The August Wilson Theatre at 245 West Fifty-second Street originated as the Guild Theatre, built by the Theatre Guild to be used as a home base for its own repertory company. The Guild, which began presenting plays on Broadway in 1919, had been using the Garrick Theatre for many of its shows. But after its fourth season its directors decided to build a theatre of their own so that the Guild’s 15,000 subscribers and its acting company and school could prosper in comfort and luxury.
In his book The Magic Curtain, Lawrence Langner, the founder of the Guild, wrote that the theatre was built in the then popular “pseudo-Italian style.” It was designed by C. Howard Crane, Kenneth Franzheim, and Charles Bettis, in consultation with set designers Norman Bel Geddes and the Guild’s Lee Simonson. According to Langner, the Guild Theatre was one of the company’s greatest failures. The stage was made so large that there was little room left for dressing rooms or even audience space. “We made the ghastly mistake,” he wrote, “of providing a theatre with all the stage space necessary for a repertory of plays without enough seating capacity to provide the income necessary to support the repertory.” The theatre had 914 seats (later increased). Nevertheless, the Guild Theatre building was one of the most impressive legitimate houses in Manhattan, and a novel aspect of it was that the auditorium was not on street level but on the second story of the edifice.
The Guild Theatre debuted with great fanfare on the evening of April 13, 1925. President Calvin Coolidge officially opened the theatre by pushing an electric button in Washington, D.C., throwing the lights on a lush production of Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra, starring Helen Hayes as the Egyptian queen and Lionel Atwill as Caesar. The critics were kind, and the revival managed to run for 128 performances.
The Guild Theatre’s next production was also a Shaw revival — Arms and the Man — and this offering proved even more successful. It starred the Guild’s foremost acting couple, Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, and it prospered for 181 performances.
Ferenc Molnar, one of the Guild’s favorite playwrights, provided the theatre’s next show, a romantic play called The Glass Slipper, starring June Walker, Lee Baker, and Helen Westley, but audiences attended it for only 65 performances. Since the Guild had 15,000 subscribers, each play it produced ran a few weeks for the subscribers. If the reviews were good and the show was a hit, it could be moved to a larger theatre, while the Guild continued with its repertory at its own house.
From the mid-1920s on, the Guild presented its company in a great variety of plays, many of them by foreign authors. Stars such as Lunt and Fontanne, Edward G. Robinson, Dudley Digges, Helen Westley, Philip Loeb, Armina Marshall (Mrs. Lawrence Langner), Henry Travers, Clare Eames, and many artists who would later establish the Group Theatre appeared at the Guild Theatre in plays that usually ran for 50 or more performances. The Lunts appeared together at the Guild Theatre in Franz Werfel’s bizarre play Goat Song (1926), C. K. Munro’s At Mrs. Beam’s (1926), Werfel’s Juarez and Maximilian (1926), a dramatization of Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov (1927), S. N. Behrman’s witty comedy The Second Man (1927), Shaw’s The Doctor’s Dilemma (1927), Sil-Vara’s Caprice (1928), and another Behrman comedy, Meteor (1929).
The Lunts did not always appear as a team, however. At the Guild Theatre, Lunt appeared without Fontanne as Marco Polo in Eugene O’Neill’s Marco Millions (1928); and Lynn appeared without Alfred in a revival of Shaw’s Pygmalion (1926).
Other interesting productions presented at the Guild during the 1920s that did not star the Lunts were Edward G. Robinson in Pirandello’s Right You Are if You Think You Are (1927); a straight version of Faust (1928), with Dudley Digges as Mephistopheles, Helen Chandler as Margaret, and George Gaul as Faust; Alice Brady, Otto Kruger, Frank Conroy, Gale Sondergaard, and Claude Rains in Karl and Anna (1929); and the same stars (except Sondergaard) in Romain Rolland’s The Game of Love and Death (also 1929). During these years, the Theatre Guild practiced “alternating repertory,” which meant that its actors would perform in one play for a week (perhaps at the John Golden or Martin Beck theatres), then report to the Guild Theatre the following week and appear in a different production. Lawrence Langner wrote in The Magic Curtain that this plan was highly successful and that the 1920s constituted the Guild’s golden era.
