Henry Miller's Theater takes centerstage

 
August 21, 2009
There's one key factor that gives the Great White Way its sense of permanence: those quirky 40 stages in a narrow patch of Midtown Manhattan. When one of them turns into a movie theater or becomes a dance club, it's cause for sadness. When one is demolished, Broadway mourns, as if for a favorite uncle.

So it should be cause for celebration next month when Broadway welcomes back a theater, as the Roundabout's "Bye Bye Birdie" takes the stage at the new Henry Miller's Theater.

The 1919 venue was closed in 2004 and remodeled as part of a new Bank of America tower.

If Broadway mavens detect a family resemblance in the new space, that will owe much to the work of the theater design and planning company on the project, Fisher Dachs Associates, and its principal, Joshua Dachs.

A top priority, says Dachs, "was making a fantastic Broadway theater that would work beautifully." That meant getting to the essence of what defines a Broadway theater -- and a Broadway show.

So to begin with, FDA and the project's architects, Cook+Fox, polled the theater community, who gave them a wish list.

"The No. 1 request, not even close, was enough women's restroom facilities," says Rick Cook, partner at Cook+Fox. "That was no joke."

The old theaters had sacrificed comfort for seating in ways no one was happy with, but not without reason.

In land-starved Midtown during the first half of the last century, Broadway theaters "were essentially real-estate deals," says Dachs, unlike free-standing European theaters that often serve as national monuments.

Gotham theater owners acquired small lots, "so the job of the theater architects of that period was to fit as many seats as possible on a tiny bit of land," says Dachs. "Everything was traditionally very, very tight."

Another word from the mavens: Build only one balcony, not two. Auds don't like sitting too far from the stage.

"The seats should be two-thirds in the orchestra, one-third in the mezzanine," Cook says.

Beyond that, Dachs and his team had to get to the bottom of what defines a Broadway show.

"Our strength as a consultant, as designers, is that we understand there is no such thing as an ideal theater," says Dachs.

"You also have to look at the art to be performed there. The needs of traditional story ballet is different from the needs of a Sam Shepard play. The specifics of the scale of the room, the geometry of the room, the character of the room, emerge out of a study of the artist and what they need to achieve."

FDA felt that Broadway tends to mean traditional proscenium theaters and staging.

"People have manipulated those spaces to achieve different effects," says Dachs, but "the room is familiar and traditional and can endure quite a bit of manipulation."

Some older theaters, like the New Amsterdam, are glittering jewel boxes, as if the architecture itself was part of the entertainment. Yet Henry Miller, the hyphenate behind the 1919 Henry Miller's Theater, wanted a modest, sedate house that would put the focus on the drama.

"It was almost theater in your living room," says Dachs. "We thought that the new Henry Miller's Theater should be in sympathy with that perspective." Respecting that thought, they limited the seating to about 1,000.

He says some elements from the original have been incorporated into the walls to break up large surfaces. It ties the new theater to the old but also helps put the focus on the actor.

"In Broadway theaters, surfaces were broken down to smaller and smaller scale. The actor was never against a large blank wall. So the human form would always be big and fill the auditorium."

A 1,000-seat house can expect to book small musicals as well as plays, so there is space for an orchestra pit and ample dressing rooms.

FDA is a savvy vet of flexible spaces. The company's consulting credits include the Redcat Theater at Walt Disney Hall in Los Angeles and renovations of the New York's New Victory and Biltmore Theaters. Its founding principal is noted Broadway lighting designer Jules Fisher. Dachs has been with the company 25 years.

Aside from its innovations, the new Henry Miller's Theater uses very traditional elements, notably a curved mezzanine sweeping to boxes on the side.

In Broadway style, the mezzanine extends out close to the stage, unlike the horseshoe-shaped balcony of an opera house.

The boxes were also essential. Since they're visible when the aud looks toward the stage, the patrons in the boxes help the audience's eyes make the transition from the large scale of the house to the more contained space onstage.

Cook calls it "painting the house with faces."

The overall effect, says Dachs, is to "give this sense that we're all in this together, linked together in the same space."

Backstage, old Broadway theaters are notoriously eccentric. Wingspace is tight, and most have odd obstructions -- a column over here, an ancient mezzanine for "piano board" resistance dimmers over there.

"Every Broadway lighting and set designer has a stack of drawings in their office showing all the obstructions," Dachs says.

But the new theater offers a clean backstage space with no quirks. The stage door and loading doors are on Anita's Way, a new alley that runs through the block and is meant to encourage street performers.

The freight elevator is 25 by eight feet, or "half the size of a truck," so crews can work fast and smoothly.

Over more than 80 years, the original Henry Miller's Theater hosted everything from Eugene O'Neill to porn and disco.

The new project kept little more than the name and the facade, and it had to fit within a larger project, the new Bank of America Tower.

Cook says much effort went into creating a quality workplace in the tower, and they brought the same approach to the working conditions for the cast and crew.

"The air quality will be the best on Broadway," he says. "We had an opportunity to make it a much healthier and better workplace than the typical Broadway experience."

And not forgetting Broadway's top request, they put in many more bathroom stalls, along with a more spacious lobby and bar than the old theaters offer.

"We hope it's something people will recognize as an improvement," says Dachs.

That seems likely. The truer test, perhaps, will be whether Broadway embraces it as a member of the family.



Henry Miller's Theater takes centerstage

By David Cohen - Variety