History Of The Gershwin Theatre: Biggest Theater In New York

History Of The Gershwin Theatre: The Biggest Theater In NY

Feature Photo: RockinWorks Creative / Shutterstock.com

The Gershwin Theatre is one of the two theaters in the Paramount Plaza building at 1633 Broadway. It is situated on the building’s second floor, while its counterpart – the Circle in the Square Theatre – is situated in the building’s basement. Both theatres are counted among the 41 Broadway Theaters. However, Gershwin Theatre tends to be the better-known of the two. After all, it has a seating capacity of approximately 1,933, thus making it the biggest Broadway theater of them all.

History Of The Gershwin Theatre

Previously, the site of the Paramount Plaza building was occupied by the Capitol Theatre. Interested individuals should know that it wasn’t a true predecessor to the Gershwin Theatre. Instead, it was a movie palace, referring to a kind of large, single-screen movie theatre popular in the early 20th century before being made uncompetitive by the rise of TVs in the mid-20th century. Still, the Capitol Theatre was notable in its own right because Marcus Leow made it the flagship of his theater chain after acquiring it in 1924. Thanks to that, it often hosted the premieres of Leow’s MGM-made movies.

The Capitol Theatre lasted until the late 1960s. By that point, it was one of the last movie palaces remaining in the area because most of its competitors had either become defunct or had been converted into multiplexes. The Uris brothers took an interest in the site because of the high demand for office space at those times. As a result, their Uris Buildings Corporation leased the site in September of 1967 to build an office building plus a Broadway theater. The last part was particularly notable because the last Broadway theater built before that was the Mark Hellinger Theatre in 1930.

There was a fair amount of dialogue between the Uris Buildings Corporation and the New York City Planning Commission. That was needed to secure permission for putting a Broadway theater in an office building, which received support from six parties while encountering opposition from the Shubert Organization. Along the way, the Uris Building Corporation made changes so that the office building would have two Broadway theaters when the original plan had called for one. The Capitol Theatre closed in September of 1968. Subsequently, work began on the new office building, which opened its doors in 1971. The Paramount Group bought a majority ownership stake in the building in 1976, with the result that it was renamed Paramount Plaza in 1980.

As the Uris Theatre

Originally, the Gershwin Theatre was called the Uris Theatre for the Uris family. Reputedly, the decision was criticized in theatrical circles. Regardless, the Uris family got the Nederlander Organization to operate the new Broadway theater at around the same time as the closure of the Capitol Theatre. By 1972, the Uris Theatre was ready to open its doors.

Unfortunately, the Uris Theatre didn’t have the smoothest experience in that first part of its history. It would be a massive exaggeration to say that it was a failure. Still, it encountered some serious obstacles at the start. For instance, its first show was the musical Via Galactica, which had the dubious distinction of being the first Broadway show to lose a million dollars after its run ended with just seven performances. Similarly, a production of The Desert Song ended with just 15 performances in 1973. Seesaw in the same year was more successful with 296 performances. Even so, it is telling that the decision-makers for the Uris Theatre made it available for concerts and similar performances while still leaving the door open for musicals in the future. Their situation was presumably not helped by the struggles of the office building itself, which would culminate in a change of ownership for the office building just a few years after its opening.

It wasn’t all doom and gloom for the Uris Theatre in the 1970s. It did have a couple of notable successes from that decade. First, there was The King and I in 1977, which went on for 719 performances. Second, there was Sweeney Todd in 1979, which went on for 755 performances. These remain some of the Gershwin Theatre’s most successful shows even in present.

As the Gershwin Theatre

In 1983, the Uris Theatre received its new name as the Gershwin Theatre in recognition of the lyricist Ira Gershwin and the composer George Gershwin. The two brothers collaborated on musical writing, with the result that they were responsible for some of the most famous songs in the English-speaking world of the 20th century. Examples range from “The Man I Love” to “Somebody to Watch Over Me.” Subsequently, the Gershwin Theatre hosted the memorial for Ira Gershwin after he died just a couple of months after its rename.

With that said, the Gershwin Theatre continued to struggle to secure successful musicals throughout the 1980s and 1990s. To name an example, it managed to get Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Starlight Express in the mid-1980s, though it had to undergo renovation to become capable of hosting the set. Alas, the production closed at a loss after two years despite the general praise of the critics. The Red Shoes fared worse in the early 1990s, as shown by how it closed down after just three days with an $8 million loss. Once again, the Gershwin Theatre did have successful shows to counterbalance these failures in these two decades. Still, it isn’t hard to see how it developed a reputation for short-lived productions.

History Of The Gershwin Theatre: The Biggest Theater In NY

Feature Photo: RockinWorks Creative / Shutterstock.com

The Gershwin Theatre This Millennium

Things seemed to have been better for the Gershwin Theatre this side of 2000. Riverdance remained popular when it relocated in 2000. For proof, look no further than the fact that it ran for another 605 performances. In 2002, there was a production of Oklahoma!, which was successful enough to see 388 performances.

None of these can compare with Wicked, a musical centered on two witches named Elphaba and Glinda. Interested individuals might recognize them as the Wicked Witch of the West and the Good Witch from The Wizard of Oz because Wicked is based on a 1995 novel of the same name with a very different perspective on its predecessor’s story. Reputedly, the people behind Wicked had some reluctance about booking the Gershwin Theatre for their show because of its reputation for short-lived productions. In the end, it proved to be a good move because the Gershwin Theatre’s size made it a perfect match for the show’s explosive popularity. Wicked is still playing there even now.






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