10 Important Colonial Theatre Events Every Theatre Nerd Must Know

News   10 Important Colonial Theatre Events Every Theatre Nerd Must Know
The most important out-of-town tryout house for Broadway shows in American history may soon be a place where college students eat macaroni and cheese instead. 
Outside the Colonial Theatre
Outside the Colonial Theatre


Boston’s Colonial Theatre is in danger. 


For over 100 years, our greatest artists have inhabited every staircase and corner and seat of the Colonial Theatre, creating important work that has changed both the theatre the world. The oldest continually operating theater in Boston (since 1900) may be turned into an Emerson College student activity center and dining hall. From George M. Cohan to Barbra Streisand, from Neil Simon to Richard Rodgers & Oscar Hammerstein, the stage professionals who have worked at the Colonial are a veritable Who’s Who of The American Theatre. From Oklahoma! to Porgy and Bess to Follies, some of the most significant theatre ever created has premiered on the Colonial stage.

To celebrate and champion the Colonial Theatre, here are ten most memorable moments from inside its walls.

 1. 1900:The Colonial Theatre opens with Ben-Hur, which features eight horses on stage and a cast of 360!

Outside the Colonial Theatre
Outside the Colonial Theatre

The Colonial production of this epic historical drama was so impressive that it was featured on the cover of Scientific American. There were four treadmills on stage for a race sequence, and the theater was built with two giant chorus rooms, two star rooms, and 36 additional dressing rooms, due to the size of its opening attraction. Ben-Hur employed over 500 theatre professionals in all. A special deal for a limited amount of $2 tickets had crowds lining up in front of the Colonial for over 40 hours. On opening night the show was completely sold out. Even Winston Churchill was there!

The Boston Globe wrote in 1900 about the opening of this extraordinary theater: “The dedication of a Parthenon could have aroused in advance scarcely less interest in the days of the glory that was Greece… and the grandeur that was Rome.”

2. 1907: The first-ever Ziegfeld Follies comes to the Colonial Theatre.

First <i>Ziegfeld Follies</i>
First Ziegfeld Follies

Directly after its first production on Broadway, The Ziegfeld Follies brought its first touring production to the Colonial. The now-legendary Ziegfeld Follies went on to play several different editions at the Colonial over the years, with writer and performers such as W.C. Fields, Fanny Brice, Irving Berlin, and Will Rogers gracing its halls

The Ziegfeld Follies was one of the first of many important shows that would make the Colonial an important stop on their national tour schedule. Shows would often come to the Colonial either in their pre-Broadway tryout, or directly after, at the beginning of a national tour.

About playing the Colonial during the tour of Bye Bye Birdie (1991), Tommy Tune simply added: ““The Colonial Theatre in Boston is the BEST theater in the country. I’ve played them all and I know!” 

3. 1912: The “No Flirting Agreement” is made.

Ina Claire
Ina Claire

Boston, well known for its great history of upheld morals and censorship, is quick to ban any theatre that may be too naughty for its residents. Because of this, in 1912, an 18-year-old actress named Ina Claire, starring in The Quaker Girl, makes all of the chorus girls of her show sign a pledge. All 60 agree that no flirting will happen with men in the audience, before, during or after the show. The promise is upheld, and the Colonial is flirt-free for several weeks. (Supposedly.)

4. 1934: Merman's Big Moment

John Cullum, Madeline Kahn, Dean Dittman, George Coe, Kevin Kline and Imogene Coca in the original Broadway production of <i>On the Twentieth Century</i>
John Cullum, Madeline Kahn, Dean Dittman, George Coe, Kevin Kline and Imogene Coca in the original Broadway production of On the Twentieth Century Photo by Martha Swope/©The New York Public Library

Ethel Merman first belted out Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes” on the stage of the Colonial, during that show’s pre-Broadway tryout in 1934. Variety’s review opened with: “This new musical looks as good or better than Of Thee I Sing looked at the same tender age of four days. Both were hatched in Boston at the Colonial.”

5. 1937: The First Man to Play a President Onstage

George M. Cohan
George M. Cohan Photo by Carl Van Vechten

George M. Cohan played Franklin D. Roosevelt in I’d Rather Be Right (1937), marking the first time that any show had ever put the President of the United States on stage and called him by name. The musical, by Moss Hart, George S. Kaufman, Richard Rodgers, and Lorenz Hart was supposedly so packed and such a delirious hit that the audience reaction actually caused the walls of the Colonial to shake! 

6. 1943: Oklahoma!

