Rarely has a Broadway legitimate theatre opened with as resounding a hit as the Cort had on the night of December 20, 1912. The play was Peg o’ My Heart by J. Hartley Manners, and it starred his illustrious wife, Laurette Taylor. The incandescent actress scored a triumph. As critic Brooks Atkinson reported years later: “J. Hartley Manners wrote a part for Laurette Taylor in 1912 that made her the most generally worshipped star of her time. She opened the new Cort Theatre on 48th Street as Peg and played it for 607 performances — the longest run of any dramatic play up to that time.”
The critics also had praise for the new playhouse, located east of Broadway. Built by John Cort, a West Coast theatre impresario who came east, it was designed by architect Edward B. Corey in the style of Louis XVI. It had a marble facade with four Corinthian columns, a lobby of Pavanozza marble with panels of Marie Antoinette plasterwork, and an auditorium with a seating capacity of 999 (later augmented to 1,084). According to the New York Tribune, “A distinctive feature of the interior is the proscenium arch, which is of perforated plaster work against a background of art glass capable of illumination during the performance. The sounding board has been decorated with a painting of a minuet during the period made famous in Watteau’s drawings of French court life at Versailles.”
The article added that instead of an orchestra (most theatres had live orchestras to entertain the patrons), the Cort had a “Wurlitzer Hope-Jones unit orchestra, an electrical instrument capable of operation by one musician.”
The Cort’s luck continued with its next occupant, Under Cover, a play about an undercover customs agent, starring Harry Crosby, Ralph Morgan, and George Stevens. It opened in August 1914 and ran for 349 performances. In 1915 the Cort went musical with Victor Herbert’s The Princess Pat, which had a hit tune: “Neapolitan Love Song.” It ran for 158 performances.
Other successes during this period were a Chinese play called The Yellow Jacket (1916); Flo-Flo (1917), a musical with some vaudeville headliners; and John Drinkwater’s masterly Abraham Lincoln, starring Frank McGlyn in the title role. It ran for 244 performances.
The Cort housed a wide variety of fare during the 1920s. A musical comedy called Jim Jam Jems featured an incredible collection of comics: Joe E. Brown, Frank Fay, Harry Langdon, Ned Sparks, and Mr. Jokes himself, Joe E. Miller. They provided solid yocks for 105 performances in 1920. The following year brought a farcical comedy, Captain Applejack, produced by the estimable Sam H. Harris, and it was funny enough to continue for 366 performances. Then in 1922 came a classic American comedy: George S. Kaufman and Marc Connelly’s Merton of the Movies. The critics were unanimous in their praise of this satire in which a shy, movie-crazy grocery clerk, splendidly played by Glenn Hunter, went to Hollywood and became a success because he was such a terrible actor. It was on Burns Mantle’s ten-best list and ran for 398 performances.
In contrast to Merton of the Movies was the genteel high comedy of Ferenc Molnar’s The Swan (1923), starring the lovely Eva Le Gallienne as a princess sought by a prince (Philip Merivale) and a humble tutor (Basil Rathbone). The Hungarian romance charmed audiences for 253 performances.
After a number of failures in 1924, the Cort presented Ethel Barrymore, who was praised for her performance in a revival of Sir Arthur Wing Pinero’s The Second Mrs. Tanqueray, staged by Arthur Hopkins. A comedy called White Collars with Cornelia Otis Skinner also found favor in 1925. Six shows followed, none of them successful; then came The Jazz Singer, starring George Jessel, which moved here from the Fulton Theatre and ran for 315 performances. This Samson Raphaelson play later became the first commercially released talking picture, starring Al Jolson.
A comedy called The Little Spitfire played for 201 performances in 1926. A strange drama came to the Cort later that year. It was called The Ladder, and before it had run its course (789 performances) it had played in five different Broadway theatres — including two engagements at the Cort. The play was about reincarnation and had Antoinette Perry and Ross Alexander in the cast. The critics called it hokum, and the producer, Brock Pemberton, sometimes let people in for nothing.
George Kelly’s Behold the Bridegroom (1927), starring Judith Anderson, Mary Servoss, and Lester Vail, was admired but lasted for only 88 performances. On November 12, 1928, a drama called These Days opened with a large cast of young girls playing rich young students in a finishing school. Among them was an actress making her Broadway debut; her name was Katharine Hepburn. The play ran for only eight performances but launched a spectacular career.
Alice Brady appeared at the Cort in A Most Immoral Lady in late 1928 and helped the play to run for 160 performances. The Cort’s last show of the 1920s was Your Uncle Dudley, a homespun comedy by Howard Lindsay and Bertrand Robinson, starring Walter Connolly. It rang out the Roaring Twenties with 96 performances.
