When the famed impresario Daniel Frohman opened the Lyceum Theatre on November 2, 1903, on West Forty-fifth Street, east of Broadway, he called it the New Lyceum to distinguish it from the old Lyceum, which he formerly owned on Fourth Avenue. The opening of his new theatre brought much publicity, and the day before its premiere the New York Tribune ran a feature article on the splendors of the new house. One of the unusual features was a ten-story tower at its rear section containing such departments as a carpenter shop, scene-building and painting studios, wardrobe sections, and extra dressing rooms.
The paper praised the theatre’s decorative scheme by architects Herts and Tallant; its gray limestone facade with Roman columns; the marble staircases in the lobby; the width of the auditorium, which brought seats closer to the stage; the absence of posts, giving all theatregoers an unobstructed view of the stage; and Frohman’s elegant quarters above the theatre, with a concealed window that permitted him to supervise rehearsals from above and to telephone directions to his stage manager below. The window can be glimpsed from the front of the orchestra by looking into the highest section of the ceiling vault above the topmost balcony on the side nearest the back of the house. A small ladder can be spotted leading to a doorlike shutter, which is now kept shut. Today Frohman’s quarters are part of the private museum known as the Shubert Archive.
Ideal for dramas and comedies, the New Lyceum opened with The Proud Prince, starring the distinguished American actor E. H. Sothern, who had appeared in many fine plays at the downtown Lyceum. Later in 1903 another illustrious star, William Gillette, sparkled in James M. Barrie’s The Admirable Crichton.
In 1905 a tremendous hit came to the Lyceum. Charles Klein’s The Lion and the Mouse was an attack on big business and in particular on John D. Rockefeller. The drama was about a judge whose career was unjustly ruined by a tycoon named John Burkett Ryder (the Rockefeller character, played by Edmund Breese). The judge’s daughter, who exposes the injustice (a character based on the real-life Ida Tarbell), was acted by Grace Elliston. Her boyfriend was played by Richard Bennett, father of the future stars Constance and Joan Bennett. The play caused a sensation and ran for 686 performances.
In 1907 Daniel Frohman presented his wife, Margaret Illington, and Kyrle Bellew in Henri Bernstein’s play The Thief. During the run of this hit, Frohman and his wife discovered a way to control her performance in the explosive second act. Margaret would look up, and if she was overacting Frohman would wave his handkerchief frantically from his secret window above the stage.
During the early years of the Lyceum, the theatre presented a parade of ravishing stars in plays that were regarded more as star vehicles than as great dramas. Billie Burke, a Virginia beauty, soon became a Lyceum fixture in a series of these productions, many produced by Daniel Frohman’s celebrated brother, Charles Frohman. Among these plays were Love Watches (1908); Mrs. Dot (1910); Suzanne (1910); The Runaway (1911), with C. Aubrey Smith and Henry Miller Jr.; and The “Mind the Paint” Girl (1912). The beautiful young Ethel Barrymore starred in Our Mrs. McChesney (1915), by Edna Ferber and George Hobart; the steamy Lenore Ulric heated the house with Pedro de Cordoba in David Belasco’s Tiger Rose (1917); and the coruscating Ina Claire made sparks in The Gold Diggers (1919), another hit Belasco production. It ran for 720 performances.
The Roaring Twenties continued to bring hits to the Lyceum. In September 1921 Belasco revived Eugene Walter’s shocker The Easiest Way, starring the revered actress Frances Starr. In his autobiography, Present Indicative, Noël Coward relates how he attended this opening night while on his first visit to New York. He was introduced to the acerbic critic Alexander Woollcott, and Coward confessed to the critic that he found the performance of one of the actresses in the cast “vexing.” Woollcott thought the remark hysterically funny, and he and Coward became lifelong friends.
David Belasco continued to provide the Lyceum with hits. In November 1921 he presented actor Lionel Atwill and popular Lina Abarbanell in one of Sacha Guitry’s romantic comedies, The Grand Duke, about royalty mingling with peasantry. It worked for 131 performances. In the summer of 1922 Belasco produced a naval comedy, Shore Leave, starring James Rennie as a romantic gob and Frances Starr as his girl in a New England port. This amusing comedy later was turned into the smash musical Hit the Deck, and still later into the enchanting Rogers/Astaire film musical Follow the Fleet.
Belasco’s 1924 hit was Ladies of the Evening, a Pygmalion tale about a man (James Kirkwood) who makes a lady out of a prostitute (Beth Merrill) and then falls in love with her.
