The Nederlander Theatre has had a long and distinguished history under several different names: the National, the Billy Rose, and the Trafalgar.
Walter C. Jordan, a theatrical agent of note, built the National Theatre at 208 West Forty-first Street. When it opened on September 1, 1921, The New York Times reported that the new house cost $950,000 to build, was designed by architect William Neil Smith, and contained 1,200 seats, making it capable of housing both dramatic productions and musicals.
At the time of its opening there were still plenty of other full-size theatres on the downtown side of Times Square. But with the demolition of the Casino, the Comedy, the Empire, the old Broadway, and other vintage playhouses over the years, the National eventually became the southernmost outpost of the Broadway theatre district, a distinction it has held for more than half a century.
The theatre’s original interior was done in burnished Italian walnut with gold embellishments. “The style is early Renaissance, and the carved figures are of lyric and epic subjects, unobtrusive but attractive, and emerging in the half round from wood like Flemish carvings,” wrote The New York Times. The paper went on to praise Jordan for providing actors with luxurious dressing rooms with baths and the audience with the latest in restrooms and lounges, making a trip to the new theatre a comfortable and pleasurable experience.
Unfortunately, the National’s opening show was Swords, Sidney Howard’s first play, which ran for only 36 performances. Howard, however, benefited from the experience. He married Clare Eames, who played the leading role.
In February 1922 the theatre had a stroke of luck in booking a thriller that would become a classic of its genre: The Cat and the Canary, written by actor John Willard. Critic Alexander Woollcott wrote in The Times, “He has turned out a creepy young thriller, nicely calculated to make every hair on your head rise and remain standing from 8:30 till nearly 11.” The play, which took place in a spooky mansion on the Hudson, required an heiress (Florence Eldridge) to remain sane — while people were being snuffed out all around her — in order to win her inheritance. Henry Hull was the costar.
In 1923 Walter Hampden revived the Rostand classic Cyrano de Bergerac and was rewarded with great notices and a run of 250 performances. The blank-verse adaptation of the play was by Brian Hooker. Another hit followed in 1924 when H. B. Warner starred in Silence, a melodrama in which a crook (Warner) takes the rap for a crime that his daughter has committed.
The popular movie actress Lila Lee appeared at the National in 1925 in The Bride Retires, one of those French farces about young people who are forced to marry by their parents and then discover that they really love each other. Movie fans bought it for 146 performances. Later in the year The Gorilla, a popular spoof of mystery plays, transferred here from the Selwyn Theatre. Walter Hampden next moved in from his own house, the Hampden Theatre, with his production of Hamlet, and this classic was followed early in 1926 by the great magician Houdini in a spectacular personal appearance.
Fredric March came to the National in 1926 in The Half-Caste, subtitled “A story of love and sacrifice in a Land of Forgotten Men,” but The Times labeled it “a trite and loquacious drama.” The National’s next offering fared better. It was George M. Cohan’s production of a play called Yellow, in which Chester Morris played a rotter. (There was a young actor in the supporting cast named Spencer Tracy.) Some first-nighters felt that the play’s author, Margaret Vernon, was a pseudonym for Cohan. It ran for 132 performances.
John Willard, who had given the National the smash The Cat and the Canary, tried again with a melodrama called Fog in 1927, but the critics found it murky and it evaporated after 97 performances. Next came a huge hit and one of the National’s most fondly remembered shows. It was A. H. Woods’s production of Bayard Veiller’s The Trial of Mary Dugan, and it starred Ann Harding in the role of a showgirl accused of murdering her millionaire lover. The court went into session 437 times.
The 1920s came to a dramatic close at the National with the opening of Martin Flavin’s The Criminal Code, which jolted theatregoers with its realistic view of life in the big house. Arthur Byron gave a powerful performance as an inmate who witnessed a murder in the warden’s office but chose not to reveal which of his prison mates committed the crime. It thrilled audiences for 174 performances.
Peking’s most illustrious actor, Mei Lan-Fang, played a highly successful Broadway engagement with his Chinese company of actors, singers, and musicians in 1930. He opened first at the Forty-ninth Street Theatre, then moved to the National for an additional three weeks. On November 13, 1930, a landmark theatrical event occurred at the National: Herman Shumlin opened his production of Grand Hotel, a swirling drama based on a play by Vicki Baum, translated from the German by William A. Drake. The opulent production was the first dramatic play on Broadway to use a revolving stage, and it captivated audiences with its portrayal of life in a luxury hotel in Berlin. Eugenie Leontovich played a weary Russian ballerina, Sam Jaffe played a clerk with only a few weeks to live, Henry Hull was a baron who gets murdered in the hotel, and the rest of the enormous cast played employees and guests of the Grand Hotel, with myriad problems. It ran for 459 performances and was adapted as a hit musical in 1988.
