A colorful character named H. H. Frazee built the Longacre Theatre at 220 West Forty-eighth Street, between Broadway and Eighth Avenue. It was named after nearby Longacre Square, the crossroads long since rechristened as Times Square. Frazee hired architect Henry Herts to create a theatre that would specialize in the staging of musical comedies. Herts, who designed some of Broadway’s finest theatres, turned out a lovely playhouse that managed to look intimate while having two balconies and seating more than 1,400 patrons (subsequently reduced to 1,091).
The Longacre opened on the night of May 1, 1913, with an unfunny farce called Are You a Crook?, starring Marguerite Clark. It perished after a dozen showings. Frazee did much better with a musical show. On August 28 of that year his theatre housed a French entertainment called Adele, and it was the most successful import of the season. It delighted theatregoers for 196 performances.
A. H. Woods, a producer who thrived on melodramas, presented a play called Kick In in 1914. The interesting cast included John Barrymore, Katherine Harris (who became the first Mrs. Barrymore), Jane Gray, and Forrest Winant. The “crook” melodrama stole its way into playgoers’ hearts for 188 performances. That year a farce called A Pair of Sixes also won favor and ran for 207 mirthful performances.
A number of shows played in 1915, including Lewis Stone in Inside the Lines and May Vokes in A Full House. But the most successful was a comedy called The Great Lover, starring Leo Ditrichstein, which focused on love among the egocentric temperaments of the opera world.
The Longacre welcomed its biggest hit to that date when Nothing but the Truth opened on September 14, 1916. Written by James Montgomery, the comedy starred the deadpan William Collier, who convulsed audiences as a man who vowed not to tell lies for one day. He managed to do this for 332 performances.
The kind of intimate, charming musical that Frazee envisioned for his house came to the Longacre in 1917. It was the Jerome Kern/P. G. Wodehouse/Guy Bolton winner Leave It to Jane, about a football-crazy college campus. Among the Kern gems were “The Siren’s Song,” “The Crickets Are Calling,” “Cleopatterer,” and the lilting title song. The Longacre had full houses for 167 performances.
Guy Bolton and George Middleton provided a palpable hit for the house with Adam and Eva, starring Otto Kruger and Ruth Shepley, in 1919.
Some highlights of the 1920s included a musical called Pitter Patter (1920), starring William Kent; The Champion (1920), with Grant Mitchell; and Little Jesse James (1923), an intimate musical with only one set, eight chorus girls, a modest cast that included future movie star Miriam Hopkins, one hit song — “I Love You” — and a smash run of 385 performances. This was followed by Moonlight (1924), another intimate musical with tuneful Con Conrad music; The Dark Angel (1925), a poignant drama about a woman whose lover returns blind from World War I and pretends that he is dead; Mercenary Mary (1925), another Con Conrad musical, with a jazz band and a star-and-garter chorus; George S. Kaufman’s The Butter and Egg Man (1925), a hit “inside” comedy about a hick (memorably played by Gregory Kelly) who comes to Broadway with $20,000 to invest in a show and, after many tribulations, succeeds; and a thrilling adaptation of Theodore Dreiser’s novel An American Tragedy (1926), starring Morgan Farley as the murderer, Katherine Wilson as his victim, and Miriam Hopkins as his rich girlfriend.
Later in the decade the Longacre hosted The Command to Love (1927), a surprisingly delightful German high comedy starring Basil Rathbone, Mary Nash, Violet Kemble Cooper, and Anthony Kemble Cooper that lasted for 236 performances; Richard Bennett and his attractive daughter Joan in a shocker about Hollywood lowlife called Jarnegan (1928); Clark Gable in an interesting murder mystery, Hawk Island (1929), that ran for only three weeks; and its final play of the 1920s, A Primer for Lovers, a sex farce with the delightful Alison Skipworth.
After a series of unsuccessful plays in 1930 and 1931, the Longacre finally had a hit in Blessed Event (1932), starring Roger Pryor in a thinly disguised impersonation of the egotistical Broadway columnist Walter Winchell, with Isabel Jewell and Allen Jenkins in support. A dramatization of the infamous Lizzie Borden ax murders, Nine Pine Street, had a fine performance by Lillian Gish as the neurotic killer, but it ran only a few weeks in 1933. The same fate was accorded Wednesday’s Child (1934), a study of a young boy (Frank M. Thomas Jr.) whose life is ruined when his parents divorce.
