The Shubert Theatre occupies a special niche in theatrical history. It was built by the Shubert brothers (Lee and J. J.) in tribute to their brother Sam S. Shubert, who got them started in the theatrical business before he died in a railroad accident when he was just 29 years old.
Occupying a choice location in the heart of the theatre district, on West Forty-fourth Street between Broadway and Eighth Avenue, the Shubert Theatre opened on October 2, 1913. It was enhanced by an alleyway that separated it from the Hotel Astor and served as a private thoroughfare for the Shuberts. But because it also provided a shortcut to Forty-fifth Street for Broadway crowds, the passage later became famous as Shubert Alley. It was notable for being lined with posters of current Broadway shows and for the Shubert limousines parked between its gates, which were locked at night. The alley continues today as a pedestrian passageway (with no gates), still lined with posters on the west side, and contains a small theatrical gift shop, One Shubert Alley.
During the Depression years, a long fence divided the passageway in two, lengthwise. The east side was used as part of the terminal for a New Jersey bus line; the west side provided access to the stage doors of the Shubert and Booth theatres. To improve the view, show posters were hung on the fence. This happy tradition soon became a fixture of Shubert Alley and remained even after the bus terminal was removed and the fence came down. Showcases for the posters were provided on the common wall of the Booth and Shubert. During intermissions, the casts of shows playing at these two theatres would congregate in Shubert Alley for fresh air (theatres were not air-conditioned yet), and the audiences could see them buying popsicles and soda pop.
Above the auditorium were the offices of the Shubert empire and an apartment where Lee Shubert lived. According to the New York Tribune for September 28, 1913, the new theatre had 1,400 seats, making it ideal for housing musicals. (The total has since been increased to 1,521.) The architect was Henry B. Harris, and the elaborate interiors, in a Venetian Renaissance style, were by O. H. Bauer, with mural paintings by Lichtenauer. A portrait of Sam S. Shubert adorned the attractive lobby, overseeing the new house.
The opening attraction, surprisingly, was not a Shubert operetta nor musical but the eminent British actor Johnston Forbes-Robertson in his farewell performance as Hamlet. He and his repertory company also acted in several other plays, including Othello and The Merchant of Venice.
The Shubert’s first musical, The Belle of Bond Street, opened on March 18, 1914, starring the stunning Gaby Deslys and the popular Sam Bernard. But it was not a success. Several other musical failures followed. Then there was a well-received revival of George Du Maurier’s haunting play Trilby (1915), about the hypnotic influence of the sinister Svengali over the singer Trilby O’Ferrell. Even the acerbic critic Alexander Woollcott, who had been barred from Shubert theatres for panning a Shubert show called Taking Chances, praised Trilby.
The Shubert’s first musical success was Alone at Last (1915), a Franz Lehar show starring John Charles Thomas. Jerome Kern had a hit in Love o’ Mike (1917), with Clifton Webb dancing suavely with Gloria Goodwin. But both these shows were topped by Sigmund Romberg’s lushly romantic operetta Maytime, which was so successful that the Shuberts had to open a second company of it right across the street from the Shubert Theatre at the (now vanished) Forty-fourth Street Theatre. The stars at the Shubert were Peggy Wood, Charles Purcell, and Douglas J. Ward, who sang their hearts out for almost 500 performances (1917).
On February 18, 1918, Lionel Barrymore scored one of his greatest successes in The Copperhead, a Civil War drama in which Barrymore had to pretend to be a Dixie sympathizer while supplying military secrets to the Yanks. Despised by his family and friends, he could not reveal his true sympathies until 20 years later.
On October 4, 1918, Mae West and Ed Wynn convulsed Shubert audiences in Rudolf Friml’s musical Sometime. Mae played a vamp who compromised Ed Wynn and caused his fiancée (Francine Larrimore) to drop him for five years in protest. The musical played only a month at the Shubert, then was transferred to another house where it completed its run of 283 performances.
Two 1919 musicals were moderately successful. Good Morning, Judge, a British import, wisely interpolated two George Gershwin numbers: “There’s More to the Kiss Than XXX” and “I Was So Young.” Sigmund Romberg’s The Magic Melody was too reminiscent of his Maytime plot, even to the employment of its same leading man, Charles Purcell.
Some class returned to the Shubert in the fall of 1919 when E. H. Sothern and Julia Marlowe played their classical repertory here.
