In 1923 The New York Times reported that the new theatre being built at 249 West Forty-fifth Street by the Shuberts was the fiftieth playhouse that the theatrical brothers from Syracuse had built in the New York City area. Herbert J. Krapp designed the Imperial obviously as a musical comedy house, with a large seating capacity of 1,650 (since reduced to 1,421). The main body of the playhouse is situated on the Forty-sixth Street side of the block but is reached by a long, opulent gallery from its entrance on Forty-fifth Street. The Imperial has been the Shuberts’ pride since it opened, housing some of Broadway’s most notable and successful musicals.
The theatre’s first show set the pace: a hit musical called Mary Jane McKane, with Mary Hay in the title role and a jaunty score by Vincent Youmans. It opened on Christmas night 1923 and ran for a then-impressive 151 performances. In September 1924 this theatre housed one of its most celebrated shows, the Rudolf Friml operetta Rose-Marie, with a book by Otto Harbach and Oscar Hammerstein II. According to Gerald Bordman in American Musical Theatre, this musical was “not only the biggest hit of the season, but the biggest grosser of the decade.” Mary Ellis played Rose-Marie, a singer in a hotel located in the Canadian Rockies, and Dennis King was Jim Kenyon, the man she loved, who was unjustly accused of murder. The score included the lilting title song, the sonorous “Indian Love Call” (“When I’m calling you-oo-oo-ooh-oo-oo-ooh”), and “The Song of the Mounties.” Rose-Marie ran for 557 performances on Broadway, and at one point there were four road companies of the show touring America at the same time.
The Imperial’s next show was a musical called Sweetheart Time, with Eddie Buzzell and Mary Milburn, but it was only a moderate hit. The theatre’s next bonanza occurred on November 8, 1926, with the opening of Oh, Kay!, a musical with a score by George and Ira Gershwin and a book by Guy Bolton and P. G. Wodehouse. Gertrude Lawrence was the star, and her singing of “Someone to Watch Over Me” to a rag doll is one of the musical theatre’s most cherished moments. Victor Moore and Oscar Shaw were Lawrence’s costars in this merry musical about Long Island bootleggers. Other hit tunes from the score were “Maybe,” “Do Do Do,” and “Clap Yo’ Hands.” When Ira Gershwin became ill during the creation of this hit, Howard Dietz wrote some of the lyrics for the show.
On September 19, 1928, another blockbuster came to this house: Sigmund Romberg’s glorious operetta The New Moon, with a libretto by Oscar Hammerstein II, Frank Mandel, and Laurence Schwab. Set in New Orleans at the time of the French Revolution, the operetta was studded with such gems as “Wanting You,” “Lover, Come Back to Me,” “Softly as in a Morning Sunrise,” “Stouthearted Men,” and “One Kiss.” It was the only show of that otherwise bountiful season to run for more than 500 performances.
A snappy World War I musical, Sons o’ Guns, starring Jack Donahue, Lily Damita, and William Frawley, exploded at the Imperial in November 1929 and, despite the stock market crash, spread mirth for 297 performances. Two hit songs — “Why?” and “Cross Your Fingers” — emerged from the lively score by J. Fred Coots, Arthur Swanstrom, and Benny Davis.
Highlights of the 1930s at the Imperial included Ed Wynn in his joyous vaudeville-type show The Laugh Parade (1931), in which he introduced some of his latest zany inventions and interrupted other people’s acts with lisping comments. An elaborate revue, Flying Colors (1932), boasted modernistic sets by Norman Bel Geddes, hit songs by Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz (“Louisiana Hayride,” “Alone Together,” “A Shine on Your Shoes”), and a dream cast consisting of Clifton Webb, Tamara Geva, Patsy Kelly, Charles Butterworth, Imogene Coca, Larry Adler, and Vilma and Buddy Ebsen. Let ’Em Eat Cake (1933), a sequel to Of Thee I Sing (by the same creators), reunited William Gaxton, Victor Moore, and Lois Moran, the stars of the first show, but was not successful. Bob Hope, Harry Richman, Lillian Emerson, and “Prince” Michael Romanoff starred in a saucy musical, Say When (1934).
Despite the Depression, some 1930's opening nights on Broadway were the pinnacles of glamour, and such was the case at the glittery opening of the Cole Porter/Moss Hart musical Jubilee on October 12, 1935. An opulent satire about the royal holiday of the king and queen of a mythical country (splendidly played by Mary Boland and Melville Cooper), the show drew a bejeweled audience who had heard that some of the characters depicted were really spoofs of Noël Coward, Johnny Weissmuller, Elsa Maxwell, and Britain’s royal family. Burns Mantle of the Daily News gave the musical his rare four-star rating, and two of its Porter songs have become classics: “Begin the Beguine” and “Just One of Those Things.”
