The Gershwin Theatre opened in 1972 as the Uris, occupying six stories of the new Uris Building on the site of the old Capitol movie palace at Broadway and Fifty-first Street. The same complex houses the Circle in the Square Theatre below ground level, essentially in the Gershwin’s basement. The two theatres have adjoining entrances in a drive-through passageway connecting Fiftieth and Fifty-first streets. With more than 1,900 seats — the most of any regularly used theatre on Broadway — the Gershwin was devised by set designer Ralph Alswang. It was the first large Broadway theatre to be built since the Earl Carroll in 1931.
At the time of the theatre’s opening, Alswang told PLAYBILL: “The Uris represents what I think is the total philosophy of a modern musical comedy house — seating, sight lines, acoustics — the economy and aesthetics of this kind of theatre. I was given a completely free hand by the Uris people and by the Nederlanders and Gerard Oestreicher.”
The designer said that the whole theatre was done in a sensuous Art Nouveau style. The auditorium is on the second floor and is reached by escalators. “The bar, the plaster wall running 200 feet on a reverse curve and the Lalique lighting fixtures are all Art Nouveau shapes,” Alswang stated. “Most people want to sit in the orchestra, so we have 1,280 seats downstairs and a very small balcony with 660 seats with projecting side sections to replace box seats. We have dark proscenium panels that serve as light towers and that are removable if the production demands it. The flexible stage floor can be taken apart like a Tinkertoy or be extended as a thrust stage. And for the first time in theatre history, there is a water curtain instead of an asbestos curtain in the event of an onstage fire.”
Another first for a legitimate theatre was a revolutionary automatic rigging system called Hydra-Float. Alswang estimated that the building cost would amount to about $12.5 million.
The Gershwin is a Nederlander Organization theatre, under the direction of the Messrs. Nederlander. Its large seating capacity makes it ideal for lavish musicals and dance events.
A special feature of the theatre is the inclusion of a Theatre Hall of Fame with the names of stage greats inscribed in bas-relief on the walls of an impressive rotunda. Another rotunda on the theatre’s other side may be used for theatrical exhibitions. The Hall of Fame rotunda was suggested to the Nederlanders by Earl Blackwell.
The Uris opened on November 28, 1972, with Galt MacDermot’s spectacular rock musical Via Galactica, starring Raul Julia and Virginia Vestoff as space beings in the year 2972. Unfortunately, the special effects were more dazzling than the show, and it closed after only seven performances.
The theatre’s next tenant was more successful. Seesaw, a musical version of William Gibson’s hit comedy Two for the Seesaw, had music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Dorothy Fields, a book credited to Michael Bennett, and Ken Howard and Michele Lee as its stars. Tommy Tune won a Tony Award as Best Supporting Actor in a Musical, and Bennett received another for his choreography. On March 23, 1973, Mayor John V. Lindsay replaced Ken Howard in the opening “My City” number for seven minutes. The musical ran for 296 performances.
In September 1973 the Uris presented a revival of the operetta The Desert Song, but its 1920's appeal was lost on 1970's audiences. It closed after 15 performances. The next booking was unusual. The brilliant movie musical Gigi was converted to a stage show, not the usual order of creativity at that time, but one that would become increasingly frequent in ensuing years. Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe added some songs to the score, which won a Tony Award. The cast included Alfred Drake, Agnes Moorehead (later succeeded by Arlene Francis), Karin Wolfe, Daniel Massey, and Maria Karnilova. It ran for 103 performances.
During 1974 the Uris housed personal appearances by a series of celebrated artists, including Sammy Davis Jr.; the rock group Mott the Hoople; Enrico Macias and his La Fete Orientale Co.; Andy Williams and Michel Legrand; Anthony Newley and Henry Mancini; Johnny Mathis; The Fifth Dimension; Raphael in concert; and Nureyev and Friends.
These concert bookings continued in 1975 with the Dance Theatre of Harlem, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, and Frank Sinatra. The first New York production of Scott Joplin’s opera Treemonisha opened here in October of that year. The Houston Grand Opera Association production of this work, which had been lost for many years, was conceived and directed by Frank Corsaro and ran for 64 performances. This was followed by the American Ballet Theatre, Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev, Paul Anka, Dance Theatre of Harlem, D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, and Al Green.