Highlights of the 1920s at this theatre included an appearance by the silent-screen siren Theda Bara in a preposterous drama called The Blue Flame (1920), in which her dead body is brought back to life by a mad scientist; Margaret Anglin in The Trial of Joan of Arc (1921), translated from the French play by Emil Moreau; the luxurious Greenwich Village Follies revues, staged by John Murray Anderson; and the Artists and Models revues (1921-26), notorious for their nudity, starring period favorites such as Joe E. Brown, female impersonator Bert Savoy and Jay Brennan (his partner), Ted Lewis, Moran and Mack, and Vincent Lopez and his orchestra. Expert comics Jimmy Savo and Fred Allen starred in a revue called Vogues of 1924. An interesting failure, The Magnolia Lady, starred Ruth Chatterton and Ralph Forbes, performers usually associated with dramas and comedies rather than musicals.
For a change of pace, the Shubert presented Walter Hampden in Othello in January 1925, and the actor set a record for that time by playing the role for eight consecutive weeks. In 1943, at the same theatre, Paul Robeson would also break records with his magnificent portrayal of Shakespeare’s tragic Moor.
The homespun comic Chic Sale had a hit with a revue called Gay Paree (1925) that had nothing to do with Paris; Countess Maritza (1926), an operetta by Emmerich Kálmán, with the popular song “Play Gypsies-Dance Gypsies,” was an enormous success; “rubber legs” Leon Errol had some hilarious drunk scenes in the hit musical Yours Truly (1927); the noisy nightclub hostess Texas Guinan, who coined the phrase “Hello, suckers,” attracted customers in a revue called Padlocks of 1927, supported by Lillian Roth and J. C. Flippen singing some clever lyrics by Billy Rose. Not even Laurette Taylor could save Zoe Akins’s murder mystery The Furies (1928) from rigor mortis. Ups-a-Daisy (1928) is a musical worth mentioning only because its cast included a comic butler played by a young man named Bob Hope. A Night in Venice, starring Ted Healy and His Stooges (later The Three Stooges), was a minor musical that brought the 1920s to a close at the Shubert.
The 1930s began with sobriety. The Chicago Civic Shakespeare Society, headed by Fritz Leiber, staged nine of Shakespeare’s greatest plays in repertory. Nonsense returned with Walter Slezak making his debut in a musical, Meet My Sister (1930). Ann Pennington, Oscar Shaw, Frances Williams, and a newcomer named Harriette Lake (later Ann Sothern of films) played for 127 performances in a musical called Everybody’s Welcome (1931), which boasted an immortal song by Herman Hupfeld: “As Time Goes By.” Another celebrated tune, the theme song of the Depression — “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” — was first heard in Americana, a revue that played the Shubert in 1932.
In January 1933 Fred Astaire’s last Broadway musical, Gay Divorce, moved from the Barrymore to the Shubert, and Fred danced “Night and Day” with Claire Luce for six more months. Walter Huston, Fay Bainter, Maria Ouspenskaya, and Nan Sunderland (Mrs. Huston) were the hit of the season in Sidney Howard’s Dodsworth, a skillful adaptation of the Sinclair Lewis novel of the same name.
The Shubert housed its first Pulitzer Prize-winning play in March 1936. Robert E. Sherwood’s antiwar drama Idiot’s Delight, with glittering performances by Alfred Lunt as a seedy hoofer and Lynn Fontanne as the mysterious mistress of a munitions maker, took Broadway by storm and was one of the finest plays that the prestigious Theatre Guild produced in its distinguished history.
In 1937 Maxwell Anderson’s The Masque of Kings, a retelling of the Mayerling tragedy, ran only 89 performances despite the brilliant acting of Dudley Digges (as Emperor Franz Joseph) and Margo, Henry Hull, and Leo G. Carroll in other roles. The gloom of this drama was dispelled in April of that year when Rodgers and Hart’s Babes in Arms opened with a young, largely unknown cast singing such gems as “Where or When,” “The Lady Is a Tramp,” “My Funny Valentine,” “I Wish I Were in Love Again,” and “Johnny One-Note.” George Balanchine supplied the fantastic choreography.