In April 1930 producer Jed Harris, known as the boy wonder, returned from London and produced and directed an acclaimed revival of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, adapted by Rose Caylor. Harris’s direction and the acting of his sterling cast — Lillian Gish, Osgood Perkins, Walter Connolly, Eduardo Ciannelli, Joanna Roos, and others — made the occasion a theatrical event.
The end of 1930 brought a taut, cynical exposé of scandalmongering newspapers called Five-Star Final. It starred Arthur Byron, Frances Fuller, and Berton Churchill and featured Allen Jenkins. Theatregoers supported it for 176 showings.
Two enterprising producers — Alfred de Liagre Jr. and Richard Aldrich — brought a screwball family to the Cort in 1933 in a comedy called Three-Cornered Moon, making an auspicious producing debut. The excellent cast included Ruth Gordon, Richard Whorf, Brian Donlevy, and Cecilia Loftus.
Later in 1933 a sensational drama arrived from Britain. It was Mordaunt Shairp’s The Green Bay Tree, and it starred Laurence Olivier, James Dale, Jill Esmond (Mrs. Olivier at that time), O. P. Heggie, and Leo G. Carroll. Jed Harris’s direction was highly praised for its subtlety in depicting a questionable relationship between a wealthy male hedonist and a poor, handsome young boy, played by Olivier.
From October 1935 to July 1938 the Cort had only two bookings, but they were both George Abbott smashes. The first one, the riotous Boy Meets Girl, by Bella and Samuel Spewack, was a hysterical spoof of Hollywood said to be inspired by the West Coast shenanigans of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur when they toiled there as scriptwriters. With Jerome Cowan and Allyn Joslyn as the madcap scribes, Joyce Arling as an unwed mother, and Abbott’s famous “touch” in direction, Boy Meets Girl had Cort audiences in stitches for 669 performances.
On May 19, 1937, Abbott ushered in his production of another raucous farce, Room Service, by John P. Murray and Allen Boretz. With such expert farceurs as Sam Levene, Teddy Hart, Philip Loeb, Eddie Albert, and Betty Field, the comedy chronicled the plight of a group of hungry actors and some shoestring producers living in a seedy hotel while trying to get backing for the play they wish to put on. It was a Cort favorite for 500 performances and later was made into a film with the Marx Brothers.
The year 1939 witnessed memorable performances by Jessica Tandy and Barry Fitzgerald in Paul Vincent Carroll’s The White Steed.
The 1940s brought exciting theatre to the Cort. Among the highlights: The Male Animal (1940), an intelligent comedy by James Thurber and Elliott Nugent, starring Nugent, Gene Tierney, Ruth Matteson, and Don DeFore; a lively revival of Charley’s Aunt (1940), staged by Joshua Logan, with José Ferrer and Nedda Harrigan (Mrs. Logan); the warmhearted Café Crown (1942), starring Sam Jaffe and Morris Carnovsky as leading actors of the Yiddish Theatre who gather each evening in a popular Second Avenue cafe; Maxwell Anderson’s moving war drama The Eve of St. Mark (1942), with William Prince as a farm boy who goes to war and Aline MacMahon as his mother.
Next came A Bell for Adano (1944), Paul Osborn’s faithful adaptation of John Hersey’s novel about the American occupation of Italy at war’s end, starring Fredric March as an army major; the Theatre Guild Shakespearean Company in The Winter’s Tale (1946); Katharine Cornell and Cedric Hardwicke in Anouilh’s version of Antigone (1946), alternating with Shaw’s Candida, in which Marlon Brando played a rather prissy Marchbanks; Canada Lee in On Whitman Avenue (1946), a play about a black family moving into a white neighborhood; Cornelia Otis Skinner, Estelle Winwood, and Cecil Beaton in Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan (1946-47), with sets, costumes, and lighting by Beaton; Meg Mundy’s powerful performance in Sartre’s The Respectful Prostitute (1948), which moved to the Cort from the New Stages Theatre on Bleecker Street; Melvyn Douglas and Jan Sterling in Sam Spewack’s political satire Two Blind Mice (1949); and a revival of Strindberg’s The Father (1949), with Raymond Massey, Mady Christians, and, making her Broadway debut, Grace Kelly.
