The Foxwoods Theatre, now under the direction of the Live Nation company, opened in 1998 as the Ford Center for the Performing Arts after a miraculous restoration that combined elements of two adjacent, historic Forty-second Street theatres on the site — the Lyric and the Apollo.
In 1995 the Toronto-based Livent company announced that the Ford Motor Company would grant its name and financial support to a new 1,839-seat theatre, combining features of the Lyric (built in 1903) and the Apollo (1910). Although the two vintage theatres were largely demolished, landmark elements of their buildings, both interior and exterior, were retained and combined in the new structure by architects Richard Blinder and Peter Kofman. This included ceiling domes and the proscenium arch, sail vault, and side boxes, all of which were expanded to fit the scale of the new, larger theatre. An elliptical dome from the Lyric Theatre was reproduced and now forms the centerpiece of a magnificent two-story atrium design with a majestic limestone staircase. In the atrium’s floor there is a spectacular mosaic design featuring masks of comedy and tragedy inspired by similar designs that adorn the Forty-third Street facade retained from the Lyric Theatre. At the top of the stair is a medallion with the head of Zeus, also taken from the Lyric Theatre.
The Ford Center was baptized in starlight at a special December 18, 1997, ceremony, attended by stars and writers from previous Livent shows, including Chita Rivera, Christopher Plummer, Colm Wilkinson, Elaine Stritch, Harold Prince, Terrence McNally, Marvin Hamlisch, E.L. Doctorow, Vanessa Williams, John Guare, Stephen Flaherty, Lynn Ahrens, James Hammerstein, and many more. Marin Mazzie and Brian Stokes Mitchell sang “Wheels of a Dream” from the forthcoming inaugural production, Ragtime, and Mazzie alone sang the hymn “Bless This House” with new lyrics by Marty Bell and Ahrens. Led by Livent’s Garth Drabinsky, the assembled stars used multiple sets of scissors to cut a red ribbon across the stage and declared the house christened.
The opening of the new theatre on January 18, 1998, was a gala event afforded much media attention. Fortunately, Ragtime equaled the splendor of the theatre. Based on the novel by Doctorow and the film of the same title, adapted by McNally with a score by Flaherty and Ahrens, the musical boasted a stellar cast that included Mazzie, Mitchell, Audra McDonald, Mark Jacoby, and Judy Kaye. Graciela Daniele staged the musical segments and Frank Galati directed the book, which featured personages of the past (Booker T. Washington, Harry Houdini, J. P. Morgan, Henry Ford, Evelyn Nesbit, Stanford White, Harry K. Thaw, Emma Goldman, and others) in a fictional story.
Racial discrimination was a strong element of the plot, and some critics and theatregoers felt that the musical’s second act was too long and depressing. Ragtime lost to The Lion King for the 1998 Best Musical Tony Award, but it won the following Tonys: Best Musical Book (McNally), Best Score (Flaherty and Ahrens), Best Featured Musical Actress (McDonald), and Best Orchestrations (William David Brohn). It also received seven other Tony Award nominations. The musical ran for 861 performances and was hailed by the Drama League as “one of the 20 greatest musicals of the 20th Century.” It got the Ford Center off to a flying start.
In 1999, after operating the theatre for a little over a year, the financially troubled Livent included the Ford Center among assets sold to the SFX Theatrical Group. Parent company SFX Entertainment was the largest diversified promoter, producer, and venue operator for live entertainment events in the United States at that time. SFX also bought the Ford Center for the Performing Arts in Chicago. SFX was subsequently purchased by Live Nation, Inc., which thereby gained control of the theatre.
Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Really Useful Group was behind the April 16, 2000, revival of his rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar. Glenn Carter and Maya Days were featured as Jesus of Nazareth and Mary Magdalene, and the show continued for 161 performances.
It was followed on May 2, 2001, by a no-expenses-spared revival of 42nd Street, which enjoyed the publicity value of putting the show of that name on the street of that name. It won the 2001 Tony Award as Best Revival of a Musical and earned Christine Ebersole the Tony as Best Featured Actress in a Musical for her performance as diva Dorothy Brock. The standard “I Only Have Eyes for You” was added to the score especially for her. 42nd Street continued for an impressive 1,524 performances, one of the longest runs ever for a Broadway revival.