The Lunts returned to the Shubert in S. N. Behrman’s elegant adaptation of Jean Giraudoux’s Amphitryon 38 (1937), in which Lunt impersonated Jupiter, who in turn masquerades as Amphitryon in order to woo Amphitryon’s wife, Alkmena, blissfully played by Lynn Fontanne. They were excellently supported by Richard Whorf and Sydney Greenstreet. This Olympian frolic was followed by a heavenly musical, I Married an Angel (1938), with felicitous Rodgers and Hart songs, angelic dancing by Vera Zorina to Balanchine choreography, glorious singing by Dennis King and Vivienne Segal, clowning by Walter Slezak and Audrey Christie, and lovely Jo Mielziner sets that were whisked on and off on treadmills.
On March 28, 1939, a landmark event occurred at the Shubert: Philip Barry’s enchanting high comedy The Philadelphia Story opened. It proved a lifesaver for Katharine Hepburn (who had been branded “box office poison” in Hollywood); for Barry, who hadn’t had a hit in years; and for the Theatre Guild, which was on the verge of bankruptcy. Hepburn’s company included Shirley Booth, Joseph Cotten, and Van Heflin, and their radiant acting kept the show selling out for most of its 417 performances.
During the 1940s Rodgers and Hart suffered one of their rare flops, Higher and Higher (1940), at the Shubert; Al Jolson and Martha Raye drew raves in the musical Hold On to Your Hats (1940), with an entrancing score by Burton Lane and E. Y. Harburg; Katharine Cornell was hailed in her revival of Shaw’s The Doctor’s Dilemma (1941), with Raymond Massey, Bramwell Fletcher, Ralph Forbes, and Clarence Derwent; Mary Boland, Bobby Clark, Walter Hampden, and Helen Ford romped through a revival of Sheridan’s The Rivals (1942); Rodgers and Hart provided Ray Bolger with one of his best musicals, By Jupiter (1942), based on the play The Warrior’s Husband; Paul Robeson, Uta Hagen, and José Ferrer were cheered in Othello (1943), brilliantly directed by Margaret Webster and designed by Robert Edmond Jones.
Mae West wiggled her hips in Mike Todd’s production of her play Catherine Was Great (1944), with Gene Barry as one of Mae’s lovers; Celeste Holm clinched her star status as a suffragette in the tuneful musical Bloomer Girl (1944); and Bobby Clark enlivened Victor Herbert’s Sweethearts (1947) with Marjorie Gateson for 288 performances.
High Button Shoes (1947), a charming musical with Jerome Robbins’s dances, Nanette Fabray’s singing, and Phil Silvers’s comedy, moved to the Shubert from the Century Theatre and stayed for almost a year; Maxwell Anderson’s Anne of the Thousand Days (1948) won Rex Harrison a Tony Award as outstanding lead actor; the Lunts celebrated their 25th anniversary as America’s foremost acting couple, in S. N. Behrman’s family chronicle play I Know My Love (1949); and Cole Porter’s phenomenal Kiss Me, Kate moved from the Century Theatre to the Shubert in 1950 and thrilled musical-comedy buffs for a full year.
During the 1950s the Shubert continued its policy of alternating between musicals and straight fare. The Lerner and Loewe show Paint Your Wagon (1951), starring James Barton, stayed for 289 performances; Katharine Hepburn and Cyril Ritchard sparkled in Shaw’s The Millionairess (1952); and Rex Harrison and Lili Palmer were their usual urbane selves in Peter Ustinov’s The Love of Four Colonels (1953).
Cole Porter’s Can-Can was a huge hit for two years (1953-55); Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Pipe Dream (1955), based on John Steinbeck’s novel Sweet Thursday, was one of their lesser efforts; Judy Holliday scored one of her major coups in the Comden/Green/Jule Styne musical Bells Are Ringing (1956), with Sydney Chaplin; and Gertrude Berg and Cedric Hardwicke had a hit in A Majority of One (1959).
The last hit of the 1950s at this theatre was Take Me Along (1959), a musical adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s comedy Ah, Wilderness! starring Jackie Gleason (who feuded with the show’s producer, David Merrick, all through the run), Walter Pidgeon, Eileen Herlie, Robert Morse, and Una Merkel.
Highlights of the 1960s included Barbra Streisand’s Broadway debut in a small but noticeable part in the musical I Can Get It for You Wholesale (1962), starring her future husband, Elliott Gould; Anthony Newley starring in Stop the World – I Want to Get Off (1962), which he wrote with Leslie Bricusse; and its follow-up, The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd (1965), from the same team.