Charles Frohman returned to producing at the Lyceum in 1925 and presented The Grand Duchess and the Waiter, with Elsie Ferguson as the royal dame who falls for a waiter (Basil Rathbone) who turns out to be the son of the president of the Swiss Republic. Later in the year, Frohman produced another continental comedy, Naughty Cinderella, with the vivacious French star Irene Bordoni as an amorous secretary.
In 1926 revue genius Fanny Brice starred in a comedy called Fanny with Warren William, but despite the Belasco production and Brice’s clowning, it lasted only 63 performances. In 1928 Walter Huston gave a comical performance as baseball pitcher Elmer Kane in Ring Lardner’s Elmer the Great, produced by George M. Cohan, but the unpopularity of baseball as a stage topic resulted in only 40 performances.
One of 1929’s ten best plays (as chosen by critic Burns Mantle for his annual Best Plays volumes) opened at the Lyceum and became one of its most fondly remembered experiences. The prestigious producer Gilbert Miller and actor Leslie Howard co-produced a fantasy called Berkeley Square by John L. Balderston. It starred Howard as a contemporary American whose spirit is transported back to his ancestors’ home in London in 1784, where he engages in a fateful romance with a lovely British woman (Margalo Gillmore). The enchanting play ran for 227 performances and was made into a successful film with Howard.
The Depression had its effect on the Lyceum as Daniel Frohman’s career declined, and he was threatened with eviction in the early 1930s. In 1939 the Lyceum was in danger of being demolished, but a group of theatre titans, who loved the old playhouse, banded together and bought it the following year. They were playwrights George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, producer Max Gordon, and others. They assumed ownership of the Lyceum with the stipulation that Daniel Frohman be permitted to live in his quarters above the house for one dollar a year. It was a fitting gesture for the aged impresario, who died on December 16, 1940. The Kaufman/Hart group sold the Lyceum at a profit in 1945, and it is currently owned by the Shubert Organization.
Highlights of the 1930s at this theatre included the American debut of Charles Laughton with his wife, Elsa Lanchester, in a murder thriller, Payment Deferred (1931). Laughton was hailed for his performance. In 1933 a raucous naval comedy called Sailor, Beware! made critics blush and ran for 500 laugh-provoking performances. The glittering Ina Claire returned to the Lyceum in 1934 with Walter Slezak in Ode to Liberty; Jessie Royce Landis had a hit in Pre-Honeymoon (1936); Maurice Evans was an admired Napoleon in St. Helena (1936); Arthur Kober’s charmingly ethnic Having Wonderful Time, starring Jules Garfield (later, John) and Katherine Locke, was a huge hit in 1937; a British hit, Bachelor Born, moved here from the Morosco and played for many months in 1938; and the decade ended with J. B. Priestley’s When We Are Married.
Kaufman and Hart’s George Washington Slept Here was one of their lesser hits, in 1940; William Saroyan had a fanciful fling with The Beautiful People (1941); and a marvelous comedy called Junior Miss, about adolescence, was expertly staged by Moss Hart and romped for 710 performances.
The authors of Junior Miss — Jerome Chodorov and Joseph Fields — came up with another winner for the Lyceum in 1942 when their wartime comedy The Doughgirls opened. Arlene Francis was the hit of the show as a Russian guerrilla fighter sharing a Washington apartment with two other women. It was good for 671 performances, thanks to George S. Kaufman’s dazzling direction.
Kaufman also co-wrote, with John P. Marquand, and directed The Late George Apley, based on Marquand’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name. The play, a warm chronicle about a Boston Brahmin (brilliantly played by Leo G. Carroll) and his family, opened on November 21, 1944, and stayed for 384 performances.
A Sound of Hunting (1945) was not a hit, but it served as the Broadway debut of Burt Lancaster (billed as “Burton”), who promptly went to Hollywood and made a fortune. In 1946 the Lyceum housed Garson Kanin’s comedy Born Yesterday, about a dumb blonde and her uncouth keeper, a loudmouth junk dealer. The morning after it opened, the blonde (Judy Holliday) and the junk dealer (Paul Douglas) were famous. It was the Lyceum’s longest-running show, chalking up 1,642 performances.
The Lyceum’s next hit occurred in 1950 when Clifford Odets returned to Broadway with The Country Girl, starring Uta Hagen as the courageous wife of an alcoholic actor (Paul Kelly) who has to contend with a tough stage director (Steven Hill). Odets directed his successful drama.
Melvyn Douglas starred in two fluffy comedies at this theatre: Glad Tidings (1951), with Signe Hasso, and Time Out for Ginger (1952), with Nancy Malone as his daughter, Ginger, who tries out for her high school’s football team. Another light comedy, King of Hearts (1954) — by Jean Kerr and Eleanor Brooke and directed by Kerr’s husband, critic Walter Kerr — starred Jackie Cooper and Donald Cook and featured Cloris Leachman.