The Cort continued to house hits in the 1950s, beginning with Katharine Hepburn in an engaging revival of As You Like It, with William Prince as Orlando and Cloris Leachman as Celia. Wolcott Gibbs, drama critic for The New Yorker, came up with a hit comedy, Season in the Sun, about the (straight) denizens of Fire Island (1950). Uta Hagen drew praise for her Joan in Shaw’s Saint Joan (1951). Joseph Kramm won a Pulitzer Prize for his harrowing drama The Shrike (1952), about a husband (José Ferrer) who is committed to a mental institution by his odious wife (Judith Evelyn).
The decade continued with Menasha Skulnik entertaining in a garment-district spoof, The Fifth Season (1953). Geraldine Page, Albert Salmi, and Darren McGavin enhanced The Rainmaker (1954). Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett won a Pulitzer Prize, New York Drama Critics Circle Award, and Tony Award for their moving play The Diary of Anne Frank (1955), about a Dutch-Jewish girl during World War II, struggling with puberty as she and her family spend months in hiding from Nazi terror. Susan Strasberg starred as Anne, Joseph Schildkraut and Gusti Huber as her parents, and Lou Jacobi and Jack Gilford as others hidden in the attic.
Siobhan McKenna, Art Carney, and Joan Blondell scored in the tragic drama The Rope Dancers (1957). Sunrise at Campobello, Dore Schary’s study of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s early years, won four Tony Awards, including Best Play and Best Actor (Ralph Bellamy as Roosevelt), in 1958.
The 1960s brought Brendan Behan’s rowdy play The Hostage (1960), with a cast largely drawn from Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop in London. Next came a dramatization of Allen Drury’s popular political novel Advise and Consent, with a cast that included Richard Kiley, Ed Begley, Kevin McCarthy, and Barnard Hughes. It lasted for 212 performances. This was followed by the engaging Purlie Victorious, written by and starring Ossie Davis, with Ruby Dee, Alan Alda, and Godfrey Cambridge. In November 1961 a young Robert Redford held forth on the Cort stage in Norman Krasna’s thin comedy Sunday in New York, produced by David Merrick, directed by Garson Kanin — and not very successful.
From mid-1962 until mid-1969 the Cort booked many shows but few successes. Some of the more interesting exhibits were a brief visit by the Royal Dramatic Theatre of Sweden acting in The Father, Long Day’s Journey into Night, and Miss Julie (1962); Kirk Douglas in an unsuccessful adaptation of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1963), which later proved a major hit Off-Broadway and became an Oscar-winning film; and Louis Gossett and Menasha Skulnik in the musical The Zulu and the Zayda (1965).
The marquee of the Cort can be glimpsed momentarily in the classic film spoof of Broadway, The Producers (1968), which was shot at the since-demolished Playhouse Theatre directly across Forty-eighth Street.
In 1969 the Cort was leased to television for several years and served as another theatre from which "The Merv Griffin Show" emanated for a time.
On May 28, 1974, the Cort made a dazzling comeback. Owned for many years by the Shubert Organization, the theatre was beautifully restored for its return to the legitimate fold. It reopened with The Magic Show, a musical that would have died on its opening night if it had not had Doug Henning in the lead. Henning, one of the world’s best and most amiable magicians, created such incredible magic on the Cort’s stage that the show ran for 1,920 performances.
Al Pacino starred in a disastrous Brooklynese version of Shakespeare’s Richard III (1979), and Tennessee Williams suffered critical arrows for his play about F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Clothes for a Summer Hotel (1980). An engaging black-themed play, Home, won favor that spring; and Glenda Jackson and Jessica Tandy acted grandly in the unsuccessful British play Rose (1981). In 1982 there was an engrossing revival of Medea starring Zoe Caldwell, whose passionate performance won her a Tony Award, and Judith Anderson, who put her stamp on the title role in 1947, playing the Nurse this time.
In 1983 Murray Schisgal’s Twice Around the Park, two one-act plays, starred Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson, and it was followed by August Wilson’s first Broadway drama, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1984) and a revival of O’Neill’s A Moon for the Misbegotten (1984) that starred Kate Nelligan and Ian Bannen.
Sarafina! (1988), the South African drama with music, played here for more than a year. The Steppenwolf Theatre’s production of John Steinbeck’s classic The Grapes of Wrath won a Tony Award as the season’s Best Play (1990). Two Shakespearean Actors, by Richard Nelson, starred Victor Garber as Edwin Forrest and Brian Bedford as William Charles Macready, master thespians whose bitter rivalry caused the tragic Astor Place riots in 1847, in which 22 people were killed and more than 100 wounded. The play was presented by the Lincoln Center Theater in 1992, but it ran for only 29 performances.
