One of Manhattan’s most illustrious musical comedy houses, the Neil Simon Theatre was known for most of its history as the Alvin. The theatre was named after the men who built it and produced shows there — Alex Aarons and Vinton Freedley. Having made considerable money producing musicals, Aarons and Freedley built their own playhouse at 250 West Fifty-second Street, facing the stately Guild Theatre (now the August Wilson Theatre).
Critic Brooks Atkinson of The New York Times wrote: “The new Alvin Theatre, set defiantly across the street from the scholarly Theatre Guild, seems to have all the best features of the modern playhouse — even an old English lounge where refreshments may be had. The auditorium is decorated with pastel shades of blue and gray, with ivory and gold decorations. The Alvin can serve 1,400 drama gluttons at one sitting.”
Designed by Herbert J. Krapp, the new house had three floors of offices above it where Aarons and Freedley had their headquarters. The theatre contained a spacious lobby in black marble and an inner lobby of simple design. There was only one balcony. The ample orchestra pit could accommodate 48 musicians, and the stage was spacious enough to allow for the production and staging of the most elaborate musicals.
The Alvin opened auspiciously on November 22, 1927, with the Aarons/Freedley Funny Face, a hit musical by George and Ira Gershwin, Paul Gerard Smith, and Fred Thompson. The cast included Fred and Adele Astaire, Victor Moore, Allen Kearns, Betty Compton, William Kent, and the duo pianists Phil Ohman and Victor Arden. The memorable score featured such gems as “He Loves and She Loves,” “’S Wonderful,” “My One and Only,” “The Babbitt and the Bromide,” and the title song. The Astaires captivated theatregoers for 250 performances.
The following November, Aarons and Freedley tried again with another Gershwin musical, Treasure Girl, but this time they failed. The star was Gertrude Lawrence, and her supporting cast included Paul Frawley, Walter Catlett, Clifton Webb, and Mary Hay, with Ohman and Arden again at the ivories. But the show’s book was uninspired, and the critics complained that Lawrence had to play a disagreeable liar. Clifton Webb and Mary Hay’s dancing was applauded, and the Gershwin tunes included “I Don’t Think I’ll Fall in Love Today,” “Feeling I’m Falling,” and “I’ve Got a Crush on You.” The musical expired after 69 performances.
In 1929 the Theatre Guild production of Wings Over Europe, a startling drama that speculated about the destructive power of atomic energy, moved here from the Martin Beck Theatre. This was followed by two Rodgers and Hart musicals in succession. The first was Spring Is Here, with a book by Owen Davis from his play Shotgun Wedding. It was not one of Rodgers and Hart’s triumphs, but a pleasant show with two songs that lasted: “With a Song in My Heart” and “Yours Sincerely.” In the cast were Inez Courtney, Glenn Hunter, Charles Ruggles, and Joyce Barbour. Spring Is Here lasted 104 performances. Heads Up!, the next Rodgers and Hart musical, had a book by John McGowan and Paul Gerard Smith and contained a lovely song that is sometimes heard in supper clubs — “A Ship without a Sail.” The cast included Ray Bolger, Victor Moore, Betty Starbuck, Jack Whiting, Barbara Newberry, and Lewis (later, Lew) Parker. Victor Moore won raves for his comedy routines. The musical ran for 144 performances.
In 1930 the Theatre Guild’s production of Shaw’s The Apple Cart, with Claude Rains and Violet Kemble Cooper, moved here from the Martin Beck. Then, on October 14, 1930, one of this theatre’s historic musicals opened. It was the Aarons/Freedley production of George and Ira Gershwin’s Girl Crazy, with a book by Guy Bolton and John McGowan. The cast included Ginger Rogers, Willie Howard, Allen Kearns, William Kent, and the Foursome. But it was Ethel Merman, making her Broadway debut, who shook the Alvin with her electrifying rendition of the classic “I Got Rhythm.” The musical, which also introduced the standards “But Not for Me” and “Embraceable You,” ran 272 performances.
Eugene O’Neill’s great trilogy Mourning Becomes Electra moved here from the Guild Theatre across the street in 1932.
