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Question: I remember seeing Tommy Tune perform at the Little Shubert Theatre on 42nd Street. It's a contemporary, intimate theatre that would seem to be great for plays and small musicals. It seems to always be dark. Why hasn't it been used more? — D.L., New York, NY
The Little Shubert, a 499-seat theatre on West 42nd Street between Ninth and Tenth Avenues, opened in late 2000. It was built by the Shubert Organization, and was the first new theatre constructed by that towering theatre-owner since 1928, and its first new Off-Broadway theatre ever. Appropriately, it was christened the Little Shubert. At the time, Shubert chairman Gerald Schoenfeld claimed that the new building was the first Off-Broadway theatre in New York to be built from the ground up using private funds — other theatres have been converted from existing performance spaces, or were built by not-for-profit groups using gifts, grants and/or government money. The design, by architect Hugh Hardy, was lavish by Off-Broadway standards, costing $12.5 million. The proscenium climbs to a height of 24 feet and is more than 39 feet wide, making it as big as many Broadway houses, and suitable for splashy, design-heavy musicals. The stage is 71 feet wide and 26 feet deep.
The Little Shubert's opening production was the revue Tommy Tune: White Tie and Tails, which brought Tony Award winner Tune back to the New York stage. But it ran for only a few weeks. Since then, the Little Shubert has housed only a half-dozen or so shows, the biggest (and only) hit, My Mother's Italian, My Father's Jewish & I'm in Therapy!. However, that play moved to the Westside soon after its opening at the Little Shubert.
Part of the problem was largely timing. Soon after the Little Shubert opened, the Off-Broadway commercial model collapsed. The cost of producing an Off-Broadway show kept rising, while the potential to make money — dictated by the small number of the seats and top-ticket price a producer could justify — remained stagnant. A producer's thinking might go like this: If I'm already spending so much money on a show, why not raise a little more and seek a Broadway house, where the profile — and the potential profit — is higher?
The Shubert Organization, rather understandably, did not choose to comment at length on the state of the Little Shubert. Spokesperson Lisa Spagnuola responed via e-mail, "The answer to your reader's question regarding the Little Shubert Theatre is that, unfortunately, the economics of commercial Off-Broadway theatre are very difficult at the present time." Asked to elaborate, she declined.
Some have also suggested that producers consider The Little Shubert too far off the beaten track to gain sufficient attention for its tenants.
Paul Alexander, the producer of Dracula, the current inhabitant of the Little Shubert, does not agree with this criticism, however. "Playwrights Horizons has been next door for 25 years," he pointed out. "No one has ever had trouble finding Playwrights Horizons. There are myths in the theatre business that are just myths. People aren't having trouble finding us."
Alexander said he "wanted to do the show at Little Shubert because it's a state-of-the-art theatre. It's got a stage that's essentially equivalent to a Broadway stage. I wanted show the public what the show would look like on a Broadway stage. And that's what I've done. It's unlike any other Off-Broadway house."
He continued, "I have no idea why it's been underused. I think it's a tremendous loss to the theatre."