Craig Stevens and Janis Paige starred in Meredith Willson’s Here’s Love (1963), adapted from the popular movie Miracle on 34th Street, but it did not enjoy the success of his The Music Man or The Unsinkable Molly Brown and proved to be his final Broadway musical.
On Oct. 2, 1963, the Shuberts celebrated the 50th anniversary of their eponymous theatre by unveiling a plaque dedicating Shubert Alley to “all those who glorify the theatre” and use the short thoroughfare. Attached to the exterior wall of the theatre overlooking Shubert Alley, it confirmed the passageway as the heart of the Broadway theatre district, as it remains today.
The Shubert Theatre hosted Barbara Harris, Alan Alda, Larry Blyden, and Robert Klein in an offbeat three-part musical, The Apple Tree (1966), by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick. Steve Lawrence, Eydie Gorme, and Marilyn Cooper starred in Golden Rainbow (1968), a musical version of the play A Hole in the Head. The last show of the decade was the smash musical Promises, Promises, Neil Simon’s adaptation of the film The Apartment, with a jaunty score by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, starring Jerry Orbach. Running 1,281 performances, it set a new record at the Shubert, but one that would last for less than a decade.
The demolition of the Astor Hotel on the east side of Shubert Alley and its replacement by an office tower with a windowed restaurant at ground level changed the ambience of the alley.
Some of the shows that played the Shubert Theatre in the 1970s were Hal Prince’s elegant production of A Little Night Music (1973), with a book by Hugh Wheeler and a score by Stephen Sondheim, based on the Ingmar Bergman film Smiles of a Summer Night, starring Glynis Johns, Len Cariou, and Hermione Gingold; and Over Here! (1974), a nostalgic World War II musical with two of the Andrews Sisters — Maxene and Patty — and, in smaller roles, John Travolta and Treat Williams.
The Shubert’s second Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Edward Albee’s Seascape (1975), starred Deborah Kerr and Barry Nelson and won a Tony Award for supporting actor Frank Langella in the unlikely role of a giant, talking sea lizard. Ingrid Bergman made her last Broadway appearance in a revival of Maugham’s The Constant Wife in April 1975.
On July 25, 1975, Joseph Papp and the New York Shakespeare Festival hosted the Broadway opening of their sensational Off-Broadway hit A Chorus Line. Directed by Michael Bennett, with choreography by Bennett and Bob Avian, the musical introduced 24dancers auditioning for an unnamed Broadway show, then took audiences inside their hearts and heads to learn their secret dreams and desires as the moment approached when all but eight of them would be eliminated. The gold-leaf and glass A Chorus Line logo became a fixture of the theatre and of Shubert Alley for the next 15 years. In September 1983 this Pulitzer Prize-winning musical, with a book by James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante and a score by Marvin Hamlisch and Edward Kleban, became Broadway’s longest-running musical to that date, and the Shubert Theatre, still owned by the Shubert Organization, celebrated the longest-running show ever to play in the 70-year-old house. A plaque memorializing the latter achievement (still unsurpassed in 2010) is affixed to the lobby wall.
The record-setting 6,137-performance run of A Chorus Line ended April 28, 1990. After a summerlong renovation, the Shubert reopened in November 1990 with Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story, a musical about the late rock star who died in a 1959 plane crash. The show, one of the first of the genre that came to be known as “jukebox musicals,” was an enormous success in London — where it ran from 1989 to 2002 — but failed to repeat its success on Broadway, running for only 225 performances.
Next, on February 19, 1992, the Shubert welcomed another big hit, Crazy for You, a revised version of the 1930 Gershwin musical Girl Crazy, with interpolated songs from many of the George and Ira Gershwin Broadway and film musicals. Starring Jodi Benson and Harry Groener, the show had a hilarious new book by Ken Ludwig and brilliant direction by Mike Ockrent. It won three Tony Awards: Best Musical, Best Choreography (Susan Stroman), and Best Costume Design (William Ivey Long). It closed in 1996 after 1,622 performances.
