Mark Shenton’s top 10 Broadway theatres

The Sam S Shubert Theatre. Photo: DW labs Incorporated
by -

We all have theatres we love to visit again and again: venues that put a spring in our step before we even walk across the threshold. Sometimes it is about past memory – shows we’ve seen and loved that gave us fond memories of the place. Or it could be about comfort and sight lines, or simply the beauty of the auditorium.

As a regular visitor to Broadway, I have my favourites. As Howard Sherman remarked recently, all 40 of Broadway’s houses were occupied with a show as of last week – though one of them promptly went dark last weekend when Paramour closed at the Lyric, and another two go dark this weekend with the closures of Sunday in the Park With George at the Hudson and Significant Other at the Booth.

Here are my current top 10 Broadway theatres…

1. Shubert Theatre (225 W44th Street)

This is the one of the grandest and probably the most favoured house for musicals on Broadway. It occupies a prime spot on west 44th Street adjoining Shubert Alley, Broadway’s most iconic pedestrian street (which contains the tiny but beloved Broadway souvenir shop One Shubert Alley). A three-level house that opened in 1913 and was beautifully refurbished in 1996, its seating is more than a little cramped. This was the long-time Broadway home of A Chorus Line after it transferred from the Public to become the longest-running Broadway musical at the time. It was also the original Broadway home of Crazy for You, Big, Spamalot, Memphis and Matilda. And it housed Sam Mendes’ revival of Gypsy with Bernadette Peters as Momma Rose and is currently home to Broadway’s hottest ticket – the revival of Hello, Dolly! with Bette Midler in the title role, which just opened on April 20.

2. Richard Rodgers Theatre (226 W46th Street)

Richard Rodgers Theatre. Photo: Mark Shenton

Formerly called the 46th Street Theatre, and now named after the iconic composer, the Richard Rodgers has the best panoramic stage opening on Broadway: it’s like an IMAX version of a Broadway stage. And the seating also affords the best views in town, rising in a steeply raked bank from the mid-stalls all the way to the back. Over the years, it has been home to plays as well as musicals. Plays that have run here include the original Broadway runs of Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs and August Wilson’s Fences. But it is musicals that feel most at home in this large space; the first show I saw here was the second half of the original Broadway production of Nine on my first trip to Broadway in 1983. I was a student and couldn’t afford to buy tickets for everything I wanted to see, so I half-timed it (an old but now dying Broadway tradition – difficult these days when ushers check tickets again on the way back in). It is one of my eternal regrets that I never saw it all. I also, rather bizarrely, made my personal Broadway debut on this stage, when I was plucked from the audience to appear in Bill Irwin and David Shiner’s 1993 show Fool Moon. I’ve also collected some relatively short-lived Broadway musicals like Steel Pier, Side Show and Seussical here. But I won’t be going back anytime soon: it is now the Broadway home to Hamilton, and that will likely be here for many years to come.

3. Belasco Theatre (111 W44th Street)

The Belasco suffers from being on the ‘wrong’ side of the street – most Broadway houses are on the West side heading towards 8th Avenue rather than going East towards 6th – but it is one of the most gorgeous of all Broadway’s houses. First opened in 1907 by impresario David Belasco, it has not always been the first choice for producers seeking to house their shows, so it has had a sometimes chequered history. But I always love visiting it, and the current revival of The Glass Menagerie manages to show it off spectacularly, since the house lights are left on for a good chunk of the play.

4. Imperial Theatre (249 W45th Street)

Current interior layout of Imperial Theatre. Photo: Mark Shenton

Another favoured musicals house, the Imperial will forever have a place in my heart as the original Broadway home of Dreamgirls, which ran here from 1981 to 1985, and was the first Broadway show I saw multiple times. It was also the original Broadway home of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Hugh Jackman in The Boy from Oz, and the original Broadway transfer of Billy Elliot in 2008. It was also here that the much shorter-lived transfer of Chess played. Currently it is home to the transfer of the immersive musical Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, which makes its interior virtually unrecognisable, as the seating continues onto the stage and walkways criss-cross the auditorium.

5. Winter Garden Theatre (1634 Broadway, between 50th and 51st Street)

One of the few Broadway houses that’s actually sited on Broadway itself – the others are the Palace (in Times Square and 47th Street) and the Broadway Theatre (at 53rd Street) – the Winter Garden, which originally opened in 1911, housed the two Broadway shows I most wish I’d seen first time around. It was here that Barbra Streisand became a star for the original Funny Girl in 1964, and that Sondheim’s Follies first premiered in 1971. If only there were a time machine that could take me back to both. This beautiful, wide, two-level house was also the original Broadway home for 42nd Street and Cats (which became the longest running musical in Broadway history at the time). But in the last decade I’ve visited it more regularly, from Mamma Mia! (the first musical to open on Broadway after 9/11) and Rocky to current tenant School of Rock.

