Monday, September 21, 2009

Broadway Open House: Winter Garden Theatre (Mamma Mia)

View of the stage from the mezzanine

"Tour guides" (General Managers) speaking to visitors about the history of the Winter Garden Theatre

The orchestra pit

This month, several Broadway theatres are opening their doors for a free tour of the theatre or a behind-the-scenes glimpse of how the big shows some together. The Broadway Open House events are part of the Back 2 Broadway Month events sponsored by The Broadway League, the national trade association for the Broadway industry. Last Saturday, I chose the WINTER GARDEN THEATRE where currently, MAMMA MIA is playing. The theatre is located at 1634 Broadway, between 50th and 51st Streets. The Saturday morning “tours” vary by theater, and don’t necessarily offer backstage access as in the case of the Winter Garden Theatre. It was a little bit disappointing for that reason. The theaters are open from 10 a.m. to noon.
The remaining Broadway Open House schedule:
September 26
August Wilson Theatre (“Jersey Boys”)
245 W. 52nd St. (between Broadway and 8th Avenue)
Majestic Theatre (“Phantom of the Opera”)
245 W. 44th St. (between 7th and 8th avenues)
Minskoff Theatre (“The Lion King”)
200 W. 45th St. (between Broadway and 8th Avenue)
History of the Winter Garden Theatre (from


Completed 1911 Architect W Albert Swasey

Remodeled 1922-1923 Architect Herbert J Krapp

The American Horse Exchange building was erected in 1885 when Longacre Square was mostly home to stables and horse dealers, somewhat like the new and used car centers of today. When the Shuberts decided to build a musical comedy house, they decided on the Horse Exchange site a few blocks north of the main cluster of Broadway theaters, but not as far north as ill-fated attempts above 59th Street. It seems they chose well.

The exterior of the original theater, designed by W Albert Swasey, is somewhat Greco-Roman but entirely undistinguished. It is the interior, revamped, remodeled and revitalized by Herbert J Krapp in 1922-1923 that is the landmark. The Shuberts gave Krapp free reign to pour on the plaster and paint and the result is one of the most lavish of Krapp's lavish Adamesque theater interiors

The premiere production was a Jerome Kern revue La Belle Paree which introduced Al Jolson to Broadway, pretty auspicious beginnings for what would become a great musical house. For a brief time, from 1928 through 1933, Warner Brothers used the theater as a movie studio but it quickly returned to legitimate use and has been successful since

1911 The Revue of Revues only runs for 55 performances but signals Gaby Deslys American debut

1912 Al Jolson teams up with Blossom Seeley for 136 performances of the Whirl of Society revue

1913 Al Jolson again, this time with Gaby Deslys and Fanny Brice in the musical Honeymoon Express

1914 The Howard brothers, Willie and Eugene, share the stage with Lilliane Lorraine in the Sigmund Romberg revue The Whirl of the World

1915 One more time for Willie and Eugene Howard, this time with Marilyn Miller in The Passing Show of 1915. This is Miller's Broadway bow

1916 Everybody has to start somewhere and teenaged Ira Gershwin gets his first Broadway song into the Victor Herbert-Sigmund Romberg Passing Show of 1916

1934 Fanny Brice introduces Baby Snooks in The Ziegfeld Follies of 1934

1936 Here's a bill: Bob Hope, Eve Arden, Josephine Baker, Judy Canova and Gypsy Rose Lee share the stage in the '36 version of The Follies

1943 The Follies are still going strong, this year's version headlined by Milton Berle with Ilona Massey and Arthur Treacher

1944 Composer Cole Porter doesn't much like his own show, but Bobby Clark and June Havoc play Mexican Hayride in front of 479 audiences

1951 Phil Silvers wins a Tony for his performance in the Johnny Mercer musical Top Banana. Sharing the stage are Jack Albertson and Rose Marie

1953 Joseph Fields, Jerome Chodorov, Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden and Adolph Green collaborated on the Tony-winning hit musical Wonderful Town. The show stars Rosalind Russel, Edie Adams and George Gaynes and earns Tonys for Russel and choreographer Donald Saddler

1954 Betty Comden and Adolph Green are back, this time writing the book for Peter Pan. Mary Martin and Cyril Ritchard star and win Tonys

1957 Tonight, tonight . . . is the opening of West Side Story, the Arthur Laurents-Leonard Bernstein-Stephen Sondheim musical. Carol Lawrence, Larry Kert and Chita Rivera dance to Jerome Robbins Tony-winning choreography

1960 Tammy Grimes is The Unsinkable Molly Brown and wins a Tony for her performance in the Meredith Wilson comedy

1964 Barbra Streisand, Sydney Chaplin, Kay Medfor, Jean Stapleton and Lainie Kazan start off the 1,348 performance run of Funny Girl

1966 Who can replace Streisand and Funny Girl? Try Angela Lansbury, Bea Arthur and Frankie Michaels in Mame. The 1,508 performance musical earns Tonys for all three stars

1971 The Stephen Sondheim musical Follies earns Tonys for directors Hal Prince and Michael Bennett and star Alexis Smith. Bennett also earns a Tony for his choreography

1974 Another Tony for Angela Lansbury for her performance in the Arthur Laurents-Jule Stein-Stephen Sondheim musical Gypsy

1976 Does anybody remember Stephen Sonhdeim's Pacific Overtures?

1977 What would you do if you sang out of tune? 920 performances of Beatlemania maybe?

1980 Director Gower Champion doesn't live to see his latest triumph, he passes away the afternoon 42nd Street opens to rave reviews. Jerry Orbach and Tammy Grimes star in the show that garners Tony's best musical award and run for 3,486 performances

1982 Shakespeare still makes for great drama, especially when it's James Earl Jones, Christopher Plummer, Diane Wiest and Kelsey Grammar in Othello

1982 This is the last entry for the Winter Garden for awhile. On October 7, 1982 a feline curiosity opened at the theater and remains a great memory for many people. Betty Buckley is probably the only actor anybody can name from the opening and subsequent casts of Cats, but she put an indelible mark on the Andrew Lloyd Weber show, based on the writings of T S Elliot. Buckley wins a Tony, Elliot wins for the book, Weber and Elliot win for the score, and Trevor Nunn wins for his direction. Cats became the longest running show in Broadway history in June 1997 and it appears that these feline legs have a ways to go

2000 After only 7,485 performances the final curtain closes on Cats

2001 Mamma Mia!, the musical based on 20-year-old hits by supergroup ABBA, opens in October with more than a year's worth of sold seats in the bag.

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