During the height of the Depression, the Longacre was dark for months on end. Most of the shows that played there were quick flops. A bright spot in 1935, however, was the arrival of the revolutionary Group Theatre company with two of Clifford Odets’s inflammatory plays, Waiting for Lefty and Till the Day I Die. Odets appeared in Waiting for Lefty, and both plays had such Group stalwarts as Elia Kazan, Lee J. Cobb, Roman Bohnen, Russell Collins, and Alexander Kirkland. Later in 1935 another Odets play, Paradise Lost, with many of the same actors, played the theatre.
Late in 1936 the great actress Alla Nazimova played Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler for a month; and Vincent Price and the beautiful Elissa Landi starred in a romantic Hungarian play about royal affairs, The Lady Has a Heart (1937).
Things took a better turn on February 3, 1938, when an enchanting play came to the Longacre: Paul Osborn’s loving adaptation of a novel called On Borrowed Time. Said Brooks Atkinson in The Times: “Nothing so original and jovial has turned up on our stages for a long time.” The fantasy concerned a grandfather (Dudley Digges) who chases Death (called Mr. Brink) up a tree so that he can have some more time to spend with his lovable grandson (Peter Holden). Grandma was played by Dorothy Stickney. Directed by Joshua Logan, the play brought bittersweet magic to the Longacre for 321 performances.
In late 1939 Paul Osborn returned to this theatre with another endearing play about small-town people — Morning’s at Seven. Despite Joshua Logan’s direction and a superb cast that included Dorothy Gish, Russell Collins, Enid Markey, Effie Shannon, and Jean Adair, this gentle comedy about life among the elderly lasted only 44 performances. It was clearly ahead of its time. When it was revived on Broadway in 1980 it ran for 564 performances, was hailed as an American classic, and won a Tony Award as the season’s best revival.
The critics may have turned up their noses at a comedy called Three’s a Family (1943), but audiences loved this play about the raising of babies and the care of expectant mothers. It was perfect escapist comedy for World War II theatregoers, and it amused them for close to 500 performances. It was to be the Longacre’s last legitimate show for a decade. From the spring of 1944 to the fall of 1953 the theatre was leased as a radio and television studio.
In November 1953 the Longacre reopened as a legitimate theatre with a promising play, The Ladies of the Corridor, by Dorothy Parker and Arnaud d’Usseau. Harold Clurman directed a cast that featured Edna Best, Betty Field, June Walker, Walter Matthau, and Shepperd Strudwick. Unfortunately, its depressing plot about lonely old women who live in hotels did not find a public.
The Longacre’s best plays in the 1950s were Lillian Hellman’s adaptation of Jean Anouilh’s The Lark (1955), with Julie Harris as a radiant Saint Joan, also starring Boris Karloff and Christopher Plummer; and a silken comedy of manners, The Pleasure of His Company (1958), by Samuel Taylor, starring Cornelia Otis Skinner, Walter Abel, Cyril Ritchard, George Peppard, Charlie Ruggles, and Dolores Hart. In between these two hits there was an amiable comedy about the Seventh Avenue garment district, Fair Game (1957), starring the expert comic Sam Levene and a new actress named Ellen McRae, who later changed her name to Ellen Burstyn and became a star.
In 1961 Zero Mostel’s powerful performance in Rhinoceros, the antic play by Ionesco, won him a Tony Award. The excellent cast also included Eli Wallach, Anne Jackson, Morris Carnovsky, and Jean Stapleton. At the end of the year the popular Purlie Victorious moved to the Longacre from the Cort and stayed for six months.
Highlights of the 1960s included Henry Denker’s courtroom drama A Case of Libel (1963), based on Quentin Reynolds’s suit against Westbrook Pegler and starring Van Heflin, Sidney Blackmer, and Larry Gates; Gabriel Dell and Rita Moreno in Lorraine Hansberry’s The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window (1964); Margaret Leighton, Zoe Caldwell, and Kate Reid in Tennessee Williams’s lunatic Slapstick Tragedy (1966); Hal Holbrook in his dazzling one-man show Mark Twain Tonight! (1966); Holbrook again in Robert Anderson’s somber autobiographical drama I Never Sang for My Father (1968), also starring Teresa Wright (then Mrs. Robert Anderson) and Lillian Gish; and a visit by the National Theatre of the Deaf (1969).
It was during this period that William Goldman, in his landmark 1969 survey of Broadway, The Season, used the Longacre as an example of a “bad” theatre — that is, one avoided by producers for a variety of reasons. Goldman took readers through the “doublethink” and circular logic of producers who refused to put likely hits into the Longacre, leading to few hits opening there, in turn reinforcing the notion that no hits open there.
