Looking Back as the Shubert Plans for its Centennial
By Amanda May
Touring the Shubert Theater’s backstage area is like getting a history lesson in American theater. From their Hall of Fame to the individually painted murals, it’s a real who’s who of success in the theatre world.
Coming up on its 100th year, the theater has seen the likes of Clark Gable, both Katharine and Audrey Hepburn, Yul Brynner, Julie Andrews, and Sidney Poitier grace the stage (just to name a few).
Since its opening by the Shubert brothers in 1914, the Shubert Theater has seen more than 600 pre-Broadway tryouts, including more than 300 world premieres, the peak of which took place between 1930 and 1950.
For example, New Haven audiences saw The King and I, The Sound of Music, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, My Fair Lady, and South Pacific before anyone else. The list is so long that it’s almost unbelievable.
One actor that felt the history of the place was Tony Curtis (of Some Like it Hot).
“When we had Tony Curtis here it was a real thrill for me,” Anthony Lupinacci, director of marketing and community relations for CAPA/Shubert Theater said. “He walked in those doors and said to me, ‘Do you know where we are? You have no idea what it means to me to be in this theater. My friend Marlon Brando was on this stage in A Streetcar Named Desire.”
Things like that happen all the time, according to Lupinacci.
“There’s a huge awareness of what has happened here,” he said. “If you could put all of the actors who have performed here in a room, it would be a phenomenal gathering of people.”
The Shubert is even mentioned and/or pictured in a few old movies, including All About Eve with Bette Davis and Auntie Mame with Rosalind Russell, usually referencing “taking a show to New Haven for a tryout.”
During a tour of the theater for The Arts Paper, Lupinacci pointed out that at a certain point the venue’s Hall of Fame (a printed list of all the shows that have been staged at the theatre) had to be framed behind plexiglass because the raised letters of the shows showed too much wear and tear. He’s seen countless actors who come to perform standing before the wall, finding the names of shows that meant something to them. He recalled one young actress from Ireland in particular coming and running her fingers over The Sound of Music with its three gold stars (signifying that it was a world premiere production).
“My friend Marlon Brando was on this stage in A Streetcar Named Desire.”
A major part of the early history of the Shubert, and one that forever guided its trajectory, was the involvement of Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein II.
“Rogers and Hammerstein chose the Shubert Theater as their tryout house,” Lupinacci explained. “In those days they didn’t open shows right on Broadway, so New Haven and Boston were big.”
The first show that Rogers and Hammerstein tried out was Away We Go.
“The show was revolutionary because it was about cowboys,” Lupinacci coyly began. Away We Go, of course, went on to be renamed Oklahoma!
“They were here in the theater, every night. They’d stay at The Taft. … The New Haven audience was the barometer, the gauge, whether it was a hit,” Lupinacci said. “Some songs were replaced or changed based on the reactions of the audience. … Our programs have different songs than what went on to be known.”
“(Rogers and Hammerstein) have said that all the shows that premiered here became famous,” Lupinacci recalled. “They called this their lucky theater.”
It wasn’t lucky just for Rogers and Hammerstein. Many young actors got their break right here on College Street. Marlon Brando appeared in the world premiere of A Streetcar Named Desire, Sidney Poitier in the world premiere of A Raisin in the Sun. Both shows are still incredibly salient, with a production of Streetcar planned at the Yale Repertory Theatre in the coming year, and the critically-acclaimed Clybourne Park (inspired by A Raisin in the Sun) at Long Wharf Theatre earlier this year.
After the “heyday” of the ’50s, the industry started to change and moved to California.
“They didn’t need tryouts as much,” explained Lupinacci. “It became more about national tours.”
The Shubert has weathered the changes of the industry well, still attracting and booking major talent to this day. Backstage there are many, many square feet of proof of this. Since the 1984 renovation, the hallways and even the staircases have been filled with signatures and murals made by the performing artists and touring companies that have appeared at the theater.
Nowadays the venue still packs the house for talent such as Connecticut’s own Pilobolus Dance Theatre, as well as touring acts like the improv-comedy troupe Second City, the Blue Man Group, and big Broadway shows like West Side Story and Les Misérables.
On one wall, the signatures of Buddy Valastro (“The Cake Boss”), Lily Tomlin, Joan Baez, Josh Groban, and Barbara Cook all occupy a modest two-square-foot spot. Other performing acts have hand-painted murals with their iconic playbill imagery and got the whole cast to sign them.
Between the major shows that the Shubert presents each year, the theater acts as a rentable space. Each year, the venue has an average of 115 “lit nights” with an average of 100,000 patrons enjoying those shows.
“It’s a real community resource, and we like it like that,” Lupinacci said. “It’s a great resource for local arts organizations.”Owned by the City of New Haven for more than 15 years, the stage might be filled with famous and up-and-coming actors one night, and a local dance school’s recital the next.
Lupinacci related having many people over the years come up to him and nostalgically tell stories of having performed at the Shubert as children. Some even get married onstage.
“It’s really for everybody,” Lupinacci continued.
With the 2014 anniversary quickly approaching, the Shubert already has big plans for its big 100. Thanks to a $250,000 grant from The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven, the organization is currently planning a massive lobby renovation as well as the addition of a smaller venue of 100–200 seats.
“It will be great for community groups,” Lupinacci said. “It’s all about access and diversity.”
And for making history, of course.
For more information about Shubert Theater, including the venue’s upcoming shows, visit shubert.com.