During its run, a special September 24, 2001, concert performance of the musical Dreamgirls featured performances by Audra McDonald, Heather Headley, Norm Lewis, and Lillias White to benefit the Actors Fund of America.
Just over seven years after opening as the Ford Center, the theatre got a new name for a new sponsor, the Hilton Hotel chain, which purchased the right to rechristen the playhouse. On April 28, 2005, the new Hilton Theatre welcomed Jeremy Sams’s stage adaptation of the musical film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, based on Ian Fleming’s children’s book about an inventor’s adventures in his flying car. The show featured a tuneful score by the team of Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman, and warmhearted performances by Raúl Esparza as Caractacus Potts, Philip Bosco as Grandpa Potts, Erin Dilly as Truly Scrumptious, plus Marc Kudisch as the Baron, Jan Maxwell as the Baroness, and Kevin Cahoon as the nightmarish Childcatcher. Nevertheless, the true star was the shiny flying car of the title, designed by Anthony Ward, which looked more fun than a carnival ride. Chitty flew 285 times.
To the growing roster of “jukebox musicals” was added Hot Feet on April 30, 2006, using the music of the funk group Earth, Wind and Fire (EWF) to tell a Red Shoes-like story about how the devil uses a pair of magical dancing shoes to ensnare the soul of a talented young dancer. Heru Ptah supplied a book that wove together songs by EWF principal Maurice White and more than a dozen others. Conceived, directed and choreographed by Maurice Hines, the show ran 97 performances.
Children’s author Dr. Seuss came to Broadway on November 8, 2006, with the debut of Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas! The holiday show starred resonant-voiced Patrick Page as the misanthropic title character, who hopes to ruin Christmas for the quaint town of Whoville by stealing their holiday decorations, gifts, and food. Timothy Mason adapted the book and wove songs from a popular animated TV version of the story with new songs by himself and Mel Marvin. The Grinch filched the Roast Beast for 107 performances and did well enough to return to Broadway the following year, though at the St. James Theatre.
The mighty songwriting team that gave Broadway the megahits Les Misérables and Miss Saigon struck out in their third Broadway production, The Pirate Queen, based on the true story of an Irishwoman who defied Queen Elizabeth I and harried the British royal navy in the sixteenth century. “I’ll Be There” was an attractive and stirring anthem, but the consensus was that the score by Claude-Michel Schönberg, Alain Boublil, John Dempsey, and Richard Maltby Jr. did not measure up to the previous Schönberg-Boublil efforts. The show opened April 5, 2007, and hung on for 85 performances, though leading lady Stephanie J. Block attracted a cadre of devoted fans.
Hopes were high for Young Frankenstein, a stage musical adaptation of Mel Brooks’s movie comedy classic of the same title. To musicalize his spoof of classic Hollywood horror movies, Brooks reassembled most of the team that helped make his 2001 adaptation of The Producers one of the biggest hits of the decade, including director/choreographer Susan Stroman and co-librettist Thomas Meehan. Brooks and the rest of the producers set their premium seat top price at a whopping $450 — a new record. After the November 8, 2007, opening, critics found it hard to talk about the merits of the show without doing so in light of that expense. Young Frankenstein showcased the raucous performances by Roger Bart as Dr. Frederick Frankenstein, Christopher Fitzgerald as Igor, Sutton Foster as Inga, Shuler Hensley as the Monster, Andrea Martin as Frau Blucher, and Megan Mullally as Elizabeth. Despite brand-new Brooks songs, including the pell-mell patter song “The Brain” for Bart, the torch song “He Vas My Boyfriend” for Martin, and the bouncy “Roll in the Hay” for Foster, the show found itself shut out of the Tony Awards. It ran 485 performances and toured with Bart and Hensley recreating their Broadway roles.
The Hilton put up a marquee for the musical Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark in summer 2009 and began selling tickets to the promised spectacular, to be directed by Julie Taymor, with a score by Bono and The Edge from the rock group U2. But uncertainty about the show’s financing arose, and the production was postponed. The Hilton was dark for most of 2009 and 2010, but finally came to life in November 2010 with the start of previews for Spider-Man. There was also a name change to the Foxwoods Theatre. The Foxwoods Resort Casino, a Connecticut gaming and entertainment center, bought the naming rights in August of that year.
