at the theatre: happy birthday

Broadway’s Helen Hayes Theatre turns 100 today. The smallest of Broadway’s venues – just 583 seats are sold for the current tenant, the Tony Award-nominated musical Rock of Ages – The Little Theatre was officially renamed the Helen Hayes Theatre in 1983 to honor America’s “first lady of the stage.” It was a fitting tribute given that the first theatre bearing the name of Helen Hayes, on West 46th Street, had in 1982 – along with the Morosco Theatre - been torn down in an act of vandalism to make way for the ungainly Marriott Marquis Hotel. I’ve always had a bit of a sentimental bent for this theatre.  It was at The Little where I saw one of my first Broadway shows: Harvey Fierstein’s breakthrough Torch Song Trilogy with Estelle Getty, a very young Matthew Broderick, and Harvey himself.  Later, I spent almost a decade toiling in the neighboring Sardi’s building, at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. Walking daily past what had since become the Helen Hayes I never failed to be fascinated by the ever-changing marquee which heralded the parade of plays and musicals that attempted to settle in and call it home.

Borrowing from Playbill’s “At This Theatre” (Louis Botto and Robert Viagas’ history book of Broadway venues on sale at PlaybillStore.com) here’s a very abridged look at the early years of the old theatre, as well as the all-too-common fate of its passionate producer:

A century ago, The Little Theatre was built by producer Winthrop Ames. An aristocratic New Englander, Ames rebelled against Broadway commercialism and built the Little, then with only 299 seats, as an intimate house for the production of noncommercial plays that were too risky to stage in large Broadway theatres. The New York Times admired the theatre’s red-brick, green-shuttered exterior, its Colonial-style lobby with a fireplace, and the auditorium, which had no balcony or boxes and was built on an incline that afforded an unobstructed view of the stage. Ames’ policy — to produce “the clever, the unusual drama that had a chance of becoming a library classic” — continued to be reflected in the Little Theatre’s fare. Among the early productions, all financed solely by Ames, were George Bernard Shaw’s The Philanderer (1913); Prunella, a fantasy by Laurence Houseman and Harley Granville-Barker, starring Marguerite Clark and Ernest Glendinning (1913); and Cyril Harcourt’s comedy A Pair of Stockings (1914). By 1915 Ames was having financial problems with the Little. Because of his theatre’s small seating capacity, the impresario was losing money, even with hits. On March 11, 1915, The New York Times reported that Ames was in danger of losing his house. To prevent this, Ames planned to increase the seating capacity to 1,000, add a balcony, and make the stage larger. In 1920 Burns Mantle reported that the Little had been remodeled and the seating capacity was now 450 seats.

The true purpose of the Little Theatre, to present new playwrights and experimental dramas, was fulfilled by its next two bookings. In January 1920 Oliver Morosco presented Mamma’s Affair, a first play by Rachel Barton Butler that won a prize as the best drama written by a student of Professor George Baker’s famous “English 47” class at Harvard. Morosco presented a cash award to the author and mounted her play successfully with Effie Shannon. The other drama was Eugene O’Neill’s first full-length play, Beyond the Horizon, which had been playing matinees at other theatres before it was moved to the Little. It starred Richard Bennett and won the Pulitzer Prize. The Little next housed one of its gold mines. The First Year, by actor Frank Craven, who starred in it with Roberta Arnold, proved to be a sensation. It opened on Oct. 20, 1920, was produced by John Golden and ran for 760 performances. Brooks Atkinson reported in his book “Broadway” that by 1922 Ames had lost $504,372 on the Little Theatre. His other theatre, the Booth, which he built with Lee Shubert in 1913, was a commercial house and is still successful today. When Ames died in 1937, his estate had dwindled to $77,000, and his widow was forced to move from the sprawling Ames mansion to a small cottage on their estate.