The Houston Grand Opera and Sherwin M. Goldman presented an acclaimed revival of George Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess in 1976, and the production received a Tony Award as the Most Innovative Production of a Revival, as the award was then called. Clamma Dale was especially praised for her singing and acting as Bess.
Bing Crosby made a rare appearance on Broadway at the Uris in 1976 with his wife, Kathryn, and other members of his family, plus Rosemary Clooney, Joe Bushkin, and others. Bing Crosby on Broadway played a limited engagement of 12 performances during the Christmas holiday season. Nureyev appeared next in a dance concert, followed by the Ballet of the Twentieth Century.
A splendid revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I opened here on May 2, 1977, starring Yul Brynner and Constance Towers. Produced by Lee Guber and Shelly Gross, it was an immediate hit and became the Uris’s longest-running show to that time: 719 performances.
On March 1, 1979, a thrillingly ghoulish event occurred at this theatre. It was Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, the grisly musical by Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler, based on a version of Sweeney Todd by Christopher Bond. The work received critical acclaim and won Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Score (Sondheim), Best Book (Wheeler), Best Musical Actress (Angela Lansbury), Best Musical Actor (Len Cariou), Best Director (Hal Prince), Best Scenic Design (Eugene Lee), and Best Costume Design (Franne Lee). The Grand Guignol-style shocker about a London barber who slits his customers’ throats in revenge for an injustice suffered by him was not everyone’s cup of blood, but the highly imaginative production ran for 557 performances and is now considered Sondheim’s masterpiece.
In 1980 the Uris presented Roland Petit’s Ballet National de Marseille, Makarova and Company, and Nureyev and the Boston Ballet. On January 1, 1981, Joseph Papp presented the New York Shakespeare Festival production of The Pirates of Penzance, which had been a hit in Central Park the preceding summer. The cast included Kevin Kline (who received the Tony Award as Best Actor in a Musical), Linda Ronstadt, Estelle Parsons, Rex Smith, George Rose, and Tony Azito. The production received additional Tony Awards for Best Revival and Best Direction (Wilford Leach). It ran for 772 performances, a new record for the Uris and still a Broadway record for Gilbert and Sullivan.
On August 18, 1981, the Uris presented a revival of Lerner and Loewe’s classic My Fair Lady, with its original star, Rex Harrison. Nancy Ringham played Eliza Doolittle, Milo O’Shea played her father, and Cathleen Nesbitt, also from the original cast, recreated her role as Mrs. Higgins. The revival ran for 124 performances.
The long-running musical Annie moved into the Uris from the Eugene O’Neill Theatre in January 1982 and stayed here for a year. It ended its run at the Uris, having chalked up 2,377 performances.
Barry Manilow made a personal appearance here in February 1983, followed by a Houston Grand Opera revival of the Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein II classic Show Boat, starring Donald O’Connor.
On the evening of June 5, 1983, during the annual Tony Award telecast, the name of the Uris was officially changed to the Gershwin Theatre, in honor of composer George Gershwin and his lyricist brother, Ira, who contributed many distinguished musicals and the opera Porgy and Bess to the Broadway theatre.
A month later Angela Lansbury returned in a revival of the hit musical Mame, in the title role, which she had originated. Other repeaters in the show: Jane Connell as Agnes Gooch, Anne Francine, Willard Waterman, and Sab Shimono.
In October 1984, the Royal Shakespeare Company arrived with two productions: Much Ado about Nothing and Cyrano de Bergerac. Among the players were Derek Jacobi and Sinead Cusack. Jacobi was awarded a Tony for his performance as Benedick in Much Ado. The actor reported at a PLAYBILL luncheon that on the opening night of Cyrano, José Ferrer, who won a Tony for playing that role in 1947, went backstage and said to the British Jacobi: “Your performance proves my point that only a Latin can play Cyrano.”
Patti LaBelle returned to the Gershwin in January 1985. That summer, the lavish Singin’ in the Rain opened here after many difficulties. It was a live incarnation of the classic MGM musical, with Comden and Green adapting their original screenplay about Hollywood’s bumpy transition from silent films to talkies. The songs were mostly by the MGM team of Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed. Don Correia played the Gene Kelly role and danced the title song in a heavy stage downpour created by a system of pipes above the stage. The choreography was by Twyla Tharp, who also directed the musical. It ran for ten months.