6. Al Hirschfeld Theatre (302 W45th Street)

The pre-eminent Broadway boulevard is probably 45th Street, stretching either side of Broadway (with the Lyceum east of it), a cluster of six theatres between Broadway and 8th, and then yet another theatre just west of 8th Avenue. That outlying theatre is the Al Hirschfeld, formerly the Martin Beck and originally opened in 1924, which resembles a gothic monastery from outside, and is gorgeously laid out on two levels inside that feel like a continuation of the religious theme. The shows I’ve worshipped here include the original productions of Kander and Ebb’s The Rink (the first and only time I saw Liza Minnelli onstage in a musical) and Curtains (produced after Ebb’s death, and starring David Hyde Pierce). The Martin Beck was also the original Broadway home to Sondheim’s Into the Woods (when the front of house was draped by a massive giant’s boot that came down from the roof) and Maury Yeston’s Grand Hotel. I’ve enjoyed stellar revivals of Kiss Me, Kate, Man of La Mancha, Wonderful Town, Sweet Charity and Hair here, too. It is currently home to the original Tony-winning production of Kinky Boots.

7. Hudson Theatre (141 W44th Street)

Foyer of the Hudson Theatre. Photo: Mark Shenton

Broadway’s latest arrival is the Hudson Theatre, now owned by UK-based theatre operator ATG. It originally opened in 1903 but hadn’t been used for theatre for many years, going through various incarnations as a TV studio, porn movie cinema and rock club. Buried within a modern hotel that was built over it, it then became a conference centre until ATG assumed management of the theatre and this year returned it to theatrical use. The debut production there of Sunday in the Park With George reaches the end of its run on April 23, but seeing it twice there put the theatre instantly on my favourite venues list. Not just for the historic beauty of the venue (with one of the most beautiful foyer-level bars in town), but also for the amazing physical comfort of the seats installed there. Why can’t all theatres have seating like this? And leg room, too.

8. Booth Theatre (222 W45th Street)

This gorgeously intimate, wood-panelled playhouse has often housed smaller-scale musicals, including the original Broadway productions of Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park With George in 1984 (the first time I ever saw a Sondheim musical in its original Broadway outing), Once on This Island in 1990 and Next to Normal in 2009, but it works best as a playhouse. With fewer than 800 seats, it is not necessarily economically feasible for musicals. Among the plays I’ve seen here are the Broadway transfers of Other Desert Cities from Lincoln Center, John Tiffany’s American Repertory Theatre production of The Glass Menagerie (now at the Duke of York’s in the West End), The Elephant Man (which came to the Haymarket with Bradley Cooper) and Les Liaisons Dangereuses (from the Donmar Warehouse). Its current tenant is another transfer for Joshua Harmon’s Significant Other, from Off-Broadway’s Laura Pels, which closes April 23.

9. Ethel Barrymore Theatre (243 W47th Street)

This is one of the most prestigious of all Broadway playhouses, which, with a seating capacity of nearly 1,100, can also accommodate the biggest star names. Originally opened in 1928, it’s rather like the Broadway version of Wyndham’s Theatre, rotating a series of all-star productions of plays through its doors. Two of my favourite actors around have starred here in succession: Cate Blanchett in The Present (transferred from Sydney Theatre Company) and Allison Janet in Six Degrees of Separation. It was also here that I saw Philip Seymour Hoffman in his final Broadway role in Death of a Salesman (among a cast that also included Andrew Garfield), Daniel Craig, Rachel Weisz and Rafe Spall in Pinter’s Betrayal (directed by Mike Nichols) and the Broadway transfer of the National’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

10. Music Box Theatre (239 W45th Street)

The jewel box-like Music Box Theatre was originally opened in 1921 to house Irving Berlin’s Music Box revues. Equally suitable for plays and musicals, it is currently home to the hit new musical Dear Evan Hansen, but over the years I’ve seen plays such as the Broadway transfers of Patrick Marber’s Closer, Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem, the National’s One Man, Two Guvnors and Mike Bartlett’s King Charles III, as well as Angela Lansbury’s 2007 return to Broadway in Deuce. It was also here that the thrilling 2013 revival of one of my favourite musicals, Pippin, played – as well as Audra McDonald’s most recent Broadway outing in Shuffle Along.