History Of The Lyric Theatre On Broadway

History Of The Lyric Theatre On Broadway

Feature Photo: Sheila Fitzgerald / Shutterstock.com

The History Of The Lyric Theatre On Broadway stands out for several reasons. For starters, it was built in the late 1990s even though most Broadway Theaters were built in the early 20th century. Furthermore, Furthermore, it had not one but two predecessors. With that said, even though the Lyric Theatre is such a new construction, it has seen a surprising amount of change. As such, its story is worth telling.

Its Two Predecessors

Situated at 214 West 43rd Street, the Lyric Theatre’s site was previously occupied by not one but two venues. One was the previous Lyric Theatre, while the other was the Apollo Theatre. This Apollo Theatre on 42nd Street is not the same as the better-known Apollo Theatre on 125th Street made famous by performers like James Brown and so many legendary soul music artists.  These two venues bore the same name for several decades, but they always had different locations and different purposes. Eventually, the Apollo Theatre on 125th Street reinvented itself to focus on the African-American community in its neighborhood when its previous focus became unviable in the mid-1930s. Over time, that made it even easier to tell them apart.” Originally, the Lyric Theatre was marketed as a sort of restoration for its two predecessors. In truth, it is better described as a new construction even though it incorporates elements of both the previous Lyric Theatre and the Apollo Theatre.

The previous Lyric Theatre opened its doors in 1903. Its intended use never came to be. As a result, its builder made do by leasing it to the Shubert Brothers, who were just making themselves known in New York City at the time. Subsequently, the Lyric Theatre hosted a wide range of performers in a wide range of productions. To name an example, it was one of the venues where Sarah Bernhardt performed when she toured the United States for the sixth time in the early 20th century. She was one of the first stage actresses to become an international superstar, which was helped by some of her quirks. One example was how she sometimes slept in a coffin, which was a deliberate thumbing of the nose to the notion that she was sickly looking.

Another example was how she often played male roles. Indeed, the Lyric Theatre’s website shows a photo of Bernhardt as Hamlet in the Shakespearean play of the same name and another photo of Bernhardt as Napoleon II in L’Aiglon. Sadly, the previous Lyric Theatre fell into hard times when the Great Depression came along. It was converted into a movie theater in 1932, remaining as such until it closed in 1992.

As for the Apollo Theatre, its experience was no better. It came into existence at the start of the 1920s. Thanks to that, it hosted both movies and live shows for a decade before it ran into the same issues as its counterparts during the Great Depression. In response, the Apollo Theatre scrambled for a way to survive. Soon enough, it was hosting more risque kinds of entertainment. Later, it became a movie theater. Interested parties attempted to return the Apollo Theatre to use as a legitimate theater in the late 1970s. When that fell through, it became a venue for music, movies, and other kinds of entertainment, deteriorating bit by bit until it met its end in the 1990s.

Neither the previous Lyric Theatre nor the Apollo Theatre had received official landmark status from the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission in the late 1980s. Still, the building of the Lyric Theatre didn’t destroy all traces of its two predecessors. Interested individuals can find exterior photos of the previous Lyric Theatre that look remarkably like the exterior photos of its successor. That is because the Lyric Theatre retains its predecessor’s facade. The exterior of the Apollo Theatre didn’t receive the same consideration. Instead, some of its interior decorations were removed before its demolition so that they could be included in its successor. Some of the Lyric Theatre’s Greek-themed decorations come from this. In contrast, others were just inspired by this.

Lyric Theater On Broadway

V. Hugo Koehler, architect, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Built For Livent

In any case, the Lyric Theatre was built because of the renewal of Times Square in the late 20th century. The gist of it is that the area went through some hard times during the 1930s and 1940s, which proceeded to worsen in the subsequent decades. There was widespread interest in reversing the trend. However, a serious effort didn’t happen until the 1980s and 1990s. Even then, it took quite some time for everything to settle into place.

In the case of the Lyric Theatre, its construction didn’t start until the mid-1990s. A Canadian company called Livent decided to lease the previous Lyric Theatre and the Apollo Theatre, with the intent of replacing them with a single, large-sized theater that would be second in seating capacity to the Gershwin Theatre. Construction started in late 1996. Subsequently, it proceeded so fast that the venue was ready to open its doors in late 1997. It is interesting to note that the Lyric Theatre started as the Ford Center for the Performing Arts because of an endorsement by the auto manufacturer.

Passing From Hand to Hand

Livent filed for bankruptcy less than a year after the venue’s opening. It was a horrible mess, not least because of the stakeholders suing each other to establish who was responsible for what. For instance, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that Deloitte was responsible for some of Livent’s losses in the 1990s because of auditing failures in 2017, which says much about the length of the legal battles.

Regardless, the venue had to find a new owner. SFX Entertainment bought the venue in 1999. Subsequently, Clear Channel Entertainment bought SFX Entertainment in 2000. Eventually, the venue winded up being leased by the Ambassador Theatre Group in 2013, which was notable because that made it the British theatre organization’s first but not last venue in the United States. During this time, the venue went through several name changes. First, Hilton Hotels & Resorts signed a deal in 2004, which is why the Ford Center for the Performing Arts was renamed the Hilton Theatre. Second, Foxwood Resort Casino signed a deal in 2010, which is why the Hilton Theatre was renamed the Foxwood Theatre. When the Ambassador Theatre Group came in, it renamed the venue the Lyric Theatre, presumably because it wanted to capitalize on the venue’s connections to the past while minimizing the reputational complications caused by fast-changing corporate sponsorships.

Under the Ambassador Theatre Group

Following its acquisition by the Ambassador Theatre Group, the Lyric Theatre underwent a renovation to make it ready for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in 2017 and 2018. The renovation was more extensive than it sounds based on that description because it reduced the venue’s seating capacity to approximately 1,622. That sounds strange. However, there have been complaints that the venue was oversized in the past, which presumably provided much of the rationale for the change. Since the renovation, the Lyric Theatre has returned to its intended use without incident so far. It closed in March 2020 because of COVID-19 measures. Later, it reopened in November 2021 once the most stringent of those measures had been lifted.

References:

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

https://www.lyricbroadway.com/about-us/history

https://seatplan.com/new-york/lyric-theatre/

https://www.spotlightonbroadway.com/theater/lyric

https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/bernhardt-sarah

https://www.cbc.ca/news/business/deloitte-livent-audit-supreme-court-1.4458543

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

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

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