The Minskoff Theatre, which occupies several floors of One Astor Plaza, the 55-story office tower on the site of Broadway’s old Astor Hotel, derives its name from Sam Minskoff and Sons, builders and owners of the high-rise. The modern theatre, with a very large 1,621-seat capacity, was designed by the architectural firm of Kahn and Jacobs and offers a spectacular view of the Great White Way from the glass front of the building on all levels of the theatre.
The theatre features a pedestrian arcade that runs from Forty-fourth to Forty-fifth streets, parallel to Shubert Alley. Inside the spacious lobby, dual escalators take playgoers to the Grand Foyer of the house. Here there are coat-check concessions and bars. Additional escalators rise to the orchestra level and above.
At the time of the theatre’s opening in 1973, Robert A. Jacobs, partner-in-charge of Kahn and Jacobs, told PLAYBILL: “A theatre that is 35 feet in the air is quite an innovation. According to the old building code in Manhattan, a theatre’s orchestra floor had to be within three feet of the sidewalk. We think we’ve created one of the most exciting, three-dimensional processional routes for the theatregoers — a series of forms, changes in ceiling heights, and spatial explosions. The whole processional, from the moment you enter and rise 35 feet to the theatre level, is a theatrical event in itself. Our forms are purely architectural, beautifully proportioned in relation to the processional drama you’re going through.”
Jacobs stated that his firm had kept everything simple in the theatre’s decor, without hiring what he called “exotic interior desecraters.” The theatre was done primarily in white and gold, with roomy charcoal-gray seats that offer an excellent view. The orchestra floor rakes steeply up from the stage. Hundreds of small clear bulbs sparkle in the lobbies, and crystal-basket lights glow in the auditorium. The ceiling is broken into two sections with a narrow grid between them for the stage lights. The proscenium has removable mesh panels on both sides, and the mezzanine, with 590 seats, has narrow side projections instead of box seats. The stage has an innovation: all the flies are on the upstage wall instead of on the side wall. Part of the stage is trapped and can be extended out over the orchestra pit. The dressing rooms are comparatively sumptuous, and the restrooms are large, cheerful, and comfortable.
The Minskoff Theatre opened on March 13, 1973, with a lavish revival of the 1919 musical Irene. Debbie Reynolds played the title role and sang the show’s classic, “Alice Blue Gown.” The cast also included Patsy Kelly, Monte Markham, Janie Sell, Ruth Warrick, Carmen Alvarez, and George S. Irving, who won a Tony Award for his performance. The musical ran until the fall of 1974. It was succeeded by two concert shows: Charles Aznavour on Broadway and Tony Bennett and Lena Horne Sing.
The 1975 offerings at the Minskoff were extremely varied. The year began on a sober note with Henry Fonda in his one-man show Clarence Darrow. The raucous Bette Midler was next in her salty Clams on the Half Shell Revue. In the fall of that year, Pearl Bailey and Billy Daniels brought their version of Hello, Dolly! to the theatre. The 1976 attractions included a short-lived rock version of Hamlet called Rockabye Hamlet, with Meat Loaf playing a priest, and an Ophelia who commits suicide by wrapping her microphone cord around her neck. This was followed by the Dutch National Ballet and the Chinese Acrobats of Taiwan.
The 1977 season brought the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, followed by the long-running musical Pippin, which moved here from the Imperial. The year ended with engagements of Cleo Laine and Star Wars Concert Live.
Rudolf Nureyev made a dance appearance at the Minskoff in 1978 with the Murray Lewis Dance Company. Next came a musical version of the play Look Homeward, Angel, called simply Angel. Its cast included Fred Gwynne, Frances Sternhagen, Don Scardino, Leslie Ann Ray, Patti Allison, and Joel Higgins, but the Thomas Wolfe classic did not succeed as a musical and it closed after five performances. Another unsuccessful musical opened in 1978: King of Hearts, adapted from the cult film of the same name, about a group of sweet-natured mental patients who escape into a small town during World War I. The cast included Don Scardino, Millicent Martin, Pamela Blair, Gary Morgan, Timothy Scott, and Michael McCarty. It expired after 48 performances.