The National had a series of failures and quick bookings during 1932 and 1933 and was dark for more than a year during those gray Depression days. But on October 22, 1934, a distinguished drama opened at this theatre. It was Sean O’Casey’s Within the Gates, directed by Melvyn Douglas and starring Lillian Gish as a prostitute, Bramwell Fletcher as a poet, and Moffat Johnston as a bishop. The play took place in London’s Hyde Park, and the very large cast represented the great variety of humanity who spent their days in the park. There was music, dancing, and philosophizing, and Brooks Atkinson in The Times pronounced: “Nothing so grand has risen in our impoverished theatre since this reporter first began writing of plays.”
A charming, nostalgic play, Remember the Day, by Philip Dunning and Philo Higley, came to the National on September 25, 1935. It starred Frankie Thomas as a schoolboy who has a crush on his teacher (Francesca Bruning) until he sees her kissing the school’s athletic coach (Russell Hardie). A novelty of the well-received play was that Frank M. Thomas Sr. played the father of Frankie Thomas.
Another fine drama, Ethan Frome, adapted by Owen and Donald Davis from the novel of the same name by Edith Wharton, opened in January 1936. Staged by Guthrie McClintic, the play had magnificent performances by Raymond Massey, Ruth Gordon, and Pauline Lord, but its depressing story and somber atmosphere resulted in a run of only 119 performances.
On November 24, 1936, New York’s elite descended upon the National in their finest evening wear and jewels to welcome Noël Coward and Gertrude Lawrence back to the Broadway stage in Coward’s collection of one-act plays under the umbrella title Tonight at 8:30. The nine playlets were performed in groups of three at three different performances. Coward and Lawrence had not been seen on Broadway together since 1931, when they triumphed in Coward’s Private Lives, and their return was the social event of the 1936-37 season. On opening night, during the first intermission, a lady had her chinchilla coat stolen. At openings in those days, there was always a gray-haired detective stationed in the theatre to keep an eye on the audience. This super-sleuth apprehended the thieves and the lady had her coat back by the time the final curtain fell.
In 1938 Orson Welles and John Houseman’s celebrated Mercury Theatre had such success with its revivals of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and Thomas Dekker’s The Shoemaker’s Holiday that they moved these productions from the small Mercury Theatre to the larger National. The group was the sensation of the season. They played Julius Caesar in black shirts as an indictment of fascism, and The Shoemaker’s Holiday was turned into a rowdy, lusty prank without an intermission. The Mercury Theatre company for these two productions included such actors as Welles, Joseph Cotten, Martin Gabel, Hiram Sherman, John Hoysradt, George Coulouris, Stefan Schnabel, Vincent Price, Ruth Ford, Edith Barrett, Elliott Reid, and Whitford Kane.
On February 15, 1939, the National housed one of its finest tenants. Lillian Hellman’s vitriolic play about greed, The Little Foxes, starred Tallulah Bankhead as Regina Giddens. It was Tallulah’s first superior role in the American theatre. Herman Shumlin’s direction was praised, and so was the supporting cast: Patricia Collinge, Frank Conroy, Dan Duryea, Carl Benton Reid, Charles Dingle, and Florence Williams. It ran for 410 performances.
During the 1940s the National housed some memorable productions. Ethel Barrymore had one of her greatest triumphs in Emlyn Williams’s drama The Corn Is Green, in which she played a determined schoolteacher in Wales who discovers literary talent in one of the local miners and exerts all her power to make a success of him. The New York Drama Critics Circle named it the best foreign play of the year, and it ran for 477 performances during the 1940-41 season.
Another notable production came to this theatre in November 1941: Maurice Evans and Judith Anderson in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Staged by Margaret Webster, the revival was acclaimed as one of the finest productions of this classic ever mounted in the United States. It ran for 131 performances. In 1943 Sidney Kingsley’s The Patriots opened and won the New York Drama Critics Award as best play of the season. The cast included Raymond E. Johnson as Thomas Jefferson, House Jameson as Alexander Hamilton, and Cecil Humphreys as George Washington. Mrs. Sidney Kingsley, Madge Evans, played a romantic role.