Since the Foxwoods Theatre/Ford Center in New York combined elements of both the Lyric Theatre and the Apollo, brief histories of both are in order. The Lyric Theatre at 213 West Forty-second Street was built in 1903 by the Shuberts and composer Reginald De Koven to house the type of operettas De Koven composed. The Lyric was noted for its magnificent turn-of-the-century Forty-second Street and Forty-third Street facades, which have been splendidly restored as part of the Foxwoods Theatre. The Lyric was one of the few Broadway theatres that had two entrances — one on Forty-second Street and one on Forty-third Street. The theatre was designed by Victor Hugo Koehler and was criticized because posts supporting the two balconies obstructed the view from some seats. Also, there were too many boxes (18) for a theatre this size.
The Lyric opened on October 12, 1903, with a play called Old Heidelberg, starring the distinguished actor Richard Mansfield.
The Shubert brothers established their first New York producing headquarters above the theatre. In 1905 Douglas Fairbanks Sr. starred there in the hit musical Fantana, whose producer and co-librettist was Sam S. Shubert. Oscar Straus’s The Chocolate Soldier, a musical version of Shaw’s play Arms and the Man, proved to be a huge hit in 1909. Another operetta hit was Rudolf Friml’s The Firefly (1912). In 1911 Henrik Ibsen’s The Lady From the Sea had its New York premiere here.
In its heyday, the Lyric enjoyed such delights as Fred and Adele Astaire in the 1922 musical For Goodness Sake. Bedlam ensued in 1925 when the four Marx Brothers (Harpo, Groucho, Chico, and Zeppo) wreaked havoc on the Lyric in their lunatic musical The Cocoanuts, with a book by George S. Kaufman and a score by Irving Berlin. In the cast was also the stately dowager Margaret Dumont, who was to become the victim of Groucho’s insults in many of their shows and films. There is an amusing anecdote about Berlin’s score. Kaufman, who hated love songs, forced Berlin to take his song “Always” out of the musical. The lyric, which stated, “I’ll be loving you always,” bothered Kaufman, who insisted that you can’t love someone always. He argued that if the lyric was “I’ll be loving you, Thursday,” he might accept it. The song was dropped, but it soon swept the country and was the only song from the score that became a huge hit. The Cocoanuts ran for 375 performances — spectacular for the 1920s.
In 1926 the popular comedy team of Bobby Clark and Paul McCullough romped successfully in a musical called The Ramblers. In 1928 Florenz Ziegfeld produced a hit musical version of The Three Musketeers with a score by Rudolf Friml, P. G. Wodehouse, and Clifford Grey, and a book by Anthony Maguire. The stellar cast included Dennis King, Vivienne Segal, dancer Harriet Hoctor, Reginald Owen, and Clarence Derwent. It was one of Ziegfeld’s last hits.
The following year, Cole Porter enjoyed an early hit with the musical Fifty Million Frenchmen, starring William Gaxton, Helen Broderick, Genevieve Tobin, and Evelyn Hoey. “You Do Something to Me” was the show’s hit song, and the score also contained several numbers that are still heard in nightclubs: “You’ve Got That Thing,” “Find Me a Primitive Man,” “I Worship You,” and the clever “The Tale of an Oyster,” which, unfortunately, was cut from the show after the opening night.
The book, by Herbert Fields, dealt with Americans in Paris and in particular with wealthy playboy Peter Forbes (Gaxton) pursuing a beautiful American blonde named Looloo Carroll (Tobin) in such exotic locales as Longchamps, the Ritz Bar, Café de la Paix, and the American Express Company — all brilliantly designed by Norman Bel Geddes. Helen Broderick amused with her perusal of “feelthy French postcards.” Despite the stock market’s crash just a month before this show opened, the musical ran for a healthy 254 performances.
Sadly, after a series of flops in the early 1930s, the Lyric became one of Forty-second Street’s notorious movie houses and showed films until 1992, when it closed for good.
The adjacent Apollo Theatre began its life in 1910 as a movie and vaudeville house. In 1920 the Selwyns, notable Broadway producers, took it over, renamed it the Apollo, and converted it to a legitimate theatre. Its first production, on November 17, 1920, was the unsuccessful musical Jimmie by Oscar Hammerstein II and Herbert Stothart. The following year, Lionel Barrymore also failed, as Macbeth. First-nighters had their eyes on Lionel’s sister, Ethel, seated in a box, and wondered what she thought of her brother acting Shakespeare.