A scene from the 1943 Broadway production of <i>Oklahoma!</i>
A scene from the 1943 Broadway production of Oklahoma! Photo by Imagem/Rodgers &amp; Hammerstein

In 1943, two writers collaborating for the first time brought a show to the Colonial with little fanfare or advance sales, before coming in to Broadway. Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein's Oklahoma! changed the American Musical Theatre forever. At the Colonial, the show was still called Away We Go! The cast learned the new group production number “Oklahoma!” crowded on the steps in the lobby of the Colonial. (It had previously been a smaller number and was now a rousing chorale that would stop the show.) 

The creatives worked extremely hard in Boston and choreographer Agnes de Mille remembered: “I was ordered to produce a small three-minute dance in 24 hours. I did. But the skin came off the dancing girls’ ribs from continuous lifting, and I couldn’t seem to stop throwing up.” 

Oscar Hammerstein was said to have stood in the back of the Colonial each night noting when any audience member would cough and then looking at what came directly before in the script to see if it was problematic. It was from this strategy that the second act received most of its updates. Inside the Colonial, the show that New York was gossiping had “No legs, no jokes, no chance” was shaped into one of the landmark musicals of Broadway.

7. 1961: First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis attends Noel Coward’s Sail Away.

Jackie Kennedy
Jackie Kennedy Photo by Robert Knudsen

The amount of important people in American history who have taken in a show in the Colonial’s audience could rival the amount of important people who have been on stage. In 1961, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy made a trip to Boston from her summer home, just to take in the pre-Broadway tryout of Sail Away. The newspaper reports that followed chronicled the endless cheers she received, her elegant outfit, and the fact that she took the time after the show to congratulate each and every cast member. According to the Boston Globe, leading lady Elaine Stritch even changed a lyric in “Why Do The Wrong People Travel?” to: “Why do people travel? Why don’t they stay home with all the Kennedys?” eliciting hoots of delight from the audience.

8. 1965: Neil Simon rewrites The Odd Couple.

The original cast of <i>The Odd Couple</i>
The original cast of The Odd Couple Photo by Friedman-Abeles

Elliot Norton, a respected Boston theatre critic, was one of several instrumental journalists who helped make Boston the out-of-town tryout city for years. His insightful and instructive reviews were more often than not pored over by creative teams and utilized in rewrites. One such incident happened in 1965 when Neil Simon brought The Odd Couple to the Colonial. Norton had praise and constructive criticism for the now-famous play. Among his advice was to bring back the Pidgeon sisters in the third act—advice that Simon took and later credited with making a huge improvement in The Odd Couple.

Many shows went through even more rewrites than The Odd Couple did. The theater in Boston was where you went to turn your show into a hit! (The “Lost In Boston” CD series is a great set of albums featuring tons of songs that were cut from shows in Boston.)

9. 1971- Follies.

Kathie Dalton and Fifi D'Orsay in the original Broadway production of <i>Follies</i>, 1971.
Kathie Dalton and Fifi D'Orsay in the original Broadway production of Follies, 1971.

Follies, that landmark Broadway musical produced by Hal Prince, co-directed by Prince and Michael Bennett, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by James Goldman, originally starring Dorothy Collins, John McMartin, Gene Nelson, Alexis Smith, and Yvonne DeCarlo, had one of the most legendary out-of-town tryouts that the Colonial has seen.

This tryout is chronicled in great detail in my favorite book, Everything Was Possible: The Birth of the Musical Follies, by Ted Chapin. Please stop reading this article immediately and go buy it. (And then come back and finish reading the article!) 

“Live, Laugh, Love” was fully created as the show moved into the theatre and lights and drops were hung. “I’m Still Here” was written and received its first performance, by Yvonne DeCarlo, during the original pre-Broadway tryout of Follies at the Colonial. Even The New York Times’ Frank Rich had an important early-career moment, giving the show one of its most insightful reviews in the Harvard newspaper while he was a student there.

“I suppose there is no more quintessential marriage than Follies and the Colonial Theatre. Follies metaphorically examined America’s need to tear down any edifice that shows age and replace it with something modern. Thank God the Colonial has not been victim to those values. The Colonial was and remains one of the most beautiful theaters in America, lavishly decorated and audience friendly.” – Hal Prince, 2000 

10. 1978: Even a blizzard couldn't stop theatregoers

Ethel Merman (center) in the original cast of <i>Anything Goes</i>
Ethel Merman (center) in the original cast of Anything Goes Photo by from the collection of Louis Botto

In 1978, a blizzard hit Boston so heavily that many Bostonians rode to pre-Broadway tryout performances of On The Twentieth Century on skis. Director Hal Prince made a pre-show speech thanking the audience for their fortitude and dedication to the theatre.