Another memorable musical followed Jubilee into the Imperial: On Your Toes, the Rodgers/Hart/George Abbott spoof of the Russian ballet craze. It starred Ray Bolger, Tamara Geva, Luella Gear, and Monty Woolley, and it broke the mold of American musical comedies by using two extended George Balanchine ballets as an integral part of the plot. One of these, “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue,” is one of the few ballet scores from a musical to become popular, and the ballet itself has joined the repertoire of the New York City Ballet.
The battle of the Hamlets raged on Broadway in the fall of 1936. John Gielgud opened first as the Melancholy Dane at the Empire Theatre in October and triumphed. Leslie Howard played the same part at the Imperial in November and came in a poor second. Howard’s last Broadway play had been The Petrified Forest. When reviewing Howard’s Hamlet, critic Robert Benchley wrote in The New Yorker that it was “the petrified Hamlet.” Gielgud’s production ran for 132 performances, Howard’s only 39.
The Shuberts brought an elaborate operetta, Frederika, to the Imperial in February 1937, but despite lilting music by Franz Lehar it ran for only 94 performances. The excellent cast included Dennis King, Ernest Truex, Helen Gleason, and Edith King, but as Brooks Atkinson noted in The Times, operetta had become passé on Broadway. At the end of 1937 Dietz and Schwartz returned with a glossy musical about a bigamist who had one wife in London and another in Paris. Between the Devil showcased three bright British stars, Jack Buchanan, Evelyn Laye, and Adele Dixon, and featured dancers Vilma Ebsen and Charles Walters. But the bigamy theme was distasteful to some, and the musical called it quits after 93 performances.
The Cole Porter show Leave It to Me!, which sailed smartly into the Imperial in the fall of 1938, starred Victor Moore, William Gaxton, Sophie Tucker, and Tamara, but it made Broadway history by introducing a Texas singer named Mary Martin doing a polite striptease in a Siberian railway station while singing “My Heart Belongs to Daddy.” The musical, based on Sam and Bella Spewack’s play Clear All Wires, was a huge hit and featured some Porter winners, such as “Get Out of Town” and “Most Gentlemen Don’t Like Love.” One of the chorus boys was future film star Gene Kelly.
The last musical of the 1930s at this theatre was also a hit. Rodgers and Hart and George Marion Jr. collaborated on a college campus show, Too Many Girls, which was set at Pottawatomie College in Stop Gap, New Mexico, where the female students wore “beanies” if they were virgins. The only hatless female onstage was Mary Jane Walsh, who played a divorcée. George Abbott directed the show with lightning speed; Robert Alton was highly praised for his swirling dances. Eddie Bracken, Richard Kollmar, Marcy Wescott, Hal Le Roy, Desi Arnaz (pre "I Love Lucy"), and Walsh sang and danced such Rodgers and Hart delights as “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was,” “I’d Like to Recognize the Tune,” “She Could Shake the Maracas,” and “Give It Back to the Indians.” One of the chorus boys with a few spoken lines was a newcomer named Van Johnson.
Smash hit musicals continued to populate the Imperial in the 1940s. Irving Berlin and Morrie Ryskind rang the bell with Louisiana Purchase, a political musical set in New Orleans, starring Victor Moore, William Gaxton, Vera Zorina, and Irene Bordoni. Balanchine provided the choreography and Berlin some fetching songs, such as “It’s a Lovely Day Tomorrow,” the title song, and some spirited numbers for Carol Bruce. It ran for 444 performances.
Cole Porter returned to the Imperial in 1941 with a rousing wartime musical, Let’s Face It! Based on the hit 1920's comedy Cradle Snatchers, the show focused on three married women (Eve Arden, Edith Meiser, and Vivian Vance) who took up with young soldiers to get even with their philandering husbands. One of the soldiers was Danny Kaye, who stopped the show with specialty numbers, some written by his wife, Sylvia Fine. Porter provided such hits as “Everything I Love,” “Farming,” “Let’s Not Talk about Love,” “Ace in the Hole,” and “I Hate You, Darling.”
The enormous success of the operetta Rosalinda (1943), Max Reinhardt’s version of Die Fledermaus, caused it to be moved to the Imperial from the Forty-fourth Street Theatre. Starring Dorothy Sarnoff and Oscar Karlweis, the comic show also featured Shelley Winters and ran for 521 performances.
