The Gershwin Theater
The George Gershwin Theatre was originally named the Uris. When it opened in 1972 it was the first large Broadway theatre to be built since the Earl Carroll in 1931.
Occupying six stories of the new Uris Building on the site of the old Capitol movie palace at Broadway and Fifty-first Street, the huge theatre, with more than 1,900 seats, was designed by the late set designer Ralph Alswang. At the time of the theatre's opening, Mr. Alswang told PLAYBILL: "The Uris represents what I think is the total philosophy of 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, who have a thirty-year lease on the house."
The designer stated 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 Tinker Toy 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 is a revolutionary automatic rigging system called Hydra-Float. Mr. Alswang estimated that the theatre's building cost would amount to about $12.5 million.
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 18, 1972,with a spectacular rock musical, "Via Galactica," with 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 much more successful. It was "Seesaw," a musical version of William Gibson's hit comedy "Two for the Seesaw." It had a book by Michael Bennett, music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Dorothy Fields, and starred Ken Howard and Michele Lee. Tommy Tune won a Tony Award as best supporting actor in a musical and Michael Bennett received another for his choreography. On March 23, 1973, Mayor John V. Lindsay replaced Ken Howard in the "My City" number for seven minutes. The musical ran for 296 performances.
The 1973-74 season began with a revival of Sigmund Romberg's operetta, "The Desert Song," but it was not for a contemporary audience. It closed after 15 performances. The next booking was unusual. The brilliant movie musical "Gigi" was converted to a stage musical, which is not the usual order of creativity. 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. These included 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 it ran for sixty-four 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 TonyAward as the most innovative production of a revival. Clamma Dale was especially praised for her singing and acting of Bess.
Bing Crosby made a rare appearance on Broadway at the Uris in 1976 with his wife, Kathryn, members of his family, and Rosemary Clooney, Joe Bushkin, and others. Bing Crosby on Broadway played a limited engagement of twelve 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 date: 719 performances.
On March 1, 1979, a ghoulish event occurred at this theatre. It was "Sweeney Todd," 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 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.
In 1980, the Uris presented Roland Petit's Ballet National de Marseilles, 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 a Tony Award for best actor in a musical, Linda Ronstadt, Estelle Parsons, Rex Smith, George Rose, and Tony Anzio. The production received additional Tony Awards for being the best revival of a show and for best direction (Wilford Leach). It ran for 772 performances.
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, who was in the original cast in 1956, recreated her role of 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, and this was 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 Miss Gooch, Anne Francine, Willard Waterman and Sab Shimono.
In 1984, Wayne Newton on Broadway and Twyla Tharp Dances on Broadway were seen here, followed by the long-running "Beatlemania," which moved here from another theatre. Later in the summer, Patti LaBelle took the stage.
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. Mr. Jacobi was awarded a Tony for his performance as Benedick in "Much Ado About Nothing." The actor reported at a PLAYBILL luncheon that on the opening night of "Cyrano," Jose 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 and was followed by Evening of "TNT"! That summer, a lavish production on "Singin' in the Rain" opened here after many difficulties. It was a stage adaptation of the classic MGM musical with Comden and Green doing the adaptation from their original screenplay. 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. 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 performing on roller skates. One of the costliest productions ever staged on Broadway, the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Richard Stilgoe musical ran for 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 and that fall, another MGM screen musical "Meet Me in St. Louis" took to the stage with some additional songs written 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 Topal, recreating the role of Tevya, which he had played both onstage and in the highly praised film version of the musical. This revival at the Gershwin Theatre won a 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 new production of the Lerner/Loewe musical "Camelot," starring Robert Goulet, who this time played King Arthur. In the original 1960 production he played the romantic Lancelot.
In the fall of 1994, the highly anticipated Hal Prince production of "Show Boat" steamed in after a hugely successful run in Canada.
The Gershwin Theatre is a Nederlander Theatre, under the direction of the Messrs. Nederlander and Gerald Oestreicher. lt has the largest seating capacity of any Broadway theatre (excepting the New York State Theatre and the City Center). lt was designed for lavish musicals and has also been successful as a showcase house for personal appearances and dance companies.