The Ambassador was the first of six new theatres that the Shuberts built on West Forty-eighth and West Forty-ninth streets in the early 1920s. The plot at 215 West Forty-ninth Street presented a challenge to veteran theatre architect Herbert J. Krapp, being too narrow for a conventional theatre layout. The resourceful Krapp responded with an unorthodox configuration, placing the auditorium diagonally on the site. Its auditorium is wide rather than deep, offering an excellent view of the stage from all seats.
There have been some erroneous reports that this theatre opened with the Shuberts’ famous operetta Blossom Time. Not so. The Ambassador welcomed a musical called The Rose Girl as its inaugural production on February 11, 1921, starring Marjorie Gateson. It was a success.
In May of 1921, a soldier revue called Biff! Bing! Bang! amused theatregoers. Later that year Blossom Time did open at the Ambassador, and it was this theatre’s first smash hit. A musical biography of composer Franz Schubert, it featured melodies adapted by fellow composer Sigmund Romberg from Schubert’s themes. The showstopper was “Serenade.” The operetta, which ran for 576 performances, became a perennial Shubert revival.
Operettas were the rage in the 1920s, and the Ambassador had its share of them. After Blossom Time came The Lady in Ermine (1922), a European import with added numbers by Al Goodman, who conducted pit orchestras for many Broadway shows, and by Romberg, whose “When Hearts Are Young” was the hit of the show. This success was followed by Caroline (1923), an American adaptation of a German operetta by Edward Kunneke, starring Tessa Kosta. Next came Victor Herbert’s last show, The Dream Girl (1924), a fantasy that involved Fay Bainter and Walter Woolf in one of those “dream” plots, which takes them back to the fifteenth century. There were some Sigmund Romberg interpolations in this operetta, too, which was produced after Herbert’s death.
A change of fare came to the Ambassador in 1925 when a highly successful revival of Shaw’s Candida, starring Katharine Cornell, who became famed for her interpretation of the leading role, moved from the Eltinge Theatre to this house. More drama arrived when William A. Brady brought in his production of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1926), adapted by Owen Davis and starring James Rennie as Gatsby, Florence Eldridge as Daisy and Elliott Cabot as Tom Buchanan. Directed by George Cukor, the future great film director, the play ran for 113 performances.
The Ambassador returned to musicals with a solid hit, Queen High, which ran for almost 400 performances in 1926-27. It starred Charles Ruggles. From September 1927 until December 1929, the Ambassador had a string of quick flops. The few exceptions were an exciting police drama, The Racket (1927), starring Edward G. Robinson, Norman Foster and John Cromwell, which ran for 120 performances and was named one of the year’s ten best plays; and Little Accident, a play by Floyd Dell and Thomas Mitchell, with Mitchell starring as a man about to marry one woman when he discovers he is the father of another woman’s child. This hit comedy moved from the Morosco Theatre and played for six months at the Ambassador.
In December 1929 Street Scene, Elmer Rice’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play that took place in front of a Manhattan tenement house, moved from the Playhouse and completed its run of 601 performances at the Ambassador. The Last Mile, a prison drama by John Wexley, starring Spencer Tracy, Joseph Spurin-Calleia and Henry O’Neill, moved from the Sam H. Harris Theatre to the Ambassador in October 1930. This lauded drama, one of the year’s ten best, served as the springboard for Spencer Tracy’s career in Hollywood.
Highlights of the 1930s at this theatre included Are You Decent? (1934), a comedy by Crane Wilbur in which Claudia Morgan announced to two suitors that she wished to have a baby without bothering with matrimony; Kill That Story (1934), a George Abbott/Philip Dunning production about a newspaperman whose wife unjustly divorces him because she believes he’s having an affair with a stenographer at the newspaper; and Lucile Watson and Percy Kilbride in Post Road (1935), a comedy about kidnapping that moved here from the Masque Theatre.
Ayn Rand’s fascinating courtroom drama The Night of January 16 (1935), starring Doris Nolan and Walter Pidgeon, featured a jury selected from the audience at each performance to decide if Nolan was guilty of murder.
Other 1930’s highlights: the Abbey Theatre Players from Dublin in a season of repertory, including Katie Roche, The Plough and the Stars, The Playboy of the Western World and Juno and the Paycock (1937); and Danny Kaye making his Broadway debut in The Straw Hat Revue (1939), with Imogene Coca, Alfred Drake and Jerome Robbins in the cast, spoofing Broadway shows and current trends.
In 1935 the Shuberts sold their interest in this theatre; they did not buy it back until 1956. During those two decades, the Ambassador did not always function as a legitimate theatre. It was, on different occasions, leased as a movie theatre and as a studio for radio and TV.