Mary Martin, who made her debut as an unknown at the Imperial in Leave It to Me, returned as a star in One Touch of Venus (1943), a musical fantasy with a haunting score by Kurt Weill and a witty book by S. J. Perelman and Ogden Nash. Martin played a statue of Venus that comes to life and is pursued by an art gallery owner (John Boles) and a barber (Kenny Baker). Martin scored a triumph singing “Speak Low,” “I’m a Stranger Here Myself,” and “That’s Him.” Paula Lawrence sang the amusing title song and “Very, Very, Very.” The show had a smashing run of 567 performances, but not all at the Imperial.
Another successful musical that moved to the Imperial from the Winter Garden was the Ziegfeld Follies of 1943. It starred Milton Berle (who stuck his two cents into everybody’s act), the film beauty Ilona Massey, Arthur Treacher, and Jack Cole. The critics praised Berle’s high jinks, and this Follies still holds the record — 553 performances — for the longest run of any Ziegfeld Follies.
On May 16, 1946, one of the Imperial’s hallmark shows arrived. Ethel Merman opened in Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun and made it one of her most memorable portraits. Jerome Kern was slated to write the score for this show, but he died before he could start it. His successor, Berlin, wrote what many consider his greatest score, with such hits as “They Say It’s Wonderful,” “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” “The Girl That I Marry,” “Doin’ What Comes Natur’lly,” and “I Got the Sun in the Morning.” Few Broadway musicals have produced as many song hits as this one. It was Merman’s longest-running show: 1,147 performances.
The last two shows at the Imperial during the 1940s were minor successes. A revue called Along Fifth Avenue moved from the Broadhurst and starred Nancy Walker, Jackie Gleason, Carol Bruce, and Hank Ladd, but it lasted only seven months. Irving Berlin’s Miss Liberty had a book by Robert E. Sherwood and starred Eddie Albert, Mary McCarty, and Allyn McLerie, but the critics felt that the project fell flat. It managed to run for 308 performances.
During the 1950s musicals continued to be the major fare at this theatre. In 1950 there was a successful adaptation of Peter Pan, with new music by Leonard Bernstein. Jean Arthur made a perfect Peter, and Boris Karloff doubled as Mr. Darling and the evil Captain Hook. This was followed by Ethel Merman in another Irving Berlin winner, Call Me Madam, in which she played a Perle Mesta-type Washington, DC, hostess. Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse wrote the amusing book, Paul Lukas was Merman’s romantic costar, and Merman and a newcomer, Russell Nype, stopped the show with their singing of the contrapuntal melody “You’re Just in Love.” It ran for 644 performances. In June 1952 Wish You Were Here, a fair musical version of Arthur Kober’s delightful play Having Wonderful Time, opened and managed to run for 598 performances, mainly because Eddie Fisher (who was not in the show) recorded the title song and it became a "Hit Parade" favorite. The show also had a real pool onstage, which garnered much publicity. In December 1953 one of Broadway’s last opulent revues — John Murray Anderson’s Almanac — arrived, with Hermione Gingold, Billy De Wolfe, Harry Belafonte, Polly Bergen, Orson Bean, Kay Medford, and Carleton Carpenter, but despite some funny sketches and good songs it was a financial failure, proving that TV was killing the revue form on Broadway.
Cole Porter’s last musical, Silk Stockings, an adaptation of Greta Garbo’s famous film Ninotchka, was a hit in 1955, with Don Ameche, Hildegarde, Neff and Gretchen Wyler. Frank Loesser was acclaimed for his operatic musical The Most Happy Fella (1956), based on Sidney Howard’s play They Knew What They Wanted. Lena Horne was a popular success in the Harold Arlen/E. Y. Harburg musical Jamaica (1957), with Ricardo Montalban. Dolores Gray and Andy Griffith had a hit in Destry Rides Again (1959), a musical version of the James Stewart/Marlene Dietrich film, aided by dazzling Michael Kidd choreography, although a feud between Gray and Kidd made all the newspapers.
During the 1960s the Imperial housed more long-running musicals. Ethel Merman in her triumphant Gypsy moved here from the Broadway Theatre in 1960 and was followed by David Merrick’s smash Carnival (1961), a musical adapted from the film Lili, starring Jerry Orbach (fresh from his Off-Broadway success in The Fantasticks) and Anna Maria Alberghetti, with excellent choreography and staging by Gower Champion. A British import, Lionel Bart’s Oliver!, based on Dickens’s Oliver Twist, starred Clive Revill and Georgia Brown and had two song hits: “As Long as He Needs Me” and “Consider Yourself.” It played at the Imperial for 18 months.