The next production at this theatre, the British spectacular Starlight Express (1987), required the theatre to be turned into a gigantic roller rink, with the cast roller-skating on ramps and bridges around the stage to give the impression of being railroad cars. One of the costliest productions ever staged on Broadway to that time, the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Richard Stilgoe musical ran for nearly two years and won a Tony Award for John Napier’s elaborate costumes. However, it did not achieve the success of the London production, nor did it recoup its enormous investment.
In 1989 Barry Manilow at the Gershwin played for two months. That fall another MGM screen musical, Meet Me in St. Louis, took to the stage with some additional songs by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane, who had written the famed movie score for this charming musical. The stage version starred George Hearn, Milo O’Shea, Charlotte Moore, and Betty Garrett (who was welcomed back by the critics) and featured Donna Kane in the Judy Garland role. The musical ran for seven months.
Bugs Bunny on Broadway played for several weeks in 1990, followed by a handsome revival of Fiddler on the Roof, starring Topol, recreating the role of Tevye, which he had played both onstage (in London) and in the highly praised film version of the musical. This production won the Tony Award for Best Revival of the season and ran for seven months. In 1991 and 1992 the Moscow Circus and Tommy Tune Tonite! played here, followed by a 1993 production of the Lerner/Loewe musical Camelot, starring Robert Goulet, the show’s original Lancelot, who this time took the role of King Arthur.
In the fall of 1994 the highly anticipated Hal Prince production of Show Boat steamed in after a hugely successful run in Canada. The new production of this classic was rapturously received. A program note stated that this revival was based on the original 1927 Ziegfeld production, the London production, the 1936 film version, and the 1946 Broadway revival. Additional credit was given to musicologist John McGlinn and archivist Myles Kreuger, who had written an acclaimed book on the history of all productions of Show Boat.
Produced by Garth Drabinsky’s Livent (US) Inc., the sumptuously mounted production made some interesting departures from other versions of the show. Prince restored six songs that had been dropped from other Show Boat productions, including “Mis’ry’s Comin’ Aroun’,” which had been considered too depressing for a musical. He also ameliorated some racial stereotypes that were felt to be too “Uncle Tom.”
The cast included John McMartin (Cap’n Andy), Elaine Stritch (Parthy), Rebecca Luker (Magnolia), Mark Jacoby (Ravenal), and Michel Bell (Joe), whose rendition of the classic “Ol’ Man River” stopped the show at every performance. One change that irritated some purist playgoers was having Stritch sing the lovely “Why Do I Love You?,” instead of the traditional trio of Magnolia, Ravenal, and Cap’n Andy. Stritch’s voice at this time was particularly harsh.
Show Boat received ten Tony Award nominations and won the following five: Best Musical Revival, Best Director of a Musical (Prince), Best Costume Designer (Florence Klotz), Best Choreographer (Susan Stroman), and Best Featured Actress in a Musical (Gretha Boston). Show Boat ran for 949 performances, closing on January 5, 1997.
The next Livent production, also directed by Hal Prince, did not fare as well. It was a revival of the musical version of Voltaire’s Candide, with a book by Hugh Wheeler; music by Leonard Bernstein; lyrics by Richard Wilbur, Stephen Sondheim, and John Latouche; and choreography by Patricia Birch.
This revival was based on three earlier versions of the musical, the most successful being the 1974 production, also directed by Prince, which ran for 740 performances. The 1997 cast starred Jim Dale, who played a variety of parts; Mal Z. Lawrence and Arte Johnson, who also played multiple roles; Harolyn Blackwell as Cunegonde (spelled by Glenda Balkan at some performances); Jason Danieley as Candide; Andrea Martin as the Old Lady; and Stacey Logan as Paquette.
