Theatre lovers who are lucky enough to get to the Broadway theatre district in New York, either while in town on a trip or simply by hopping on a subway from home, know that one thing you usually check in the Playbill when you take your seat is the feature “At This Theatre.” There you can enjoy a walk down memory lane either contemplating shows you saw in the space you now occupy or fantasizing about what it would have been like to sit in your seat when famous shows of the past were playing.
In 1984, Playbill’s Senior Editor Louis Botto, who had been writing these brief essays, pulled them together, creating a book that instantly took its place on theatre shelves around the country. With Playbill’s Robert Viagas editing, the set was updated in 2002 and now, with a byline of Viagas and Botto, a 2010 edition attempts to both bring the stories up to date and improve on some of the layout.
The new volume has updated the discussions of the shows that have recently played in the houses for each of thirty eight currently active Broadway theatres that were covered in the last volume. It adds chapters on two that weren’t in the previous edition – the Stephen Sondheim Theatre and Studio 54, two houses linked in history by the 1993 revival of Cabaret. That revival opened in what used to be called Henry Miller’s Theatre but transferred to Studio 54 after only eight months. The Sondheim is a totally new house built on the site on West 43rd Street where the old Henry Miller’s Theatre hosted shows from 1918 until its demolition in 2004, and the new house retains the facade of the old.
To make room for the chapters on these two currently active theatres, Viagas and Botto deleted two from the prior edition. One covered the history of the Mark Hellinger Theatre where My Fair Lady began its historic run (it transferred after six years in the Hellinger first to the Broadhurst and later to the Broadway Theatre) and the other dealt with City Center, the 3,000 seat former Shrine auditorium where, since 1994, the “Encores!” series has produced “Great American Musicals in Concert.” Neither hall is a Broadway house today. The Hellinger is now the Times Square Church.
The new edition is nearly a hundred pages longer, providing lengthier texts as well as more illustrations. The new layout for the book features splendid new pictures of the exterior of each house as it appears today while retaining the architectural sketches showing how each was to appear when it first opened. As in previous editions, the volume is filled with illustrations ranging from original Playbill covers to production and publicity photos for notable shows. The narration makes the volume interesting reading while the many illustrations make it equally interesting to simply scan page after page of theatre history.
Some of the theatres have changed names since the earlier editions, of course. The Martin Beck became the Al Hirschfeld. The Virginia assumed its sixth name: the August Wilson. The Royale has now become the Bernard B. Jacobs while, next door, the Plymouth has become the Gerald Schoenfeld, and the Biltmore, where the Manhattan Theatre Club mounts its Broadway shows, has now been renamed for veteran Broadway press agent Samuel J. Friedman.
How the editors can hope to keep up with name creep on Broadway is beyond me. After all, with the selling of branding rights for a specified period, names have begun to “expire.” The Ford Center for the Performing Arts opened in 1998 with the ravishing premiere of Ragtime, but the theatre’s name lasted a mere seven years. The Ford Motor Company dropped the rights which were sold to the Hilton Hotel chain in 2005. It is as the Hilton Theatre the facility is discussed in the new volume. That is already out of date. Hilton dropped out and now the house is Foxwoods Theatre, the naming rights having been purchased last year by the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, operators of the casino and resort Foxwoods in Connecticut.
Another indicator of the rapidity with which theatre names seem to be changing is the fact that the brand new chapter in the book on the Stephen Sondheim Theatre has the principal photo of the house showing the marquee as Henry Miller’s Theatre, the name under which it was restored and the name it sported from 1917 until 2006 when it was demolished and a new but still Henry Miller’s Theatre was built on the site. Only in 2010 did it become the Stephen Sondheim, and the book has just a small black and white snap shot of the new marquee.
It would have been good had the editors included a map of the theatre district showing each theatre and it is a shame that seating plans couldn’t be included. Maybe the next edition will add such features.