On September 22, 1964, Fiddler on the Roof opened and stayed at this theatre for more than two years before moving to the Majestic. The multi-award-winning musical, written by Joseph Stein, Jerry Bock, and Sheldon Harnick, was based on Sholem Aleichem’s tales of life in the impoverished Jewish shtetls of early 20th-century Russia. Zero Mostel gave the greatest performance of his career as the milkman Tevye, who talks to God and tries to find good husbands for his daughters in tumultuous times. Directed and choreographed by Jerome Robbins, the musical filled the Imperial with tunes that became part of people’s lives: “Sunrise, Sunset,” “If I Were a Rich Man,” “Tradition.” The show won numerous Tony Awards, including Best Musical. It eventually became, for a time, the longest-running musical in Broadway history, and it was produced around the world.
Another landmark musical, Cabaret, came to the Imperial from the Broadhurst Theatre and continued for a year and a half in 1967-68. Kander and Ebb, who wrote the memorable score for Cabaret, also wrote the score for the next Imperial tenant, Zorba (1968), a musical based on the film Zorba the Greek. But the stage version did not have the distinction of the film, and it ran for a moderately successful nine months. Minnie’s Boys, a musical about the early career of the Marx Brothers, had a short run in 1970. Richard Rodgers and Martin Charnin had a minor success with their musical Two by Two (1970), a biblical story about Noah and his family based on Clifford Odets’s play The Flowering Peach. It starred Danny Kaye as Noah, and the comic took to ad-libbing during the show’s run, which some in the audience found unprofessional. Even a torn ligament in his leg didn’t slow Kaye down. He continued his shenanigans wearing a cast and riding across the ark in a wheelchair. Two revivals — On the Town (1971) and Lost in the Stars (1972) — struck out before the next home run was hit from this theatre.
On October 23, 1972, Pippin opened, and it stayed for 1,944 performances, making it the longest-running show to open at the Imperial. With a score by Stephen Schwartz, this unorthodox musical about Charlemagne’s irresolute son was boosted to success by Bob Fosse’s inventive choreography, by Ben Vereen’s animated dancing, and by one of the most successful TV commercials ever produced for a Broadway show, “One Minute From Pippin.”
Drama returned to the Imperial with a revival of Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie (1977), starring Liv Ullmann, and Victor Borge returned in a short run of his show Comedy With Music (1977). Two Neil Simon shows next occupied the Imperial, and both were long-running hits. Chapter Two (1977), a drama about Simon’s personal experience after losing his first wife to cancer, starred Judd Hirsch, Anita Gillette, and Cliff Gorman and ran for 857 performances, the longest-running nonmusical in this theatre’s history. The other Simon show, They’re Playing Our Song (1979), was a musical with a score by Marvin Hamlisch and Carole Bayer Sager, about a songwriter (Robert Klein) and his kooky romance with his lyricist (Lucie Arnaz). This ran for a hefty 1,082 performances.
In 1981 Michael Bennett’s blockbuster musical Dreamgirls opened here and stayed until 1985. With a score by Henry Krieger and Tom Eyen and a book by Eyen, the musical about a singing trio patterned after The Supremes won six Tony Awards, including Best Actor and Actress in a Musical: Ben Harney and Jennifer Holliday. Holliday raised the roof with her Act I finale, “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going.”
The Mystery of Edwin Drood (a title later shortened to Drood) by Rupert Holmes, a musical first done by the New York Shakespeare Festival at Central Park’s Delacorte Theater, transferred here in 1985 and promptly won Five Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Book of a Musical (Holmes), Best Original Score (Holmes), Best Leading Actor in a Musical (George Rose), and Best Direction of a Musical (Wilford Leach). Based on an unfinished mystery novel by Charles Dickens, the show was notable for allowing the audience to vote on which of several endings would be played that night. Actors (in character) would “campaign” during intermission to be chosen as the murderer. It played here until May 1987.
The British hit Chess opened in 1988 in a revised version, but the pop opera by Benny Andersson, Björn Ulvaeus/Tim Rice/Richard Nelson about politics and romance colliding in the world of international chess championships did not repeat its London success in New York. Jerome Robbins’ Broadway came next; a compilation of musical numbers from the master choreographer’s musicals, it won Tony Awards for Best Musical, Best Actor in a Musical (pre-"Seinfeld" Jason Alexander), Best Featured Actor in a Musical (Scott Wise), Best Featured Actress in a Musical (Debbie Shapiro), Best Direction of a Musical (Robbins), and Best Lighting Designer (Jennifer Tipton).