The 1930s changed the Theatre Guild’s operating system. The “alternating repertory” became too difficult to manage, and the Depression did not help the Guild’s economic situation. Although it continued to present fine actors in excellent plays, many flops drained the company’s resources.
In 1930 the Guild Theatre housed a revival of Turgenev’s A Month in the Country, with Nazimova, Dudley Digges, and Henry Travers. It was successful, and during the run Katharine Hepburn joined the cast. It was her first job with the Guild, and she was to play an important role in its survival in years to come.
Some highlights of the 1930s at this theatre included the third edition of the popular revue The Garrick Gaieties (1930), with Imogene Coca, Cynthia Rodgers, Edith Meiser, and many others, who were joined during the run by the young Rosalind Russell, making her Broadway debut; the Lunts in Maxwell Anderson’s verse play Elizabeth the Queen (1930), which moved from the Guild to the larger Martin Beck Theatre; and Lynn Riggs’s lovely Green Grow the Lilacs (1931), which would save the Guild in 1943 when it was adapted as the landmark musical Oklahoma!
On October 26, 1931, the Guild Theatre hosted one of its greatest triumphs: Eugene O’Neill’s five-hour trilogy (with a dinner intermission) Mourning Becomes Electra. O’Neill based his three plays on Aeschylus’s Oresteia but changed the locale to New England during the Civil War. The tragedy, which starred Nazimova, Alice Brady, Earle Larimore, and Lee Barker, was hailed by critics as a masterpiece. The eminent critic Joseph Wood Krutch wrote: “It may turn out to be the only permanent contribution yet made by the 20th century to dramatic literature.” The play posed a fashion problem to first-nighters. The performance started at 5:00 p.m.. Should they wear evening clothes or afternoon wear? Critic George Jean Nathan wore afternoon clothes, but when he saw financier Otto Kahn arrive in evening clothes, Nathan ran home at intermission to change. Kahn also ran home and changed to afternoon wear.
Other 1930's highlights included Beatrice Lillie and Hope Williams in a revival of Shaw’s Too True to Be Good (1932); Nazimova, Henry Travers, Claude Rains, Sydney Greenstreet, and Jessie Ralph in an adaptation of Pearl Buck’s novel The Good Earth (1932); Ina Claire in one of her greatest high-comedy performances in S. N. Behrman’s Biography (1932); Judith Anderson, Humphrey Bogart, Shirley Booth, and Leo G. Carroll in The Mask and the Face (1933), translated by Somerset Maugham from an Italian play; George M. Cohan and Gene Lockhart in Eugene O’Neill’s only comedy, Ah, Wilderness! (1933); Maxwell Anderson’s Valley Forge (1934), with Philip Merivale as General George Washington; Jimmy Savo, Eve Arden, Charles Walters, and Ezra Stone in a colorful revue, Parade (1935); the Lunts, Richard Whorf, and Sydney Greenstreet in an inspired revival of The Taming of the Shrew (1935); Ina Claire, Osgood Perkins, Van Heflin, Mildred Natwick, and Shepperd Strudwick in another Behrman gem, End of Summer (1936); and Sylvia Sidney, Leslie Banks, and Evelyn Varden in Ben Hecht’s To Quito and Back (1937).
Despite brilliant acting, some of these plays ran barely longer than 50 performances, and there were many in between that ran fewer. By the end of 1938 the Guild found itself in such financial straits that it began renting the Guild Theatre to other producers. In October 1938 Gilbert Miller presented J. B. Priestley’s I Have Been Here Before, but it failed; and in December, Herman Shumlin presented Max Reinhardt’s production of Thornton Wilder’s The Merchant of Yonkers, starring Jane Cowl and featuring Percy Waram, June Walker, and Nydia Westman. This farce was a curious flop. Wilder later rewrote it as The Matchmaker, which was a hit; then it was turned into Hello, Dolly!
