The main draw of Broadway is, obviously, the shows on stage (and what a roster of dazzling productions these theaters have seen!). But before you take your seat, make time to look around. In many cases, the theaters themselves are just as deserving of the spotlight. Only 40 New York City theaters have the distinction of being legitimate Broadway theaters (which must have at least 500 seats). All of these performance houses have history, but the 10 here have exceptional stories behind them, not to mention breathtaking architectural details and, in many cases, art and artifacts worthy of a museum. Most importantly, however, each of these theaters was selected for its role in the Broadway community. Some are so important, in fact, that Broadway members continue to hang around them long after they leave this world—or so the rumors go.
Opened in 1907, this theater was built by producer David Belasco, who had a duplex apartment on the top floors. The theater is believed to be haunted by his ghost, though rumor has it the erotic musical revue Oh! Calcutta! drove the spirit away in the 1970s. Belasco’s intention was to have his theater house “living room plays,” with the audience as close as possible to the actors. Balasco was also at the forefront of the art of stage lighting, and the theater had a complex lighting board even in the early days of electricity. Recent productions include Passing Strange, Golden Boy and the repertory of Richard III and Twelfth Night starring Mark Rylance. 111 W 44th St., shubertorganization.com
Helen Hayes Theatre
This venue was opened as the Little Theatre in 1912, but was renamed in 1983. That was the year the previous Hayes Theatre, along with the Morsosco and Bijou, were demolished to make room for the Marriott Marquis hotel. Hayes, known as the First Lady of the American Theatre, was a prolific actress whose stage career started at age 5 and earned Tony, Oscar, Emmy and Grammy awards. Look for her footprints in front of the entrance to the lobby. The theater started out with just 299 seats, and even after a 1920 renovation added a balcony with additional seating, it is still the smallest theater on Broadway with just 599 seats. The Hayes, which was designed in the colonial style, looks like it was transported straight from Boston, with its red brick façade, white shuttered windows and Juliet balconies. The inside is just as charming with an oval shaped ceiling adorned by winged female creatures holding a garland. During the ’50s and ’60s, the theater was used as a TV studio, with Dick Clark, Merv Griffin and David Frost broadcasting their talk shows from here. Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy was a long-running occupant in the 1980s. It is currently home to the long-running hit Rock of Ages. 240 W. 44th St.
Al Hirschfeld Theatre
This theater was built in 1924 by Martin Beck, a vaudeville impresario now best known as the man who gave Harry Houdini his big break. The theater was originally named for Beck, but was renamed for legendary New York Times caricaturist Al Hirschfeld in 2003. It is the only Broadway theater designed in the Byzantine style, with Moorish arches along the façade (see photo at the top of the page) and stained glass doors. On the second floor of the theater there is an exhibit of his drawings of productions that played here including The Teahouse of the August Moon, Bye, Bye Birdie, and the long-running revival of Dracula starring Frank Langella. It is currently home to Kinky Boots, the 2013 Tony winner for Best Musical. 302 W. 45th St.
Along with the New Amsterdam, the Lyceum is the oldest operating Broadway theater —both opened in 1903. In 1974 it was the first Broadway house to be granted landmark status. The theatre has a beaux arts limestone façade with six Corinthian columns rising from an unusual waving marquee. Producer David Forhman built the theater and included in the plans an apartment for himself with a door that gave him a perfect view of the stage. The apartment now houses the photographs, costume sketches, sheet music, records and more that make up the Shubert Archive. A Night with Janis Joplin will depart the theater in early February to be replaced with the play The Realistic Joneses in March. This follows serious dramas such as A Taste of Honey and Inherit the Wind that have also played here. 149 W 45th St., shubertorganization.com
Music Box Theatre
For most theaters, the building comes first and the shows follow. Not so for this charming jewel of a theater. It was built in 1921 specifically to house a series of musical revues by the legendary songwriter Irving Berlin, who later became part owner. Built in the neo-Georgian style, it resembles a dignified manor house, with a limestone exterior and a colonnade. The lobby features eight-foot-tall murals depicting Berlin’s career through collages of sheet music, newspaper clippings and photographs. The Music Box is currently home to the smash-hit revival of Pippin, but has also housed Picnic, Bus Stop, and August: Osage County. 239 W 45th St., shubertorganization.com
New Amsterdam Theatre
Along with the Lyceum Theater, it holds the record as Broadway’s oldest continuing functional theater. And like the Belasco, it’s rumored to be haunted. There have been reports of the specter of a Ziegfeld showgirl wandering the stage late at night. The beaux arts façade of the New Amsterdam is a narrow slice leading into the interior, one of the first examples of Art Noveau architecture in New York, with fruits, flowers and vines swirling across the ceiling. The earliest productions here were flamboyant showman Florenz Ziegfeld’s annual Follies. During the Depression, it was converted into a movie palace, since showing film was less expensive than hiring hundreds of showgirls and musical stars. The theater found new life in 1993 when Disney signed a 99-year lease and embarked on a four-year restoration project. The Lion King opened here in 1997 (it moved to the Minskoff Theater in 2006) followed by Mary Poppins, which closed in March 2013. Another Disney musical, Aladdin, is set to open on March 20. 214 W 42nd St.
