This lovely playhouse on West Forty-fifth Street, which Moss Hart described as everyone’s dream of a theatre, celebrated its 75th birthday on September 22, 1996. Never once in its many decades was its elegant limestone facade marred by a movie or burlesque marquee.
The Music Box was built by the late producer Sam H. Harris and composer Irving Berlin to house a series of lavish revues to be composed by Berlin. The composer’s estate co-owned the theatre with the Shubert Organization until 2007 when the Shuberts assumed full ownership.
On September 22, 1921, the resplendent theatre, designed by C. Howard Crane, opened with the first Music Box Revue, starring Berlin, Sam Bernard, Florence Moore, Joseph Santley, and — in the chorus — young Miriam Hopkins. The critics raved about the show and the new theatre, but it was the show’s comic, Sam Bernard, who best described the opulent new house: “It stinks from class.”
Four editions of the Music Box Revue, starring such luminaries as Fanny Brice, Grace Moore, Bobby Clark, Robert Benchley and Charlotte Greenwood, brought fame to Berlin and the Music Box. In 1925 the theatre departed from its revues-only policy to present a smash hit comedy called Cradle Snatchers, starring Mary Boland, Humphrey Bogart, Edna May Oliver and Raymond Guion (later Gene Raymond of the movies).
Other big Music Box hits in the 1920s include Chicago (1926), later made into a successful musical; The Spider (1927), a clever thriller that moved here from the 46th Street Theatre; Philip Barry’s charming comedy, Paris Bound (1927); Cole Porter’s Paris (1928), which introduced the song "(Let's Do It) Let's Fall in Love"; and the last Music Box show of the 1920s, the historic intimate revue The Little Show (1929), starring Clifton Webb, Fred Allen and Libby Holman.
The Music Box faced the Depression with élan. Topaze, a French comedy starring Frank Morgan, was a hit in early 1930, followed by the famed satire Once in a Lifetime, the first collaboration of George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. In 1931, Beatrice Lillie graced the Music Box in The Third Little Show, in which she introduced Noel Coward’s celebrated song “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” to American audiences.
On December 26, 1931, Of Thee I Sing marched into the Music Box and became the first musical comedy to win a Pulitzer Prize. The musical had a biting book by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind, memorable music by George Gershwin, and stinging lyrics by his brother Ira. William Gaxton played President John P. Wintergreen, Victor Moore was mousy Vice President Alexander Throttlebottom and George Murphy played a featured role. At 441 performances, the show became the longest-running book musical of the 1930s.
Kaufman (with Edna Ferber) brought another hit to the Music Box in 1932. Dinner at Eight was a fascinating comedy about a socialite’s problems in arranging a dinner for British royalty, who cancel their appearance at the last moment. The play examined the lives of all those invited to the dinner. During its run, the rising star Margaret Sullavan joined the cast as a replacement. The comedy ran for 232 performances and was later made into a hit MGM classic film with an all-star cast.
The Music Box really struck it rich with its next tenant. Irving Berlin and Moss Hart teamed to create a topical revue that would use newspaper headlines to satirize celebrities of that era. The show was called As Thousands Cheer and it starred Marilyn Miller, Clifton Webb, Helen Broderick and Ethel Waters, who stopped the show at every performance with “Heat Wave,” “Harlem on My Mind,” and “Supper Time.” The revue ran for 400 performances at the Music Box and was one of the biggest hits of Depression-era Broadway.
Kaufman and Hart once again joined forces to write the next Music Box show: Merrily We Roll Along (1934). This unusual comedy started in the present and went backwards in time. It served as the basis for a 1981 musical of the same title by Stephen Sondheim and George Furth.
Five shows played the Music Box in 1935: Tallulah Bankhead in a revival of Rain; a hit melodrama about pilots, Ceiling Zero, starring Osgood Perkins (Anthony’s illustrious father); a prophetic drama, If This Be Treason, in which the United States and Japan almost engage in war; a successful adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice; and George S. Kaufman and Katherine Dayton’s political comedy First Lady, starring the noted actress Jane Cowl playing a role said to be inspired by Alice Longworth Roosevelt.
Margaret Sullavan, now a big Hollywood star, returned to the Music Box in 1936 in Stage Door, by Kaufman and Ferber. Set in the Foot-Lights Club (modeled on the actual Rehearsal Club in Manhattan), the play presented a group of aspiring actresses who live in a popular boarding house for young theatricals. One of the characters — a radical playwright named Keith Burgess — was said to be based on the Group Theatre’s Clifford Odets.
