Lee and Jacob J. Shubert named the theatre after their brother Sam, who died in a train accident in 1905, leaving behind an empire that was just dawning. Sam had climbed his way up in the industry from working the box office at an opera house in Syracuse to establishing a network of theatres across upstate New York. And in 1900, he and his brothers leased the Herald Square Theatre on Broadway, solidifying the Shubert name in American theatre history.
New Haven's Sam S. Shubert Theatre was one of 100 or so venues the surviving brothers went on to establish across the country. The H.E. Murdock construction company of New Haven built it in collaboration with New York architect Albert Swazey. The ivory, ecru and gold leaf interior pleased critics and patrons. Adjoining the Taft Hotel, The Shubert seated 1,820 people.
Sixty miles away from New York City, The Shubert became known as "The Birthplace of the Nation's Greatest Hits" — a favorite tryout theatre of the top producers, writers and actors in the middle of the 20th century. The world premiere of Robinson Crusoe Jr. in 1916 starred Al Jolson, who was billed as "America's Greatest Entertainer." Notable shows that tried out at the Shubert during the '20s and '30s included The Desert Song, A Connecticut Yankee, the Gershwin brothers' Of Thee I Sing and The Barretts of Wimpole Street.
Composer Richard Rodgers and librettist Oscar Hammerstein II saw seven of their musicals in the 1940s and '50s preview at the Shubert prior to Broadway. The first, Oklahoma!, revolutionized musical theatre with song and dance that pushed the storytelling forward in a more sophisticated way than ever before. The show was still called Away We Go for the New Haven run. The song "Oklahoma" was added for the Broadway opening at St. James Theatre, where a new title for the show appeared on the marquee. The other Rodgers and Hammerstein shows that played the Shubert before Broadway were Carousel in 1945, Allegro in 1947, The King and I in 1951, Pipe Dream in 1955 and The Sound of Music in 1959.
New Haven critics traditionally picked apart the rough edges of shows on out-of-town opening nights. R&H were not spared. According to Mary Martin's autobiography, when South Pacific came to town in 1949, critics said William Tabbert, who played Lieutenant Cable, wasn't sexy enough, so Martin invited him into her New Haven dressing room and dyed his hair blond and curled it. There were also concerns about the social issues the show raised. Audiences weren't used to songs about racial prejudice ("You've Got to Be Carefully Taught," for instance). The musical went on to win the Pulitzer Prize. Martin took the stage for the first time in 1938 in the New Haven tryout of Cole Porter's Leave It to Me! Her breakthrough moment came in Act Two when she sang "My Heart Belongs to Daddy." The song made her a star. Later in her career, she won Tony Awards as Best Actress in a Musical for South Pacific, The Sound of Music and Peter Pan.
New Yorkers vied for seats with New Haven theatregoers for the 1947 world premiere of Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire. Twenty-four-year-old Marlon Brando played Stanley Kowalski, electrifying audiences.
In 1956, Shubert curtains raised on what would be one of the most financially and critically successful musicals of all time, My Fair Lady. Lyricist-librettist Alan Jay Lerner and producer Herman Levin tried to postpone the opening show at the very last minute, after every seat had been sold, because Rex Harrison, who played Henry Higgins, refused to perform. He wanted more time to rehearse with the Shubert's unfamiliar orchestra. But the house manager refused to turn away the crowd that had braved a blizzard to get there, and Harrison gave in. The curtains snagged on the sets, and the first act ran 25 minutes too long, but the show received a standing ovation nonetheless. The week in New Haven was a learning experience for the My Fair Lady company. By the time they moved on to Philadelphia only a fine polishing was needed before the highly anticipated Broadway opening. The young actress Julie Andrews, who played Eliza, was already the talk of the theatre world. The show became a legendary success.
Other Broadway-destined shows to premiere at the theatre in the 1950s and 1960s included Teahouse of the August Moon with John Forsythe and David Wayne, The Desperate Hours with Paul Newman and Karl Malden, Call Me Madam with Ethel Merman and Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night with Frederic March and Jason Robards.
Humphrey Bogart, Katharine Hepburn, Robert Redford, James Earl Jones and John Travolta, among many others, tasted sweet success on the Shubert stage.
Rising production costs and the fall-off of new shows forced the Shubert to close in 1976. Architect Robert Wendler and the Fusco Corporation restored the theatre over a seven-year period, paying careful attention to historical accuracy. They leveled the Adams Hotel on College Street to make room for a new lobby, as downtown New Haven was going through a period of deterioration. The complex was renamed the Shubert Performing Arts Theatre in 1981.
The Shubert's current presenting organization is Columbus Association for the Performing Arts (CAPA). Breathing cultural life back into the city, the non-profit Shubert venue is now known primarily for post-Broadway tours, but in recent years presented pre-Broadway engagements of Frank Wildhorn's Jekyll & Hyde and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, as well as the American premiere of the new Abbey Theatre production The Playboy of the Western World. National tours scheduled for the 2008-2009 season include A Midsummer Night's Dream, Mamma Mia!, Footloose and Cats.
(At This Theatre — a Playbill.com exclusive — is based on historical notes provided by the venue and other sources, and is not an attempt to offer a complete history of the venue. This national touring house sketch follows in Playbill's tradition of profiling Broadway theatres. For information about Louis Botto's hardcover "At This Theatre," edited by Robert Viagas, visit the Playbill Store. To suggest a regional venue for a future profile, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.)