Theatre yesterday and today



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The St. James Theatre opened its doors (originally as the Erlanger's Theatre) for the very first time in the year 1928.

One of its earliest productions was George M. Cohan's The Merry Malones (love this title, since I know and adore a family very much the "Merry Malones"). What I've gleaned almost exclusively about this musical comes from its opening night Playbill, available on line at via their "Vault" section for one and all to read:

In the "first time for everything" department, I'm still wrapping my mind around the choreography credit that was given using the term "foot work." Perhaps there wasn't much dancing and the thought of giving Jack Mason a "choreography by" credit might have gone to his head? Or more to the point: was its star, author and producer being stingy in hopes audiences would make the assumption that he was the one who basically did everything (which was never far from the truth in a Cohan production). At least give Cohan a few points for modesty in that it doesn't say he is the show's author, composer and lyricist. It's safe to assume that by 1927, anyone attending a Cohan show knew that already. The very mention of his name provided an imprimatur that a George M. Cohan production meant a good time for all.

The Erlanger Theatre, self-named for its builder and owner, Abraham Lincoln Erlanger, represented the best of the best when it came to bringing theatre to the masses at the tail end of the 19th and on into the 20th century. In the same month the Erlanger opened its doors on 44th Street west of Broadway, another Erlanger Theatre opened in Philadelphia, where it was instantly called "the most elaborate legit theater ever and one of the most magnificent ever built in the United States." Such classic musicals as Guys and Dolls, West Side Story and My Fair Lady all played the Erlanger in Philly prior to their Broadway premieres. Demolished in 1978, it was a parking lot for thirty years until an apartment building went up on the site.

But back to New York's Erlanger. After The Merry Malones (which was a hit, by the way), the next few years brought shows of varied variety and success. Its most famous being the Kay Swift and Paul James musical Fine and Dandy, which gave the world such standards as "Can This Be Love?" and the title tune. In 1932, inspired by the London theatre of the same name, the Erlanger would be forever known as the St. James. Its first tenant was a star-studded musical revue with Beatrice Lillie and the comedy team of Bobby Clark and Paul McCullough, with a score by Vernon Duke and E.Y. "Yip" Harburg. It died, even though it produced the legendary song "April in Paris."

Some of the the classier fare that played the St. James in the thirties and forties were John Gielgud and Maurice Evans in separate productions as Hamlet; Helen Hayes as Viola in Twelfth Night; and a dramatization of Richard Wright's novel Native Son, produced by John Houseman and Orson Welles. But it was in 1943 with Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma! that the theatre had not only its first bona fide smash, but the musical that became the longest running in Broadway history. The previous record-holder, a musical revue called Helzapoppin ran under three years. Oklahoma! ran more than five. Such a run was unheard of back then, although now is merely quaint in light of The Phantom of the Opera across the street at the Majestic having played since 1988—twenty-eight years and counting.

Oklahoma!'s record was beaten more than twenty years later by another show that played the St. James: Jerry Herman and Michael Stewart's Hello, Dolly! ​An instant sensation when it premiered in 1964, audiences adored the old-fashioned entertainment it provided. Carol Channing was praised to the skies as Dolly Levi, which became the signature role she played well into her seventies right up until her retirement. Its first Broadway revival will open in April of 2017, and when tickets went on sale one week ago, the box office racked up the largest one-day ticket-haul in Broadway history: over $9 million dollars. With Bette Midler as Dolly (to be ably abetted by such talents as David Hyde Pierce, Kate Baldwin and Gavin Creel), it appears audiences are ready for Dolly! again, or at least chomping at the bit to see what Bette Midler does with it. Midler has never played a leading role in a Broadway musical live on stage, and pushing seventy herself, everyone appears excited to "look at the old girl now!"

I saw Hello, Dolly! twice at the St. James. Not with Carol Channing, as I was only eight-years-old when it opened. Nor did I see her star replacements: Ginger Rogers, Martha Raye or Betty Grable. But the 5th Dolly coincided with my earliest days of going to the theatre all on my own—the 5th Broadway show I ever saw and I was lucky enough to see Pearl Bailey giving it her all as Dolly. It was memorable in all the ways you might imagine. Not only was Bailey charm, grace and comedic perfection all rolled into one, but she did her famous post-curtain call talk and performance that totally won me over. Although audiences ate this up, stories have filtered down over the years that the cast members didn't care for her theatrics and ego boosting. Held hostage after a two-and-a-half hour workout in the musical, more than thirty actors were forced to "sit and relax" via Pearlie Mae's instructions while she held forth. I couldn't get enough of it, especially when she handed it briefly over to Cab Calloway, the wonderful singer and performer who played opposite her as Horace Vandergelder. He scatted his famous "Heidi-heidi-ho," and I couldn't have been happier from up in the St. James second balcony in my seat for the whopping cost of $3.60.

Pearl Bailey performing "So Long, Dearie" (Hello, Dolly! 1969)

In the review I wrote when I got home after that Saturday matinee on February 8, 1969, I called the show "gripping."

I saw many shows at the St. James during my teenage years and theatre going heyday, including the second (of the thirteen times) I saw my all-time favorite 1776, when it played there between its engagements at the 46th Street (now the Richard Rodgers) and the Majestic. I also saw The Producers twice in 2002, when it was the biggest hit the theatre had seen since Dolly! (although it didn't quite beat Dolly!'s record run). Although I thought Dolly was "gripping," I have to admit, that at the height of the hysteria surrounding The Producers when Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick were the same draw as Lin-Manuel Miranda was in Hamilton, it was thrilling to be in the St. James on both occasions. The air in the theatre was electric. When you are at a show that is the toughest ticket in town, there is really nothing like it.

And that same thrill will undoubtedly surge through all those who will be at Frozen, the next show at the St. James opening in 2018. The reason for the delay is that the theatre is undergoing a major renovation to provide much-needed depth to the stage for what are to be some very elaborate sets.

If the billion dollar world success of Disney's animated Frozen is any indication, then this Broadway version could be their next Lion King. Don't be surprised if the new $9 million dollar first day's box office is broken when tickets go on sale.

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