Hal Prince, Stephen Sondheim and More Reflect On Their Early Out-of-Town Days

Special Features   Hal Prince, Stephen Sondheim and More Reflect On Their Early Out-of-Town Days
Theatre legends share their memories of Boston‘s Colonial Theatre—the house that bore Broadway classics.
Colonial Theatre
Colonial Theatre Google Maps

Before shows hit Broadway, they often have an out-of-town tryout and no theatre is more famous for the shows its given birth to than Boston’s Colonial Theatre. The landmark house was the starting point for such musicals as Oklahoma!, On the 20th Century, Seussical The Musical and more and has hosted talents from Jerry Herman to Bob Fosse and beyond. On April 19 and 20, Feintsein’s/54 Below will host “54 Below Celebrates The Colonial Theatre.” So, what are some of the fondest memories of the Colonial from Main Stem greats?

Ann Harada, Seussical
I was so excited to play the Colonial when Seussical The Musical did its Boston tryout. As difficult as that experience turned out to be, nothing was as thrilling as doing the sitzprobe in the lobby of that legendary theatre. It was so easy to close your eyes and imagine the cast of Oklahoma! (or I guess, Away We Go!) or Follies running up and down the stairs. Theatres with great histories can’t escape their heritage. You feel something special simply walking in the stage door. I loved knowing we were part of that great Broadway tradition, the out-of-town tryout, in that particular venue.

Carolee Carmello, Tuck Everlasting
I first worked in Boston in the mid-80s at The Charles Playhouse, and only dreamed of playing the beautiful and historic Colonial someday! Years later, I would return on tour [with Falsettos] to sing on that stage, and I remember being thrilled to stand in the spot where so much amazing theatre had taken place. It's a piece of history!

Casey Nicholaw
Casey Nicholaw Photo by Aubrey Reuben

Casey Nicholaw, Seussical
I always loved playing the Colonial— such an intimate, beautiful house. I was in the pre-Broadway tryout of Seussical there, and the first National tour of Spamalot started there. When I think of the Colonial, I think of the dressers there. Such a wonderful positive close-knit bunch, so friendly and full of laughter and they seemed to love theatre and meeting new people that came through town.

Don Scardino, King of Hearts
I can say without exaggeration that when we opened King of Hearts at the Colonial Theatre, we had five musical numbers that stopped the show every night. It is also true to say that when we opened many weeks later in New York at the Minskoff Theatre, those songs did not stop the show; we had somehow lost our 'magic', and King of Hearts closed fairly quickly.

The show was extremely successful in Boston and I really feel that it was the 'magic' of the Colonial Theatre that made it so. For all its size, the Colonial feels intimate and close. I felt like I could reach out and touch every single person in the audience, even in the balconies. The energy, the aura of the place, was palpable and it embraced our show and placed it like a shiny little jewel in a box full of the most radiant gemstones. I felt wrapped in the warm arms of the audience, and there was a connection that is unmatched in other houses. I know in my heart that it was the Colonial itself, with all its grand performances and thrilling memories still alive, that made our show feel so wonderful.

Can a theatre, a building, hold a special magic? Are the ghosts of all those evenings, the players and audiences connected by thrilling theatrical art, still vibrating in that space, even now? I believe so and I know I felt it every night I played the Colonial. It was then, and is now, pure Heaven on Earth.

George S. Irving, Oklahoma!
During the tryout of Oklahoma!, which was first called Away We Go!, I remember the doorman showing me pictures of the Porgy and Bess opening and telling of the 20 curtain calls...and Russell Bennett taught us the new theme song (Oklahoma) as we perched on the steps to the balcony. And I recall our pit harpist noodling in spare moments. He had newly come from Europe. It was Marcel Grandjany!

Hal Prince, A Little Night Music
I can’t express how much I regret losing the formula which worked so well for us: trying out shows in Boston was perfect. The audiences were intelligent and receptive and we fixed most of the shows we worked en route to Broadway.

Additionally, and this may be difficult to believe, we actually started paying off the initial investment during the Boston runs. I recall that A Little Night Music returned a substantial part of capitalization during its run at the Colonial. Ah well. That was then; this is now.

Jennifer Ashley Tepper, Author of The Untold Stories of Broadway
Since my favorite book, Everything Was Possible: The Birth of the Musical Follies by Ted Chapin, largely takes place at the Colonial Theatre, I've always felt a huge connection to the place. I wanted to save my own first visit to the theatre for a very special show or event. When I heard the news that the Colonial might be destroyed, I cancelled my plans for the next two days and got on a bus from New York to Boston. A few hours later, I saw The Book of Mormon tour, starring my friend David Larsen, and he gave me a full tour of the treasured, historic Colonial Theatre I will never forget.

Josh Grisetti, Alumni of Boston Conservatory
I remember seeing David Shire play The Cat in the Hat in the pre-Broadway version of Seussical at the Colonial. His clowning was superb, and the entire company was littered with pros. As a college student at the time (studying at the Boston Conservatory), I loved the entire experience. Most exciting of all, though, were the bragging rights of being able to exclaim things like, "Oh yes, I saw the production in Boston before they made the changes to the...blah blah blah." It makes one sound so in-the-know at theatre parties. Boston used to be the premiere town to try out new Broadway-bound productions. Beantown and the Big Apple should work together to bring that formula back!

Maurice Hines
Maurice Hines Photo by Monica Simoes

Maurice Hines, Satchmo
I had the great experience of seeing the wonderful Carol Channing in Hello, Dolly! at the Colonial Theatre. She was simply wonderful. A true original. I need to say that again: SIMPLY WONDERFUL!

Ken Billington, On the 20th Century
During On the 20th Century there was a blizzard that dumped three feet of snow in Boston, and we still did a performance. Not everyone could get to the theatre with all transportation stopped. About four musicians made it to work as did about half the necessary stagehands and dressers. The cast was all there since we were all staying at a hotel down the street. We decided to do a performance for those that were stranded in hotels sleeping on ballroom floors. Everyone pitched in: producers working as dressers and stagehands for this free performance. All I can tell you is that I am not a very good followspot operator, which I had to operate that evening. Poor Madeline Kahn kept walking out of her light and it sort of became a joke with the bad spot operator. Ever since then spot guys get lots of respect from me.

Robert Morse, Sugar Babies
I grew up in New England so I used to sneak into Boston and see shows at the Howard [Athenaeum in Boston], the Shubert [in New Haven, CT], and, my favorite, the Colonial. When I was doing Sugar Babies at the Colonial, with Carol Channing, it was a thrill to walk down all those alleys and by all those stage doors and think about my journey and how special the theatrical community is in Boston.

Stephen Sondheim, Follies
I’ve had shows which tried out in the Colonial, and it’s not only beautiful but acoustically first-rate, two qualities which are rare in tandem, even on Broadway. For those of us involved in musical theatre.

Ted Chapin, Intern on Follies, President of the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization
[I remember] during Follies, sitting in the top balcony for one performance and noticing for the first time: the clever and slow removal of all the hanging scenery debris during "Could I Leave You?" making the stage even more vast and empty for the Loveland drops to come in cleanly. So brilliant and [subtle] that they even missed in it the great coffee table book on Boris Aronson's work.

For tickets and more information visit 54Below.com.

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