Young Madam Conti (1937), starring Constance Cummings, was one of the theatre’s lesser tenants, but this melodrama was followed by John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men in 1937, starring Wallace Ford and Broderick Crawford, and directed by George S. Kaufman. It won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award as best play of the season.
George M. Cohan played President Franklin D. Roosevelt in I’d Rather Be Right, which opened at the Alvin Theatre in 1937, but ended its successful run at the Music Box. The satirical political musical by Kaufman and Hart, with a score by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, dared to portray a living president who was still in the White House when the show opened. Cohan garnered raves for his good-natured performance, and the show was one of the season’s top tickets.
In September 1938 Kaufman and Hart came to the Music Box in a new guise. In association with Max Gordon, they presented a topical musical revue called Sing Out the News, by Harold Rome and Charles Friedman. The revue perfectly suited the Music Box tradition of topical satire, but was only moderately successful.
In 1939 two more revues graced the house. One of them, Set to Music, by Noël Coward and starring Beatrice Lillie, was the type of sophisticated revue for which the Music Box was built — and a genre of entertainment that would become almost obsolete after World War II. The celebrity-studded opening was the kind of glittering first night that would become rare in years to come. Set to Music was followed by a charming entertainment called From Vienna (1939), a revue featuring performers who were Viennese refugees.
It is fitting that the last show to play the Music Box in the 1930s was another satire by Kaufman and Hart. Both were close friends of the obese, waspish, self-promoting critic, author and radio celebrity Alexander Woollcott, and they wrote a classic comedy about what would happen if someone like him (called Sheridan Whiteside in the play) slipped on the ice while visiting a middle-class Midwestern family and had to stay with them while recovering from a fractured hip. Called The Man Who Came to Dinner, this comedy of outrages and insults starred Monty Woolley as Whiteside and also caricatured such luminaries as Noël Coward, Gertrude Lawrence and Harpo Marx. The comedy proved to be the Music Box’s longest-running show to that time, playing for 739 performances.
World War II brought a change in audience tastes on Broadway. The revue form and plays that satirized celebrities soon began to vanish. The last revue to play the Music Box for many years to come was Mike Todd’s rowdy Star and Garter, starring strippers Gypsy Rose Lee and Georgia Southern and low comics Bobby Clark, Pat Harrington and Professor Lamberti. The critics were not overjoyed with the burlesque, but audiences loved the show and it ran for 609 performances.
After Star and Garter closed at the Music Box, there was a definite change in the house’s fare. For the next four decades, only three musicals were housed there: Lost in the Stars (1949), Rainbow Jones (1974) and Side by Side by Sondheim (1977). One of the reasons for the lack of musical bookings was that the theatre’s 1,010-seat capacity was no longer considered adequate to support an expensive musical show.
During the ensuring four decades, the Music Box thrived on romantic comedies, usually with small casts, and dramas. I Remember Mama (1944) starred Mady Christians and Oscar Homolka, with a young Marlon Brando making his Broadway debut. This was followed by Tennessee Williams’s Summer and Smoke (1948); Lost in the Stars, by Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson (1949); and Affairs of State, a light comedy starring Celeste Holm that moved from the Royale to the Music Box.
Playwright William Inge inaugurated his happy association with this theatre in 1953. Over the next five years, he was to have three solid hits in the house: Picnic (1953; Pulitzer Prize, New York Drama Critics Circle Award); Bus Stop (1955); and The Dark at the Top of the Stairs (1957).
Other 1950's hits included a revival of The Male Animal; Josephine Hull in The Solid Gold Cadillac (moved from the Belasco); Separate Tables (1956), starring Margaret Leighton and Eric Portman; Rod Steiger and Claire Bloom in Rashomon (1959); Cornelia Otis Skinner, Cyril Ritchard, Walter Abel, Charlie Ruggles and George Peppard in The Pleasure of His Company (from the Longacre Theatre); and Five Finger Exercise (1959), with Jessica Tandy and Brian Bedford.
