great success. It played here until May 1997, then continued its long run at the Shubert Theatre and subsequently at the Ambassador Theatre. It starred Bebe Neuwirth, Ann Reinking, Joel Grey, James Naughton, and Marcia Lewis, and it won the following Tony Awards: Best Revival of a Musical, Best Actor in a Musical (Naughton), Best Actress in a Musical (Neuwirth), Best Director of a Musical (Walter Bobbie), Best Choreographer (Reinking), and Best Lighting (Ken Billington). As of this writing, the revival is still running at the Ambassador.
Another Kander/Ebb musical, Steel Pier, opened at the Rodgers in 1997, with a book by David Thompson, but it did not enjoy the success of Chicago. Depicting the dance marathon craze of the 1920s in Atlantic City, it starred Daniel McDonald, Karen Ziemba, Debra Monk, and Gregory Harrison, and it closed after 76 performances. The following cast members were nominated for Tony Awards: McDonald, Ziemba, Monk, and Joel Blum. Other Tony nominations included Best Musical Book (David Thompson), Best Musical, Best Musical Director (Scott Ellis), Best Scenic Designer (Tony Walton), Best Choreographer (Susan Stroman), Best Score (Kander and Ebb), and Best Orchestrations (Michael Gibson).
October 16, 1997, brought a most unusual musical to this theatre. Called Side Show, it depicted the show-business careers of real-life Siamese twins Daisy and Violet Hilton, brilliantly acted by Emily Skinner and Alice Ripley. With book and lyrics by Bill Russell and music by Henry Krieger, the production had many admirers, but the public resisted attending a musical about sisters who were literally joined at the hip. It received the following Tony Award nominations: Best Musical Actress (shared by Ripley and Skinner); Best Musical Book (Russell), Best Musical, and Best Score (Krieger and Russell). It closed after only 91 performances but ran long enough to become a pet show of disabled theatre fans. The cast chipped in to pay for a ticket so one especially devoted wheelchair-bound fan could see the show one last time on closing night.
Footloose, a musical based on a popular film of the same name, arrived on October 22, 1998, and enjoyed a long run of 709 performances, despite several negative reviews. It dealt with a small-town minister battling the “evil” effect of rock and roll on the town’s young people. It received several Tony nominations but did not win any awards.
The characters of the whimsically rhymed Dr. Seuss children’s books took to the stage in a musical called Seussical in 2000. With a score by the Ragtime team of Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens and a book by Ahrens (conceived by Monty Python alumnus Eric Idle), the show wove several of the Seuss stories into a single narrative, with the mischievous Cat in the Hat serving as emcee. After a difficult tryout in Boston, the show opened on Broadway in the fall and tried to build an audience on the charm of songs like “Anything’s Possible” and “Alone in the Universe,” and on the appeal of leads David Shiner, Kevin Chamberlin, and Janine LaManna. Talk-show host Rosie O’Donnell briefly joined the cast as the Cat in the Hat, but Seussical managed a run of only 198 performances.
In fall 2001 comedy master Neil Simon added a late-career entry to his resume: 45 Seconds From Broadway, an affectionate portrait of life at the bustling old-Times-Square shrine to corned beef, Café Edison. Lewis J. Stadlen, Marian Seldes, Louis Zorich, Judith Blazer, Alix Korey, and other prime New York character actors played versions of the real-life owners and regulars for 73 performances — all just one block from the real thing on Forty-seventh Street.
Alan Rickman, then enjoying international fame as the glowering Professor Snape in the Harry Potter films, displayed his stage chops in a lauded April 2002 revival of Noël Coward’s Private Lives, playing Elyot opposite Lindsay Duncan as Amanda. Duncan won the Tony Award as Best Actress in a Play, and the production was named Best Revival of a Play. The “damned moonlight” shone for 127 performances.
On October 24, 2002, choreographer Twyla Tharp opened a very different kind of jukebox show, Movin’ Out. She fashioned hits of 1970's songsmith Billy Joel into a musical about three friends whose lives are torn apart by the Vietnam War — but she told their stories entirely through dance. Joel soundalike Michael Cavanaugh acted as narrator, singing the lyrics in front of a top-drawer band, while the saga was enacted by the buff John Selya, Elizabeth Parkinson, Ashley Tuttle, Benjamin G. Bowman, Scott Wise, and a talented ensemble of ballet-trained dancers. It stayed for 1,303 performances, Tharp’s longest Broadway run to date.
With hits running at the New Amsterdam and the Lunt-Fontanne, Disney Theatricals turned, on May 10, 2006, to the Rodgers to house its latest family musical, Tarzan, also adapted from a hit Disney film. David Henry Hwang adapted the script, and composer Phil Collins, who had provided the film with its hit theme song, “You’ll Be in My Heart,” was asked to create a full Broadway score. Though visually sumptuous (especially in the opening shipwreck sequence), the show was criticized as overstuffed and its songs were deemed not up to the standard set by the film. Nevertheless, Disney marketing and a likeable cast — including Josh Strickland as Tarzan, Jenn Gambatese as Jane, and Shuler Hensley as Kerchak — kept the classic story of a man raised by apes swinging for 486 performances.
Another classic arrived at the Rodgers on November 1, 2007: Cyrano de Bergerac, featuring Kevin Kline as the hypertrophied poet/swordsman, Jennifer Garner as his beloved Roxane, Daniel Sunjata as his noble rival Christian, and Chris Sarandon as the villainous de Guiche.
One of the most joyous hits in Rodgers history opened March 9, 2008: In the Heights, a labor of love by young author Lin-Manuel Miranda, who had grown up listening to show tunes and salsa in the Latino-immigrant Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights. All those influences flowered in this musical about a group of neighbors and friends whose commitment to the Heights is tested when one of them wins $96,000 in the lottery. Miranda wrote music and lyrics and starred as convenience-store owner Usnavi (his parents named him after an American warship with “U.S. Navy” on the side), and the show had a book by Quiara Alegría Hudes. In the Heights won four Tony Awards, including Best Choreography (Andy Blankenbuehler), Best Score (Miranda), and Best Musical of 2008. During the show's close-to three-year run, the role of Usnavi was played by, among others, High School Musical's Corbin Bleu, while the role of Nina was taken by Jordin Sparks, the season six winner of "American Idol."
The following production, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, by Rajiv Joseph, dealt with the war in Iraq. The tiger was played by Oscar winner Robin Williams, in his first dramatic role on Broadway.
Today the Richard Rodgers Theatre is owned by the Nederlander Organization and is still one of Broadway’s prime musical-comedy houses.