Broadway’s Smallest Theater Is Reopening, This Time as a Nonprofit

February 5, 2018
The theater was so small, it was named the Little Theater. That was 106 years ago, and since then it has been reincarnated many times — renamed, repurposed, rehabilitated.

Now known as the Helen Hayes Theater, the smallest house on Broadway is about to reopen yet again, this time run by a nonprofit, becoming the sixth of today's 41 Broadway theaters to operate outside the commercial marketplace.

The 589-seat playhouse has a new mission: Second Stage Theater, the nonprofit group that now owns the structure, says it will be used to present work by living American playwrights, a form of counterprogramming at a time when Broadway is dominated by musicals, revivals and British imports.

A city landmark, the theater, at 240 West 44th Street, has a new look that reflects the contemporary aspirations of Second Stage and the simple benefits of modernization. Long said to have the worst dressing rooms on Broadway, the Helen Hayes has been renovated to remedy that situation, as well as to expand the bathrooms substantially, enable access for those with disabilities and add better equipment for maneuvering sets.

The remodel is by the architect David Rockwell, who is also a Broadway set designer. He has sought to preserve the building's history (for example: molding that depicts angels holding garlands) while adding what he calls "contemporary language." The most visible example is the design of the theater's side walls, which he has covered with a pixelated blue ombré riff on a François Boucher tapestry depicting Bacchus and Ariadne — a nod to a set of fabric reproductions of Boucher tapestries that once adorned the theater walls.

"We didn't want it to look like the other theaters," said Carole Rothman, Second Stage's longtime artistic director, "and we don't think it does."

The project has been in the works for a decade, delayed by the unexpectedly long run of  "Rock of Ages" at the theater, followed by litigation over the sale. The price tag ballooned to $64 million, about 83 percent of which has been raised — much of it from the city, foundations and individual donors, with the addition of substantial revenue from transferring an adjacent alley to Jujamcyn Theaters, which owns the neighboring St. James Theater and is using the space to expand its stage as it prepares to mount Disney's "Frozen."

The Hayes, which will be renamed if and when a donor steps up to buy the rights, held a dedicatory lighting ceremony Monday morning. Its first post-renovation show — "Lobby Hero," written by Kenneth Lonergan ("Manchester by the Sea") and starring Chris Evans ("Captain America") — is to begin previews March 1 and to open March 26. "Lobby Hero" is to be followed this summer by a production of "Straight White Men," written by Young Jean Lee and starring Armie Hammer ("Call Me by Your Name"); the play will be the first by an Asian-American woman presented on Broadway.

Second Stage, which will continue to produce Off Broadway shows on West 43rd Street and on the Upper West Side, will dramatically increase its annual budget (to $18 million, from $10 million) to finance the expanded operations.     

Winthrop Ames, a wealthy producer, director and playwright, built the Little Theater, in 1912, as an elegant and intimate playhouse, with no balcony, 299 seats, a ticket price set at a steep $2.50, and the goal of creating "a place of entertainment for intelligent people." The building, designed in a neo-Georgian style, with a red brick facade, by Ingalls & Hoffman, was a visual contrast with the more ornate Beaux-Arts and classical theaters that dominated Broadway. And it had some unusual features, including a custom-designed seat up front to accommodate J.P. Morgan. Its first play was a comedy, "The Pigeon," by John Galsworthy; President Woodrow Wilson was an early patron.

The New York Times purchased the building in 1931, but continued to lease it for the presentation of plays until 1941. The building was then renamed The New York Times Hall, and used for newspaper events and television broadcasts.

The building was sold again in 1962, and in 1963 it reopened as a theater, with a production of "Tambourines to Glory," by Langston Hughes. But in the late 1960s and early 1970s, it returned to television — Merv Griffin's show was among those broadcast from there.

The building has been in consistent use for stage performances since 1974, and was christened the Helen Hayes in 1983, after another theater named for the actress was torn down. Among the building's best-known productions was "Torch Song Trilogy," by Harvey Fierstein, which ran there from 1982 to 1985 and won the Tony Award for best new play in 1983. The theater had a long-running hit with "Rock of Ages," from 2011 to 2015 (after an initial two years at the Brooks Atkinson Theater), delaying the Second Stage purchase as that musical became an unexpected destination for hard-partying theatergoers. The theater's final production before it closed for the current renovation was "The Humans," by Stephen Karam, which won the 2016 Tony Award for best new play.

Story By Michael Paulson
NY Times