A failure of note was a musical called What’s Up?, which happened to be Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s first Broadway musical. Jimmy Savo had the lead, and the staging and choreography were by George Balanchine, but the critics declared that nothing was up and the show closed after 63 performances in 1943. Early in 1944 Eva Le Gallienne and Joseph Schildkraut acted brilliantly in a revival of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, staged by Le Gallienne and Margaret Webster. Later that year Ethel Barrymore returned to this theatre in an adaptation of the Franz Werfel novel Embezzled Heaven, but the play was not a success. Lerner and Loewe returned to the National in November 1945 with a delightful musical called The Day Before Spring, about a college reunion. Anthony Tudor created the ballets, and the cast included Irene Manning, John Archer, Bill Johnson, Estelle Loring, and dancer Hugh Laing. The pleasant musical lasted for 165 performances. This was followed by one of the most entertaining revues ever produced on Broadway — Call Me Mister — satirizing the plight of the returning servicemen and -women from World War II. Produced by Melvyn Douglas and Herman Levin, the revue had a beguiling score by Harold Rome and sharp performances by Betty Garrett, Jules Munshin, Danny Scholl, Bill Callahan, Maria Karnilova, and many others and had a gratifying run of 734 performances.
In 1947 Judith Anderson returned to the National and gave a shattering performance in the title role of Medea. Assisted by John Gielgud as Jason and Florence Reed as the Nurse, she brought Robinson Jeffers’s adaptation of Euripides’ tragedy to painful life. It had a run of 214 performances, still a Broadway record for the classic. Gielgud was in the National’s next production, as well, Crime and Punishment, costarring Lillian Gish, but the adaptation of Dostoyevsky’s novel was not a success. Another failure followed in 1948: Gertrude Lawrence attempted to revive Noël Coward’s Tonight at 8:30, with young Graham Payn, but it did not come off. That spring Michael Redgrave and Flora Robeson revived Macbeth, but that, too, failed.
The string of flops was broken in December 1948, when a delirious revue, Lend an Ear, written entirely by Charles Gaynor, became an audience favorite. Carol Channing was an overnight success as a loony, wide-eyed blonde in such numbers as “The Gladiola Girl” and “Opera without Music”; and Yvonne Adair, William Eythe, Gene Nelson, and the rest of the cast made this one of the theatre’s most fondly remembered revues.
John Garfield and Nancy Kelly starred in Clifford Odets’s The Big Knife, an exposé of Hollywood, in 1949, but despite excellent performances and expert direction by Lee Strasberg, the play was only a moderate success. The 1940s came to a scintillating end at the National with Sir Cedric Hardwicke and Lilli Palmer in a shimmering revival of Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra, staged by Hardwicke.
Highlights of the 1950s included an appearance by Les Ballets de Paris and Louis Calhern in King Lear, both in 1950; Katharine Cornell, Grace George, and Brian Aherne in a highly successful revival of Somerset Maugham’s The Constant Wife (1951); Tennessee Williams’s fascinating but obscure play Camino Real (1953), with Eli Wallach as Kilroy; and Margaret Sullavan, Luella Gear, John Cromwell, and Scott McKay in Samuel Taylor’s sterling comedy of manners Sabrina Fair (1953).
In 1955 Paul Muni returned to the Broadway stage in one of his finest roles, in Inherit the Wind, the Jerome Lawrence/Robert E. Lee play about the sensational Scopes “Monkey Trial.” Muni and his costar, Ed Begley, both won Tony Awards for their powerful performances in parts inspired by the great trial lawyer Clarence Darrow (Muni) and by William Jennings Bryan (Begley). The enormous cast also included Bethel Leslie, Muriel Kirkland, Staats Cotsworth, and Tony Randall (who, as artistic director of his own National Actors Theatre, gave the play a major Broadway revival in 1996). Directed by Herman Shumlin, it ran for 806 performances, the longest-running nonmusical in this theatre’s history. Muni was succeeded by Melvyn Douglas during the run.
In 1958 Arlene Francis, Joseph Cotten, and Walter Matthau amused audiences for 263 performances in Harry Kurnitz’s Once More with Feeling. This comedy was the last show to play the National Theatre before it was bought by Billy Rose, who renamed it after himself. A songwriter, producer, and millionaire art collector, Rose spent a fortune refurbishing his new theatre in lush red and gold and reopened it on October 18, 1959, with Maurice Evans, Sam Levene, Diane Cilento, Pamela Brown, Diane Wynyard, and Alan Webb in Shaw’s Heartbreak House. The revival ran for 112 performances.