William Saroyan’s first Broadway play, with a Group Theatre cast — My Heart’s in the Highlands — played a brief but acclaimed run in 1939, followed in February 1940 by Saroyan’s The Time of Your Life, which won both the Pulitzer Prize and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award and moved to the Guild Theatre from the Booth. In the early 1940s the Guild had a series of short-lived plays at their theatre — a revival of Ah, Wilderness!, with Harry Carey; Frederic March, and Florence Eldridge in Hope for a Harvest; Celeste Holm and Jessie Royce Landis in Papa Is All; Paul Muni, Jessica Tandy, and Alfred Drake in Yesterday’s Magic; Stuart Erwin and Lillian Gish in Mr. Sycamore; and finally, a Russian drama called The Russian People.
With all these disasters, the Theatre Guild decided to lease its theatre as a radio playhouse in 1943, and it remained so until 1950.
At this time, the federally chartered American National Theatre and Academy bought the theatre and renamed it the ANTA Playhouse. Lawrence Langner observed: “ANTA has now taken it over, and are operating it on a tax-free basis with subsidies and concessions from all the unions, which will make their burden far less than ours; and I wish them better luck with the building than we had.” In 1944 the Theatre Guild moved out of the Guild Theatre to an imposing town house on West Fifty-third Street.
The beautifully renovated ANTA Playhouse opened auspiciously on November 26, 1950, with Judith Anderson, Marian Seldes, and Alfred Ryder in The Tower Beyond Tragedy, by Robinson Jeffers. The critics hailed Anderson’s acting, but the verse tragedy based on the Electra theme played for only 32 performances. On Christmas Eve 1950, Santa brought a gilt-edged gift to this beleaguered theatre: Gloria Swanson and José Ferrer in a revival of Hecht and MacArthur’s comedy Twentieth Century. It was so successful that it was moved to the Fulton Theatre. The ANTA Play Series continued with revivals of Mary Rose (1951); Molière’s L’École des Femmes, performed in French by Louis Jouvet and company; Desire under the Elms (1952), with Karl Malden, Douglas Watson, and Carol Stone, directed by Harold Clurman; and Golden Boy (1952), with John Garfield, Lee J. Cobb, and Jack Klugman. During this time, a genuine hit moved to the ANTA — Mary Chase’s delightful fantasy Mrs. McThing (1952), starring Helen Hayes, Ernest Borgnine, Jules Munshin, and Brandon de Wilde — but it tarried briefly before moving to the Morosco. In 1955 Katharine Cornell, Tyrone Power, and Christopher Plummer appeared in Christopher Fry’s “winter comedy” The Dark Is Light Enough. The light burned out after 69 performances. A musical version of Seventh Heaven, with Chita Rivera, Beatrice Arthur, Gloria DeHaven, Ricardo Montalban, and Kurt Kasznar, had just 44 showings. ANTA’s star-studded revival of The Skin of Our Teeth (1955) had Helen Hayes, Mary Martin, George Abbott, Florence Reed, and Don Murray in the cast. It played successful engagements in Paris, Washington, D.C., and Chicago before coming to the ANTA.
In 1956 the Lunts returned to the theatre where they had performed so often for the Guild. Their vehicle, The Great Sebastians, was one of their poorest. A melodramatic comedy by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse in which they played a mind-reading act, the play managed to last 174 performances.
On February 8, 1956, the ANTA Theatre finally housed a play that enjoyed a relatively long run (477 performances). Edward G. Robinson returned to this theatre, where he had acted for the Guild many times, and garnered superlatives for his performance in Paddy Chayefsky’s Middle of the Night, about a 53-year-old man who falls in love with a 24-year-old woman, played by Gena Rowlands. June Walker, Anne Jackson, and Martin Balsam were also in the cast. Joshua Logan produced and directed.
The success of the Chayefsky play at the ANTA turned the tide for this house. After engagement by the Dancers of Bali and Dancers of India, it booked several hits that enjoyed substantial runs. Say, Darling (1958), a comedy about the troubles encountered when producing a Broadway musical, was satiric fact rather than fiction. It was plainly about the backstage shenanigans in getting The Pajama Game produced on Broadway. David Wayne, Vivian Blaine, Johnny Desmond, and Constance Ford were in the cast, but Robert Morse stole the show doing an outrageous impersonation of a flamboyant producer/director said to be inspired by Hal Prince. The comedy ran for 332 performances.
