by Tagger Yancey IV, courtesy NYC & Company
Published July 13, 2017
Treat the theater buffs in your group to the landmark theater districts in these top cities.
London: Theater’s Grand Dame
They’ve done their research, and based on the number of theaters and ticket sales, “London is the biggest theater capital in the world,” said Julian Bird, chief executive of the Society of London Theatre.
Why London is so well known for its live theater is “partly heritage, partly funding, partly that we have these historic buildings,” he said.
In the United Kingdom, the theater tradition dates to William Shakespeare and before, and central London is home to theaters that can be traced back hundreds of years.
That culture has only grown in contemporary times. Today, London’s famed West End theater district is home to 52 main theaters, and there are many more throughout the city. Theaters range from small operations to large opera houses, and the buildings range from 200-year-old historic landmarks to modern theaters with flexible spaces.
In the West End, the two biggest and oldest theaters are the Theatre Royal Drury Lane and the London Palladium. The 1812 Theatre Royal Drury Lane, which is now showing “42nd Street,” is “absolutely an extraordinary building,” Bird said. It’s also one of the most famous because it’s owned by Andrew Lloyd Webber, who had the front-of-house areas extensively restored in 2013. Although the current building is 205 years old, it is the fourth theater to be located on that site; the first dates to 1663 but was destroyed in a fire in 1672.
The 1910 London Palladium opened a new production of “The Wind in the Willows” in June, but the theater also puts on a range of concerts and other performances.
World War I delayed the opening of the St. Martin’s Theatre until 1916, but the St. Martin’s claim to fame isn’t its building. It holds the world record for the longest continually running show in the world: Agatha Christie’s “The Mousetrap” opened there in 1974 and is still going strong.
“It’s an extraordinary production and hugely popular, even today,” Bird said. “It’s kind of amazing, really, that it’s still there.”
The Dominion Theatre, another large house, is showing “An American in Paris,” and “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” opened at the 1891 Palace Theatre in July 2016.
Investing in Theater
In London, old theaters are being restored, and new theaters are being built because of “investment both in refurbishment and in new theaters,” Bird said.
In the West End, the 1911 Victoria Palace Theatre is being completely renovated, and the hugely popular U.S. hit “Hamilton” will make its U.K. debut there in November.
The brand-new Bridge Theatre is due to open October 18 with “Young Marx.” The theater’s main entrance is on Potters Fields Park, overlooking the Thames River at the base of the iconic Tower Bridge.
Chicago: Second to None
The Chicago Shakespeare Theater put on its first production, “Henry V,” in 1986. Above a bar. The Steppenwolf Theatre Co. got its start in the mid-1970s with three friends performing in the basement of a church.
Part of the reason Chicago is such a haven for live theater is that the city has always championed “these small, storefront theaters,” said Deb Clapp, executive director of the League of Chicago Theatres. But, at the same time, Chicago “had some really excellent institutional theaters develop,” she said.
Chicago has more than one theater district, among them the Belmont Theater District and another in Edgewater, but many of the city’s best-known theaters are in the downtown theater district.
Downtown Theater District
Broadway in Chicago operates five theaters in the city, and three of them are historic: the Bank of America Theatre, the Cadillac Palace Theatre and the Oriental Theatre. Although the 1906 Bank of America Theatre is the oldest, the 1926 Oriental is a crowd favorite.
The Oriental’s elaborate architectural details make it a Taj Mahal of theaters, and the Indian-inspired interior, which boasts statues of Buddhas and lions, has been described as “hasheesh-dream décor.” When it originally opened as a movie picture house, turban-wearing ushers showed guests to their seats.
Broadway in Chicago offers Saturday morning tours of its three historic theaters for groups of up to 70 people, though the tour may include only two theaters if one is dark. Guides talk about each theater’s history, the unique architecture and former shows that played there.
The theaters most often host touring Broadway productions but occasionally get concerts or a pre-Broadway premiere. The Oriental will once again have “Wicked” over the holidays, and Broadway in Chicago will bring back “The Color Purple” next July.
The Chicago Theatre, with its iconic marquees, and the elaborate 1889 Auditorium Theatre, which mostly features dance performances, concerts and speakers, are both “amazing,” Clapp said, and both also offer behind-the-scenes tours. Also in downtown, the Goodman Theater, Chicago’s oldest and largest nonprofit theater, will remount “Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years” next summer.
When the Chicago Shakespeare Theater moved from its space above the bar to its home on Chicago’s famed Navy Pier, it also expanded from Shakespeare to include musicals, new plays and international productions. The theater company is expanding again, adding a third, year-round performance venue called The Yard to its existing two-theater campus. The covered outdoor venue will feature movable towers with audience capacities of 150 to 850. Producers will be able to arrange the towers, each with three levels of seating, around the stage in a ring, a horseshoe, a box or another configuration.
“It’s unbelievable,” Clapp said of the venue’s design. “They’re basically making it a blank canvas for theater.”
The Steppenwolf Theatre Co. outgrew the church basement and today has about 50 ensemble members and three theaters: the 515-seat Downstairs Theatre, the 299-seat Upstairs Theatre, and the company’s newest, the 1700 Theatre, a flexible, intimate 80-seat space dedicated to showing work of ensemble members and emerging local theater companies.
New York: America’s Leading Lady
New York City may today be considered the leading lady of live theater in America, but theater didn’t establish itself in the city until the 1750s and didn’t arrive on Broadway for another century. Today, the lights of Broadway are shining as bright as ever. The 2016-2017 season, which ended in May, brought in audiences of more than 13.2 million, and Broadway shows grossed nearly $1.5 billion.
On Broadway, there’s something for everyone: Groups will find long-running staples of live theater and debuting newcomers that aim to shake up the world of theater.
“The Phantom of the Opera” opened in January 1988 at the Majestic Theatre, where it is still playing, with more than 12,200 performances to date. “Chicago” comes in second, with more than 8,500 performances since its opening in November 1996, although in that time, it has been housed in three theaters. It is now playing at the Ambassador Theatre.
Along the Great White Way, several new Broadway productions have opened or will be debuting this year, among them “Miss Saigon” at the Broadway Theatre, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, “Anastasia” at the Broadhurst Theatre and “Hello, Dolly!” starring Bette Midler at the Shubert Theatre.
This fall will bring the Tony Award-winning “M. Butterfly” to the Cort Theatre in the play’s first Broadway return, and “Junk” will premiere in New York at the Vivian Beaumont Theater. Spring 2018 will see the opening of “My Fair Lady,” “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” and “Escape to Margaritaville.”
Off-Broadway is both a proving ground for aspiring Broadway stars and a training camp for future Broadway hits. The term “off-Broadway” started gaining popularity in the 1950s to describe theaters that were located on a side street intersecting Broadway.
On 42nd Street’s Theatre Row, the Theatre Row Building houses six smaller studio theaters. The Laurie Beechman Theatre showcases singers, comedians, burlesque and drag shows, and Playwrights Horizons is dedicated to the work of up-and-coming writers.