History Of The Circle In The Square Theatre

he Circle In The Square Theatre History

Feature Photo: Broadway Tour, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

The Circle in the Square Theatre is one of the two theaters in Paramount Plaza. However, interested individuals should have no problem distinguishing it from its counterpart, the Gershwin Theatre. After all, The Circle In The Square Theatre is a smaller theater with approximately 651 seats situated in the basement, whereas its counterpart is a much larger theater with approximately 1,926 seats situated on the second floor. On top of this, the Circle in the Square Theatre is different from most Broadway Theaters in other ways, which has remained true to some extent even in recent decades.

Founding Circle in the Square

For starters, Circle in the Square predates its namesake theater. It was founded by Theodore Mann and José Quintero in 1950. In those times, Circle in the Square was based out of an abandoned nightclub, which says much about its humble beginnings. Even so, it managed to build up its reputation bit by bit. Its revival of Tennessee Williams’s Summer and Smoke was a hit in 1952 even though the original production had been a failure. Similarly, its revival of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh was also a hit in 1956 even though the original production had also been a failure. These successes plus others gave Circle in the Square a great deal of credibility, so much so it was able to move into a theater at 159 Bleecker Street in 1960. There, it would continue producing both newer, more experimental works and time-tested classics until it moved to its namesake theater in 1972.

Building Paramount Plaza

It wouldn’t be possible to talk about the Circle in the Square Theatre without talking about Paramount Plaza. Originally, the site had been occupied by a movie palace called the Capitol Theatre. In 1967, the Uris Buildings Corporation leased the site for 100 years before announcing its intention to replace the movie palace with an office building containing a legitimate theater. Later, the New York City Planning Commission convinced it to add a second legitimate theater. This one would be much smaller than its counterpart at just 300 to 375 seats, though that would be expanded to 650 seats. Chances are good interested individuals can guess that this would be the Circle in the Square Theatre.

The Uris Building was ready for use in August 1971. That was the office building’s name until it was renamed Paramount Plaza following a buyout in October 1976. The Circle in the Square Theatre was ready for inspection in October 1972 and ready for use in November 1972. The builders gave it the same kind of thrust stage as the theater at 159 Bleecker Street, which was useful because it ensured that no one in the audience would be seated more than eight rows away from the stage. Something critical for maintaining the sense of intimacy that characterized the theater at 159 Bleecker Street. With that said, the Circle in the Square Theatre was very much an upgrade on its predecessor, not least because it possessed a much more sophisticated set of technical systems.

From 1972 to 1997

Mourning Becomes Electra was the first production at the Circle in the Square Theatre. For those unfamiliar, it is an American retelling of Aeschylus’s Oresteia, though it manages to be even more unhappy than its source of inspiration. Furthermore, Mourning Becomes Electra is much longer than normal because it isn’t a play so much as a set of three plays that tend to be performed continuously. Despite these issues, the production met with a positive response.

Subsequently, the Circle in the Square Theatre continued hosting a mix of the new and the old. An American Millionaire in 1974 was one of the former. Meanwhile, Romeo and Juliet, The Importance of Being Earnest, Tartuffe, and Saint Joan in 1977 served as excellent examples of the latter. The Circle in the Square Theatre continued to host productions throughout the rest of the 1970s, the 1980s, and the 1990s. As always, some of these productions were more notable than others for one reason or another. Joe Namath legitimized his nickname “Broadway Joe” by making his Broadway debut in The Misanthrope in 1983. A revival of George Bernard Shaw’s The Devil’s Disciple managed 113 performances in 1988 before a revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd managed 189 performances in 1989.

Sadly, the Circle in the Square Theatre ran into financial problems as early as its second Broadway season. It had its successes. Those successes weren’t enough to make up for the fact that Broadway productions are more expensive than Off-Broadway productions. By the early 1990s, the situation was so bad that the Circle in the Square Theatre came very close to shutting its doors then and there. Drastic measures were taken in an attempt to save it, but they were too little too late. Even a successful production of Eugene O’Neill’s Hughie in 1996 wasn’t enough to reverse the situation because too much debt had built up. As such, an already gutted Circle in the Square declared bankruptcy in 1997.

As a Receiving House

The Circle in the Square Theatre emerged from bankruptcy as an independent receiving house run on a for-profit basis. Still, it retains something of its previous self in how its earnings support the Circle in the Square Theatre School, which offers a place for interested individuals to earn credentials while pursuing their passion for theater.

In any case, the Circle in the Square Theatre has hosted a wide range of productions since 1997. The first was the Tennessee Williams play Not About Nightingales, which was unpublished and unperformed until Vanessa Redgrave hunted it down in the late 1990s. Later, a revival of The Rocky Horror Show starting in late 2000 proved popular enough to run for 437 performances, while a transfer of Metamorphoses starting in early 2002 proved popular enough to run for 400 performances. Amusingly, it was The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee starting in mid-2005 that would become the single most successful show at the theater so far with 1,136 performances.

After that, the Circle in the Square Theatre continued to do well enough. Examples of its shows from the 2010s included but weren’t limited to Lombardi in 2010, a revival of Godspell in 2013, and Tony Award-winning Fun Home in 2015. A revival of Oklahoma! wrapped up just before the COVID-19 crisis. Alas, the pandemic disrupted things anyway by cutting into the run of Chicken & Biscuits, which made its Broadway debut in 2021.

References:

https://archives.nypl.org/the/21843

https://www.spotlightonbroadway.com/theater/circle-in-the-square

https://www.playbill.com/venue/circle-in-the-square-theatre-vault-0000000092

https://playbill.com/article/revisit-productions-that-have-called-broadways-circle-in-the-square-home

Jackson, Kenneth T. The Encyclopedia of New York City. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011.

Haskell, David. The Encyclopedia of New York. New York: Avid Reader Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc., 2020.

Bloom, Ken. Broadway: Its History, People, and Places: An Encyclopedia. New York: Routledge, 2004.

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