In 1961, A Far Country presented Steven Hill as Sigmund Freud and Kim Stanley as his patient in Henry Denker’s case study. In 1962, Bert Lahr convulsed theatregoers playing numerous roles in S.J. Perelman’s The Beauty Part. More laughter followed in 1963 when Gertrude Berg starred in Dear Me, The Sky is Falling. Sandy Dennis, Gene Hackman, Rosemary Murphy and Don Porter came to the Music Box in February 1964 in Any Wednesday, and the comedy stayed for 983 performances, a new record holder for this theatre.
Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming chilled patrons in 1967, followed by Gig Young in the warm British comedy There’s a Girl in My Soup. On November 12, 1970, Anthony Shaffer’s Sleuth opened with Anthony Quayle and Keith Baxter and played for a record-breaking 1,222 performances. The following year, the Music Box celebrated its 50th anniversary, and Irving Berlin was photographed by The New York Times proudly standing before the theatre. Berlin stated that he and the Shubert Organization were constantly refurbishing the theatre.
Absurd Person Singular, a British import, amused capacity audiences in 1974 with stars Geraldine Page, Richard Kiley, Larry Blyden, Carole Shelley, Sandy Dennis and Tony Roberts. Ben Gazzara’s revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? arrived in 1976, followed by the British play Comedians, and the delightful portfolio of Sondheim songs Side by Side by Sondheim (1977). Then, in 1978, came John Wood and Marian Seldes in Ira Levin’s thriller Deathtrap. The comedy murder mystery had such an original plot that theatregoers attended it for 1,793 performances, making it the Music Box’s champion attraction, and the longest-running such thriller in Broadway history. In 1982, stark drama returned to the Music Box with Agnes of God, starring Geraldine Page, Elizabeth Ashley and Amanda Plummer, who won a Tony Award for her performance. The religious drama played for 599 performances.
In 1985, a delightful revival of Noël Coward’s amusing trifle Hay Fever won approval for its sterling cast headed by Rosemary Harris, Roy Dotrice, Mia Dillon and Charles Kimbrough. The following year, another revival, Loot, by Joe Orton, also gained applause for hilarious performances by Joseph Maher, Å½eljko Ivanek, Zoe Caldwell and Alec Baldwin in his Broadway debut. Mary Tyler Moore starred here in A.R. Gurney, Jr.’s comedy Sweet Sue (1987). This was followed by a British hit, Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Christopher Hampton, given a stunning production by the Royal Shakespeare Company. In 1988, this theatre housed an offbeat musical, Mail, followed by Kate Nelligan in a play by Michael Weller, Spoils of War. Cy Coleman’s divorce-court musical Welcome to the Club came here in 1989 and later that year, A Few Good Men, an explosive military drama by Aaron Sorkin, enjoyed a long run. Julie Harris starred in Lucifer’s Child, a one-woman show about the Danish author Isak Dinesen (1991); Jason Robards and Judith Ivey starred in Park Your Car in Harvard Yard (1991), followed by Alan Ayckbourn’s A Small Family Business (1992).
The British musical Blood Brothers (1993) told of fraternal twins who are separated at birth. One is raised in wealth, the other in poverty, and they meet later in life to become violent rivals, neither realizing the other is his brother until the final moments of the play. A long-running hit in London, Blood Brothers received mostly negative reviews on Broadway, but caught on with playgoers and ran for 839 performances.
Swinging on a Star, a songbook revue of the lyrics of Johnny Burke, came to Broadway in October 1995 from its production at the Goodspeed-at-Chester/Norma Terris Theatre in Connecticut, with virtually the same cast. It received mixed reviews but managed to run for 97 performances and earn a Tony nomination as Best Musical.
Master impresario David Merrick’s last Broadway production opened at this theatre on March 27, 1996. The musical was a stage adaptation of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s film State Fair — both the 1945 and 1962 versions — including some previously unused Rodgers and Hammerstein songs. The show had a glittering cast: Andrea McArdle, Kathryn Crosby, John Davidson, Scott Wise, Donna McKechnie, and others. It received mixed reviews and played for 118 performances. Merrick’s final publicity stunt, suing the Tony Awards when it nominated only part of the score for Best Score, ended in dismissal.
Christopher Plummer scored a triumph in the play Barrymore in March, 1997. His splendid portrayal of actor John Barrymore, one month before his death in 1942, won him a Tony Award for Leading Actor in a Play. The play, which starred Plummer onstage and Michael Mastro as an off-stage voice, received rave reviews and ran for 238 performances.