The musical traced the marvelous adventures and appalling tribulations of the innocent Westphalian hero Candide, who faces great hardships in his travels but remains loyal to the optimistic lesson of his teacher Dr. Pangloss: “All is for the best in this best of all possible worlds.” Critics praised (as usual) the great score by Bernstein but disliked the show’s book and the circusy staging that overwhelmed Voltaire’s sharp-edged satire. Critic Howard Kissel wrote: “Bernstein’s sublime score lacks the best of all books.” Critic David Patrick Stearns’ review stated: “New Candide low-voltage Voltaire.” The musical received four Tony Award nominations — Best Musical Revival, Best Actor in a Musical (Dale), Best Featured Actress in a Musical (Martin), and Best Costumes (Judith Dolan) — but won none. The show ran for 103 performances.
The next booking at the Gershwin Theatre was the successful revival of the 1969 Tony Award-winning musical 1776, about the events that swirled around the signing of the Declaration of Independence. This production by the Roundabout Theatre moved here on December 3, 1997, from the Criterion Center Stage Right Theatre, where it had played from August 14, 1997, to November 16, 1997. It was directed by Scott Ellis. The cast included Pat Hingle as Benjamin Franklin, Michael Cumpsty as John Dickinson, Richard Poe as John Hancock, Brent Spiner as John Adams, Tom Aldredge as Stephen Hopkins, Paul Michael Valley as Thomas Jefferson, Gregg Edelman as Edward Rutledge, and Lauren Ward as Martha Jefferson. It ran for 333 performances.
On November 19, 1998, a new production of the celebrated 1944 musical On the Town opened here. George C. Wolfe staged the New York Shakespeare Festival production, which originated as an August 1997 Central Park revival. The musical, inspired by Jerome Robbins’s ballet Fancy Free, had music by Leonard Bernstein and book and lyrics by Comden and Green. It depicted the joyous shore leave of three sailors in Manhattan, and their adventures with three girls they encounter.
The most imaginative feature of this revival was the set by Adrienne Lobel, which contained a replica of the Brooklyn Bridge overhead, on which the orchestra was placed. The Manhattan skyline loomed behind the bridge. Some critics objected to this scenic device, saying that it took up too much space and resulted in a cramped stage for the dancers. The new choreography by Keith Young was compared unfavorably with Jerome Robbins’s original 1944 dances, and Wolfe’s direction was considered bland. The cast received decent reviews, especially Lea DeLaria as the rowdy cab driver and Mary Testa as a tipsy singing instructor. The revival played only 65 performances and lost a lot of money for the New York Shakespeare Festival. It received only one Tony Award nomination: Testa for Best Featured Actress in a Musical.
The next tenant at the Gershwin was a return of the popular 1985 music and dance revue Tango Argentino. This entertainment, conceived by Claudio Segovia and Hector Orezzoli, featured Argentine artists interpreting the tango in song, story, and dance. It played for 63 performances.
On March 16, 2000, another dance showcase, the revue Riverdance, made its long-delayed Broadway debut, having originally proved a sensation at Radio City Music Hall in 1998 and having played around the world and even on PBS before returning to New York at last in a legitimate Broadway house. The extravaganza presented Irish step dances, and choral and solo songs by sparkling international performers. Riverdance on Broadway closed after a comparatively modest run of 605 performances.
Linda Eder at the Gershwin, featuring the eponymous singer whose main Broadway credit was the 1997 musical Jekyll & Hyde, played a concert show at the Gershwin during the 2001 holiday season.
The theatre’s next major musical was a transfer of the hit London revival of Oklahoma!, which was imported with West End star Josefina Gabrielle as a toughened-up, overalls-clad Laurie, and Patrick Wilson replacing Hugh Jackman as Curly. However, the show’s acting Tony Award went to Shuler Hensley, who played Judd. On June 28, 2002, the ensemble of Oklahoma! was joined by Barbara Cook, John Cullum, Lea Salonga, Laura Benanti, and other stellar performers for Something Good, a special concert celebrating the centenary of the show’s composer, Richard Rodgers.
The Gershwin next welcomed the biggest hit of its history so far, Wicked, a special-effects-packed “prequel” to the beloved The Wizard of Oz. Based on the best-selling novel of the same title by Gregory Maguire, Wicked tells the story of the witches of Oz and their rise from girlhood to womanhood: Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, and Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West. Maguire fashioned the latter name from the initials of Oz creator L. Frank Baum. With music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz and book by Winnie Holzman, Wicked helped cement the stardom of Tony winner Idina Menzel (Elphaba) and Kristin Chenoweth (Glinda).