In October 1990 Les Misérables moved from the Broadway Theatre and continued its epic run here for more than 12 years, eventually breaking the Imperial record held by Pippin. It closed May 18, 2003, after 6,680 performances — more than 5,000 of them at the Imperial.
Hugh Jackman made his Broadway debut in The Boy from Oz at the very top of his game, riding this star vehicle about the gaudy, brief life of late composer/singer Peter Allen and winning the 2004 Tony as Best Actor in a Musical. Charismatic, gentlemanly, energetic, and appealing to members of both sexes, Jackman had begun his career on the stage in Australia and Great Britain and had won stardom playing the cowboy Curly in a London revival of Oklahoma! Since then, he had taken several macho film roles and earned an international fandom. His tour de force in the Allen musical led to a lauded gig hosting the Tony Awards. The Boy From Oz also showcased future stars Stephanie J. Block and Isabel Keating, who supplied impressions of showbiz legends Liza Minnelli and Judy Garland, Allen’s real-life wife and mother-in-law. The show opened October 16, 2003, and drew fans for 364 performances.
One of the most underrated shows of this period opened here March 3, 2005: Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, based on the film of the same name about two con men who themselves become the victims of a masterful con. John Lithgow played the suave older crook, while Norbert Leo Butz played his gauche younger partner in one of the great bad-guy hats of modern Broadway millinery history. They were supported by a cast of some of Broadway’s bright musical comedians of the period: Sherie Rene Scott, Gregory Jbara, Joanna Gleason, and Sara Gettelfinger.
Jeffrey Lane wrote the book and David Yazbek (The Full Monty) supplied Dirty Rotten Scoundrels with a classic musical comedy score that would have easily won the Tony Award in most other seasons this decade, but the show had the misfortune to open in the era’s most bountiful season, opposite the extraordinary The Light in the Piazza and the hilarious Monty Python’s Spamalot. Songs included “Great Big Stuff,” “Here I Am,” and “Nothing Is Too Wonderful to Be True,” which featured one lovely poetic verse and one nutty comedic verse. In the end Dirty Rotten Scoundrels brought home just one Tony Award, but a big one: Best Actor in a Musical for Butz. The show ran 627 performances.
The music-loving owner of a slowly dying record store tries to win back the girl he loves in High Fidelity, a musical based on the film of the same title. A lot of top talent was involved in the show, but it somehow struck the wrong chord and expired after just 13 performances. Pulitzer Prize-winner David Lindsay-Abaire supplied the book. Amanda Green rhymed the lyrics. Young composer Tom Kitt, who would go on to a Tony Award three years later with Next to Normal, demonstrated his ability to write music in virtually any pop style.
Coram Boy, an epic drama about the crimes and passions surrounding an 18th-century foundling home, had the scale and opulence of a musical and booked the Imperial in spring 2007 in anticipation of a musical-sized audience. But the show did not stir passions in New York the way it had in two runs at the National Theatre in London, and it closed after just 30 showings.
The Imperial got another drama on December 4, 2007, but one that actually did fill the house: Tracy Letts’s August: Osage County, the story of an extended Oklahoma family that gathers after the mysterious disappearance of their patriarch. This remarkable modern take on the American family drama earned the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and won five Tony Awards: Best Play, Best Lead Actress in a Play (Deanna Dunagan), Best Director of a Play (Anna D. Shapiro), Best Featured Actress in a Play (Rondi Reed), and, for his three-story house set, Todd Rosenthal. In April 2008, after five months at the Imperial, the show moved next door to the more intimate Music Box Theatre.
The Imperial returned to melody with Billy Elliot: The Musical, an SRO hit that originated in London, based on the Lee Hall film about a blue-collar boy in a northern English mining community who dreams of becoming a classical dancer. The show had a score by Elton John and Hall, highlighted by the song “Electricity” and a moment when Billy takes flight in his imagination as he dances. The heart-grabbing show opened November 13, 2008, and won ten Tony Awards including Best Musical, Best Directing (Stephen Daldry), and Best Choreography (Peter Darling). The three young men who alternated in the role of Billy collectively won the Tony as Best Actor in a Musical, the fourth time a top performing honor had come home to the Imperial in six years. It might be the last for a while; Billy Elliot appeared ready to keep flying around the stage of this theatre for years to come.
The Imperial, which was completely refurbished by the Shubert Organization, is one of the finest musical-comedy houses ever built and has been one of Broadway’s most consistently successful houses.