In late 1978 an elaborate spectacle, Ice Dancing, opened here. It was followed by Béjart: Ballet of the Twentieth Century. A musical called Got Tu Go Disco tried to capitalize on the disco dance craze but was a quick failure in 1979. Appearances by Shirley Bassey and the Chinese Acrobats & Magicians of Taiwan followed.
A revival of West Side Story in 1980 was moderately successful, running for 341 performances. A revival of Cole Porter’s Can-Can, however, proved a disaster in 1981, despite the dancing of Zizi Jeanmaire and the choreography of Roland Petit. It folded after five showings.
In the fall of 1981 the successful revival of The Pirates of Penzance moved here from the Uris Theatre and stayed for more than a year.
In the spring of 1983 Dance a Little Closer, an ill-advised musicalization of Robert E. Sherwood’s Pulitzer-winning play Idiot’s Delight, closed on its opening night, despite the fact that the book and lyrics were by Alan Jay Lerner and the music by Charles Strouse. The title song was especially lilting, but that didn’t stop wags from dubbing the production Close a Little Faster. Starring Len Cariou and Liz Robertson, and featuring George Rose, the updated musical sadly was Lerner’s last show.
Next came Marilyn: An American Fable, another fiasco. It purported to be a musical biography of the late sex goddess Marilyn Monroe, but the critics were not kindly disposed toward the enterprise. It vanished after two weeks.
The Tap Dance Kid moved here from the Broadhurst on March 27, 1984, and stayed until August 11, 1985, winning Tony Awards for Best Featured Actor in a Musical (Hinton Battle) and Best Choreography (Danny Daniels). Late in its run, the title role was assumed by an amazing child dancer named Savion Glover, who went on to help redefine tap a decade later in Bring in ’da Noise, Bring in ’da Funk.
In early 1986, personal appearances were made here by Patti LaBelle, TNT, and Peter, Paul and Mary. In April of that year a new production of Cy Coleman’s Sweet Charity opened with Debbie Allen, Bebe Neuwirth, and Michael Rupert. The revival won the following Tony Awards: Best Revival, Best Featured Actor in a Musical (Rupert), Best Featured Actress (Neuwirth), and Best Costumes (Patricia Zipprodt). It ran for 368 performances.
On February 9, 1988, a new production of Cabaret moved here from the Imperial Theatre with Joel Grey recreating his Tony Award-winning role as the Emcee, and with Alyson Reed, Gregg Edelman, Regina Resnik, and Werner Klemperer in other leading roles. It had a run of 262 performances. The next musical at this theatre was an elaborate patriotic spectacle called Teddy & Alice, set to tunes by John Philip Sousa, with book by Jerome Alden and lyrics by Hal Hackaday. Original songs were provided by Richard Kapp. Len Cariou played Teddy Roosevelt, Nancy Hume was Alice Roosevelt, and Ron Raines was Nick Longworth. It had a short run of 77 performances.
More successful was the next Minskoff musical, Black and Blue, a lavish revue using standard blues and hit songs of the past. It won Tony Awards for Ruth Brown (Best Actress in a Musical), Claudio Segovia and Hector Orezzoli (Best Costume Design), and the four choreographers. It played here until January 20, 1991, achieving 829 performances. In November 1991 Cathy Rigby played a return engagement in the title role of Peter Pan, which she had played at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre the previous season.
A spectacular multimedia production from Poland, Metro, did not repeat its success on Broadway. The youthful cast included a former miner and other blue-collar workers who had been scouted by the director at open auditions around Poland. A year later they found themselves opening on Broadway in a blaze of laser effects. But Frank Rich of The New York Times opened his review, “What’s the Polish word for fiasco?” And they stayed only 13 performances.
On November 10, 1993, a sumptuous new production of the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat opened and had a successful run, starring Michael Damian in the title role.
Another Lloyd Webber musical arrived next: the highly anticipated London production of Sunset Boulevard. Controversy surrounded the production. Patti LuPone starred in it in London and was supposed to repeat her performance on Broadway. Unfortunately, a New York Times critic was unenthusiastic about her London performance, and Glenn Close was hired to replace her. (Since LuPone had a contract to star in it on Broadway, she was paid a handsome sum for her dismissal.) The musical, based on the famous 1950 Billy Wilder film, was a dark look at Hollywood that infuriated the movie colony when the movie was released. It depicted a has-been actress (Norma Desmond) vainly trying to make a movie comeback via a penniless screenwriter who becomes her gigolo.