The ANTA’s next tenant won the Pulitzer Prize. It was J. B. (1958), a verse drama by Archibald MacLeish, with Pat Hingle as J. B. (Job), Raymond Massey as Mr. Zuss (God), and Christopher Plummer as Nickles (Satan). Elia Kazan directed the biblical drama, which ran for 364 performances.
Critics praised Rex Harrison’s acting in Anouilh’s comedy The Fighting Cock (1959), but audiences supported it for only 87 performances. Next came a healthy hit, A Thurber Carnival (1960), described as “a new entertainment patterned after the revue form,” by James Thurber, with music by Don Elliott. The show was a series of humorous sketches based on the New Yorker magazine wit’s writings and performed with charm by Tom Ewell, Peggy Cass, Paul Ford, John McGiver, Alice Ghostley, and others.
Highlights of the 1960s included Hugh Wheeler’s Big Fish, Little Fish (1961), with Jason Robards Jr., Hume Cronyn, Martin Gabel, Elizabeth Wilson, and George Grizzard, directed by Sir John Gielgud; Robert Bolt’s distinguished historical play A Man for All Seasons (1961), which won six Tony Awards, including Best Play, Best Actor (Paul Scofield), and Best Director (Noel Willman), later brought Faye Dunaway into the cast and ran for 640 performances; and James Baldwin’s Blues for Mister Charlie (1964), with Diana Sands, Al Freeman Jr., John McCurry, Rosetta Le Noire, Pat Hingle, and Rip Torn, directed by Burgess Meredith.
Sands returned to the ANTA with Alan Alda in the two-character comedy The Owl and the Pussycat (1964), which ran for 421 performances. Peter Shaffer’s The Royal Hunt of the Sun (1965) starred Christopher Plummer as Spanish conqueror Pizarro and George Rose as Ruiz, with David Carradine as the leader of the Incas. Next came engagements by the National Repertory Theatre (1967) and the American Conservatory Theatre (1969); Len Cariou in the American Shakespeare Festival’s production of Henry V (1969); and a revival of Our Town (1969) with Henry Fonda, Ed Begley, Elizabeth Hartman, Harvey Evans, Mildred Natwick, John Beal, and Margaret Hamilton.
The 1970s brought Helen Hayes, James Stewart, and Jesse White in a revival of Harvey (1970), jointly produced by ANTA and the Phoenix Theatre; engagements of the dance companies of Alvin Ailey, Louis Falco, Pearl Lang, Paul Taylor, Nikolais, and the Dance Theatre of Harlem (all in 1971); the musical Purlie from the Broadway Theatre, which played for seven months in 1971; Julie Harris in a Tony Award-winning performance in The Last of Mrs. Lincoln (1972); Elizabeth Ashley, Keir Dullea, Fred Gwynne, and Kate Reid in a revival of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1974); the exuberant black musical Bubbling Brown Sugar (1976), which ran for 766 performances; Charles Repole in a revival of Eddie Cantor’s 1920's hit Whoopee (1979), from the Goodspeed Opera House; and Maggie Smith in Tom Stoppard’s Night and Day (1979).
Derek Jacobi starred in a Russian drama, The Suicide, in 1980, for 60 performances. A musical version of Dickens’s David Copperfield, its title shortened to Copperfield, had a brief run of 13 performances in 1981. Annie moved in from the Alvin across the street for one month, followed by the campy musical Oh, Brother!, based on Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors, with the action transferred to the contemporary Middle East. It had the misfortune to open while the memory of American hostages in Iranian captivity was still fresh in people’s memories, and it lasted just three performances. It was followed by the Pilobolus Dance Theatre (1981).
In August 1981 the ANTA theatre was acquired by Jujamcyn Theatres and subsequently renamed the Virginia Theatre, in honor of Mrs. Virginia M. Binger, owner of Jujamcyn along with her husband, James Binger. Richard G. Wolff, then president of Jujamcyn Theatres, supervised the renovation of the theatre and announced the firm’s intention of booking both legitimate attractions and dance companies at the Virginia.
