The Ford Center for the Performing Arts on 42nd Street celebrates the coming together of two traditions: the burgeoning new enterprise of Livent Inc., and the famous old theatrical culture of 42nd Street and Times Square.
Livent began its circuit of theatres in 1989 with the restoration of the historic Pantages Theatre in Toronto. The first Ford Center opened in Metropolitan Toronto in 1993, and a second in Vancouver in 1995. A fourth will follow in 1998 in Chicago. The Ford Center in New York stands on a site formerly occupied by two beautiful 42nd Street theatres, the Lyric and the Apollo. The massive reclamation and reconfiguration both restore and extend their glories.
In the popular imagination, 42nd Street has always led a double life. It rivals Broadway itself as the street that means theatre. But as the great musical film 42nd Street (1932) defines the spirit and the legend for all time, it also makes plain that even then 42nd Street meant sleaze as well as glamour.
Sleaze eventually took over. First-time, stagestruck visitors to New York would make a pilgrimage in search of the legend and find only porno movie houses. Now 42nd Street will again become in reality what it has always been in fiction: a main highway of first-class theatre.
Both the Lyric and the Apollo had great musical pasts. The Lyric was actually born of a successful musical, Reginald DeKoven's 1890 smash Robin Hood, which gave the world the wedding anthem "Oh, Promise Me." DeKoven used some of the profits from this show's 13 years on the road to buy a site from the Shubert Brothers. He built a beautiful theatre, and the Shuberts managed it.
The Lyric opened on October 12, 1903, with Old Heidelberg starring Richard Mansfield. Most of its successes were musical. Two major composers of operetta had hits there: Oscar Straus whose most famous show The Chocolate Soldier (based on Shaw's Arms and the Man) opened at the Lyric in 1909 to run for 296 performances, and Rudolf Friml whose first show The Firefly opened at the Lyric in 1912. His last hit, The Three Musketeers, produced by the fabled Florenz Ziegfeld, played there for seven months in 1928an impressive run in those days.
The glory years of the Lyric, the 1920s, belonged to musical comedy in an era when the music and the comedy were equally dazzling. During that decade Fred and Adele Astaire appeared in For Goodness Sake, scored partly by the Gershwins, and the Marx Brothers had their second Broadway hit (and the source of their first film) in The Cocoanuts, book by George S. Kaufman, songs by Irving Berlin. And in 1929 the young Cole Porter wrote his first successful full-length score (and one of the best of his entire career) for Fifty Million Frenchmen. It turned out to be the Lyric's last successful show. The theatre switched to movies in 1934.
The Apollo opened in 1910 as a combined film and vaudeville house under the name the Bryant. In 1920 the Selwyn brothers took over and rebuilt it, making it the twelfth and last theatre to be built on 42nd Street's Times Square block. It began operations on November 11, 1920, with Jimmie, a show memorable only for having the fledgling Oscar Hammerstein as one of its writers, and didn't have a hit until 1923 when W. C. Fields starred in Poppy. George White, whose Scandals were popular rivals to the Ziegfeld Follies, mounted several successful editions of the series at the Apollo. Stars included Ethel Merman, Jimmy Durante, Ray Bolger, Rudy Vallee and Ed Wynn. In 1932 the rowdy Take a Chance gave Ethel Merman one of her trademark songs, "Eadie Was a Lady," and also gave the Apollo its last hit before its closure in 1933. It reopened in 1934 as a burlesque house, and in 1938 it began a long and chequered career as a movie theatre. The Apollo's 1979-83 rehabilitation as a theatre housed three noteworthy plays in succession, On Golden Pond, Bent and Lanford Wilson's The Fifth of July. But in 1983 it went back to movies, later switching to rock concerts and Parisian-styled cabaret.
The Apollo was a technically advanced theatre, perfectly equipped for the musicals of its day. So it's fitting that the stage of the Apollo should be the core of what is now the biggest stage on Broadway. The original proscenium arch and main dome have been restored and expanded. The new auditorium incorporates plaster detailing that matches the Greek mythological motifs of the original theatre.
The Ford Center is a loving distillation, a creative scrambling, of elements from two wonderful originals. There is detailing from both original theatres in the new main lobbies, and color schemes also reflect both originals. The Lyric's historic 43rd Street brick and terra-cotta façade, with its lovely tiers of windows and balconies, has been maintained and restored, while the 42nd and 43rd Street links which served as the main entries have been reconstructed. Separate entrances and box offices eliminate the frustration and confusion between patrons booking or picking up "on the night" and those reserving tickets for the future.
Most vitally, every one of the 1,813 seats in the auditorium has perfect sightlines, and an intimate relationship to the performance. From the back of the orchestra, you are only 86 feet away from the stage. The Ford Center combines the most modern technology and the finest acoustics with a traditional sense of contact between actors and audience.
The blending of old and new traditions extends from the theatre itself to its inaugural production. Ragtime, a new musical set in the same New York Gilded Age that saw the openings of the Lyric and Apollo Theatres, is produced with all the techniques and resources of the 1990s.
Stage and auditorium, theatre and show, past and present . . . together they make a remarkable mosaic.
-- By Robert Cushman