The History of the Gershwin Theatre

The original name for the George Gershwin Theatre was the Uris. In 1972 when it first opened, the Uris was the next large Broadway theatre to have been built since 1931 when the Earl Carroll was constructed. It occupied six stories in the new Uris Building at Fifty First and Broadway, the former site of the Capitol movie palace. The 1,900 seat theatre was designed by the late Ralph Alswang, a set designer.

When the theatre opened Alswang told Playbill that the Uris represented what he thought was the complete philosophy for a modern musical and comedy theatre- sight lines, seating and acoustic- the aesthetics and economy for this type of theatre. He said that he had been given complete freedom from Gerard Oestreicher, the Nederlanders and the Uris people, who had a thirty year lease on the theatre. Alswang added that the entire theatre was designed with a very sensuous form of Art Nouveau style.

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The auditorium is situated on the second floor which can be reached via escalators. Alswang stated that the Lalique lighting fixtures, bar, and the 200 foot plaster walls with reverse curves were all in Art Nouveau shapes. He added that most people wanted orchestra seats, so the downstairs has 1,280 seats and there are 660 seats in a small balcony along with projecting side sections that replaced box seats.

According to Alswang, dark proscenium panels served as light towers, which were also removable depending on what production demands there were. The stage floor was very flexible and could be dismantled like a Tinker Toy as well as be extended in the form of a thrust stage. The theatre also featured the first water curtain in theatre history, replacing the usual asbestos curtain used in case there was ever a fire on stage Another theatre history first was the revolutionary and automatic rigging system named Hydra Float. Alswang estimated that building the theatre would cost around $12.5 million.

One special feature is the theatre Hall of Fame, which has the name of many of the stage greats inscribed on the walls in bas-relief along an impressive rotunda. The theatre also features another rotunda for the purpose of theatrical exhibitions. The idea for the Hall of Fame rotunda came from a suggestion made by Earl Blackwell to the Nederlanders.

On November 18 1972 the Uris opened with “Via Galactica,” a rock musical starring Raul, Virginia and Julia Vestoff as space aliens circa 2972. The special effects, unfortunately, were a lot more dazzling and impressive than the actual show itself. The musical only lasted for seven performances before closing.

The next tenant in the theatre was “Seesaw,” which was a lot more successful. It was a musical based on “Two for the Seesaw,” the hit comedy from William Gibson. The book was from Michael Bennett, Cy Coleman did the music, and Dorothy Fields did the lyrics. The show starred Michele Lee and Ken Howard. Tommy Tune was also in the show and won the best supporting actor in a musical Tony Award, with Michael Bennet winning a Tony for the choreography. Mayor John V. Lindsay, on March 23, 1973, filled in on “My City” for Ken Howard for seven minutes. “Seesaw” ran for a total of 296 performances.

The 1973-74 theatre season started with “The Desert Song,” a revival of the operetta by Sigmund Romberg. However, the show closed after only 15 performances, as it really wasn’t for contemporary audiences. Next came an unusual booking. “Gigi,” the movie musical, was converted to the stage. Usually it is the other way around. Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner added a few songs to the musical’s Tony Award winning score. The cast included Agnes Moorehead (who was succeeded later by Arlene Francis), Alfred Drake, Karin Wolfe, Maria Karnilova and Daniel Massey. The show ran for a total of 103 performances.

During the year 1974, the Uris saw personal appearances from many celebrated artists. Sammy Davis, Jr., Enrico Macias along with the La Fete Orientale Company, Mott the Hoople rock group, Michel Legrand and Andy Williams, Henry Mancini and Anthony Newley, The Fifth Dimension, Johnny Mathis, Nureyev and Friends and Raphael in Concert. 1975 saw more concert bookings, including Count Basie, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and the Dance Theatre of Harlem.

The New York production debut for “Treemonisha,” the Scott Joplin opera, opened at the Uris in October 1975. Production from the Houston Grand Opera Association, which for many years had been lost, was resurrected by director Frank Corsaro. The opera ran for a total of sixty four performances. Next came the American Ballet Theatre, Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn, Paul Anka, D’Oyly Carte Opera Company and Al Green.

In 1976 Sherwin M. Goldman, along with the Houston Grand Opera, presented a widely acclaimed revival of “Porgy and Bess,” the George Gershwin opera. The production won a Tony Award for being the most innovative production for a revival. Especially praised was Clamma Dale for her acting and singing in her role as Bess.

In 1976, Bing Crosby, in a rare Broadway appearance, made his way to the Uris, along with Kathryn, his wife and other family members, as well as Joe Bushkin and Rosemary Clooney among others. The show Bing Crosby on Broadway ran during the Christmas holiday season for a limited twelve performance engagement.

The next appearance was by Nureyev in a dance concert, which was then followed by the Ballet of the Twentieth Century.

A magnificent revival of “The King and I” by Rodgers and Hammerstein opened at the Uris on May 2, 1977, starring Constance Towers and Yul Brynner. It was produced by Shelly Gross and Lee Guber and was immediately a hit. The show became the longest running show at the Uris with 719 performances.