The house’s first big hit was a musical called Poppy (1923), starring the great comic W. C. Fields. The book was by Howard Dietz and Dorothy Donnelly, the lyrics by Donnelly, and the music by Stephen Jones and Arthur Samuels. Fields played a traveling showman named Professor Eustace McGargle who tarries long enough in a Connecticut town to install his daughter (Madge Kennedy) as a long–lost heiress. Also in the cast was Robert Woolsey, later to become half of the popular comedy team known as Wheeler and Woolsey.
Fields was hailed by critics for his skillful juggling, his bouts with inanimate objects, and his verbal acrobatics. The New York Times proclaimed that it was the best performance he ever gave. The musical ran for 346 performances and was later made into a movie, also starring Fields.
Beginning in 1924 the Apollo became famous as the home of six editions of the glittering George White’s Scandals revues, starring such luminaries as Jimmy Durante, Ethel Merman, Rudy Vallee, Ray Bolger, Eugene and Willie Howard, and, in the chorus, Alice Faye. The Scandals were noted for their dazzling dances performed by Ann Pennington and White, who was a gifted tap dancer, and by Tom Patricola. George Gershwin contributed hits to the Scandals, including “Somebody Loves Me” and “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise.” The two biggest Scandals editions were produced in 1926 and 1931. During the 1920s this theatre occasionally showed silent films.
In 1930 Bert Lahr and Kate Smith had a huge hit in the musical Flying High. One of that era’s most successful musical comedy writing teams — DeSylva, Brown, and Henderson — collaborated with John McGowan. With aviation much in the news (Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart), Broadway embraced the flying theme. Lahr played a goofy plane mechanic who establishes an all-time endurance record in the air because he doesn’t know how to land the plane. The show’s most fondly remembered scene was one in which Lahr must give a doctor his urine specimen and he pours scotch into the container. Asked what nationality he is, he replied, “Scotch — by absorption.”
Two popular songs were sung in the show, “Thank Your Father” and “Red Hot Chicago,” the latter a showstopper belted by Smith. This laugh fest ran for 355 performances.
Another big hit opened at the Apollo on November 26, 1932. With a book by B. G. DeSylva and Laurence Schwab, music by Nacio Herb Brown and Richard A. Whiting, and lyrics by DeSylva, the show had flopped in Pittsburgh, where it was called Humpty Dumpty. It was rewritten as Take a Chance, with five new songs by Vincent Youmans, and had this superlative cast: Ethel Merman, Jack Haley, Sid Silvers, Jack Whiting, Mitzi Mayfair, and “Rags” Ragland. The plot dealt with the production of a revue called Humpty Dumpty, scenes and songs from which were incorporated into the story. Merman and Haley stopped the show with the catchy song “You’re an Old Smoothie.” In fact, they sang it in a saloon setting with a swinging door. Sid Silvers was supposed to come in via these doors when they finished singing, but the opening-night audience demanded four encores and the singers were forced to push Silvers offstage through the doors to sing another encore. It was one of the evening’s biggest laughs. Merman had another showstopper with “Eadie Was a Lady,” which became one of her standards. She also sang two Youmans numbers that critics loved: “Rise ’n’ Shine” and “I Got Religion.” This rowdy musical was an enormous audience pleaser for 243 performances. The last legit show at the Apollo was the short-lived revue Blackbirds of 1934 with Bill Robinson.
From 1934 to 1938 the Apollo housed burlesque. Then, for 40 years, it became a movie house. In the late 1970s the Brandt Organization, which owned the theatre, closed it and beautifully restored it to legitimacy. It reopened in 1979 with the warmly received play On Golden Pond, with Tom Aldredge and Frances Sternhagen, followed by two hits, The Fifth of July with Christopher Reeve and Bent with Richard Gere, plus the flop The Guys in the Truck.
After a period as the Academy Theatre for rock and jazz concerts, the theatre closed in 1992. In 1995 the Livent company announced that the Lyric and Apollo would be razed and transformed into one state-of-the-art theatre, which brings us to the present incarnation. The Foxwoods Theatre is one of the most beautiful theatres in Manhattan and is gracing its splendors with impressive bookings.