by Barbara Malinsky/photos courtesy Shubert Theater

“We are proud of the Shubert’s history but we are not a museum.  We respect the past but are always looking forward toward the future.”  Anthony Lupinacci

In a nutshell, Anthony Lupinacci, Director of Public Relations, described the Shubert’s history:  a glorious past, an exciting present, and an expansive future.  Lee and J. J. Shubert opened the theater on Friday evening, December 11, 1914 with The Belle of Bond Street.  The critics enjoyed the show but were equally awed by the advent of the “beautiful, ultra-modern playhouse, which New Haven people can refer to with justifiable pride.”

Top stars, writers, and producers were equally impressed soon electing the Shubert Theater and New Haven as an incubator of sorts, a place to try out shows before they debuted in New York.  The theater itself was beautiful, it was close to New York City and there was considerable support from area residents as well as the proximity to Yale and the vital shops and restaurants in the area.

It was not only a venue for presenting plays but, from its beginnings, was a true performing arts center which included musicals, opera, dance, classical music recitals, vaudeville, jazz, big bands, burlesque, and solo performances.  It has played over six hundred pre-Broadway tryouts, including over three hundred world premieres and fifty American premiers.  These are double the totals of any theatre outside New Haven, including New York, Boston, Philadelphia, or Washington.

Because of anti-monopoly laws, the Shubert brothers sold the theater to Maurice H. Bailey in 1941.  He took the reins and the theater continued to thrive for the next thirty-five years.  Under his leadership, the Shubert became known as the Birthplace of the Nation’s Greatest Hits.   Throughout that time, the contributions of playwrights, actors, choreographers, and dancers grew to enormous proportion.  Earning the moniker Lucky Theater, its legacy is unparalleled.

The Shubert is probably best known for its successful musicals.  Richard Rodgers and his two long-time collaborators, Lorenz Hart and Oscar Hammerstein II, were closely associated with the theater where they achieved many of their greatest triumphs.  Seven of their musicals premiered there.  Some casts reveal surprising appearances by unlikely personalities.  In Too Many Girls (1939), Desi Arnaz was cast as a college football player.  On stage, he played the bongo drums when not playing fullback.

I Married An Angel (1938) featuring the famous ballerina Vera Zorina, was choreographed by George Balanchine. Long before he changed classical ballet into a twentieth century idiom, he was a showman always ready to take on any dance challenge whatever the venue.

In 1943, Alfred Drake, Joan Roberts, Celeste Holm, and Howard da Silva appeared in the first performance of Oklahoma.  Originally titled Away We Go?, this was musical theater history in the making because choreographer Agnes de Mille incorporated her dances into the story line.  In 1945, she also set the dances for Carousel.

The King and I (1951) premiered with Yul Brynner as the King of Siam and Gertrude Lawrence as Ann.  A young Jerome Robbins, who would go on to create dances for Fiddler on the Roof and West Side Story among others, set the dances.  Brynner had previously appeared at the Shubert in Lute Song (1945) with Mary Martin and Nancy Davis (Reagan), the former First Lady.  In 1959, Rodgers and Hammerstein created their last musical The Sound of Music, which starred Mary Martin as Maria and Theodore Bikel as Captain Von Trapp.

Other musical collaborations were equally successful.  Great Lady (1938) by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe engaged choreography by William Dollar featuring dancers who would leave their special mark on the world of ballet including Andre Eglevsky, Jerome Robbins, Alicia and Fernando Alonso, and Nora Kaye.  Brigadoon (1947) was their first great success.  Agnes de Mille returned to create the wonderful “highland” dances.  In 1948, they produced Love Life that was followed by one of their most famous musicals My Fair Lady (1956) starring Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews.

Musicals by Jerome Kern were also a staple.  Tonight’s The Night (1914) featured Irene and Vernon Castle who created many of the ballroom dance steps in the early years of the twentieth century.  Twenty of Kern’s shows premiered at the Shubert, the last of which was Roberta (1934).

Irving Berlin had several premieres. In the Third Annual Music Box Revue (1924), Grace Moore sang What’ll I Do?.  As Thousands Cheered (1955) featured Ethel Waters singing Supper Time, Harlem On My Mind, and Heat Wave; Easter Parade was also part of the score. Berlin’s songs for Annie Get Your Gun (1946) are considered to be his greatest.   There’s No Business Like Show Business was heard for the first time at the Shubert.  Ethel Merman was Annie Oakley and William O’Neal played Buffalo Bill.   In 1950, Call Me Madam (1950) featured Ethel Merman and Paul Lukas.

