Theatre yesterday and today



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The Ambassador Theatre at 215 West 49th Street is one of forty-one current Broadway theatres in operation (though the Hudson is reopening today after being dormant close to 49 years, and with the Helen Hayes undergoing renovations, that number will grow to forty-two in short order).When I first began my weekly attendance of Broadway shows as a teenager, it was right around the time the Hudson closed down. I felt bad that I’d just missed out on getting in there and I made it my goal to find my way into every single theatre, not only to complete the list, but because I was (and still am) fascinated by their architecture. No part of a Broadway house escapes my attention. I even find the guard rails on the balcony worth checking out, not to mention the paintings on the ceilings as well as all of the main chandelier designs. The color of the seats, the proscenium arches, whether or not an original orchestra pit for musicians has remained intact over the years… all part of the experience whenever I step inside a Broadway theatre. It’s always been that way and it always will be.

The first show to play the Ambassador, The Rose Girl (1921)

Today is the birthday of the Ambassador, which premiered in 1921 with the now-forgotten musical The Rose Girl. Whether, happily or unhappily, the Ambassador is one of the oddest-shaped theatres on Broadway. The architect, Herbert J. Krapp, who designed many theatres still in use today, was challenged by the shape of the plot of land the Shuberts had bought. “What Krapp did was twist the auditorium inside the theatre, so that it’s on an angle. It doesn’t square up with the building itself,” explains urban historian Thomas Mellins. In the New York Times opening night review, written by the now legendary Alexander Woollcott, the theatre was critiqued in the first paragraph: “There is a patch of property on the uptown side of forty-ninth street a little west of Seventh Avenue that was just a hole in the ground until sixteen weeks ago and now it is a wide and wealthy looking theatre with more red plush to the square foot than any other theatre in the Western Hemisphere.”

Today, the Ambassador houses the longest running revival in Broadway history: John Kander and Fred Ebb’s Chicago, which after spending six years at two different theatres, moved to what can only be called its permanent home on 49th Street. It’s been playing there since 2003 for the past fourteen years. At the time of that move, one of its producers, Barry Weissler, was quoted as saying, “We were ready to downsize. It was smart to reduce expenses and keep running. We moved to the Ambassador, which was not a coveted venue — but it was perfect for us. Chicago has been very comfortable there ever since.”

Chicago at its home at the Ambassador, in residence since 2003

Meaning that there is the right home for every show. When Weissler says of the Ambassador, “it was not a coveted venue,” he wasn’t kidding. The only other long run there over the past fifty years (other than Chicago), was George C. Wolfe’s Bring In ‘Da Noise, Bring In ‘Da Funk. And I could be wrong about this, but I’m guessing that with limited financial resources, the Public Theatre, which produced Bring in ‘Da Noise, may have gotten something of a break from the Shuberts to take the less-than-desirable Ambassador, especially as the 1996 Broadway season was a weak one, with more than a few empty theatres from which they could have chosen.

Of course, on a purely personal note, of all the shows that have played the Ambassador, the one I would pick to return to is James Goldman’s The Lion in Winter, the story of one Christmas in 1183, spent between King Henry II of England and his estranged wife Eleanor of Aquitaine and their three sons. Now famous for its film version that won two major Academy Awards in 1968 (Katharine Hepburn for Best Actress and Goldman for its adaptation as a screenplay), it may surprise you to learn that the play was not a success. It received mixed reviews in spite of praise for Rosemary Harris as Eleanor (who managed to win the Tony for a role she only played for ninety-two performances). It was also the second Broadway show for James Rado, who played Richard the Lionhearted, who would, a short time later, star in and co-write the smash hit musical Hair, and was the fourth Broadway appearance of Christopher Walken, who played the young Philip, King of France.

But the real reason for my time machine wish is the desire see the actor who played Henry — Robert Preston — who was my tip-top favorite. Even while watching Peter O’Toole’s masterful performance in the film version, I cannot help but hear certain lines said with the cadence of which only Preston was capable. His unconscious technique of speaking as if was just about to go into a song may not have been right for a non-musical role such as Henry, but I know his charisma and charm must have gone a long way towards having achieved a great deal of the strong demands the role requires. Of the one review I could pull up on line, he was dismissed by the New York Times reviewer Stanley Kauffman who wrote of Preston that he “sometimes substitutes energy for emotion,” and that “subtlety is not his strong point.” That had to have hurt, especially when this same critic called Ms. Harris “a marvel.”

Rosemary Harris and Robert Preston in The Lion in Winter (1966)

Still, if that time machine ever materializes I would absolutely pull the lever for March 3, 1966 (a day before my 9th birthday as it would just so happen) curious to see if I would have a different reaction than Mr. Kauffman’s — though there is little doubt I would.

Ron Fassler’s Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, is now available for pre-order exclusively from Griffith Moon Publishing.