The Ambassador returned to legitimacy on November 16, 1941, with Cuckoos on the Hearth, an insane comedy that moved here from the Mansfield Theatre, with Percy Kilbride, Janet Fox and Howard St. John. Then two years elapsed before the theatre again housed a play. The Messrs. Shubert brought in a revival of Blossom Time in 1943, but it lasted for only 47 performances. Edward Chodorov’s successful drama Decision moved here from the Belasco in 1944; the critically disdained but popular comedy School for Brides, starring Roscoe Karns, moved here from the Royale in 1944.
For the next 12 years, the Ambassador was leased to radio and television networks. In 1956 the Shuberts once again became the owners and reopened the refurbished house with a comedy, The Loud Red Patrick, starring David Wayne and Arthur Kennedy. It was not successful, and neither was the next tenant, Tallulah Bankhead in Eugenia, adapted from Henry James’s The Europeans.
In 1957 Meyer Levin’s adaptation of his book Compulsion, about the famous Leopold/Loeb murder trial in Chicago, played for 140 performances with Dean Stockwell and Roddy McDowall as the murderers and Ina Balin as one of their college classmates. In March 1958 Tyrone Power and Faye Emerson played Adam and Eve in George Bernard Shaw’s Back to Methuselah for 29 performances. George C. Scott made his Broadway debut at the Ambassador with Judith Anderson in the 1958 drama Comes a Day and caused an immediate sensation by strangling a bird onstage (a prop, we hope). In 1959 Melvyn Douglas, E. G. Marshall and Jean Dixon appeared in The Gang’s All Here, a play about the scandalous Harding administration in Washington, DC.
The 1960s at the Ambassador brought Paddy Chayefsky’s The Tenth Man (1961) from the Booth Theatre; Gladys Cooper in an interesting adaptation of E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India (1962); Joseph Cotten, Patricia Medina (his wife), Russell Collins and John Beal in Joseph Hayes’s drama about corruption in big business, Calculated Risk (1962); Stop the World—I Want to Get Off (1963), the celebrated Anthony Newley/Leslie Bricusse musical, transferred from the Shubert Theatre; Ira Wallach’s Absence of a Cello (1964), with Fred Clark giving a comic performance; and appearances by the Paul Taylor Dance Company and Charles Aznavour (1965).
The second half of the decade brought Robert Preston and Rosemary Harris in James Goldman’s witty play The Lion in Winter (1966), about Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine; Robert Anderson’s captivating playlets under the collective title You Know I Can’t Hear You When the Water’s Running (1967), starring Martin Balsam, Eileen Heckart and George Grizzard; and We Bombed in New Haven (1968), the unsuccessful Joseph Heller play about men at war, starring Jason Robards Jr.
On January 22, 1969, the Ambassador hosted an experimental musical, Celebration, from the writers of The Fantasticks, Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt. Called by Jones a “ritual experience. With laughs. And a few naked girls,” Celebration enacted a battle between winter and summer in the persons of an old rich man and an orphan lad who vie for the love of a young woman named Angel. Starring Keith Charles, Susan Watson and Ted Thurston, it stayed for 109 performances.
The 1970s brought unusual and varied fare to this theatre. A revival of Sandy Wilson’s spoof of 1920s musicals, The Boy Friend (1970), starring Sandy Duncan and Judy Carne, did not fare as well as the original. Paul Sills’s Story Theatre (1970) turned out to be a delightful entertainment that presented children’s classic stories with dance, song, narration and pantomime. Melvin Van Peebles’s Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death (1971) offered an original look at the black experience. Subsequent productions included Jim Dale in a lively revival of Scapino (1974) that featured the startling stunt of Dale dashing out into the audience balancing on the backs of seats; Estelle Parsons in a one-woman tour de force, Miss Margarida’s Way (1977), which treated the audience as a classroom of misbehaving children; a marvelous revue of Eubie Blake songs called Eubie! (1978); a revival of the gospel musical Your Arms Too Short to Box with God (1980); Dancin’ (1980), the Bob Fosse dance triumph that moved here from the Broadhurst; and a 1983 revival of Arthur Miller’s revised version of A View from the Bridge, with potent performances by Tony Lo Bianco, Rose Gregorio, James Hayden, Alan Feinstein and Robert Prosky.
In 1985 this theatre housed Leader of the Pack, a revue of bouncy, early 1960’s pop songs by Ellie Greenwich. In 1987 Barbara Cook: A Concert for the Theatre opened here, followed by a revival of the musical Dreamgirls. A revival of Ain’t Misbehavin’ in 1988 (with a reunion of the 1978 musical’s original cast) proved popular, staying for nearly six months, though the Brazilian revue Oba Oba ’90 managed only 45 performances.
