Mark Shenton’s top venues: Walter Kerr Theatre, New York
Composer Sibelius once famously remarked: “Remember, a statue has never been set up in honour of a critic.” But on Broadway not one, but two Broadway theatres are named in honour of former celebrated scribes who wrote about the theatre: the Brooks Atkinson (formerly the Mansfield Theatre until it was renamed the Brooks, as it is colloquially known, to honour the long-serving chief critic of The New York Times from 1925 to 1960); and the Walter Kerr (formerly the Ritz, until it was renamed the Kerr to honour the Pulitzer-winning critic for the International Herald Tribune and then The New York Times).
Those naming honours reflect both the seriousness with which New York takes its critics – but also the respect it holds (some of) them in. Somehow I can’t see a London theatre being renamed the Wardle or the Billington anytime soon; we don’t even have a Tynan or Agate yet.
Coming to New York as often as I do, I now have a relationship with many Broadway houses that is nearly as complete and complex as the ones I have with those in London. Of course, there are some that I have only visited once or twice; the Majestic was the first-ever Broadway theatre I visited back in 1983, when I saw the original production of 42nd Street there (it would subsequently move across the street to the St James), but since 1988 it has been permanently occupied by The Phantom of the Opera, so I’ve never been again, except once for a Broadway memorial service.
It’s an eternal regret that one of Broadway’s most historic musical houses, the Mark Hellinger (once home to the original My Fair Lady), went out of commission after the one show I did see there, the short-lived Peter Allen musical Legs Diamond, closed early in 1989. It has since passed into the ownership of the Times Square Church.
But other theatres have a much higher turnover, until Hamilton-like lightning strikes and a theatre like the Richard Rodgers acquires a seemingly permanent tenant. (The Rodgers is, coincidentally, another of my favourite Broadway houses; it has a really excellent rake, rising in deep steps from roughly halfway back in the stalls (or orchestra, as it is known on Broadway, and the high, wide stage feels like the theatrical equivalent of an IMAX screen).
Broadway, where musicals have far more purchase on the real estate than plays, have seen virtually every theatre housing them, and the difference is that unlike plays they’re invariably booked on open-ended runs rather than limited runs. So the moment a musical opens at a theatre, you might not expect it to move for a few years if it is successful.
The Walter Kerr stands out from the crowd as, comparatively, it seems to book musicals rarely. Though in recent years it has hosted the Broadway premiere of the 2014 Tony-winning musical A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder (whose fortunes were turned around by that Tony win; it had been floundering before), and shorter-lived efforts such as Lysistrata Jones, A Catered Affair and the Broadway transfer of the Menier’s revival of A Little Night Music, I’ve mainly come here to see plays over the years.
And it is the perfect size for the intimacy required of drama, yet also has the epic feel of a great Broadway house at the same time. In the last couple of decades, since the theatre reopened after an extensive refurbishment in 1990 (when it was renamed the Kerr), it has become the favoured Broadway house of plays that have won, or have gone on to win, the Pulitzer prize for drama. These include the original Broadway runs of Angels in America, Proof, Doubt and Clybourne Park, as well as the Pulitzer-nominated Take Me Out, all of which I’ve seen here, as well as the transfers of Terrence McNally’s Love! Valour! Compassion! from Off-Broadway’s Manhattan Theatre Club and, from London, of Ian Rickson’s beautiful Royal Court productions of The Seagull and The Weir.
I am looking forward to revisiting it on my current trip to New York to see Ivo van Hove directing a new Broadway production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, starring Ben Whishaw, Sophie Okonedo, Saorise Ronan and Ciaran Hinds. And I’m looking forward even more to the already announced autumn Broadway return of William Finn’s astonishing Falsettos, a musical pairing of two one-act musicals The March of the Falsettos and Falsettoland, that will open in October.
The theatre was originally built in a record 60 days, first opening its doors in 1921; now, as it approaches its 100th birthday (in five years’ time) it’s a theatre that has stood the test of time and continues to be a place for infinite theatrical pleasures.
Walter Kerr Theatre
219 W48th Street, New York, NY
Owned by Jumamcyn Theatres, Jordan Roth (president)
Theatre manager: Susan Elrod
Associate theatre manager: Carrie Jo Brinker
Treasurer (box office manager): Harry Jaffie
Head carpenter: George E Fullum
Head propertyman: Timothy Bennnet
Head electrician: Vincent J Valvo
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