On March 1, 1979, “Sweeney Todd,” the ghoulish musical from Hugh Wheeler and Stephen Sondheim, made its way to the Uris. The play received a lot of critical acclaim along with Tony Awards for the best musical, Hugh Wheeler won for best book, Stephen Sondheim for best score, Angela Landsbury for best musical actress, Len Cariou for best musical actor, Hal Prince for best director, Eugene Lee for best scenic design and Franne Lee for best costume design. The shocking musical, the story of a London barber who slit the throats of his customers for revenge of an injustice, was certainly not for everyone, but the highly creative production had a run of 557 performances.

In 1980, the Uris saw Roland Petit andd his Ballet National de Marseilles, Nureyev with the Boston Ballet and Markarova and Company.

On January 1, 1981, “The Pirates of Penzance,” was presented by Joseph Papp. It was the production from the New York Shakespeare Festival which had been a big hit the preceding summer in Central Park. The cast for the show included Kevin Kline, who won the Tony Award that year for best actor in a musical, Estelle Parsons, Linda Ronstadt, George Rose, Tony Anzio and Rex Smith. The show also received Tony Awards for best direction by Wilford Leach and best revival of a show. The production ran for 772 performances.

In August 1981, a revival of “My Fair Lady,” the Lerner and Loewe classic, was presented at the Uris with Rex Harrison, the original star. Elia Doolittle was played by Nancy Ringham, with Milo O’Shea playing her father. The show also saw the return of Cathleen Nesbitt from the 1956 original cast revive her original role as Mrs. Higgins. The production ran for a total of 124 performances.

In January 1982 “Annie,” the long-running musical moved from the Eugene O’Neill Theatre over to the Uris and stayed for a year. The show’s run ended at the Uris after 2,377 performances.

In February 1983 the Uris saw a personal appearance by Barry Manilow. A Houston Grand Opera production revival of “Show Boat,” the Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein classic, starred Donald O’Connor.

On June 5, 1983, at the Tony Awards, the Uris was officially renamed the Gershwin Theatre to honor George Gershwin, the composer, along with his brother Ira, the lyricist, who had contributed so many great musicals along with “Porgy and Bess,” the opera to Broadway theatre.

In July 1983, Angela Lansbury returned to the Gershwin Theatre in a revival of “Mame,” the hit musical in her original title role. Other veterans from the show included Jane Connell playing Miss Gooch, Willard Waterman, Anne Francine and Sab Shimono.

During 1984, Twyla Tharp Dances on Broadway and Wayne Newton on Broadway played at the Gershwin, followed by “Beatlemania,” moving over from a different theatre. Patti LaBelle appeared later that summer.

In October 1884, there were two productions from the Royal Shakespeare Company: “Cyrano De Bergerac” and “Much Ado About Nothing.” The players included Sinead Cusack and Derek Jacobi. Jacobi won a Tony award for his Benedick performance in “Much Ado About Nothing.” Jacobi reported at luncheon hosted by Playbill that Jose Ferrer, Tony award winner for his 1947 role in “Cyrano,” on opening night of “Cyrano” went backstage to tell the British Jacobi that his performance just proved his point that the only one who could play Cyrano was a Latin.

In January 1985, Patti LaBelle returned. Following her was Evening by TNT!

The summer of 1985 saw “Singin’ in the Rain,” in a lavish production that opened after several difficulties. The MGM classic musical was adapted for the stage by Comden and Green from their original screenplay. Most of the songs were from Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown, the MGM team. The Gene Kelly role was played by Don Correia who danced during the title song on stage in a heavy downpour. Twyla Tharp did the choreography and also directed. The musical ran for ten months.

In 1987, “Starlight Express,” from Britain required the Gershwin Theatre be transformed into a huge roller rink, with the cast of the show performing on roller skates. It was one of the most expensive productions to ever be staged on Broadway. The Richard Stilton-Andrew Lloyd Webber musical won a Tony Award for the elaborate costumes by John Napier and ran for two years. However, the show did not match the London production’s success or recoup its huge investment.

In 1989 Barry Manilow returned to the Gershwin Theatre for “Barry Manilow at the Gershwin,” and played for two months. That fall, “Meet Me in St. Louis,” another screen musical from MGM came to the Gershwin, with extra songs written by Ralph Blane and Hugh Martin, who also wrote the famous movie score. The stage version starred Milo O’Shea, George Hearn, Betty Garrett, Charlotte Moore, and in the Judy Garland role featured Donna Kane. The production ran for seven months.

In 1990 “Bugs Bunny On Broadway,” ran for several weeks and was followed up by a “Fiddler on the Roof” revival, which starred Topal who recreated the Tevya role that he had played on stage as well as in the film version. The show won the Tony Award for Best Revival for the 1990 season and the production ran for seven months.

In 1994, during the fall, “Show Boat,” a Hal Prince production that was highly anticipated, steamed into the Gershwin after its highly successful Canadian run.

The Gershwin Theatre is under the direction of Gerald Oestreicher and the Nederlanders and is a Nederlander Theatre. The seating capacity is the largest of any of the Broadway theatres except for the City Center and New York State Theatre. It was designed to house lavish musicals and has successfully showcased many dance companies and personal appearances.

By Julie Harmon On February 15, 2009

All photos made available via creative commons licensing courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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