Jerome Kern’s Music in the Air was an enormous hit in 1932 at this theatre, which did not have another theatrical booking until May 29, 1933, when The Players chose it as the house for their twelfth annual revival of a classic play. They scheduled a revival of Uncle Tom’s Cabin for a week, but it was so popular that it stayed for three. The distinguished cast included Otis Skinner as Uncle Tom, Fay Bainter as Topsy, Thomas Chalmers as Simon Legree, Elizabeth Risdon as Eliza, Minnie Dupree as Aunt Ophelia, Cecilia Loftus as Aunt Chloe, and Gene Lockhart as Gumption Cute.
The Alvin housed a distinguished drama in the fall of 1933. It was the Theatre Guild production of Maxwell Anderson’s verse play Mary of Scotland, starring Helen Hayes in the title role, Helen Menken as Queen Elizabeth, and Philip Merivale as the Earl of Bothwell.
On the night of November 21, 1934, one of the Depression’s most glittering first-night audiences gathered at the Alvin to roar its approval of Cole Porter’s felicitous musical Anything Goes. This show had a very shaky history. The original libretto by Guy Bolton and P. G. Wodehouse involved a group of zany characters on a luxury liner that is shipwrecked. Just as the musical was about to go into rehearsal, the luxury liner SS Morro Castle burned off the coast of Asbury Park and the musical’s plot seemed very unfunny. As the story goes, with Bolton and Wodehouse out of the country, producer Vinton Freedley turned in desperation to the show’s director, Howard Lindsay, who hired press agent Russel Crouse to help him quickly write a new libretto. The show went into rehearsal with only a portion of the first act on paper. They kept the action on a luxury liner but dropped the shipwreck notion. The result was a triumph of mirth and melody, with Ethel Merman as Reno Sweeney (a parody of Aimee Semple MacPherson) traveling with her band of singers, called “Angels.” Victor Moore was Public Enemy No. 13, gangster Moonface Martin, disguised as Reverend Dr. Moon (with a machine gun in his violin case), and William Gaxton was a playboy in pursuit of Hope Harcourt (Bettina Hall). Porter wrote his greatest score to that time, including “I Get a Kick Out of You,” “You’re the Top,” “All Through the Night,” “Blow, Gabriel, Blow,” and the infectious title song. The musical became the most representative show of the 1930s — glamorous, screwball, slightly risqué, very topical, and very sophisticated. It ran for 420 performances.
In October 1935 the Gershwins and DuBose Heyward brought their magnificent opera Porgy and Bess to the Alvin. The reception was mixed, and it played only 124 times. George Gershwin went to his grave two years later thinking it was a failure, but revivals have helped audiences recognize it as his masterpiece and the capstone of his career.
In October of 1936 Vinton Freedley hoped to strike gold again with another Ethel Merman/Cole Porter show. This one was called Red, Hot and Blue, and there was trouble from the very start. Both Ethel and her costar, Jimmy Durante, wanted top billing. After much haggling, Mrs. Porter came up with a solution: a crisscross arrangement of the two names so that each could be construed as having top billing. The other star, Bob Hope, took to lying down and mugging during one of Ethel’s song numbers, and she threatened “to sit on the son of a bitch” if he didn’t stop. He stopped. The show was not another Anything Goes. The plot, by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, was about a national lottery. The winner was the person who could find one “Peaches Le Fleur,” who had a distinctive mark on her behind because she once sat on a hot waffle iron. The Supreme Court got into the lottery and began examining showgirls in cellophane skirts to see if they had the winning mark. The dippy show ran for 181 performances, and the most memorable moments were provided by Durante, as a polo-playing convict, and three great Porter songs: “It’s De-Lovely,” “Ridin’ High,” and “Down in the Depths (on the Ninetieth Floor).”
On November 2, 1937, George M. Cohan returned to this theatre as President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the satirical musical I’d Rather Be Right, and the occasion turned into one of Broadway’s most flamboyant opening nights. The fact that no sitting U.S. president had ever been portrayed onstage (and in a satire, no less), and the added lure that the show was the creation of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, George S. Kaufman, and Moss Hart made this a must-see event. Reported Lucius Beebe in Stage magazine: “Probably no theatrical event has occasioned such civic tumult since the Astor Place Riots. All New York wanted in, as the phrase has it. New York seemed completely overwhelmed by the return of Cohan, and popular rejoicing and Morris dancing in Longacre Square complemented the most insufferable crush, confusion, and amiable uproar Fifty-second Street has ever known.”