Anastasia (1954), a fascinating drama about a woman who claims to be the daughter of the last Russian czar and to have survived the family’s massacre, was brilliantly acted by Viveca Lindfors as the claimant and by Eugenie Leontovich as the dowager empress.
Another powerful drama, A Hatful of Rain (1955), by actor Michael V. Gazzo, dramatized the anguish of a wife (Shelley Winters) married to a drug addict (Ben Gazzara). Harry Guardino and Anthony Franciosa were also in the cast.
Comedy returned to the Lyceum in 1956 when Walter Pidgeon arrived as The Happiest Millionaire, based on the life of millionaire Anthony J. Drexel Biddle. In sharp contrast to this high-society romp was a 1957 drama from England, John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, starring Kenneth Haigh, Alan Bates, and Mary Ure. This lashing protest against the genteel Britain of yesteryear started a new school of playwriting called “kitchen sink drama.” Its vitriolic antihero, Jimmy Porter (Mr. Haigh), became the dramatic symbol for the “angry young man.”
Another fine drama from Britain, A Taste of Honey, by young playwright Shelagh Delaney, started the Lyceum off with a hit in 1960. It starred Angela Lansbury as the mother of a pregnant, unmarried daughter, and it was written in the “kitchen sink” style. Britain sent still another excellent play in 1961, The Caretaker by Harold Pinter, starring Alan Bates and Robert Shaw as brothers who make the charitable error of taking in a homeless, ominous stranger (Donald Pleasence).
After a number of short runs, the Lyceum had a mild hit in Nobody Loves an Albatross (1963), a comedy about an overpowering TV personality (said to be inspired by Lucille Ball) and her coworkers. It starred Robert Preston and Constance Ford.
From 1965 to 1969 the Lyceum became the home for the Phoenix Theatre and the APA Repertory Company with Ellis Rabb as artistic director. During these years the combined companies staged a rich variety of theatre, including a highly successful revival of You Can’t Take It with You, War and Peace, Helen Hayes in George Kelly’s The Show-off, The Cherry Orchard, The Cocktail Party, The Misanthrope, and Hamlet.
In the 1970s the Lyceum housed a number of productions, none of which ran very long, except for the gospel musical Your Arms Too Short to Box with God. Worthy of mention is Borstal Boy, Frank McMahon’s adaptation of Brendan Behan’s book about his early years in prison. Although the play ran only a few months, it won a Tony Award and a New York Drama Critics Circle Award. Also admired in the 1970s was Cold Storage, with Len Cariou and Martin Balsam as patients in a hospital terminal ward, and Arthur Kopit’s Wings, a harrowing study of a woman who suffered a stroke. Constance Cummings’s performance won her a Tony Award.
In 1980 a play called Morning’s at Seven, by Paul Osborn, which had flopped on Broadway in 1939, was beautifully revived with an all-star cast and turned into a belated hit. It won a Tony as the season’s best revival and additional Tonys for its director, Vivian Matalon, and David Rounds for best featured actor.
This was followed by Jules Feiffer’s Grown Ups (1981), with Bob Dishy, Frances Sternhagen, and Harold Gould; Athol Fugard’s powerful racial drama “MASTER HAROLD”. . . and the boys (1982); Edward Albee’s The Man Who Had Three Arms (1983); Whoopi Goldberg in a one-woman show that won her a Theatre World Award and a Drama Desk citation (1984); As Is, William M. Hoffman’s powerful play about AIDS (1985); A Little Like Magic, the Canadian life-size puppet theatre presented by Famous People Players (1986); Safe Sex, three one-act plays by Harvey Fierstein on gay themes (1987); Michael Feinstein in Concert (1988); and the Lincoln Center Theater’s revival of Thornton Wilder’s classic Our Town, which won a Tony as the season’s Best Revival (1988).
As it had housed the APA-Phoenix Rep in the 1960s, the Lyceum spent most of the 1990s as home to Tony Randall’s National Actors Theatre. NAT inaugurated its tenancy in 1992 with three revivals: The Seagull, with Tyne Daly, Jon Voight, Maryann Plunkett, Tony Roberts, and John Beal; Saint Joan, with Plunkett in the title role; and Three Men on a Horse, with Randall, Jack Klugman, and Joey Faye.