The Billy Rose greeted the 1960s with Katharine Cornell in her final play on Broadway before her retirement. It was Dear Liar, Jerome Kilty’s comedy, with Cornell and Brian Aherne reading letters adapted for the stage from the correspondence of Mrs. Patrick Campbell and George Bernard Shaw. The play ran for only 52 performances.
In October 1960 The Wall, an adaptation of John Hersey’s novel, presented a harrowing story about the Warsaw Ghetto. The cast included George C. Scott, Joseph Buloff, David Opatoshu, and Marian Seldes, and the drama ran for 167 performances.
Edward Albee’s first full-length play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, opened at the Billy Rose on October 14, 1962, and sent shockwaves through Times Square. The stinging drama about a self-destructive married couple, brilliantly played by Uta Hagen and Arthur Hill, and their unfortunate guests — George Grizzard and Melinda Dillon — was the sensation of the season and won Tony Awards for its author, director (Alan Schneider), stars (Hagen and Hill), and producers (Richard Barr and Clinton Wilder). It ran for 664 performances. Two years later Albee tried again at this theatre with a play called Tiny Alice, starring John Gielgud and Irene Worth, but not even the actors seemed to understand what this pretentious play was all about.
A series of short plays by Albee and Samuel Beckett was presented at the Billy Rose by the Playwrights Repertory Theatre in 1968, including Box, Krapp’s Last Tape, The Death of Bessie Smith, and Happy Days, followed by the Minnesota Theatre Company’s revivals of The House of Atreus and The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. The decade came to an end with a sleek revival of Noël Coward’s Private Lives, costarring Brian Bedford and Tammy Grimes, who won a Tony Award for her hoydenish performance as Amanda.
In 1971 the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, directed by Peter Brook, provided great fun; and later that year Harold Pinter’s Old Times, with Robert Shaw, Rosemary Harris, and Mary Ure, was hailed. In 1974 Brian Bedford and Jill Clayburgh were delightful in Tom Stoppard’s buoyant comedy Jumpers.
The theatre closed for a year in 1978 but then was bought by James and Joseph Nederlander and the British firm of Cooney-Marsh. It was beautifully refurbished and renamed the Trafalgar. It housed two British hits: Whose Life Is It Anyway?, starring Tom Conti, who won a Tony Award for his performance (later replaced in the gender-switched role by Mary Tyler Moore), and Pinter’s Betrayal, starring Raul Julia, Blythe Danner, and Roy Scheider.
In late 1980 the Trafalgar became the Nederlander Theatre, named in honor of the late theatre owner David Tobias Nederlander, whose scions now operate the Nederlander Organization.
Beginning on May 12, 1981, this theatre housed one of its most distinguished attractions. The incomparable Lena Horne opened in a spectacular personal appearance called Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music. The unforgettable concert program won her a special Tony Award and a special citation from the New York Drama Critics Circle for her singing and the way she recounted the highlights of her brilliant career as the top black star in 1940's Hollywood.
The Nederlander Theatre’s subsequent tenants included the charming British import 84 Charing Cross Road, by Helene Hanff, starring Ellen Burstyn and Joseph Maher; and a musical version of the James Baldwin play The Amen Corner.
In 1984 this theatre housed Peter Ustinov’s Beethoven’s Tenth, followed by Glenda Jackson in a revival of Eugene O’Neill’s Strange Interlude (1985); the musical Wind in the Willows (1985), with pre-stardom Nathan Lane and David Carroll; another musical, Raggedy Ann (1986); Frank Langella and Donal Donnelly in Sherlock’s Last Case (1987); Graciela Daniele’s dance production Dangerous Games (1989); the Hartford Stage Company’s production of Our Country’s Good, under the auspices of the Broadway Alliance; and Stacy Keach in a dazzling one-man performance in Solitary Confinement, a thriller by Rupert Holmes.
On April 29, 1996, a spectacular musical success with a tragic history opened at this theatre. Rent, a rock opera inspired by Puccini’s La Bohème, with music, lyrics, and book by young Jonathan Larson, transferred here from its successful Off-Broadway engagement at New York Theatre Workshop and received a tumultuous reception. Unfortunately, Larson was not alive to enjoy the theatrical triumph of his musical about the preciousness of life and friendship in the face of AIDS and greed. Larson died January 25, 1996, of an aortic aneurysm after attending the final Off-Broadway dress rehearsal of the show. He was just 35 years old.