On April 17, 1994, Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, a new play conceived, written, and performed by the remarkable Anna Deavere Smith (who played more than 40 characters with amazing skill), moved here from the New York Shakespeare Festival. Smith received a Tony nomination for her dazzling work embodying the people in and around a Los Angeles race riot.
In March 1995 Lincoln Center Theater presented a prestigious revival of The Heiress, the 1947 play by Ruth and Augustus Goetz, based on the Henry James novel Washington Square. The production received seven Tony Award nominations and won the following: Best Revival of a Play, Best Director of a Play (Gerald Gutierrez), Best Actress in a Play (Cherry Jones), and Best Featured Actress in a Play (Frances Sternhagen). It ran for 340 performances.
Lincoln Center Theatre booked the Cort for new works by two major playwrights, Christopher Durang and Wendy Wasserstein, in the 1996-97 season. They got very different responses. Durang’s vulgar 1996 comedy Sex and Longing repelled 13 critics (as well as audiences) and lasted only 45 performances. The cast included Sigourney Weaver, Dana Ivey, and Peter Michael Goetz. Wasserstein’s 1997 play An American Daughter garnered three favorable reviews, three mixed, and four negative. It starred Kate Nelligan, Hal Holbrook, Peter Riegert, and Lynne Thigpen, with Thigpen winning a Tony Award as Best Featured Actress in a Play. Nelligan played a candidate for U.S. attorney general whose appointment runs into political trouble. The play ran for 88 performances.
John Leguizamo brought his amusing one-man show (which he wrote and starred in) to the Cort in 1998. He called it Freak, and he outrageously spoofed his racy upbringing. Both his play and performance were nominated for Tonys, and he entertained audiences for 145 performances. Director Spike Lee adapted it as a film for the HBO cable TV network. Later that same year, there was much publicity about the nude appearance of Nicole Kidman in David Hare’s play The Blue Room, freely adapted from Arthur Schnitzler’s La Ronde. The two-character play, costarring Kidman and Iain Glen, was a huge financial success (although Kidman was bare only briefly), but it was not a critical success. It completed a limited run of 81 performances.
On August 19, 1999, an entertainment called Kat and the Kings brought an exuberant vocal/dancing group from South Africa (via London) in a musical about the rise and fall of a doo-wop group in 1950's Capetown. The critics were impressed by the youthful cast’s energy but found the show’s book weak. However, audiences were enthusiastic enough to attend the show for 157 performances.
On April 18, 2000, The Lion King director Julie Taymor returned to Broadway with The Green Bird, a spectacular satirical fable, featuring music by Elliot Goldenthal and a translation by Albert Bermel and Ted Emery from an Italian tale by Carlo Gozzi. Taymor directed the show and designed its masks and puppet designs, as she had done for The Lion King. The production originated with Theatre for a New Audience in 1996 at the New Victory Theatre on Forty-second Street. This production had sets by Christine Jones, costumes by Constance Hoffman, and lighting by Donald Holder. Hoffman was nominated for a Tony Award for her dazzling costumes and Derek Smith for Best Featured Actor in a Play. The critics were more enchanted by the fable’s visual splendors than with the play’s foolish Venetian tale. The show closed after 55 performances.
The effects of the Holocaust on three generations of American Jews were examined in Arje Shaw’s drama The Gathering, which starred Hal Linden and lasted 24 performances starting April 24, 2001.
The husband-and-wife team of Joseph Bologna and Renée Taylor turned the incidents of their showbiz marriage into an autobiographical comedy, If you ever leave me . . . I’m going with you!, in August 2001, but audiences just weren’t that into them, and they left together after 53 performances.
Comedienne Carol Burnett turned playwright with Hollywood Arms, an autobiographical play about growing up funny with a tough grandmother and a flibbertigibbet mother; it opened on October 31, 2002. To complete the family scenario, Burnett wrote the play with her daughter, Carrie Hamilton. Donna Lynn Champlin starred with Linda Lavin and Michele Pawk, and Harold Prince directed, but Hollywood Arms folded after 76 performances.
As with 2000’s The Green Bird, the New Victory Theatre supplied the Cort with another tenant, A Year with Frog and Toad. This tiny musical for children was based on a book about the friendship between the two titular cookie-loving amphibians, played by Mark Linn-Baker and Jay Goede. Despite the modest source material, the show had an engaging score by brothers Robert and Willie Reale, who earned Tony nominations for their work. The show, which also earned a Tony nomination as Best Musical, lasted 73 performances after its April 13, 2003, opening.