Although I’d Rather Be Right was not as biting as Of Thee I Sing, Cohan’s affectionate portrayal of FDR and his delightful tap dancing made the show one of the season’s sold-out delights. Only one Rodgers and Hart song was played beyond the show: “Have You Met Miss Jones?” The musical ran for 289 performances.
In November 1938 Rodgers and Hart and George Abbott brought to the Alvin their memorable musical The Boys from Syracuse, based on Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors, with Eddie Albert and Ronald Graham as one set of twins, Jimmy Savo and Teddy Hart (brother of lyricist Lorenz) as the other set, plus Muriel Angelus, Marcy Wescott, Wynn Murray, Betty Bruce, and Burl Ives. With choreography by George Balanchine and such lilting songs as “This Can’t Be Love,” “Falling in Love with Love,” and “Sing for Your Supper,” the exuberant musical ran for 235 performances.
In February 1940, to aid the Finnish Relief Fund, the Lunts brought back their 1935 revival of The Taming of the Shrew. It was a short engagement but a notable one for a worthy war cause. In April of that year, they returned to this theatre in Robert E. Sherwood’s There Shall Be No Night, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. It was a powerful denunciation of war and, in particular, Russia’s invasion of Finland. The play showed the devastating effects on a Finnish family. The supporting cast included Montgomery Clift, Richard Whorf, Sydney Greenstreet, Elizabeth Praser, and Phyllis Thaxter. It ran for 115 performances, took a vacation, then resumed for 66 additional performances.
On January 23, 1941, the Alvin housed one of the American musical theatre’s finest works: Lady in the Dark, by Moss Hart, Kurt Weill, and Ira Gershwin. Gertrude Lawrence scored one of her greatest triumphs in it, bumping and grinding to one of the musical’s greatest tunes, “The Saga of Jenny.” Danny Kaye also stopped the show with his tongue twister “Tchaikowsky.” The supporting cast included Bert Lytell, Macdonald Carey, Victor Mature, and Margaret Dale. The choreography by Albertina Rasch and the opulent sets and costumes made it one of the most memorable musicals ever seen on Broadway. Brooks Atkinson in The New York Times called it “a work of theatre art.” It ran for 467 performances.
On January 7, 1943, there was a unique opening night at the Alvin for the latest Cole Porter/Ethel Merman musical, Something for the Boys. This was the date that a new government ruling went into effect because of the war. Private automobiles could not be driven to places of entertainment; therefore, Fifty-second Street was jammed with taxicabs, all honking to get through the crush. The musical, with Paula Laurence, Allen Jenkins, Betty Garrett, Bill Johnson, Jed Prouty, Betty Bruce, and — in the chorus — Dody Goodman, was a smash hit. Its plot, by Herbert and Dorothy Fields, was even more foolish than that of Red, Hot and Blue. Merman played a defense worker who got Carborundum in her teeth fillings, which turned her into a radio receiving set. At the show’s climax, she saved an army plane from crashing by receiving landing instructions via her teeth. Wartime audiences ate this up for 422 performances.
A series of failures played this theatre during 1944 and 1945. They were a musical called Jackpot, with Nanette Fabray, Benny Baker, Allan Jones, Wendell Corey, and Betty Garrett; Helen Goes to Troy, a new musical version of Offenbach’s operetta La Belle Hélène, with Ernest Truex and Jarmila Novotna; The Firebrand of Florence, a musical version of the play The Firebrand, by Kurt Weill, Ira Gershwin, and Edwin Justus Mayer, with Lotte Lenya; and Hollywood Pinafore, George S. Kaufman’s modern interpretation of Gilbert and Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore, with Victor Moore, William Gaxton, and Shirley Booth. More successful was a revival of The Tempest, as interpreted by Margaret Webster and Eva Le Gallienne and starring Vera Zorina, Arnold Moss, Canada Lee, and Frances Heflin.
Betty Comden, Adolph Green, and Morton Gould combined talents on Billion Dollar Baby, an interesting musical about the Roaring Twenties. Mitzi Green, Joan McCracken, Helen Gallagher, Danny Daniels, William Tabbert, and David Burns gave vivid performances, and the show amused postwar audiences for 220 performances.