The Nederlander was a good choice for the anti-establishment Rent. Standing geographically apart from the rest of the Broadway theatre district on the far side of the pre-Disney Forty-second Street abutting the (then) seedy Port Authority neighborhood, the site reflected a modicum of the grungy East Village atmosphere that the musical sought to capture onstage. To enhance the environmental staging, the inside of the theatre was redecorated to resemble a downtown club, complete with crumbling, sickly green paint and inlaid shards of mirror. The marquee used only the outline of the word “Rent” over bare fluorescent bulbs. Long after the gentrification decried in Rent had transformed the actual Alphabet City and brought it fatally upscale, a facsimile of the original was preserved at the Nederlander like a tattered fly in amber.
Rent immediately became the hottest ticket in town and won the Pulitzer Prize, the Tony Award for Best Musical, and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Musical. It also won Tony Awards for Best Original Score, Best Book of a Musical, and Featured Actor in a Musical (Wilson Jermaine Heredia).
The producers’ policy of setting aside the first two rows of the orchestra as the cheapest seats (not the last row of the mezzanine or balcony, as had been the usual case), made the daily lineup of students and workers on Forty-first Street into a signature Broadway experience of the late 1990s and was widely imitated by other shows. Fans were encouraged to scrawl graffiti on the front of the theatre, and many of them left their names and personal messages to the cast — and to Larson’s memory — on the green facade. For many theatergoers who were young during this period (and for many who were young at heart), the Nederlander was the magical place where Rent came alive each night. It was more than a theatre; it was a kind of shrine.
Rent settled in for 12 years (1996 to 2008) at the Nederlander Theatre, becoming its longest-running production. One of the Broadway theatres that had been the hardest to book now boasted one of the steadiest rent payers on Broadway.
Rent’s grand and bittersweet 5,123rd and final performance on September 8, 2008, was filmed by Sony Pictures as part of a planned series of special events collectively titled “The Hot Tickets.” The film, which included documentary footage of the audience out front and the cast backstage, was shown later that same month around the United States. This wasn't the end of the story, however. The producers brought the stage musical back, albeit to Off-Broadway in a reconceived production, in August 2011 at New World Stages.
Dumpsters full of broken lumber and glitter were carted out of the Nederlander during the bleak recession winter of 2008-9, and the theatre was classed up for Des McAnuff’s short-lived revival of Guys and Dolls, starring Oliver Platt as Nathan Detroit, Craig Bierko as Sky Masterson, Kate Jennings Grant as Sarah Brown, and Lauren Graham as Miss Adelaide. The formerly scruffy flagship of the Nederlander Organization had been transformed with plush fittings including carved wooden panels on the mezzanine walls.
In fall 2009 the Nederlander was scheduled to host an unusual pair of revivals. Neil Simon’s semi-autobiographical plays Brighton Beach Memoirs and Broadway Bound were to be presented in repertory, with much of the cast playing the same roles in the two plays, which were to be performed on alternating nights. Hot young director David Cromer was called up from Off-Broadway to stage the comedies, which were produced by Emanuel Azenberg, who envisioned the productions as “a victory lap” for the prolific 82-year-old Simon. Sadly, the mixed-to-positive reviews did not bring out the ticket buyers, and Brighton Beach Memoirs closed abruptly after just nine performances; Broadway Bound never played at all, silencing lovely performances from Laurie Metcalf, Dennis Boutsikaris, Noah Robbins, and the rest of the fine ensemble.
On April 11, 2010, the Nederlander hosted the opening of Million Dollar Quartet, a transfer of the hit Chicago musical set on December 4, 1956, the night four future rock superstars gathered at the Sun Records studio in Memphis to hash out their differences and play some of their greatest tunes together. Original Chicago stars played the foursome: Eddie Clendening as Elvis Presley, Lance Guest as Johnny Cash, Rob Lyons as Carl Perkins, and Levi Kreis stealing the show as Jerry Lee Lewis. Broadway veteran Hunter Foster joined them in the nonsinging role of Sam Phillips, the record producer who discovered them all. The show had a run of 489 performances at the Nederlander, and promptly moved Off-Broadway to the smaller New World Stages, where it joined its fellow Broadway exiles Rent and Avenue Q.
Beautifully restored and updated by the Nederlander Organization, the Nederlander Theatre is ideal for musicals, concert shows, and large-scale plays.