In June 1982 a musical called Play Me a Country Song had a very brief run here; and in December of that year, Eva LeGallienne revived her adaptation of Alice in Wonderland (coauthored with Florida Friebus) for a brief run. This was followed by a superlative new production of the 1936 Rodgers and Hart musical On Your Toes, which won a Tony Award for Best Revival of the season and another Tony for its brilliant ballet star, Natalia Makarova. It played 505 performances.
Emily Mann’s Execution of Justice, a docudrama of the trial of Dan White, who murdered George Moscone, mayor of San Francisco, and City Supervisor Harvey Milk, had a short run in 1986 and was succeeded later that year by Ian McKellen in Wild Honey. The following year brought a Canadian production of The Mikado and a musical version of the macabre Stephen King novel Carrie, which eked out five performances but inspired a small, devoted cult. The show, which starred Betty Buckley and Linzi Hateley, became the gold standard for Broadway musical cataclysms when author Ken Mandelbaum titled a book on the subject Not Since Carrie.
Ray Cooney’s British smash Run for Your Wife did not repeat its success in New York. A new production of the hit musical Shenandoah failed to run as long as the original, but it was followed by the successful musical City of Angels, which won six Tony Awards: Best Musical, Best Score (Cy Coleman, David Zippel), Best Book (Larry Gelbart), Best Actor in a Musical (James Naughton), Best Featured Actress in a Musical (Randy Graff), and Best Scenic Designer (Robin Wagner). A film noir mystery-within-a-musical about a troubled writer and the cool detective character he creates in his novels (the latter sections performed with black-and-white costumes and sets), City of Angels ran 878 performances here from 1989 to 1992, setting a new house record.
In the spring of 1992, another hit musical arrived — Jelly’s Last Jam, an impressionistic biography of jazz pioneer Jelly Roll Morton, which won a Tony Award for its star, Gregory Hines, and one for featured actress Tonya Pinkins. A new production of the Lerner and Loewe classic My Fair Lady opened in 1993 and starred Richard Chamberlain as Henry Higgins, Melissa Errico as Eliza Doolittle, and Julian Holloway as Alfred P. Doolittle (the role his father Stanley Holloway had created in the original 1956 production). The New York Times stated that it was a touring show and looked it. It ran for only 165 performances and received no Tony nominations.
On March 2, 1995, a megahit musical arrived at the Virginia. Smokey Joe’s Cafe, a revue featuring the hit 1950's-1960's songs of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller (“Stand by Me,” “On Broadway,” “Hound Dog,” “Spanish Harlem,” and many others), was praised for its brilliant performers and dancing. It dazzled for 2,036 performances, making it the longest-running musical revue in Broadway history. It received seven Tony Award nominations, and its cast album won a Grammy Award.
The Virginia Theatre’s next tenant was a theatrical oddity called The Wild Party, based on a 1928 poem by Joseph Moncure March, with music and lyrics by Michael John LaChiusa and a book by LaChiusa and George C. Wolfe (who also directed). It was produced in April 2000 by the New York Shakespeare Festival/Joseph Papp Public Theater and starred Mandy Patinkin, Toni Collette, and Eartha Kitt. The production will forever carry an asterisk next to its title, owing to the fact that another musical with the same name, based on the same poem, but with book, music, and lyrics by Andrew Lippa, was produced Off-Broadway by the Manhattan Theatre Club at almost the same time, from February 24 to April 9, 2000. The Manhattan Theatre Club’s production received better reviews, but the Broadway version had some wild admirers and received seven Tony Award nominations. It ran for just 68 performances, a costly flop for the Public Theater.
For the next two years the Virginia was booked with a series of dramas and dramatic musicals that tackled tough questions of politics, race, religion, and history. In fall 2000 the Virginia hosted a revival of Gore Vidal’s The Best Man, with the author’s name added to the original title to avoid confusion with a concurrent film of the same name. Examining the morality of a fictional 1950's presidential race, it opened in the midst of the 2000 presidential campaign, which saw George W. Bush battle Vice President Al Gore for the White House. Viewers found many parallels between life and art. The producers set up a voting booth in the lobby so ticket holders could cast nonbinding votes on the outcome of the 2000 contest. Voters at the Virginia overwhelmingly went for Gore, but the general election had a surprise in store.