Breaking the cycle in 1975 was a rollicking hit, The Ritz, by Terrence McNally, with Rita Moreno and Jack Weston, which caused hysterics for a year, followed by a Tony Award-winning performance by Julie Harris in her one-woman show The Belle of Amherst, in which she impersonated the poet Emily Dickinson. John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson were hypnotic in Pinter’s No Man’s Land (1976); Al Pacino garnered raves in a revival of David Rabe’s The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel (1977).
On May 9, 1978, Ain’t Misbehavin’ moved in and proved to be this theatre’s biggest hit, eventually running 1,604 performances. This revue of Thomas “Fats” Waller’s music was named Best Musical of the season by the Tony Awards, New York Drama Critics Circle Awards, Drama Desk Awards, and Outer Critics Circle Awards. The brilliant performers were Ken Page, Nell Carter, Charlayne Woodard, Andre De Shields, Armelia McQueen, and pianist Luther Henderson. Director Richard Maltby Jr. won a Tony.
The Longacre’s longest-running nonmusical, Children of a Lesser God, came to the theatre from the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles in 1980. A sensitive study of a woman with impaired hearing and speech, it won Tony Awards for Best Play (by Mark Medoff) and Outstanding Performances by a Lead Actress (Phyllis Frelich) and Actor (John Rubinstein). It ran for 887 performances.
The 1980s saw Lanford Wilson’s fascinating Angels Fall (1983), followed by Peter Nichols’s British play Passion, starring Frank Langella, Cathryn Damon, Bob Gunton, E. Katherine Kerr, Roxanne Hart, and Stephanie Gordon. The decade continued with Play Memory (1984); the musical Harrigan ’n Hart (1985); a splendid revival of Joe Egg starring Jim Dale and Stockard Channing, for which Channing won a Tony Award (1985); Precious Sons, George Furth’s play starring Ed Harris and Judith Ivey (1986); the hilarious Musical Comedy Murders of 1940, which transferred here from Off-Broadway (1987); Don’t Get God Started, a gospel musical (1987); Hizzoner, a solo show about New York Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia, which transferred here from Off-Broadway (1989); Truly Blessed (1990), a musical celebration of Mahalia Jackson; and the dance musical Tango Pasión (1993).
That same year Any Given Day, a play by Frank D. Gilroy starring Sada Thompson, lasted only 32 performances. In 1994 Diana Rigg scored a personal triumph in a new adaptation of the classic Medea and won a Tony Award for her performance. The following year Avery Brooks starred in the title role of Paul Robeson, a revival of Philip Hayes Dean’s 1978 play with music about the life of the controversial actor/singer. The play included songs made famous by Robeson, including “Ol’ Man River.” Ernie Scott played Lawrence Brown. The play had a short run of 11 performances. Another revival came to the Longacre in 1996: Horton Foote’s 1995 Off Off-Broadway play The Young Man From Atlanta, which had won the Pulitzer Prize. Rip Torn and Shirley Knight starred in the Broadway production, which ran for 79 performances.
A revised version of David Henry Hwang’s play Golden Child opened in 1998, directed by James Lapine. The story of a Chinese man who must choose which of his three wives to keep when he embraces Christianity, Golden Child received the following Tony Award nominations: Featured Actress in a Play (Julyana Soelistyo) and Best Play and Costume Designer (Martin Pakledinaz). The play ran for 69 performances.
In April 1999 The Gershwins’ Fascinating Rhythm, a revue with ten singers and dancers, presented 27 songs by the Gershwin brothers in 90 minutes, without an intermission. Most of the critics loathed it, objecting to the incongruous musical arrangements and the vulgarity of some of the staging. The show was gone after 17 performances.
In August 1999 a thriller called Voices in the Dark, by John Pielmeier, opened here. It starred Judith Ivey as a popular radio talk-show host who finds herself menaced by a sinister caller. The suspense play won the Edgar Award (Best Play) from the Mystery Writers of America, but New York’s drama critics were less kind. Critic John Simon called it worthless garbage and reported that the cottage set’s walls displayed enough antlered heads to staff a revival of Moose Murders (see Eugene O’Neill Theatre).
Throughout the early and mid 2000s the Longacre housed an almost unbroken series of financial failures, though not all without interest. The managers booked a promising play in March 2000: Elaine May’s comedy Taller Than a Dwarf, with Matthew Broderick, Parker Posey, Joyce Van Patten, and others, directed by Alan Arkin. Unfortunately, this power team was defeated by a script that was called tasteless, unfunny, and derivative. It had a short run.