The National Actors Theatre returned to the Lyceum in 1994 with revivals of Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens and of The Government Inspector and The Flowering Peach, the last of these starring Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson. In 1995 the company presented revivals of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Sheridan’s School for Scandal. The company scored two hits with revivals in 1997: The Gin Game, starring Julie Harris and Charles Durning, and The Sunshine Boys, starring Randall and Klugman. In March of that year Mandy Patinkin in Concert played a limited engagement.
In 1999 Randall’s troupe scored another hit with a revival of the suspense play Night Must Fall, starring Matthew Broderick and Judy Parfitt, which moved to the Helen Hayes Theatre to make way for Irish playwright Martin McDonagh’s The Lonesome West, an unsuccessful follow-up to his 1998 hit The Beauty Queen of Leenane.
Lincoln Center Theater’s production of Martin Sherman’s one-woman play Rose, starring Olympia Dukakis, allowed her to recreate her London success with this drama about a woman recalling the Holocaust. Produced by arrangement with the Royal National Theatre, the play ran for a limited engagement.
Poet A. E. Houseman’s lifelong unrequited homosexual love for a college classmate was the subject of Tom Stoppard’s drama The Invention of Love, which arrived at the Lyceum from the Royal National Theatre in London and earned Tony Awards for both Richard Easton and Robert Sean Leonard, who played elder and younger versions of Houseman. Heavily reliant on literary allusions that bewildered some audience members, the production opened March 29, 2001, and closed three months later.
In the spring of 2002, Lincoln Center Theater booked the Lyceum for another revival of Paul Osborn’s unsettling play Morning’s at Seven, which earned a raft of Tony nominations (but no wins) for its distinguished cast. The production supplied three of the four nominees in the category Best Featured Actress in a Play: Elizabeth Franz, Frances Sternhagen, and Estelle Parsons; and two of the four nominees for Best Featured Actor in a Play: William Biff McGuire and Stephen Tobolowsky. It ran 112 performances.
The antics of the 1950's British comedy team Morecambe and Wise was were recreated in The Play What I Wrote, a comedy revue written by Hamish McColl, Sean Foley, and Eddie Braben and performed by McColl and Foley under the direction of Kenneth Branagh. The transferred London hit was notable for having a different celebrity “Mystery Guest” each night, including Roger Moore, Glenn Close, Nathan Lane, and Liam Neeson. It gave 89 performances, starting March 30, 2003.
Actor Jefferson Mays got the role — or, more accurately, “roles” — of his career in Doug Wright’s drama I Am My Own Wife, the story of real-life East German transvestite Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, who somehow managed to survive the brutalities of both the Nazi and Communist regimes while keeping his/her antiquarian business intact. Mays played not only the title roles, but everyone von Mahlsdorf met along the way, including interviewer Wright. The play gave 360 performances and won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and three Tony Awards, including Best Play and Best Performance by an Actor.
The demands of playing three dozen different characters required that Mays cut back to six performances a week. In an unusual arrangement, the other two performance slots each week (starting May 24, 2004) were handed off to a New Vaudeville solo show by mentalist Marc Salem, called Marc Salem’s Mind Games on Broadway. During his 90-minute show, the unprepossessing Salem demonstrated his prodigious memory and his ability to deduce intimate details of people’s lives simply from their appearance. He gave a total of 30 performances through November 22, 2004.
Twenty years after the hit Broadway solo show that launched her career, comedian Whoopi Goldberg returned to the Lyceum November 17, 2004, with a new set of observations on life, culture, and politics. Audiences, who by now had seen her extensively in movies and TV shows, did not return in the hoped-for droves, and Whoopi departed after 72 performances.
Another blast from the 1980s, Steel Magnolias, arrived at the Lyceum April 4, 2005, bringing a bouquet of female stars — Delta Burke, Christine Ebersole, Marsha Mason, Lily Rabe, and Rebecca Gayheart — for nearly four months.
It takes a great singer to perfectly embody a terrible singer, as actress Judy Kaye proved in Souvenir, her homage to musical curiosity Florence Foster Jenkins (1868-1944). Jenkins imagined herself one of the premier operatic singers of her day — apparently unaware of the tuneless bray she was actually emitting. Such was the entertainment value of her performances that she attracted an amazed and devoted following despite the cacophony. Stephen Temperley’s play with music transferred to the Lyceum from a successful Off-Broadway run, stayed for two months starting November 10, 2005, and earned Kaye a Tony nomination as Best Actress in a Play.
