Theatre yesterday and today



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I must say, this quiz from yesterday in the New York Times, highlighting the beautiful and wondrous ceilings of some of Broadway's most exquisite theatres, delighted me no end:

My love for these theatres is infinite, but I have to admit, that if it weren't for the helpful clues provided, I wouldn't know one ceiling from the next. Other than that, I pretty much know everything else about these theatres intimately, as they all mean something to me. I have no favorite. They each give off a strong feeling and aura that makes each of them completely individual. Whether I'm seated in the audience, or standing on the stage, they all fascinate me. Their architecture and, of course, their histories.

It's been a pleasure over the last thirty years or so to witness the restorations that have taken place among practically every theatre on Broadway. Some have been so extensive, entire books have been written about them. What the Walt Disney Company did to refurbish and reclaim the New Amsterdam Theatre was worthy of a special Tony Award. Opening in 1903, it is tied with the Lyceum as one of the two oldest theatres on Broadway. In the early 1990s, before the New Amsterdam's massive red-do, Andre Gregory filmed his Vanya on 42nd Street in the theatre when it resembled nothing less than a horror show: a dilapidated rat-hole. It's worth a look at the DVD of the film to see just what wonders were achieved when the theatre reopened in 1997 with The Lion King. There is also a book that came out that same year chronicling the entire process of the renovation. It is no longer in print, but if you can find a copy of it, you'll adore the story and the photographs behind it all.

Coffee table tome

One of the most extraordinary transformations for me, was when I entered the Eugene O'Neill Theatre for the first time in a number of years when Brian Dennehy starred as Willy Loman in the 2003 revival of Death of a Salesman. The O'Neill had been owned by the playwright Neil Simon during my theatre going hey day, and many of his plays had their premieres there. It wasn't exactly a hospitable home to comedy, as it it was a dark, dismal place. Everything had been painted black and when the restoration was completed who knew that underneath all that paint were beautiful sconces and precious artwork. Hats off to the Jujamcyn Organization for tending to it with such care to bring it forcefully back to life.

The Eugene O'Neill Theatre (originally the Edwin Forrest, built in 1925)

Maybe I lied when I said I didn't have a favorite. It's the Belasco Theatre and, ironically, it's one in which I've possibly seen the fewest shows. During my teenage years, between 1969 and 1973 (the four-year period when I saw everything that came to Broadway), the Belasco only had two tenants—neither of which I was allowed to see. One was Oh! Calcutta!, famous for its full-frontal nudity, and just prior to its engagement, the Belasco hosted two one-act plays on a double-bill, Grin and Bare It and Postcards (yes, that was its title). It too had full-fontal nudity. Believe me, I tried to get into both of them, but was turned away at the box office. Thirteen and fourteen-year-old kids were not welcomed for some reason.

I didn't step foot in the Belasco until 1977, when while in college I saw the original production of David Mamet's American Buffalo starring Robert Duvall. It had originally opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, but moved to the less desirable location of the Belasco when it was forced out for the Cy Coleman-Michael Stewart musical I Love My Wife, which stayed at the Barrymore for two years. With my first visit to the Belasco, it completed my long-term goal to see a show in every Broadway theatre as it was the last one on my bucket list. I wasn't impressed. Due to its location east of Broadway (one of only four theatres out of forty inching up towards Avenue of the Americas), it was always considered an undesirable location and the theatre had fallen on hard times. But the theatre crunch created over the last twenty years due to shows that sit in one theatre for a quarter-century like Phantom of the Opera, wound up leaving producers no choice but to find homes that may not have been their first choices. Since 1997, when the British import of Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House, broke new ground with a brilliant re-interpretation of what is considered the earliest of modern dramas, the Belasco's "curse" was lifted. The recent Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which brought Neil Patrick Harris a well-deserved Tony Award, has been another bona fide hit for the theatre.

Even if I came late to the Belasco, the theatre has given me some rich and rewarding experiences. Mark Rylance's Twelfth Night and Richard III in rep was a revelation (see my column dated August 16th) as well as a 2007 revival of the British drama Journey's End, by R. C. Sherriff, one of the most riveting dramas I have ever seen. These productions were aided immeasurably by the 14.5 million dollar renovation in 2009 that the Shubert Organization bestowed upon this jewel of a theatre, first built in 1907.

The Belasco Theatre as it looks today.

When my children were old enough to begin going to the theatre, I was always careful to point out everything about the experience besides just what was on stage. The architecture and design of every theatre we visited were primary points of discussion. Attending the theatre when you are young can be such an overwhelming kinetic experience, with so much to take in, I felt it imperative to break things down for my kids: What do these frescos represent? Why is the conductor placed where he is? I cherished these Q & A's with my children, which continue to this day.

The next time you're in a theatre look around ... and look up. And drink in the wonders of these gems that due to preservationists (bless them) and their perseverance and foresight, these houses will be with us for generations to come.

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