The inimitable Cole Porter is also part of this remarkable roster.   Red, Hot, and Blue (1936) featured Jimmy Durante, Ethel Merman, and Bob Hope.  New Haven audiences were the first to hear It’s De-Lovely.   In 1938, Leave It to Me introduced Mary Martin singing My Heart Belongs to Daddy while Gene Kelly sang along in the chorus.

George White’s Scandals of 1926 (1928) included George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.  Richard Adler and Jerry Ross introduced The Pajama Game (1954) with dances created by Bob Fosse and Shirely MacLaine making her debut dancing in the chorus.  Damn Yankees (1955) was also choreographed by Bob Fosse.  Comden and Green paired with Leonard Bernstein to compose the songs for Wonderful Town.  Working with composer Jule Styne, they also wrote lyrics for Bells Are Ringing (1956).

Four sketches by Woody Allen were part of a revue From A to Z (1960).   John Kander and Fred Ebb introduced Liza Minnelli in Flora, the Red Menace (1965).  Stephen Sondheim premiered two productions, A Funny Thing Happened on The Way to the Forum (1962) with Zero Mostel as Pseudolus and Do I Hear A Waltz? (1965).

Numerous plays making their Shubert debut include John Barrymore in John Galsworthy’s Justice (1916), William Saroyan’s The Time of Your Life, (1939), Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes (1940), Tennessee William’s A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) featuring Marlon Brando and Jessica Tandy, Joshua Logan’s Mr. Roberts (1948) with Henry Fonda, Herman Wouk’s The Cain Mutiny Court Martial (1953) with James Garner, Ira Levin’s No Time For Sergeants (1955) with Andy Griffith, Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun (1959) with Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee, and Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park (1953).

There were classical plays from Shakespeare’s As You Like It with Katherine Hepburn to Ibsen.  Al Jolson appeared in Robinson Crusoe, Jr. (1916).   Fred Astaire and his sister Adele made their dancing debut on these boards. Later, Fred danced in Cole Porter’s Gay Divorcee (1932) where he sang Night and Day and partnered Claire Luce.  The Marx Brother appeared in I’ll Say She Is (1925) and Animal Crackers (1929).

Shubert audiences experienced the finest dance from ballet to modern.  Anna Pavlova performed The Dying Swan (1915).  In 1916, Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes appeared with Nijinsky dancing his legendary Afternoon of a Faun.  The American Ballet with George Balanchine appeared in 1935.  Principal dancers with Ballet Theatre included Alicia Markova, Anton Dolin, Lucia Chase, Jerome Robbins, Nora Kaye, Antony Tudor, Alicia and Fernando Alonso, among others.  In 1989, Rudolph Nureyev danced Apollon Musagete with the Paris Opera Ballet.

The moderns included Martha Graham, Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn, Isadora Duncan Dancers, Mary Wigman, Katherine Dunham, Pearl Primus, Ballet Hispanico, and Tango Argentino.  The Big Bands were there too:  Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Lena Horne, Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, Louis Prima, Dizzy Gillespie, and the Glenn Miller Orchestra.

By the 1960’s many writers and actors began to move to California: the entertainment industry was changing. Finally, the theater lights went dark in 1976.  The Shubert closed and remained abandoned for several years escaping the threat of demolition by a group of concerned citizens.  A developer brought the property and razed the adjacent Adams Hotel making room for the lobby.  The theater was refurbished.  Restorers repainted the interior with historically accurate colors while broken moldings were replaced modeled after the originals. The theater reopened in 1983.

Since then, the Shubert has had some pre-Broadway premieres but there have been other changes.  It is now the first stop for touring shows where productions are teched.  This process takes about two weeks ushering in large casts and crews who use local hotels and restaurants giving an economic boost to the area.

Lupinacci explained the Shubert’s new focus in innovative programming which has included Jersey Boys, Blue Man Group, and Pixies, creating an eclectic mix for audiences of all ages. During its centennial season, there will be architectural changes as well.  The lobby and public spaces will be reconfigured creating additional multi-purpose spaces for performances like small dance groups, jazz ensembles, lectures, rehearsal access and other uses.  To make performances more accessible they have instituted a “rush” option.  Area students from Yale, Gateway, and other educational institutions can present identification and get tickets for a fifty-percent reduction just before show time.

In December 2013, ownership of the Shubert was transferred to CAPA, the Connecticut Association for the Performing Arts, which manages the organization.  Interestingly, most of the Shubert’s revenue comes from tickets sales along with state, city, corporate funding, grants, and private individuals.  The people have spoken!  When there is the right mix of programming, an exciting venue, and a lively area to enjoy a before or after theater club or restaurant, people will come.  The Shubert continues its legacy and New Haven continues to reign as Connecticut’s cultural capital.

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