Musical leading man Brian Stokes Mitchell lent his baritone to a nonmusical project, King Hedley II, an installment of August Wilson’s ten-play cycle about the saga of American blacks in the 20th century, known variously as the “Pittsburgh Cycle” or the “Century Cycle.” Each play stood for a decade, and King Hedley II represented the 1980s, telling the story of an ex-convict trying to scrape together the money to open a video store and rebuild his life. Viola Davis and Leslie Uggams costarred in the production, which stayed at the Virginia for 72 performances in late spring 2001.
Laura Linney and Liam Neeson did battle with the forces of ignorance in a lauded revival of Arthur Miller’s witch-hunt drama The Crucible for 101 performances, starting March 7, 2002.
The Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization granted Tony-winning playwright David Henry Hwang (M. Butterfly) permission to rewrite Oscar Hammerstein II’s libretto to the team’s 1958 musical Flower Drum Song, in part to make it more intrinsically Asian-American, while keeping the original score intact. The result, which starred Lea Salonga and Randall Duk Kim, delved deeper into the story of a girl who comes from communist China to San Franciso’s Chinatown in the 1950s to fulfill a prearranged marriage contract. One of the more spectacular additions was an opening scene enacting the girl’s harrowing escape from Maoist China, set to the show’s song “A Hundred Million Miracles.” Opening October 17, 2002, the revision ran 169 performances.
Standup comedian Bill Maher jabbed hard at the American political follies in his solo comedy show Bill Maher: Victory Begins at Home, which opened March 5, 2003, in the final days before the United States launched its invasion of Iraq. The show earned a Tony nomination as Best Theatrical Event despite a limited run of just 16 performances.
Just in time for the Halloween season in 2003, a long-running Off-Broadway musical comedy, Little Shop of Horrors, got a revival that was also its Broadway debut. Starring Hunter Foster as the mousy florist’s clerk and Kerry Butler as his long-stemmed rose Audrey, the Alan Menken/Howard Ashman musical benefited from a Broadway budget in building its main special effect, an ever-growing man-eating plant that can also sing R & B. Directed by Jerry Zaks and costarring Douglas Sills as a sadistic dentist, the production was up in the chair at the Virginia for 372 performances.
Louisa May Alcott’s novel Little Women would seem to have been a natural for musical adaptation, with its story of Jo, a plucky young woman who prevails over personal tragedy and learns to stand on her own two feet in Civil War America. But Broadway’s first musicalization did not arrive until January 23, 2005, with the opening of Little Women, starring the picture-perfect Sutton Foster in the exhausting main role, and singer Maureen McGovern as her beloved Marmee. The show had music by Jason Howland, book by Allan Knee, and lyrics by Mindi Dickstein. Foster’s showstopper was to have been “Astonishing,” but audiences did not respond with the expected ardor, and the show lasted only 137 performances.
In summer 2005 Jujamcyn announced that the Virginia Theatre would be renamed the August Wilson Theatre in honor of the author of onetime tenant King Hedley II. Wilson didn’t live to see the rechristening ceremony. He died of liver cancer on October 2, 2005. His widow, Constanza Romero, and his second daughter, Azula Carmen Wilson, attended the October 16, 2005, ceremony.
The new moniker proved lucky for this theatre. November 6 saw the opening of a resounding hit, Jersey Boys. At the time, Broadway seemed flooded with shows derided by critics as “jukebox musicals,” which tried to hammer a rock band’s songbook into something that resembled a Broadway musical score. But with Jersey Boys, librettists Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice figured out ways to use the Bob Gaudio-Bob Crewe songs of the pop singing group The Four Seasons in a variety of witty ways to tell about, illustrate, comment upon or just reenact key moments from the band members’ rise from blue-collar hoodlums to international stars. Directed by Des McAnuff, the show was nominated for eight Tony Awards and won four, including Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical (John Lloyd Young as lead singer Frankie Valli).
Jersey Boys continued to fill the August Wilson Theatre with music and nostalgia for the rest of the decade and beyond.
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