Ingrid Bergman scored a triumph in Maxwell Anderson’s Joan of Lorraine (1946), with Sam Wanamaker and Romney Brent also giving memorable performances in this unconventional interpretation of the story of Joan of Arc.
In 1947 Life With Father moved to the Alvin from the Bijou Theatre and here ended its record run of 3,224 performances, making it the longest-running straight play in the history of the American theatre — a record that it still holds.
On October 8, 1947, Maurice Evans opened his highly successful revival of Shaw’s Man and Superman and starred in it for 294 performances. This was followed by one of the Alvin’s most fondly remembered bookings: Mister Roberts, the navy comedy, which opened on February 18, 1948, and stayed in port at the Alvin until January 6, 1951, for a total of 1,157 performances. The Thomas Heggen/Joshua Logan play starred Henry Fonda, who won a Tony Award for his performance in the title role. Other Tony Awards went to the play, to its producer, and to its authors.
Highlights of the 1950s at this theatre included Sidney Kingsley’s adaptation of Arthur Koestler’s novel Darkness at Noon (1951), which won a Tony Award for its star, Claude Rains; the musical version of Betty Smith’s novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1951), by Smith, George Abbott, Arthur Schwartz, and Dorothy Fields, starring Shirley Booth, Johnny Johnston, Marcia Van Dyke, and Nathaniel Frey; and Henry Fonda again in Point of No Return (1951), Paul Osborn’s dramatization of John P. Marquand’s novel of the same name, with Leora Dana, Frank Conroy, and John Cromwell.
In 1952 Bette Davis chose to star in a Vernon Duke revue called Two’s Company, but the decision was ill-advised. The show closed after 90 performances. Mary Martin and Charles Boyer starred in a humdrum comedy, Kind Sir, by Norman Krasna, in 1953. The spring of 1954 brought the Phoenix Theatre production of The Golden Apple, based on Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, and it won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for best musical of the season, though it continued for only 173 performances. This was followed in December 1954 by House of Flowers, a musical created by Truman Capote and Harold Arlen, directed by Peter Brook, and starring Pearl Bailey, Diahann Carroll, Ray Walston, Juanita Hall, and dancers Alvin Ailey, Geoffrey Holder, and Carmen de Lavallade. Although the score, sets, costumes, and cast were praised, the musical had a weak book, and it did not recoup its large investment despite a run of 165 performances.
On October 20, 1955, No Time for Sergeants opened and convulsed theatregoers for 796 performances. Ira Levin’s comedy, based on Mac Hyman’s novel, starred Andy Griffith as an amiable southerner who throws the army into an uproar with his friendly simplicity; Roddy McDowall played his army buddy.
In the late 1950s this theatre hosted some musicals that were only moderately successful: Oh, Captain! (1958), with Tony Randall, Abbe Lane, Susan Johnson, and Alexandra Danilova; and First Impressions, a musical version of Pride and Prejudice (1959), starring Hermione Gingold, Farley Granger, Polly Bergen, Phyllis Newman, and Ellen Hanley. During these years there were also engagements of Jerome Robbins’s Ballet U.S.A. and of Bells Are Ringing, a musical that moved here from the Shubert.
The 1960s brought Frank Loesser’s unsuccessful musical Greenwillow (1960), starring Anthony Perkins, Ellen McCown, Pert Kelton, and Cecil Kellaway; Les Ballets Africains and West Side Story, from the Winter Garden (1960); Lucille Ball opposite Keith Andes in her only Broadway show, Wildcat (1960 - Cy Coleman’s Broadway debut). Keith Andes is the grandfather of Ryan Andes, who is co-starring in Big Fish, the theatre’s current resident; Irma La Douce (1961), the hit musical from the Plymouth Theatre; an unsuccessful revue, New Faces of 1962; and a huge hit, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, the Stephen Sondheim/Burt Shevelove/Larry Gelbart musical based on several plays by Roman playwright Plautus, directed by George Abbott, and starring Zero Mostel, David Burns, Jack Gilford, John Carradine, and Raymond Walburn. This antic production tickled theatregoers for 964 performances.
Beatrice Lillie made her final Broadway appearance at the Alvin in 1964 in High Spirits, an uproarious musical version of Noël Coward’s comedy Blithe Spirit, by Hugh Martin and Timothy Gray, staged by Coward. Lillie was brilliant as the medium, Madame Arcati, and she was splendidly assisted by Tammy Grimes, Edward Woodward, and Louise Troy. The musical ran for 376 performances.