Abby Mann directed George Grizzard, Maximilian Schell, and Michael Hayden in a brief revival of Judgment at Nuremberg starting in March 2001. TV star Tom Selleck was judged to be miscast in a similarly evanescent run of the Herb Gardner favorite A Thousand Clowns in July 2001.
The 1979 Off-Broadway revue One Mo’ Time had offered a glimpse of backstage life at a 1920's New Orleans blues club and drew fans for three years. Creator Vernel Bagneris tried to reanimate the show at the Longacre in spring 2002, but its magic didn’t translate to the larger stage, and it lasted just three weeks.
The pure power of the spoken word was demonstrated in fall 2002 when cable TV phenomenon Russell Simmons brought a talented group of young rap-style poets to this theatre for a musical-without-music called Def Poetry Jam. Among the wordsmiths showcased over the six-month run were Beau Sia, Black Ice, Staceyann Chin, Steve Colman, Mayda del Valle, Suheir Hammad, Lemon, Georgia Me, and the appropriately named Poetri.
The estimable actress Ellen Burstyn had a rare modern-day one-performance flop the night of November 17, 2003, with the solo show The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, based on a best-selling book. All that remained on November 18 was a highly collectible PLAYBILL.
A low of another sort was reached May 5, 2004, with the opening of Prymate, Mark Medoff’s controversial drama about a group of researchers who teach an ape to “speak” with sign language and then have to deal with the things he communicates. Audiences were scandalized by the use of a black actor, the fine André de Shields, as the ape. Prymate fell out of the tree after five performances.
The Longacre recovered some of its luster March 20, 2005, with a well-received revival of Edward Albee’s modern classic Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, with a swaggering, whiskey-voiced Kathleen Turner as Martha, hurling verbal thunderbolts around like a drunken Zeus. Holding his own against the storm was onetime New Vaudevillian and MacArthur “Genius” Grant recipient Bill Irwin, taking his career path on a highly successful swerve into the world of drama. His performance as George earned him the Tony Award as Best Actor in a Play. The run totaled 177 performances.
In late March 2006 Lisa Kron brought her hit Off-Broadway play Well to this theatre for 52 performances, narrating the story of the mystery ailment that was just one of the many comic (in retrospect) trials of her childhood. Jayne Houdyshell attracted universal thumbs-up as her domineering mom.
The Longacre was dark for most of the next year until the March 2007 arrival of Liev Schreiber playing a radio shock jock who goes over the line, in the Broadway debut of Eric Bogosian’s drama Talk Radio for 121 performances.
In 2007 the Shubert Organization took the Longacre off the market and spent the better part of the next year repairing, refurbishing, and refitting the theatre to bring it up to 21st-century standards. Sure enough, after the renovation the Longacre housed two hits in a row.
It reopened May 4, 2008, with a sparkling revival of Marc Camoletti’s retro 1960's sex farce Boeing-Boeing, about an American in Paris who juggles three stewardess girlfriends in a single apartment. Bradley Whitford was the putative lead, with delicious performances turned in by Gina Gershon, Kathry Hahn, and Mary McCormack (Tony nomination) as the three color-coded sweethearts. But Mark Rylance won the Tony Award as Best Actor in a Play for his dizzy performance as Whitford’s visiting friend, a rare example of that honor going to a comic actor. The comedy flew for 279 performances, the longest run at the Longacre since Children of a Lesser God in 1980.
Next in was Burn the Floor, a revue of ballroom dance with a curious history. Originated as entertainment at a birthday bash for singer-songwriter Elton John in 1999, the hot, high-energy couples dancing inspired Australian Jason Gilkison and Harley Medcalf to mount it as a full-scale stage show, and it spent the next decade touring the world and the United States before it finally got up the nerve to hit Broadway August 2, 2009, where it was embraced and extended its original 12-week engagement into 2010.
The Longacre next hosted a revival of La Cage aux Folles via London in April 2010, starring Kelsey Grammer and Douglas Hodge. The musical, which had recently been revived in 2004-5 at the Marquis Theatre, pleased with its stripped-down aesthetic and the winning performances of its stars. Winning indeed was Mr. Hodge, who took home the Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical, while the production also won the 2010 Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical. The play was recast with Harvey Fierstein (who wrote the original book for La Cage) and Jeffrey Tambor after the two stars left, but Mr. Tambor withdrew abruptly, citing complications from hip-replacement surgery. Broadway veteran Christopher Sieber stepped in on March 11, but the production lasted less than two months.