Reversing the trend of so many of New York’s old playhouses that were converted into cinemas, the space now known as New World Stages began life as an unusual subterranean movie multiplex.
New World Stages and the neighboring Worldwide Plaza skyscraper occupy the former site of Madison Square Garden (on Eighth Avenue between 49th and 50th Streets), which was torn down in 1968 when the Garden moved south to its current Penn Station location (it started in 1879 in Madison Square). The Eighth Avenue plot was paved over and served as a parking lot for more than two decades. When the property was finally developed in the early 1990s, it included five underground movie screening rooms known collectively as Loews Cineplex Entertainment, which lasted from 1994-2001. The space was closed for three years, then reopened in 2004 — in a ceremony featuring actor Mandy Patinkin and a line of chorus girls — as Dodger Stages.
The complex was rechristened New World Stages March 16, 2006 when ownership was assumed by Dutch impresario Joop van den Ende’s Stage Entertainment Inc. Broadway’s Shubert Organization purchased the property Nov. 17, 2014, and has so far announced no plans to change the name again. The sale price was not made public.
After a brief ramp-up in 2004 the complex established itself as a beehive of Off-Broadway productions, with larger musicals primarily going into Stage 1 and Stage 3 (with 499 seats each, the largest contractually possible for Off-Broadway), plays and smaller musicals mainly going into Stages 2 and 4 (360 seats each) and smaller plays or experimental works lodging in the 199-seat Stage 5. Seat counts have varied slightly over the years. In addition to original small-scale musicals and plays, New World Stages has distinguished itself for its policy of booking Broadway shows that can no longer fill a larger theatre, but can operate profitably at lower Off-Broadway rates in a smaller space. Avenue Q and Rent are among shows that found second lives at NWS. A few shows have gone the other way as well, notably Rock of Ages. The theatre also has launched the careers of several future Broadway stars.
From street level, New World Stages at 340 West 50th Street looks like New York’s smallest theatre. All passerbys see is a one-story brick knob of a building, with a glass solarium at the back. The building, however, is the tip of this theatrical iceberg. The rest of the complex can be found beneath the landscaped parquet-brick courtyard that surrounds the building. The building serves as the street-level lobby; the theatres are accessed via a bank of stairs and escalators.
Part of the gentrified neighborhood known as Clinton (nee Hell’s Kitchen) New World Stages stands on a sweet spot between the entertainment mecca of Times Square and the dining mecca of Ninth Avenue. It’s far enough from Broadway to claim separation, but close enough to provide easy access for the overflow from sold-out Broadway hits. A white-bulbed marquee bears the theatre’s logo, a capital “N” attached to a downward-pointing arrow.
Dozens of shows have opened and closed at the spaces known as New World Stages over the past decade. Among the most notable was the venue’s inaugural production, Mandy Patinkin in Concert, a five-week limited run featuring the Tony-winning Broadway star Sept. 20-Oct. 28, 2004.
Altar Boyz — This double-barreled spoof of both Christian rock and boy bands still stands as one of NWS’ longest-running musical hits. It opened March 1, 2005 and closed in January 2012. Among the original cast members were Andy Karl and Shadoe Stevens. It was also the first hit for Broadway producer (and blogger) Ken Davenport.
Naked Boys Singing — This nudie revue originated in Los Angeles in 1998 and transferred to NWS in 2005, staying for seven years. Originally targeted at a primarily gay audience, the show became a staple spot for bachelorette parties and was made into a film in 2007. It moved in 2012 to the Kirk Theatre Off-Broadway where it is still running.
The Gazillion Bubble Show — This durable New Vaudeville show demonstrating the versatility of soap bubbles, opened here February 15, 2007 and is still running as of February 2015.
Rock of Ages — Opening Oct. 1, 2008, this musical showcased classic rock hits of the 1980s. It transferred the following January to Broadway, where it ran more than six years, was nominated for five Tony Awards and was adapted into a film.
The Toxic Avenger — The musical adaptation of the sci-fi film of the same title starred Nick Cordero, Nancy Opel, Matthew Saldivar and Sara Chase. It featured a score by David Bryan of the band Bon Jovi, and book by Joe DiPietro, who went on to win Tony Awards with Memphis. TTA opened April 6, 2009 and ran nine months.
Avenue Q — Perhaps the most successful of the Broadway-to-Off-Broadway transfers, this R-rated puppet musical originated at the Eugene O’Neill Playwrights Conference in 2002 and the Vineyard Theatre in March 2003, it moved to Broadway in July 2003 where it won the 2004 Tony Award as Best Musical and settled in for a 2,534-performance run before finding a home in October 2009 at New World Stages, where it continues to run as of February 2015.
The 39 Steps — After 771 Broadway performances, this adaptation of the Alfred Hitchcock film transferred here in April 2010 and added seven months to its run.
Million Dollar Quartet — This musical about a legendary recording session featuring Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins moved to NWS in July 2011 after a 14-month Broadway run. It stayed at NWS through June 2012.
Rent — The Tony- and Pulitzer-winning hit that originated Off-Broadway, followed by a 12-year Broadway run ending in September 2008, was revived at New World Stages on Aug. 11, 2011 and ran an extra year, finally closing Sept. 9, 2012.
Freud's Last Session — Mark St. Germain’s drama that imagines a meeting between pioneering psychiatrist Sigmun Freud and The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe author C.S. Lewis moved here in October 2011 after a 15-month run at a YMCA on the Upper West Side. It stayed at NWS through July 22, 2012.