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at the theater: follies & private lives

Broadway’s got me feeling awfully nostalgic this week. Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman Follies arrived at the Marquis Theatre in a production that originated at Washington DC’s more-miss-than-hit Kennedy Center. Having sat through my share of half-baked Follies follies I’ll admit to being less than enthused at the prospect of yet another aborted summit attempt. Yet the lure of Bernadette Peters and Jan Maxwell as a pair of chorines whose lives diverged in the snowy woods of showbiz proved too alluring.  Plus, how ironic that the musical set in a theater soon to be demolished for the sake of another parking lot would take up in a hotel built atop the early graves of two of the Rialto’s most elegant theaters, the Helen Hayes and Morosco. Limited expectations turn out to be a boon to this production, only intermittently directed by Eric Schaeffer. Still, I wish the director had a point of view – or at least a sure hand. Too often he lets his company do their own thing to deleterious effect. Case in point, the wonderfully miscast Elaine Paige, who delivers an oddly vigorous – and strangely accented – rendition of what is perhaps one of the most famous 11 o’clock numbers in musical theater history, I’m Still Here. Teri White and Jane Houdyshell fare much better with the mirror number, Who’s That Woman, and Broadway Baby, respectively, but fun as they are, this isn’t a show about the pastiche of secondary roles; it’s about a mismatched quartet of chorus girls and stage door johnnies and the roads they failed to take. “Never look back” may be the fatal watch cry spun into gossamer strands of wistful regret by Rosalind Elias as the ghost of her younger self joins the elderly diva in the evening’s most affecting and poignant duet but Ben and Phyllis and Buddy and Sally can’t seem to help themselves – they think they’re still young and they want a second act, Fitzgerald be damned.  Boy, oh boy do they get it. In what can only be described as a musical exploration of the human psyche, each of the quartet performs a follies number straight out of Freudian analysis.  Follies is the first – and last – musical I know of to end with a nervous breakdown and yet, somehow it works. On some subatomic level it is deeply affecting to see these desperately unhappy people come apart at the seams. What ultimately redeems them is the Beckettian impulse to pick themselves up and keep going forward: the past is past and they’re not looking back anymore. Down the block Noel Coward is taking quite the different tack. Go back, go back, go back he seems to say; you got it right the first time. (At least as far as marriage is concerned.) Unfortunately the champagne fizz of Elyot and Amanda’s badinage comes over as flat as day-old ginger ale in Richard Eyre’s cheap as chips production imported from London via Toronto. Ostensibly the main attraction is Samantha, I mean, Kim Cattrall – but the lady has all the period style of a fruit crate fallen off an errant truck. She’s not terrible, but she’s by no means good either, doing little service to what is already a tenuously written reality overly dependent on style over substance. Paul Gross’ Elyot has style to spare – and substance, too, come to think of it.  If only some of it rubbed off on the rest of the (mis) cast I might believe the folly of Coward’s happily unhappy ending.

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at the theatre: long story short

Channeling the demise of the world’s great empires, Saturday Night Live veteran Colin Quinn’s new Broadway solo show is an articulate – and uproarious – romp through history.  Subtitled “A History of the World in 75 Minutes,” it’s much more than just another stand-up routine pimped out with a set and straining to look legit.  Of course it’s funny, but with the help of director Jerry Seinfeld – yes, that Jerry Seinfeld – the laughs come in service to Quinn’s thesis that for all of mankind’s self-avowed progress we’re still caught up in the great cycle of stupidity that started as soon as man crawled out of the ooze. Long story short: times may change, people do not.

From his personification of Caesar as the original Italian mobster to his complaints about Ancient Greece and Antigone giving way to Costco and Snooki, Quinn satirically takes on the attitudes, appetites and bad habits that toppled the world’s most powerful nations.  Anyone who was a fan of Quinn’s sardonic take on the news during a too-short stint as SNL‘s Weekend Update anchor will know his humor is sharpest when it’s cutting uncomfortably close to home.  To wit, on the cultural differences between the globe’s two superpowers:  In China they invite their old people into their houses to live with and care for them; here we give them a dollar off an early-bird dinner so we don’t have to look at them while we eat.

Long story short? I’d have happily stayed longer.

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