The Booth was designed as a back-to-back pair with the Shubert Theater. Both have Venetian-Renaissance façades covered in sgraffito, a technique that layers plaster pieces in contrasting colors. Opened in 1913, the Booth was named in honor of the renowned 19th century actor Edwin Booth, who was also the brother of Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth. It has played host mostly to intimate plays like the current Glass Menagerie, but the occasional small-scale musical such as Sunday in the Park with George and Next to Normal have made long runs here. 222 W 45th St., shubertorganization.com
The Palace Theatre is one of the only five Broadway theaters that actually have Broadway as a street address as well. You may walk past it today and not even notice the marquee jutting out amid all of the towering billboards. But behind those ads hides a theater with some serious provenance. The Palace opened in 1913 as a vaudeville venue and quickly became the premiere destination for acts across the country. Bob Hope, Al Jolson, Ethel Merman, and Jack Benny played here. Like the New Amsterdam, it was converted to a movie theater in 1932. Citizen Kane had its world premiere here. In 1949, there began an attempt to rekindle the vaudeville format with performances by stars such as Danny Kaye, Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra and Jerry Lewis in musical variety shows. The first Broadway musical to play the Palace was Sweet Charity in 1966, followed by such shows as La Cage Aux Folles, Beauty and the Beast and the recent revival of Annie. Its next tenant will be Holler If Ya Hear Me, a new musical based on the songs of Tupac Shakur. 1564 Broadway, palacetheatreonbroadway.com
Richard Rodgers Theatre
Originally named the 46th Street Theatre, this venue has hosted an astonishing number of Tony winning plays and musicals, including Guys and Dolls, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Nine and Lost in Yonkers. It was renamed the Richard Rodgers in 1990 after the legendary composer. Posters and memorabilia from his long career, including collaborations with Lorenz Hart and Oscar Hammerstein II, decorate the lobby and the walls. The theater is also notable because it was the first to employ a “democratic” seating plan, devised by the original owner Irving Chanin, when it opened in 1925. In previously built theaters, there were separate entrances to the expensive orchestra seats and the cheaper ones in the mezzanine and balcony. Here, everyone comes in through the same doors and a series of steps leads to the less costly seats. The next occupant is the new musical If/Then starring Idina Menzel, which begins previews on March 4. 226 W 46th St., richardrodgerstheatre.com
Winter Garden Theatre
The Winter Garden Theater has been reconfigured multiple times in its history, and has hosted some of the biggest shows on Broadway. Built in 1896 to be the American Horse Exchange, the Shuberts bought the structure in 1911 and had it redesigned as a theater and added a garden motif. Its first production was the Jerome Kern musical La Belle Parre, which made a star of Al Jolson. The Winter Garden was the only Broadway theatre to have a runway extended from the stage. Jolson, who starred in many productions here, would run out on it and slide on his knees to get closer to the audience. Remodeled in 1922 by legendary theater designer Herbert J. Krapp, the theater was gutted and redesigned again in 1982 to accommodate the junkyard setting of Cats. When the show closed in 2000, the theater was resorted to its 1920s elegance. Because of its grand size (1,526 seats), the Winter Garden usually houses large-scale musicals such as West Side Story, Mame, and Mamma Mia!, which played here until it moved to the Broadhurst Theater in November 2013. In keeping with its history of lavish spectacles, its next occupant, Rocky (scheduled to open March 13), will feature a boxing ring which will move out over the audience. 1634 Broadway, shubertorganization.com