The husband/wife team of director Ockrent and choreographer Stroman returned to the Shubert on April 28, 1996, with Big, a musical version of the hit 1988 film of the same name about a boy who is magically granted his wish to become “big” — that is, a grown-up. The stage adaptation, with a book by John Weidman, music by David Shire, and lyrics by Richard Maltby Jr., lacked the charm of the movie and ran for only 192 performances.
In 1996 the City Center’s “Encores! Great American Musicals in Concert” series produced a sensational concert version of the 1975 musical Chicago, with music by John Kander, lyrics by Fred Ebb, and a book by Ebb and Bob Fosse. It was so successful (despite the virtual absence of sets, the buff dancers providing the only needed visual element) that it transferred to Broadway, first to the Richard Rodgers Theatre (November 14, 1996) and then to the Shubert Theatre (February 11, 1997). The concert cast was retained: Bebe Neuwirth, Ann Reinking, James Naughton, Joel Grey, Marcia Lewis, and many others. The megahit won the following 1997 Tony Awards: Best Revival of a Musical, Best Leading Actor in a Musical (Naughton), Best Leading Actress in a Musical (Neuwirth), Best Direction of a Musical (Walter Bobbie), Best Choreography (Reinking), and Best Lighting (Ken Billington). It stayed at the Shubert until January 26, 2003, when it transferred once again, this time to the Ambassador Theatre.
The front of the Shubert appeared as the set for the opening number of The Producers (2001) on the stage of the St. James Theatre just down the block. The Shubert is where Max Bialystock’s doomed fictional musical Funny Boy (based on Hamlet) opens and closes in a single night. The dance number “The King of Broadway” is shown taking place in Shubert Alley just outside the theatre. It was one of the rare shows (with Guys and Dolls, 42nd Street, and a handful of others) that actually used a Times Square location as a setting.
Replacing Chicago at the Shubert May 1, 2003, was a revival of the classic musical Gypsy, directed by Britain’s Sam Mendes and starring Bernadette Peters as Rose, Tammy Blanchard as Louise, and John Dossett as Herbie. Everything came up roses for 451 performances.
After a brief summer 2004 revival of the dance revue Forever Tango, the Shubert got its biggest hit of the decade, Monty Python’s Spamalot. Eric Idle, an original member of the British comedy troupe, teamed up with composer John Du Prez and director Mike Nichols to make a Broadway musical “lovingly ripped off from” the cult comedy film Monty Python and the Holy Grail, a spoof of the Round Table legend. The production featured a top-drawer cast of comedy talent, including Tim Curry as King Arthur, Hank Azaria as Sir Lancelot, David Hyde Pierce as Sir Robin, Christopher Sieber as Sir (Dennis) Galahad, and Sara Ramirez as the Lady of the Lake. Nichols and Ramirez won Tony Awards, and the production as a whole was named Best Musical in one of the most fruitful seasons in recent years.
The Pythonesque sense of humor spilled onto the exterior of the Shubert, which featured pictures of comely “Laker Girls” and a marquee that promised “cows, cocoanuts, killer rabbits, witches,” and other delights, with the word “witches” crossed out and the phrase “too expensive” scribbled above it. A cutout of the show’s French Guards became a fixture in Shubert Alley throughout the run, so fans could pose with them for photos.
During the long tenure of Spamalot, there was a major changing of the guard upstairs at the Shubert Theatre in the offices of the august Shubert Organization. Chairman Bernard B. Jacobs, who had served the company since the 1960s, died in 2006. He was followed by his longtime partner Gerald Schoenfeld in 2008. The Shubert Organization renamed two of their Broadway houses after these knights of the theatre. They were succeeded by Robert E. Wankel and Philip J. Smith.
Spamalot closed January 11, 2009, after 1,575 performances. It was quickly replaced in February 2009 by a limited-run revival of Noël Coward’s sparkling comedy Blithe Spirit, which starred Christine Ebersole as a ghost who comes back to make trouble for her husband and his new wife. The production was stolen by veteran Angela Lansbury as dotty medium Madame Arcati. Dancing herself into a trance nightly, the 83-year-old earned a miraculous fifth career Tony Award for her performance (her first in a supporting role).
In fall 2009 the Shubert hosted another major musical, Memphis, Joe DiPietro and David Bryan’s story about an interracial romance set against the backdrop of the segregated 1950's southern music scene. It won 2010 Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical, Best Score, and Best Orchestrations, and Tony nominations for its stars, Chad Kimball and Montego Glover.