Theatre yesterday and today



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The Humans will give its final performance today at the Helen Hayes Theatre on West 44th Street—but not its final performance. It will reopen August 9th at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre around the corner on West 45th Street. This move will cost the producers a small fortune, but their only other choice is to close The Humans, as vacating was pre-determined as part of the contract with the Hayes's new owners, the Second Stage. This long-established Off-Broadway theatre company with a number of well known plays to their credit (among them the Pulitzer Prize winning How I Learned to Drive, by Paul Vogel), bought the Helen Hayes a few years ago. Their plan has always been to give it a serious makeover once the necessary funds were raised in order to establish themselves with a beachhead on Broadway, much like other former Off-Broadway theatre companies like the Roundabout and Manhattan Theatre Club have done. The Helen Hayes is one of the last of the independently owned Broadway houses (not in the possession of either the Shuberts, the Nederlander or Jujamcyn Organizations) and boasts the tiniest seating capacity of them all at just 560 seats.

When it opened its doors in 1912, the Little Theatre was a small gem in the heart of the theatre district, especially small—only 300 seats. In the 1920s, it was expanded to nearly twice its size, still managing to stay true to its name. Before the renaming, there already was a Helen Hayes Theatre. Located around the block on 46th Street, it was was torn down in 1982. It was thought a fine gesture to rename the Little for the actress, who was still alive at the time, as a way of assuaging the sadness of seeing her theatre demolished. I always thought that an appropriate continuum in order to keep "Helen Hayes" in lights on Broadway was to simply call the theatre "The Little Helen Hayes." It made perfect sense to me.

But it's all moot now. The theatre will eventually undergo yet another name when the rights get sold off to the highest bidder to help finance its upcoming renovation. When the Roundabout Theatre redid the old Henry Miller, some individual (or a group of individuals) anonymously came up with a sizable enough contribution to ensure that Stephen Sondheim got a theatre named for him, thankfully while he was still alive to enjoy it (it was a surprise announcement on the occasion of his 80th birthday). And when the old Biltmore was redone by the Manhattan Theatre Club, the family of a well-liked veteran press agent won the rights by way of their donation to allow for the name Samuel J. Friedman to hopefully stand the test of time.

Such tests of time on these matters has been in the news lately. If you haven't read about what the family of Avery Fisher went through when the powers-that-be at Lincoln Center wanted to take his name off the old Philharmonic Hall and award it instead to David Geffen for his benificence, it made for quite a story (Google it, if you like). In the meanwhile, there are no plans at present to rename any Broadway Theatres. The last time the Nederlanders did so was when they renamed the 46th Street for Richard Rodgers back in 2000. The last of the five theatres the Jujamcyn Organization had not already renamed (the Virginia) went to honor the playwright August Wilson in 2001. And the Shuberts did so for the first time in thirty years when they renamed the Plymouth and the Royale for their former chairmen, Gerald Schoenfeld and Bernard Jacobs. Personally, I think generic names of theatres like the Majestic and the Broadway can and should be easily replaced by such well deserving theatre luminaries as Oscar Hammerstein and Harold Prince. I've even taken the time to write letters requesting exactly those people, but they generated no response from the powers-that-be. I won't hold my breath, but I won't give up hope.

If you would like to comment on any of these posts, please do so below. I look forward to hearing from you.