December 4, 1997, brought a new production of Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett’s play, The Diary of Anne Frank, newly adapted by Wendy Kesselman. It starred Natalie Portman as Anne Frank, and the cast included George Hearn (Otto Frank), Sophie Hayden (Edith Frank), Linda Lavin (Mrs. Van Daan) and Austin Pendleton (Dussel). Some critics objected to some of the changes made in this revised version, which made it more sexually explicit, among other changes, but the play ran for more than six months. The production received two Tony Award nominations: Best Revival of a Play and Best Featured Actress (Lavin).
The next play to open at the Music Box was a controversial London drama, Closer, by Patrick Marber. It starred Natasha Richardson, Ciaran Hinds, Rupert Graves and Anna Friel and it followed the sexual shenanigans of two couples. The language and situations were graphic and offended some playgoers, but the play won the season’s Best Foreign Play Award bestowed by the New York Drama Critics Circle, and was nominated for the Best Play Tony Award. It ran for 173 performances.
TV's Kelsey Grammer starred (briefly) in a darkly lit and lamentable production of Macbeth in June 2000. But October 19, 2000 brought Neil Simon’s The Dinner Party with a stellar cast: Len Cariou, John Ritter, Henry Winkler, Jan Maxwell, Veanne Cox and Penny Fuller. Performed without intermission, the play proved trying for audiences and some critics. The scene was a chic restaurant in Paris, but, as some critics complained, the characters sounded more like people from the Bronx. Nevertheless, it proved a solid 364-performance hit for the 73-year-old Simon, the first in nearly a decade for one of the most durable comedy writers in Broadway history.
For the next several years the Music Box became a revolving door. It attracted high-profile and interesting plays and small musicals, but none proved to be a long-running hit.
Talk about a long-delayed opening: Ivan Turgenev's influential 1848 drama Fortune's Fool got its first Broadway production on April 2, 2002 in a production that starred Frank Langella, Alan Bates, George Morfogen and Ridiculous Theatrical Company stalwart Lola Pashalinski (in her first and so far only Broadway appearance). Despite the fact that the play had been written 154 years earlier, the Tony Awards committee pronounced it eligible for the Best Play category, in which it was then duly nominated. It lost to Edward Albee's The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? and ran 127 performances.
French composer Michel Legrand enjoyed great success in his homeland; somewhat less so in the U.S. where he had pop hits with "The Windmills of Your Mind" and "The Summer Knows." In 1997 he enjoyed a Parisian stage hit with Les Passe Muraille, a musical about a timid man who discovers a magical ability to walk through walls. He uses his power superhero-like to champion the powerless, and to win the heart of a girl who is trapped in a loveless marriage. It won the Prix Molière for Best Musical. Retitled Amour, the Broadway version opened at the Music Box October 20, 2002 with multi-talented Melissa Errico and Malcolm Gets as the leads. It got a full-court press from its lead producer, the Shubert Organization. But American critics were not impressed, especially with the insubstantial book by Didier van Cauwelaert, and Amour lasted only 14 performances, though an original cast album was released.
Anthony Page directed a revival of Tennessee Williams's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof here in November 2003, starring Ashley Judd as Maggie and Jason Patric as Brick. While the production got some respectful reviews, it didn't help when Ned Beatty (who played Big Daddy) criticized his co-stars' acting ability in a New York Times interview. They had to work together for only 145 performances. Margo Martindale (Big Mama) earned a Tony nomination.
Australian "housewife megastar" Dame Edna (alter ego of actor Barry Humphries) followed up her hit Broadway debut with a second engagement on November 21, 2004, Dame Edna: Back with a Vengeance, in which she again bestowed flowers and saintly smiles on the audience while grossly insulting everyone and everything that crossed her path for 163 performances.
British actor Antony Sher brought his one-man show Primo to the Music Box on July 11, 2005, telling the story of Italian-Jewish chemist Primo Levi who survived a year in the Auschwitz concentration camp and lived to write a memoir about it. The acclaimed show completed a limited run of 35 performances,
Songwriter Joseph ("You Light Up My Life") Brooks presented Broadway with a headscratcher of a musical, In My Life, on October 20, 2005. Brooks provided book, music and lyrics for this story of a young man with Tourette's Syndrome, who turns out to be the unwitting lead in a "reality opera" supervised by a pudgy, bike-riding individual named Al, who turns out to be God. For some reason the proceedings were illustrated with pervasive images of lemons, which provided good fun for the critics who put the squeeze on the show. Despite a vigorous advertisting campaign, the show could not overcome cataclysmic reviews and closed after 61 performances.
