Theatre yesterday and today



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Today is the date the Music Box Theatre at 239 West 45th Street opened its doors for the very first time back in 1921. The appropriately titled Music Box Revue of 1921 was its first tenant and inaugurated a series of editions that opened at the start of each fall season on Broadway over the next four years. There aren't many shows that premiered in a theatre designed specifically for it to play in, but such was the case when Irving Berlin, farsighted (and rich enough), decided he wanted to own his own theatre. Together with the producer Sam H. Harris, they built the Music Box, intended as an intimate theatre for Broadway musicals.

The Music Box Theatre (circa 1957)

In the lobby there is a permanent display which honors the man who built it and was co-owner until his death in 1989. As told in the exhibit: "Berlin once remarked to his friend, the producer and theater owner Sam H. Harris, that 'The Music Box would make a great name for a theater.' One year later Berlin recalled in a New York Times interview, I went up to Sam's office and said, 'I bought 100 feet of Astor property on 45th Street. You're my partner.'"

And if you're thinking all this was bought for a song, think again. With the real estate deal costing $330,000, and building the theatre coming to $947,000, along with producing the show adding another $188,000, the total expenditure of $1,465,000 was a serious chunk of change, especially in 1921. With a record top ticket price of (hold onto your hats) $5.50, the naysayers thought Harris and Berlin were going to fall on their faces with their new enterprise. Not only did the the show run a year, it yielded a smash hit song "Say It With Music" (one of too many to count that Berlin wrote in his long career).

Over the decades, the Music Box has played host to some seriously great theatre. Its longest running tenant at 1,222 performances (no measure of greatness, just of popularity) was Anthony Shaffer's Sleuth. I saw it twice at the theatre with two different casts, and whether it was a great play or not is debatable (even if it did win the Tony Award as Best Play in 1970), but it sure was entertaining. Another mystery, Ira Levin's Deathtrap, opened there as well and ran nearly two years, before moving to the Biltmore for an additional five months, closing out at 1,793 performances, leaving it as the longest-running mystery play in Broadway history.

In its earliest years, the theatre alternated equally between musicals and comedies. From a friendship point of view, the theatre was a hospitable home to anything that had the name of George S. Kaufman or Moss Hart on it, either separately or together and either as playwrights or directors. At least a dozen shows they had something to do with premiered at the Music Box, including the first Kaufman and Hart comedy, Once in a Lifetime, and last play by Kaufman written in his lifetime, The Solid Gold Cadillac.

I saw some particularly memorable shows at the Music Box from the earliest days of my theatregoing, but possibly none will top the experience I encountered upon entering the theatre for my very first time. The year was 1969, I was twelve years old, and the play was called Angela by Sumner Arthur Long. It starred Geraldine Page, an actress who, to say the least, deserved better. At this Saturday matinee, for the first (and not the last time), I handed my ticket to an usher and was stopped from heading to my usual seat upstairs in the last row. “Honey, don’t bother,” she croaked in a world-weary sigh, waving at the empty orchestra. “Sit wherever you want.”

You see, Angela had opened two days earlier to unanimous pans from the critics. In an almost existential comment, Clive Barnes in the New York Times wrote: “For some unaccountable reason, Angela opened last night at the Music Box Theatre.” It's plot? A bored housewife kidnaps a TV repairman, ties him to her bed and holds him hostage in his underwear—all to make her philandering husband jealous.

The repairman was played by Tom Ligon, who had the incredible misfortune of having the male lead in this show, as well as starring in the very next play at the Music Box two months later. John Patrick's Love Is a Time of Day had a slightly longer run than Angela’s three days—it ran from Monday to Saturday. Not only did poor Tom have the distinction of starring in these two awful comedies, he had to play a number of scenes nearly naked in both of them. In my review of Love Is a Time of Day, I wrote: “Tom Ligon still has on the same pair of underwear.” I always imagined Ligon must have felt royally cursed, but that wasn’t the case when I put the question to him: “Cursed? No, not at all,” he told me. “Please! Who was I at that stage in my career to turn work down? Back-to-back Broadway shows in leading roles? And, in the case of Angela, the chance to work with Geraldine Page, come on! But those were not the two worst shows I did at the Music Box. I had previously done another one at that theatre in December 1963 called Have I Got a Girl for You. It opened one week after the Kennedy assassination. Not exactly the right moment to open a comedy. And to make matters worse, Dick Van Patten played a character named Ruby! Talk about bad timing—and, unfortunately, bad luck."

The most recent show to play the Music Box was a show I saw three times. George C. Wolfe’s stunning Shuffle Along. Sadly, it had a run nowhere near commiserate with the quality of its production. The Music Box's next tenant, Dear Evan Hansen, a new musical by the team of Steven Levenson and Benj Pasek & Justin Paul, which had a successful run Off-Broadway at the Second Stage Theatre this past spring, will open in December. Having seen it already, I predict it is going to have a healthy and productive run. It would be nice to see the Music Box with a proper hit once again.

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