4 Out of 40: A History Behind the Women Whose Names Are On Broadway Marquees

News   4 Out of 40: A History Behind the Women Whose Names Are On Broadway Marquees
Out of the 40 Broadway theatres in Times Square, only four marquees are lit with the names of women. Playbill.com offers readers a guide to the history behind these women and the contributions to the arts that earned them geographical namesakes.


Discussions about the gender gap within professional theatre have become more commonplace than ever before — and for good reason. Looking ahead at the 2015-16 Broadway season, less women directors, composers and playwrights are represented than men. The direction of Pam MacKinnon, Lynne Meadow and Diane Paulus will be seen, the lyrics of Sara Bareilles, Brenda Russell and Allee Willis will be sung, and the words of Jessie Nelson, Marsha Norman, Helen Edmundson and Claudia Shear will be heard. And this trend is represented geographically as well. Despite the large number of theatre graduates and postgraduates who are women, the professional landscape has been largely composed of men. Interestingly, nowhere is this more evident than in the names of the Broadway theatres themselves.

Photo by Monica Simoes

There are an astounding 40 active Broadway theatres in New York City. Of the 40, nearly 20 of them are named in honor of men who have made significant impact in the theatre industry. A wide range of male playwrights, directors, actors, composers, publicists, producers and critics headline the marquees of Broadway. The theatres range from the Gershwins, to Sondheim, August Wilson, Eugene O'Neill and Neil Simon; not to mention the legendary caricaturist Al Hischfeld and publicist, Samuel J. Friedman, who are each honored with Broadway houses to their namesake. Only four of the remaining 20 theatres are named after women — all of which are best-known for their acting careers. But these four women graced the business with more than just stage presence.

Now is the opportunity for these honorary four to step into the spotlight. Let's take a look at the legacies of Ethel Barrymore, Vivian Beaumont, Helen Hayes and Lynn Fontanne of the Lunt-Fontanne duo.

Barrymore is conceivably the most well-known of the four actresses — aside from Helen Hayes, perhaps. One could say she was destined for show business, being that she was born to two families of actors, the Barrymores and the Drews. Her grandmother, parents and brothers, Lionel and John Barrymore, all had successful acting careers. Her great-niece, the contemporary actress Drew Barrymore, is heir to the family dynasty today. In fact, Ethel Barrymore's Broadway debut was alongside her uncle and Maude Adams (the original Peter Pan on Broadway) in The Imprudent Young Couple in 1895. She went on to play renowned stage roles including Nora in A Doll's House, Ophelia in Hamlet, Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, and Madame Trentoni in Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines. While she focused primarily on a theatre career, Barrymore also performed in more than a dozen silent films in the span of only four years.


By the mid-1920s Barrymore was one of most adored actresses of her time, to which the producing masterminds, Lee and J.J. Shubert, took notice. In an effort to manage Barrymore, they went so far as to to open a Broadway house in her name — the Ethel Barrymore Theatre at 243 W. 47th St. In 1928, she directed and starred in its opening production of The Kingdom of God. Her artistic excellence paved the way for other landmark productions on her stage, including the Broadway premiere of Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire with Marlon Brando and Jessica Tandy and Lorraine Hansberry's groundbreaking A Raisin in the Sun, starring Sidney Poitier. Barrymore died only a few months after opening. Today, theatre-goers can watch the Tony Award-winning The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, directed by Marianne Elliott at the theatre.

Actress and philanthropist Helen Hayes made such a monumental impact on the artistic community that after her first namesake theatre was demolished, another was named after her in 1983. Now owned by Second Stage, the Helen Hayes Theatre on 240 W. 44th St. is expected to open again for the 2017-18 season. Hayes' 80-year-long career earned her the title of the First Lady of the American Theatre. She debuted on Broadway at the early age of eight in the musical farce Old Dutch, and the rest was history. It was reported that critics raved over her portrayal of both Pollyanna and the leading role in Dear Brutus, a fantasy play presented on Broadway. At the age of 35, she took on the role of a lifetime as Queen Victoria in the history play Victoria Regina, in which her acting skills enabled her to embody the queen as both a young and older woman. Her extensive work on the stage and in film and television impressively earned her all four of the most prestigious acting awards: an Emmy, Oscar, Tony and Academy Award. Not only is she still one of the most respected actresses of all time, she is also remembered for her commitment to the rehabilitation of patients with physical disabilities at the Helen Hayes Hospital in Haverstraw, NY.

Photo by Monica Simoes

Lesser is known about the third honoree, Vivian Beaumont Allen, aside from the fact that she was a former actress and heir to the former May department stores. What is for certain is that she donated a large contribution to the former Lincoln Center in order to house their repertory company. However, Beaumont unfortunately died before construction was complete in 1965. The repertory company only ran successfully for nine years before it began to rent its space to other companies and producers, including Joseph Papp's Shakespeare Festival from 1973-77. Eight years later, the Lincoln Center Theater management company officially took ownership over the Vivian Beaumont Theater, where the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic The King and I is currently playing. Thanks to Beaumont, Lincoln Center is the largest non-profit theatre company in the U.S.

The last of the four Broadway theatres is named after actress Lynn Fontanne and her husband Alfred Lunt. The Lunt-Fontanne Theatre is one of nine theatres owned and operated by the Nederlander Organization. It opened in 1910 under its original name, The Globe Theatre, before becoming a movie theatre. After a renovation, the Broadway house reopened as a live theatre house and was renamed the Lunt-Fontanne. The acting duo, Fontanne and Lunt, starred in the inaugural production of The Visit in 1958, which, ironically, was also her last role on Broadway. The British-born actress was known for her comedic acting, most notably in one of Noel Coward's most risqué plays, Design for Living, which Coward wrote the aforementioned with the couple in mind. Lunt and Fontanne went on to intertwine their acting careers, collaborating on over 20 productions. They proved that a couple who works together wins together when they were awarded Emmys in 1965 for their roles in "The Magnificent Yankee," a biographical television series about Justice of the Supreme Court, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and his wife. Long after Fontanne's death, her theatre is a part of record-breaking history. Beauty and the Beast found a home at the Lunt-Fontanne and became the ninth longest-running Broadway show to date. Sticking with the magical theme, Finding Neverland is currently playing on this historical stage.


These four leading ladies and leaders are undoubtedly influential in the canon of American theatre. Perhaps in some way the naming of the theatres has set a precedent for the plays and musicals that have been presented on Broadway over the years — a great majority of them directed and written by men. Imagine the year 2050 — where Broadway could be lit with marquees celebrating the artistic legacies of women like Lynn Nottage, Wendy Wasserstein, Lisa Kron, Graciela Daniele, Sarah Ruhl, Natasha Katz, Pam MacKinnon and Diane Paulus — and many more.

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