The settings by John Napier were staggering. The palatial Hollywood villa Norma occupied was a gigantic set that resembled the lobby of the old Roxy theatre in Manhattan. At one point the entire set was elevated and another set rose into place below it. Projections were used to simulate a car chase. The physical production received better reviews than the show, which had music by Lloyd Webber, book and lyrics by Don Black and Christopher Hampton, and direction by Trevor Nunn. Also in the cast were Alan Campbell, George Hearn, and Alice Ripley.
Two of Lloyd Webber’s songs enjoyed popularity: “With One Look” and “As If We Never Said Goodbye,” both of which were recorded by Barbra Streisand. The musical won the following Tony Awards: Best Musical, Leading Actress/Musical (Close), Best Supporting Actor (Hearn), Best Musical Book (Black and Hampton), Best Score (Lloyd Webber, Black, Hampton), Scenic Design (Napier), and Lighting Design (Andrew Bridge), though book and score were won by default, as there were no other eligible nominees in those categories in a very lean Broadway season. Sunset Boulevard ran for 977 performances — the house record at the time. During its long run Close was succeeded by Betty Buckley, who was followed by British musical comedy star Elaine Paige, making her Broadway debut.
The next musical to open here had a complex history. The Scarlet Pimpernel, a spectacular production with music by Frank Wildhorn and book and lyrics by Nan Knighton, opened on November 9, 1997. Based on Baroness Orczy’s popular novel, which Leslie Howard had glorified in a 1935 film, the musical followed the adventures of a British nobleman who poses as a fop in order to rescue French aristocrats from the guillotine. Unfortunately, the musical received mostly negative reviews, with most critics branding it boring. The charismatic Douglas Sills was praised as the Scarlet Pimpernel, and he received a Tony Award nomination as Leading Actor in a Musical. Other Tony nominations: Best Musical and Best Musical Book (Knighton). The producers decided to make changes, and the musical went on hiatus for several months of rewriting and restaging that reduced the scope of the production. When it reopened at the Minskoff Theatre, critics felt the show had been improved — but not enough, and it closed after 643 performances. Surprisingly, yet a further revised version, nicknamed The Scarlet Pimpernel Version 3.0, opened at the Neil Simon Theatre on September 10, 1999, and ran another 129 performances, for a total of 772 in all.
In fall of 1999 the producer of the 1977 disco film Saturday Night Fever brought over the hit London stage adaptation, with extra songs by the Bee Gees and a book by The Scarlet Pimpernel’s Nan Knighton. It ran for 500 performances, with James Carpinello and Paige Price in the leads.
Perhaps inspired by the Tony-winning success that fellow country music composer Roger Miller had with his Huckleberry Finn musical Big River, Don Schlitz adapted another Mark Twain classic as the musical The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which did not repeat the previous show’s success. It ran just 21 performance, starting April 16, 2001.
The Minskoff next housed the first of three unsuccessful vampire-related Broadway musicals of the 2000s, Dance of the Vampires, based on the Roman Polanski film The Fearless Vampire Killers. A marked success in its Vienna debut, the musical bowed at the Minskoff on December 9, 2002, but ran just 56 performances. It had a score by Jim Steinman, and a book by David Ives, based on the Austrian original by Michael Kunze.
Director David Leveaux took some critical heat for casting the gentile Alfred Molina in the leading role of Tevye in the February 26, 2004, revival of traditional favorite Fiddler on the Roof. But the production, which also featured Nancy Opel as Yente, Randy Graff as Golde, and John Cariani as Motel, proved popular with ticket buyers and gratefully got to sing “L’Chaim” 781 times.
Around this time, superstitious theatre folk began to note that the Minskoff had rarely housed a show that turned a profit. Even such long runs as Irene and Sunset Boulevard had closed in the red. All that changed on June 13, 2006, when Disney Theatricals moved its blockbuster The Lion King to the Minskoff from its original home at the New Amsterdam Theatre to make way for the long-awaited stage adaptation of Mary Poppins. Comfortably converted to a little corner of Africa, the Minskoff has happily hosted the family favorite ever since, with no end in sight.
The Minskoff Theatre is under the direction of the Nederlander Organization. It is an ideal house for large-scale musicals, dance companies, and personal-appearance shows.