The next production at the Cort never actually opened. Bobbi Boland, Nancy Hasty’s play about a clash of beauties in a Florida backwater, closed in previews despite the presence of its star, 1970s icon Farrah Fawcett. Its final performance was November 9, 2003. The strengths or weaknesses of the play were forgotten in an ongoing tabloid analysis of the star’s alleged eccentric behavior backstage and onstage.
Perhaps inspired by the 1998 success of John Leguizamo’s Freak at this theatre, another comedian, Mario Cantone, took audiences on a tour through his upbringing in a boisterous ethnic family (Italian-American this time) in the solo show Laugh Whore. It enjoyed a two-month run in fall 2004 and was taped for cable TV.
Tony-winning stars James Earl Jones and Leslie Uggams teamed up for a nontraditionally cast revival of Ernest Thompson’s gentle family comedy On Golden Pond, which gave 93 performances starting April 7, 2005. The Cort followed it with another comedy revival, Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park, in February 2006. Patrick Wilson and Amanda Peet played the newlyweds, with Jill Clayburgh and Tony Roberts handling the autumn romance. Scott Ellis staged the production, which lasted 109 performances.
Julie White gave the performance of her career at the Cort starting November 13, 2006, when the hit Off-Broadway comedy The Little Dog Laughed moved here from a sold-out engagement at Off-Broadway’s Second Stage Theatre. White won the 2007 Tony Award as Best Actress in a Play for her performance as a relentless talent agent who sets out to salvage the career of a client, a closeted gay actor who falls in love with a male hooker. The play gave 112 performances on Broadway.
On May 8, 2007, the Cort hosted a distinguished and historic production: Radio Golf, the tenth and final installment in August Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle of plays about African-American life in the 20th century. Though the production wound up giving only 64 performances, one of Wilson’s briefest Broadway runs, it brought the cycle to a fascinating close with the story of a black politician in 1990's Pittsburgh who must help decide what to do with the rundown house that once belonged to Aunt Ester, the semi-supernatural matriarch who represents the legacy of Africa and slavery that underpins the entire ten-play epic. Kenny Leon directed a sterling cast including Anthony Chisholm, John Earl Jelks, Harry Lennix, Tonya Pinkins, and James A. Williams. Radio Golf was nominated for a Tony Award as Best Play of 2007, but Wilson didn’t get to enjoy its success. He had died October 2, 2005, shortly after completing the script.
On December 16, 2007, Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming got a first-class revival at the Cort directed by Daniel Sullivan and starring Raúl Esparza, Eve Best, Michael McKean, and Ian McShane. The game of sex and power among male members of a family after one of them marries lasted 137 performances.
From April 29, 2008, to January 4, 2009, the Cort hosted a transfer of The 39 Steps, the imaginatively staged adaptation of the Alfred Hitchcock film. The peripatetic London hit had debuted on Broadway at Roundabout Theatre Company’s American Airlines Theatre; after the Cort it moved on to the Helen Hayes Theatre.
In January and February 2009 the Cort briefly housed the hottest ticket on Broadway. Comedian Will Ferrell, star of nutball film comedies including Anchorman and Talladega Nights, had honed his aggressive-dim-bulb impression of President George W. Bush on the late-night comedy show "Saturday Night Live." He chose the Cort as the site of his full-length satirical send-off to the forty-third president, You’re Welcome America. A Final Night with George W Bush. The show opened the night Bush left the White House, and Ferrell opened the show by pretending to be the president parachuting onto the stage.
It was followed by two distinguished revivals featuring Hollywood stars. Liev Schreiber played a Brooklyn dockworker who loves his grown niece perhaps a little too much in Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge, which also featured Scarlett Johansson in her Broadway debut. It opened January 24, 2010, and gave 81 performances.
In April of that year, Denzel Washington took the role of retired Negro League baseball player Troy Maxson, opposite Viola Davis and Chris Chalk in August Wilson’s Fences, directed by Kenny Leon. The play was a hit with both critics and audiences, and took Tony Awards for Best Revival, Best Actor (Washington) and Best Actress (Davis).
The next play at the Cort (September 2010) was a transfer of Donald Margulies' Time Stands Still, which originated on Broadway the previous January at Manhattan Theatre Club's Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. Laura Linney, Brian d'Arcy James and Eric Bogosian remained from the original cast; Christina Ricci replaced Alicia Silverstone.
The Cort next welcomed Off-Broadway's It Girl, Nina Arianda, in the iconic role of Billie Dawn in Garson Kanin's comedy Born Yesterday, a role played to perfection on Broadway and in the film by Judy Holliday. Arianda made the role her own and was ably supported by Jim Belushi and Robert Sean Leonard, but the production lasted for only 73 performances.