Maurice Chevalier at 77, a personal appearance by the French singer, came to the Alvin in 1965, as did Broadway debutante Liza Minnelli in an unsuccessful musical, Flora, the Red Menace, which also marked the Broadway debut of John Kander and Fred Ebb as a team. Other unsuccessful shows followed: a musical version of the best-selling book The Yearling (1965); a musical adaptation of the Superman comic strip called It’s a Bird . . . It’s a Plane . . . It’s Superman (1966); an all-star revival of Dinner at Eight (1966); and a musical version of The Man Who Came to Dinner, called Sherry! (1967), with book and lyrics by James Lipton, later host of TV’s "Inside the Actors Studio."
A palpable hit arrived in October 1967, when Tom Stoppard’s coruscating play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead opened. The dazzling work, which offered Hamlet as seen through the eyes of two of its minor characters, won a Tony Award as the best drama of the season. It was brilliantly acted by John Wood, Paul Hecht, and Brian Murray, and it played for 421 performances.
Another powerful drama, The Great White Hope, by Howard Sackler, opened here in 1968 and won the Pulitzer Prize, New York Drama Critics Circle Award, and Tony Award for Best Play. James Earl Jones and Jane Alexander won Tony Awards for their memorable performances as the first black heavyweight champion of the world and his tragic girlfriend. The play ran for 557 performances.
In the spring of 1970 Harold Prince arrived with an exciting, groundbreaking musical, Company, by Stephen Sondheim and George Furth. A popular bachelor (played by Dean Jones briefly, then succeeded by Larry Kert) takes a tour through the imperfect marriages of his demanding friends in a series of musical sketches. Company won seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Book, Best Music, Best Lyrics, and Best Direction. Boris Aronson’s magnificent set — a skeletal apartment house with running elevators — also won a Tony.
Shenandoah, a musical that arrived from the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut in 1975, starred John Cullum, who won a Tony Award for his performance in this Civil War musical. Next came a veritable gold mine for this theatre, another winner from the Goodspeed Opera House, called Annie. Martin Charnin, Thomas Meehan, and Charles Strouse’s musical adaptation of the popular comic strip “Little Orphan Annie” played at the Alvin for almost five years before moving to another theatre. It received Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Book, Best Score, Best Sets, Best Costumes, Best Choreography, and Best Actress (Dorothy Loudon, as the villainous Miss Hannigan). Young Andrea McArdle was highly praised for her performance as Annie and the beguiling orphans also received raves. It was a great family show and ran for 2,377 performances.
After Annie left the Alvin, the theatre had five musical failures in succession: Merrily We Roll Along, The Little Prince and the Aviator (which closed during previews), Little Johnny Jones, Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up? and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.
Next came a revival of the gospel musical Your Arms Too Short to Box with God, starring Al Green and Patti LaBelle. It was followed by Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs, the first play of an autobiographical trilogy about his youth with his family, which won the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for the season’s best play. Matthew Broderick won a Tony Award for his performance, and Îeljko Ivanek, Elizabeth Franz, Peter Michael Goetz, Joyce Van Patten, and Mindy Ingber also sparkled.
On June 29, 1983, the Alvin was officially renamed the Neil Simon Theatre in honor of one of America’s most prolific playwrights.
In 1985 the second play of Simon’s trilogy — Biloxi Blues — opened here and won the following Tony Awards: Best Play (Simon’s first such honor), Best Featured Actor (Barry Miller), and Best Director of a Play (Gene Saks). The play ran here for more than a year. Next came an unlikely musical called Into the Light, about scientists testing the authenticity of the Shroud of Turin. Starring Dean Jones, the show had a brief run of six performances.
In March 1987 a revival of Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit starred Richard Chamberlain, Blythe Danner, Judith Ivey, and the admired actress Geraldine Page. Tragically, on June 13, 1987, in the midst of its run, Page died. Patricia Conolly succeeded her in the plum role of Madame Arcati. Page was nominated for a Tony Award for her performance.