Gunshot blindings, mutilated corpses, and a character hanging bloody from a rope are just a sampling of the repellent violence presented May 3, 2006, in Martin McDonagh’s Irish “comedy” The Lieutenant of Inishmore. This tale of revenge for the death of a cat named Wee Thomas spun out for 142 performances, earning a Tony nomination as Best Play. Cast members David Wilmot, Domhnall Gleeson, and Alison Pill all got Tony nominations, as did director Wilson Milam.
Creationists in America had Darwin’s theory of evolution under serious attack in spring 2007 when Inherit the Wind got a major Broadway revival. The drama was based on the 1925 so-called Scopes Monkey Trial, in which a Tennessee teacher was charged with teaching evolution in a state where the theory was banned. Christopher Plummer starred as defense attorney Henry Drummond, with Brian Dennehy as his demagogue opponent, Matthew Harrison Brady. The production lasted an even 100 performances.
The next show at the Lyceum was a very funny comedy with a superb pedigree — but a business-killer of a title. It turns out that that great American humorist Mark Twain, after completing his classics including Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, managed to scratch out a stage comedy, a raucous farce and a satire on the art world, called Is He Dead? Rejected by Broadway producers of the 1890s, the script languished in a drawer until rediscovered by researchers. With some updating by playwright David Ives, the production had its Broadway debut on December 9, 2007. Norbert Leo Butz played an artist who fakes his own death to drive up the popularity of his paintings, but things soon get out of hand. Also in the sterling cast were Jenn Gambatese, David Pittu, John McMartin, Byron Jennings, and Michael McGrath. Is He Dead? lived for 105 performances.
Patrick Stewart brought Broadway its 46th recorded mounting of Shakespeare’s Macbeth on April 8, 2008, in a production that arrived from England’s Chichester Festival Theatre via the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Kate Fleetwood played Lady Macbeth in the starkly designed revival, which played out a 52-performance limited run.
Things brightened considerably April 2, 2009, with the arrival of a musical that told the story of its own creation: [title of show], starring its own creators, who played themselves. Composer/lyricist Jeff Bowen and book writer Hunter Bell began with the tale of how they constructed the show for the New York Musical Theatre Festival. But they then added an account of how they moved the show Off-Broadway, and then how they (with costars Heidi Blickenstaff and Susan Blackwell) launched an Internet campaign called “The [title of show] Show” to get the production to Broadway. Life imitated art in a big way. Despite a gag on the original cast album in which they argue about whether to include a song about wanting to win a Tony Award for the show, Bell went on to win the real-life Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical. The problem was that [title of show]’s fan base proved to be a mile deep but only an inch wide, and it struggled to reach 100 performances.
Neil LaBute, author of a series of provocative Off-Broadway dramas about modern male-female relationships, made his Broadway debut with a transfer of his play Reasons to Be Pretty, the last play in his trilogy about people’s obsession with looks (along with The Shape of Things and Fat Pig). Reasons was about a relationship that goes messily on the rocks when the man (Thomas Sadoski) impolitically refers to the woman’s appearance as “regular.” Thus damned with faint praise, she (Marin Ireland) opens the show with a verbal reaming likely to become a staple of acting classes for years to come. An underrated play along the lines of Is He Dead?, Reasons to Be Pretty ran just 85 performances, though it was nominated for three Tony Awards, including Best Play of 2009.
No less a subject than the liberation of the female orgasm was explored in Sarah Ruhl’s play In the Next Room or the vibrator play. Set in the late 19th century, when scientists and inventors were discovering so many marvelous uses for electricity, In the Next Room tells the story (based on actual incidents) of a doctor who uses a primitive vibrator to relieve female patients of their pent-up nervousness and “melancholy.” The provocative subject attracted stars Laura Benanti and Michael Cerveris and ran 60 performances, starting November 19, 2009.
Valerie Harper gave an uncanny impersonation of stage and film star Tallulah Bankhead in Matthew Lombardo’s comedy Looped, set in 1965, when the heartily profane Bankhead needed to re-record a single line in a minor film near the end of her career. The production stayed a brief 33 performances.
One of the last collaborations between legendary theatre artists John Kander and Fred Ebb was The Scottsboro Boys, a daring and provocative musical about a group of young black man accused of rape in the 1930s in the South. Based on a true story, the production was structured as a minstrel show and was a transfer from Off-Broadway's Vineyard Theatre. Although it lasted for only 49 performances on Broadway and closed in December 2010, it surprisingly was nominated for 12 Tony Awards the following spring, winning none, however.
The next production, Ghetto Klown, was John Leguizamo's third solo show on Broadway (after Sexaholix and Freak). It was a hit and played for 95 performances.
Though it is among Broadway’s smallest and oldest theatres, the Lyceum has found its place as a home for small-cast dramas, comedies, and musicals.
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