The award-winning London drama Festen got a less welcoming reception on Broadway in April 2006. Larry Bryggman, Michael Hayden, Julianna Margulies and Ali MacGraw starred in David Eldridge's drama (based on a Danish cult film) about a family gathered to celebrate their patriarch's birthday, only to turn the event into a walpurgisnacht of recrimination as they reveal the abuse to which he subjected them when they were growing up. The unpleasant party disbanded after 49 performances.
Film actress Julianne Moore braved the waters of Broadway with The Vertical Hour (not to be confused with 2003's The Violet Hour), about an American foreign correspondent who gets into a debate with her fiancé's English father (Bill Nighy) about the American invasion of Iraq. David Hare's November 2006 drama struck some critics as smug and one-sided, and it lasted only 117 performances.
For decades the Shubert Organization's total number of theatres always ended with a fraction: 16 and 1/2 theatres. They owned only half of the Music Box. The other half, Irving Berlin's half, passed to the hands of his three daughters, Mary Ellin Barrett, Linda Emmett and Elizabeth Peters. In July 2007, an era ended when it was reported that the three women had sold their portion of the Music Box to the Shuberts.
Broadway was delighted in May 2007 at the return of two beloved stars, Marian Seldes and Angela Lansbury in Terrence McNally's play, Deuce, in which they played two retired tennis stars looking back on their lives and careers. It was Lansbury's first return to the Broadway stage in a full-scale production since a Mame revival in 1983. The production was McNally's personal salute to the two grande dames, and included a scene in which one character observed, "we will never see their like again." It ran 121 performances.
Aaron Sorkin, a playwright (A Few Good Men, 1989) who had enjoyed great success with the TV series "The West Wing," returned to Broadway with the drama The Farnsworth Invention, which purported to tell the story of the invention of television. The dramatic story of how radio magnate David Sarnoff (Hank Azaria) "stole" the patent from brilliant small-time inventor Philo T. Farnsworth (Jimmi Simpson) was very dramatic, but the script came under fire for allegedly fudging the facts, and the play wobbled through a disappointing 104 performances.
One of the most distinguished American plays of the earliest 21st century was August: Osage County, Tracy Letts' drama about the tangled relationships of an Oklahoma family thrown together as it becomes apparent that their patriarch has committed suicide.
In December 2007 August: Osage County moved from the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago to a temporary berth next door at the musical-sized Imperial. Even while enjoying the flush of initial rave reviews, awards and strong box-office, producers decided to move it to the Music Box, which was thought to be more congenial for a family drama. The show opened with Deanna Dunagan in the role of the snarling matriarch. She was named Best Actress in a Play by the Tony Awards, one of five Tonys earned by the show, including Best Play of 2008. The play also won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
August: Osage County transferred to the Music Box on April 29, 2008, and stayed more than a year, with Estelle Parsons and then Phylicia Rashad taking over the role of Violet. Dunagan took the role to London; Parsons took it on a North American tour. The Broadway production closed June 28, 2009 after 648 performances.
The Music Box welcomed Letts' subsequent play, Superior Donuts, about a Vietnam draft evader (Michael McKean), long settled as a doughnut shop operator, who finally finds something to fight for when a young employee (Jon Michael Hill) is threatened by the mob.
Comic actor Stanley Tucci made his Broadway directing debut with a lauded spring 2010 revival of Ken Ludwig's farce Lend Me a Tenor, starring Tony Shalhoub, Anthony LaPaglia and Jan Maxwell. It seemed perfectly at home in the cozy Music Box, where it stayed for 153 performances.
The next two plays at the Music Box provided British actor Mark Rylance with the unusual opportunity of opening two shows in the same season at the same theatre. A revival of La Bête, David Hirson's verse comedy that had lasted only 25 performances in its initial run in 1991, starred Rylance along with Joanna Lumley and David Hyde Pierce. The centerpiece of the play was Rylance's brilliant 25-minute monologue. However, he surpassed that performance with his next role, Johnny "Rooster" Byron in Jez Butterworth's Jerusalem, for which he won the Tony Award for Best Actor. High praise was earned from Ben Brantley in The New York Times, who said Rylance's was "truly a performance for the ages."
Despite its early history and melodic name, the theatre's scale and seating capacity have made it ideal, not for musicals, but for plays.