In October 1987 Mort Sahl on Broadway played a limited engagement, followed by a London success, Breaking the Code, by Hugh Whitmore, a playwright who liked to use real-life situations in his scripts (Stevie and Pack of Lies). Based on the book Alan Turing: The Enigma, by Andrew Hodges, the play dealt with the brilliant but eccentric British mathematician who broke Nazi Germany’s “Enigma” code during World War II, saving millions of Allied lives. The play’s title had two meanings: Turing not only broke the mathematical code, but the moral code, because he was a homosexual at a time when that was a criminal offense and branded him a security risk. Turing was brilliantly played by Derek Jacobi. He was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Actor in a Play, and his costar Michael Gough was nominated as Best Featured Actor in a play. The drama ran for 161 performances and was later televised.
In June 1988, as part of the First New York International Festival of the Arts, two Eugene O’Neill plays were revived: Long Day’s Journey into Night and Ah, Wilderness! both starring Colleen Dewhurst and Jason Robards. Elizabeth Wilson and George Hearn also appeared in the latter play, O’Neill’s only comedy. Long Day’s Journey into Night played for 28 performances. Ah, Wilderness! ran for 12 and was nominated for a Best Play Revival Tony Award.
In the fall of 1988 Kenny Loggins on Broadway presented the singer-composer in a program of folk and rock songs. The engagement ran for eight performances. In January 1989 two musicals with music by Tom O’Horgan were announced to open at this theatre. One of them, Senator Joe, a rock opera about red-baiting senator Joseph McCarthy, played only three previews, then closed before the official opening. The other one, The Tower of Babel, never even had a preview.
From the Theatre Royal Haymarket in London came Peter Hall’s revival of Tennessee Williams’s Orpheus Descending in September 1989. It starred Vanessa Redgrave and Kevin Anderson, with Tammy Grimes and Anne Twomey in the supporting cast. Redgrave’s performance was admired by some and deemed “wrong-headed” by others. The revival lasted 97 performances.
There was a limited engagement by the Don Cossacks, the State Academic Ensemble of Rostov, USSR in January 1990. Later in the year Jackie Mason: Brand New, another of his hysterical one-man shows of topical barbs, played from October 1990 to 1991.
On March 24, 1992, Neil Simon’s Jake’s Women opened with an impressive cast: Alan Alda, Helen Shaver, Kate Burton, Joyce Van Patten, and Brenda Vaccaro. Directed by Gene Saks, the play dealt with the women in the life of Jake (Simon’s alter ego), acted by Alda. His relationships with six women were depicted both in actuality and in fantasy — in Jake’s mind. The play received mixed reviews, and it reminded one critic of the musical Company, which examines the relationships of the leading male character with his friends. Some critics felt that the play’s philosophies were rather shallow. It ran for 245 performances.
Cyrano: The Musical, based on the classic play by Edmond Rostand, arrived here from the Netherlands on November 21, 1993. It did not receive enthusiastic reviews, but it ran for 137 performances and was praised for its sets, lights, and costumes. It received the following Tony Award nominations: Best Musical, Best Original Score, Best Book of a Musical, and Best Costumes.
An odd play from London, The Rise and Fall of Little Voice, arrived on May 1, 1994, and lasted only until May 8. It depicted a shy girl (Hynden Walch) with a talent for impersonating famous singers (Judy Garland, Edith Piaf, etc.). The critics judged it to be a tasteless minor English comedy, but it was later filmed.
A short run was achieved by another vocal acrobat, impressionist Danny Gans, who called himself “The Man of Many Voices.” He claimed that he could impersonate more than 200 famous voices, and one critic wrote that it seemed as if he did all of them in his intermissionless show, which ran for only six performances in 1995.
A welcome hit opened on April 11, 1996: a handsome revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s beloved The King and I. Donna Murphy played Anna, and Lou Diamond Phillips played the King of Siam. Both received excellent reviews. It was a sumptuous production, and it won Tony Awards for Murphy (Best Actress in a Musical), for Best Musical Revival, for Brian Thomson (Best Scenic Designer), and for Roger Kirk (Best Costume Designer). It also received the following Tony Award nominations: Best Actor in a Musical (Phillips), Best Featured Actress in a Musical (Joohee Choi), Best Musical Director (Christopher Renshaw), and Best Lighting Designer (Nigel Levings). During its long run (807 performances), Murphy was succeeded as Mrs. Anna by Faith Prince and Marie Osmond; Phillips was succeeded as the King by Kevin Gray.
