That's a seven-year gap between the starting gun and the finish line. How the transition took that long is a drama in and of itself. Back in 2008, Second Stage became aware that they were in danger of losing their playing space at the corner of 43rd Street and Eighth Avenue. At the time, the Hotel Intercontinental wanted to buy up the entire block. "We realized we were going to be in trouble and needed to find a new space,” said artistic director Carole Rothman. "We put out a lot of feelers." Rothman heard through the grapevine that the Helen Hayes Theatre owners were thinking of selling. Owner Donald Tick passed away in 2006, and his surviving partner Martin Markinson was ready to move on. (Tick’s family also co-ran the theatre at the time.)
"We heard underground that that might be possible," related Rothman. She went to see Markinson, who admitted he was interesting in selling, but not right away. "There was no negotiating," said Rothman. "He said, 'This is what the cost of the theatre is.' And he really wanted a theatre company in there. He was really happy that Second Stage would be in there." The cost they agreed to was $25 million.
They signed an agreement in July 2008, and Second Stage set about the task of raising the needed money. Then, that fall, the economy crashed.
"At that point, we had negotiated that we'd have a couple years to raise the money," told Rothman. "And it was pretty clear that nobody was raising money to do anything. That’s when we negotiated an increase in the value. We bought some air rights, and we also bought some time."
Second Stage ended up buying more time than it expected. Part of the company’s agreement with Markinson and the Tick family was that the two owners had to inform Second Stage if they wanted to book a show into the Helen Hayes Theatre that was an open-ended run. In 2009, they said they wanted to book a scrappy little jukebox musical called Rock of Ages. Second Stage gave its consent. "I didn’t think it would run for four-and-a-half years," admitted Rothman. The deal just kept getting pushed back. "We kept saying, 'Maybe next year.' We said that for almost five years."
Finally, the show closed and Second Stage could finally start planning to move in. Then came an unexpected snag. As of Feb. 17, 2015—the planned closing date on the theatre—Second Stage did not have the $25 million required to close on the property and requested a 90-day extension. The Hayes' owners countered by asking for substantial additional payment. Second Stage then sued to prevent the scuttling of the deal. Suddenly, it looked like, for all the waiting and all the work, Second Stage would lose the Helen Hayes.
In February, the issue went before a judge, who told the two parties to get together and work out the dispute.
"We went behind closed doors with the judge and hammered out an agreement that the judge felt was fair to both sides," said Rothman. The judge, who mediated, was a theatre fan, Rothman believed. "Which I think was a good thing," she added.
Only a single meeting was required. The payment price for the theatre, $25 million, remained the same.
Rothman allowed that the whole experience was anxious-making. "It was very nerve-wracking to be in front of a judge that controls your fate," she said.
Now that they finally own the theatre, there is much work to be done. Renovations can begin. But before that happens, said executive director Casey Reitz, "We have a lot of design left to do and a lot of work with landmarks left to do. We’ve already had two meetings with landmarks."
The company has hired architect and frequent Broadway scenic designer David Rockwell to handle the renovation of the old theatre.
"I actually met David when he was on the board of the Public Theater, when I worked there," said Reitz. "We honored him at our gala. I went to his office a few times and was always extremely impressed with him."
"We were very aware of his work as a set designer," he continued, "so he kind of understands both aspects—the public side and the artist side—of the project. He has a good reputation of designing buildings that are focused on hospitality and comfort. And he has a cool, contemporary aesthetic that aligned with ours." Work will begin in 2016 with a first production at the Hayes aimed at the 2017-18 season. Reitz said that, for the most part, the theatre will remain much as it is. "You’ll recognize it," he explained. "The outside of the building is landmarked, so there’s very little we can do to the exterior. There’s a lot you’re not allowed to do to the auditorium. The auditorium is what it is." Instead, alterations will be more along the lines of the color and feeling of the building.
It also may, in time, have a different name. Just as MTC did with the old Biltmore Theatre when it bought it, Second Stage is seeking money through a "naming opportunity." The structure was born as the Little Theatre in 1912. It was renamed the Helen Hayes 1983, following the destruction of another Helen Hayes Theatre a few years prior.
"We'll be 'Second Stage at the Helen Hayes' until some lovely, generous patron of the arts decides to change the name," said Reitz.
Maybe that theatre-loving judge is interested.