In 1989 Rex Harrison, Glynis Johns and Stewart Granger starred in a revival of W. Somerset Maugham’s witty comedy The Circle. Granger made his Broadway debut in this play. Unfortunately, it was his only appearance on Broadway, as well as Harrison’s last. Both were deceased a short time afterward. The play ran for 208 performances.
Red Buttons on Broadway, a solo show featuring the comedian, played a short engagement at the Ambassador, then was followed by a big hit: the Off-Broadway musical Bring in ’da Noise, Bring in ’da Funk, which transferred from the Public Theater to Broadway on April 25, 1996. Described as a “performance piece,” the unique entertainment was based on an idea by Savion Glover (who choreographed and starred in it) and George C. Wolfe. Produced by the New York Shakespeare Festival, it thrilled critics and audiences with its vivid sketches of African-American history as expressed through dynamic dancing and singing. The musical earned nine Tony Award nominations and won the following: Best Direction of a Musical (Wolfe), Best Choreography (Glover), Best Featured Actress in a Musical (Ann Duquesnay) and Best Lighting (Jules Fisher). The hit ran for 1,130 performances.
In February 1999 a new production of Clark Gesner’s 1967 Off-Broadway musical You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown opened and won Tony Awards for its two featured performers, Kristin Chenoweth and Roger Bart. Chenoweth’s performance of the interpolated song “My New Philosophy” by Andrew Lippa made her a star. The production was also nominated for Best Musical Revival and Best Direction of a Musical (Michael Mayer).
Arthur Miller’s drama The Ride Down Mt. Morgan opened here on April 9, 2000, to mixed reviews. Critics felt that it was an unfinished work. The play, about a charismatic bigamist whose two families meet after he’s injured in a car accident, starred Patrick Stewart and Frances Conroy. Stewart caused controversy after one performance by making a curtain speech and accusing the play’s producers of not properly publicizing the production. He was censured by Actors’ Equity and ordered to apologize. The drama earned a Best Play Tony nomination and a Best Featured Actress nomination for Conroy and played for 120 performances. It was the final Broadway opening of a new play for playwriting titan Arthur Miller, who died in 2005.
On March 11, 2001, the Ambassador hosted a transfer of Lonny Price and Linda Kline’s Off-Broadway hit A Class Act, a musical biography of idiosyncratic A Chorus Line lyricist Ed Kleban (1939-1987) using his many fine, but largely unpublished, songs to tell the story of his life, which had been cut short by cancer. The show finally gave the songs the Broadway airing Kleban had craved.
Kate Burton earned a Tony nomination for her performance of the title role in the October 4, 2001, revival of Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler. The Ambassador housed the 2002 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Topdog/Underdog, making its author, Suzan-Lori Parks, the first African-American woman to be accorded that honor. Jeffrey Wright and rapper Mos Def starred in the drama about two brothers, named Booth and Lincoln, who wind up reenacting the assassination of the president. It stayed at the Ambassador for 144 performances.
For the rest of the decade, the Ambassador Theatre was the laboratory for a highly successful experiment in serial stunt casting. The theatre was booked throughout that period with the Tony-winning 1996 revival of Chicago, which had opened at the Richard Rodgers Theatre and spent a period at the Shubert before settling in for the long haul at the Ambassador starting January 29, 2003.
Producers Fran and Barry Weissler had kept their 1994 revival of Grease running long past its natural expiration date by bringing in celebrities from other media for short engagements, usually in supporting roles. When Chicago’s box office moxie began to flag, they tried the same policy (though applying now to leading roles) with tremendous success, bringing in the likes of Marilu Henner, Melanie Griffith, Ashlee Simpson and Christie Brinkley as Roxie, and Usher, George Hamilton, Alan Thicke and Tom Wopat as Billy Flynn. The leads may have changed, but many in the supporting ensemble stayed with the show year after year and became adept at handling the “put-ins” of these celebrities.
Also contributing to the revival’s longevity was the 2002 film version of Chicago, which won the Oscar for Best Picture. Far from harming the prospects of the Broadway version, the movie made the property a known quantity throughout the world, and tourists visiting New York were sold for many years on the opportunity to see what was billed as the real Chicago “live on Broadway.”
Chicago celebrated its tenth anniversary in 2006 with a reunion of the many performers who had played the roles, with special guest Chita Rivera from the original 1975 production on hand to sing and dance in the opening number, and the others alternating in the various songs and scenes. Chicago is now the longest-running revival in Broadway history.
219 West 49th Street
New York, NY 10019
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