An unusual and critically acclaimed dance entertainment came to this theatre from London and Los Angeles on October 8, 1998. It was Matthew Bourne’s trendy version of Swan Lake, featuring a bevy of hirsute male swans. The plot featured a Prince with a smothering mother, who searches for love among the gay swans. Tony Awards were garnered by Matthew Bourne for Direction and Choreography, and by Lez Brotherston for Costumes. Adam Cooper was nominated as Leading Actor in a Musical. The popular spectacle had a limited engagement of 124 performances.
The last show at the Neil Simon Theatre before the celebration of the millennium was The Scarlet Pimpernel, nicknamed Version 3.0 because it was the third version of this musical by Frank Wildhorn and Nan Knighton. The first, in 1997, played 373 performances at the Minskoff Theatre; the second, in 1998, played for 239 performances; and the last, at this theatre, lasted for 129 performances.
In spring 2000 Susan Stroman directed a warmhearted revival of Meredith Willson’s classic The Music Man, starring Rebecca Luker and Craig Bierko. The production was memorable for its finale, in which the entire cast appeared dressed as a marching band, toting trombones, and were led by Bierko in playing the show’s signature tune, “Seventy-six Trombones.” Professor Harold Hill worked his magic for 699 performances.
Tony-winner Mandy Patinkin took over the Neil Simon stage for a single performance of Mandy Patinkin in Concert, in support of his solo CD Kidults. Despite the playful tone of much of the concert, the finale turned political, predicting a dire outcome if problems in the Middle East were not resolved. The date was September 10, 2001, and, coincidentally, the next morning came the terror attacks at the World Trade Center and Pentagon that colored the rest of the decade.
One of the most remarkable solo shows in recent years came next at the Neil Simon. The New Yorker theatre critic John Lahr worked with director George C. Wolfe and brash Broadway grande dame Elaine Stritch to fashion a no-holds-barred evening of songs and salty autobiographical stores titled Elaine Stritch: At Liberty. Transferring from Off-Broadway’s Public Theater on February 21, 2002, the show won the inaugural Tony Award for Best Special Theatrical Event and stayed for 69 performances.
August 15, 2002, brought the biggest hit in the long and glittering history of the Neil Simon Theatre: Hairspray, a high-energy musical based on the cult John Waters film of the same name, about a plus-size Baltimore girl who believes in her own beauty and who is determined to win a place on the local TV teen dance show. Full of great tunes, campy humor, bright sets and costumes, and an athletic supporting cast, the show trounced the competition, winning eight Tony Awards including Best Musical, Best Score (Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman), Best Book (Tom Meehan and Mark O’Donnell), Best Director (Jack O’Brien), and Best Actor and Actress for the leads: gravel-voiced Harvey Fierstein (in colossal drag as mom Edna Turnblad) and Marissa Jaret Winokur (as the resolute leading lady). The two stars returned to the show for its final weeks in late 2008 and early 2009. It closed January 4, 2009, after 2,642 performances.
The Neil Simon stood empty for most of 2009, preparing for a major revival of the musical Ragtime, which opened November 15 of that year, starring Quentin Earl Darrington, Christiane Noll, Stephanie P. Umoh, and Robert Petkoff. It ran a disappointingly brief 65 performances.
A Broadway favorite returned to the Great White Way in July 2010 with his solo concert Harry Connick, Jr. in Concert on Broadway, which ran for 15 performances.
Rain: A Tribute to the Beatles on Broadway, featuring a look-and-sound-alike band, ran from October 2010 until the following January at the Neil Simon before transferring to the Brooks Atkinson Theatre.
The eagerly awaited musical Catch Me If You Can opened in April 2011. It was based on a true story (and the popular Spielberg movie) and featured many of the same players who contributed to the hit Hairspray, which ran for six-and-a-half years at the same theatre. Alas, the show did not capture the magic of Hairspray, nor the audience, and it put up a closing notice for September.
The short-lived Des McAnuff-directed revival of Jesus Christ Superstar, which originated at the Stratford Theatre Festival, was the next musical to make its home in the Neil Simon. Although it received a Tony Award nomination for Best Musical Revival, it failed to win — and closed a few weeks later. The theatre is currently owned by the Nederlander Organization and remains in the top tier of Broadway’s most sought-after musical houses.
250 West 52nd Street
New York, New York 10019