11. 1978: Fosse's Luck

Bob Fosse
Bob Fosse

During the tryout of Dancin’ in 1978, Bob Fosse excitedly demonstrated one of his dance steps on top of the beloved onyx table in the ladies’ room lounge, chipping the onyx. Future creative team members coming through the theater would touch the chipped area for good luck.


BONUS FACT: “Most of the creative meetings on a new musical took place in the Colonial’s ladies’ room,” John Kander remembered. “In fact, if the walls of the ladies’ room could talk, they could write their own history of the musical theater for the last 50 years.” 

Check out the Change.org petition to Save the Colonial.

Reader: The future of the Colonial Theatre is in question. Over the years, many events conspired that nearly halted or even temporarily closed the Colonial: the advent of motion pictures, the Great Depression, union strikes, influenza outbreaks… but the most palatial theater in America bounced back each time. One can only hope this resilience will happen at 106 Boylston Street again.

The Colonial Theatre embraces every show that comes to its stage in such a unique, incredible way that is a combination of its architecture, design, history, updated capabilities, and... something intangible, maybe the blood, sweat, and tears of every artist that has walked its hallowed halls. If destroyed, this is not something that Boston or the American theatre will ever be able to get back.

As Stephen Sondheim told Boston Magazine after the shocking announcement that Emerson College would be ending the Colonial’s time as a legitimate theater: "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 theater, it’s a treasure and to tear it down would be not only a loss, but something of a crime." 

For this place, a historic monument that is still a gorgeous, viable theater, to not be landmarked, is indeed a crime against the arts and against everyone who cares about the arts. The city of Boston has had the Colonial as a crown jewel for many years, and just like the Broadway theaters have bounced back after disuse during certain periods, the Colonial will certainly bounce back as well if given a chance. As Our Boston writes, “[The Colonial is] the oldest and most elegant continually operating legitimate theater in Boston."

The Colonial Theatre is the best juxtaposition of the past and the present. Its artistry and history connect us to the past in an essential way if we are to have a positive future for American theatre.

As Jules Fisher once said: “Through a magical hall-of-mirrors lobby into the most beautifully designed auditorium in America, an audience is put into the perfect mood to experience theater. The Colonial remains the epitome of what the finest theaters once looked like.” 

Performers and creatives who have worked at the Colonial not mentioned elsewhere in this article include:
George AbbottWoody AllenFred AstaireLauren BacallBurt BacharachTallulah Bankhead, James Barrie, Ethel Barrymore, Michael Bennett, Leonard BernsteinCarol BurnettTruman CapoteKeith CarradineRichard ChamberlainCarol ChanningCy ColemanBetty ComdenHume CronynMarlene DietrichJimmy DuranteFred EbbMia FarrowHenry FondaLynn FontanneAdolph GreenJoel GreyJulie Harris, Helen Hayes, Audrey Hepburn, Katharine Hepburn, Jerry Herman, Raul Julia, John Kander, Danny Kaye, Jane Krakowski, Arthur Laurents, Linda Lavin, Gertrude Lawrence, Alan Jay Lerner, Jerry Lewis, Frederick Loewe, Lorna Luft, Alfred Lunt, The Marx Brothers, Walter Matthau, Arthur Miller, Liza Minnelli, Laurence Olivier, Jerry Orbach, Austin Pendleton, Anthony Perkins, Harold Pinter, Natalie Portman, Ann Reinking, Cathy Rigby, Chita Rivera, Marian Seldes, Jessica Tandy, Kathleen Turner, Gwen Verdon, Tony Walton, Kurt Weill, Orson Welles, Thornton Wilder, Nicol Williamson, Shelley Winters, Jerry Zaks

Shows that have been developed at the Colonial not mentioned elsewhere in this article include:
A Little Night MusicA View From The BridgeAnnie Get Your GunBorn YesterdayBrigadoonCandideCarousel, Dancin’, Flora The Red Menace, Grand HotelHigh Fidelity, I Do! I Do!, La Cage Aux Folles, Lady in the Dark, Moon Over BuffaloOn The Town, Play It Again Sam, Porgy and Bess, Same Time Next Year, SeussicalThe Diary of Anne FrankThe Matchmaker, The Odd Couple, The Philadelphia Story

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