With Little Shubert, Off-Broadway Gets Lavish New House

News   With Little Shubert, Off-Broadway Gets Lavish New House

Tommy Tune's billboard adorns the facade of the new Little Shubert Theatre.

Photo by Robert Simonson

It may only be the seat count of 499 that keeps the newly christened Little Shubert Theatre in the realm of Off Broadway. Otherwise, the Shubert Organization-owned auditorium on West 42nd Street has all the earmarks of a small Broadway house, including a wide and tall proscenium stage and a 400-square-foot orchestra pit.

Shubert chairman Gerald Schoenfeld and president Philip J. Smith, along with architect Hugh Hardy, officially opened the Little Shubert at a Dec. 12 press event. The house's first attraction, Tommy Tune: White Tie and Tails, began performances two weeks earlier, on Nov. 26. Official opening is Dec. 18. Tune and the Manhattan Rhythm Kings were on hand to perform "I Got Rhythm," a number from the big-band-backed song-and-dance revue. Prior to the song, Tune said of the theatre, which features steeply-raked, stadium-style seating, "I've never had a better audience-stage relationship." The maximum distance between theatregoer and stage is 60 feet.

Tune also introduced his new dog, named Little Shubert. The actor-director said he saw the pup in a store window and purchased it just hours before getting the call that White Tie and Tails would be the first attraction in the new Off-Broadway palace.

The Little Shubert is the Off-Broadway theatre owned by the century-old Shubert Organization, which has long held the title to more Broadway theatres (17) than any other company in America. The famed Shubert Theatre, the longtime home to A Chorus Line and Chicago, is, of course, a Shubert house. The Shubert Organization also co-owns the Music Box with the estate of Irving Berlin. The Little Shubert — aglow with a rich red interior — is also the first New York theatrical edifice the Shuberts have built since 1928. Schoenfeld claimed that the new building is 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 Little Shubert now boasts what must be the grandest stage, in sheer proportions, within the Off-Broadway world. The proscenium climbs to a height of 24 feet and is more than 39 feet wide—as big as many Broadway houses. The stage itself is 71 feet wide and 26 feet deep. As general manager Ben Sprecher noted, these dimensions offer designers of shows inhabiting the Little Shubert more space to work with than is typically available to an Off Broadway crew—with the contingent potential for higher design costs. (Unspoken was the possibility that a hit show could easily transfer directly from the Little Shubert to a Broadway house, without expanding the design elements of a show.)

The playing space may be configured three different ways: the current model, a traditional proscenium set-up; an arrangement in which the orchestra pit is uncovered and employed; and a thrust configuration in which the center section of the stage reaches out into the auditorium.

The Little Shubert is located between Ninth and Tenth Avenue. It rests at the bottom of a 39-story residential tower and has as neighbors Playwrights Horizons new home, which opens in January 2003, and several smaller Off-Broadway houses. Together, they make up the reborn Theatre Row, replacing the chain of small theatres by that name that once lined the block.

Hugh Hardy is the same architect who oversaw the renovations of the New Victory and New Amsterdam Theatres.

Walking into the Shubert is less like entering a grand old movie palace (which is what many Broadway theatres feel like) and more akin to entering the sleek, contemporary lobby of a Manhattan cineplex. A small street-level lobby (with coatroom and restrooms) leads you to escalators that take you to a second floor lobby, with concessions and two entrances into the auditorium.

—By Robert Simonson
and Kenneth Jones