The Eugene O’Neill Theatre at 230 West 49th Street originated as the Forrest Theatre in 1925. It was named after one of America’s greatest classical actors, Edwin Forrest, whose bitter feud with the classical British actor William Charles Macready ignited the tragic 1849 riot at the Astor Place Opera House in New York City. In the course of that event 22 people were killed and more than 100 wounded.
The Forrest Theatre was built by the Shuberts and designed in the Georgian style by architect Herbert J. Krapp. The capacity was 1,200, making it flexible for the staging of dramas or musical comedies. Unfortunately, the new theatre began with a string of flops. The theatre opened officially on November 25, 1925, with a musical comedy called Mayflowers, starring Ivy Sawyer, Joseph Santley, and a newcomer named Nancy Carroll, who would later become a movie star. The New York Times labeled the show “attractive,” but it lasted for only 81 performances.
After Mayflowers, the theatre housed such short-lived shows as The Matinee Girl, Mama Loves Papa, Rainbow Rose, and My Country.
After six more very short-lived plays in 1927, the Forrest finally had a hit with a drama called Women Go On Forever. Produced by William A. Brady Jr. and Dwight Deere Wiman, the play featured this impressive cast: Mary Boland, Osgood Perkins, Douglass Montgomery, and James Cagney. A seamy, realistic play that The Times found “cheap and malodorous,” the show attracted the public for 118 performances.
After that, the Forrest reverted to potboilers whose very titles denoted their doom: Bless You, Sister; Mirrors; It Is to Laugh; The Skull; Fast Life; The Common Sin; The Squealer; and Café de Danse, all from December 1927 to December 1928. Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn brought some class to the house with their dancing in 1929, and things brightened a bit when the popular comedy Bird in Hand, by John Drinkwater, transferred here from the Masque Theatre in 1930.
The Blue Ghost, a mystery play, managed to run for 112 performances in 1930, possibly because it was the only creepy show in town. Ushers at the Forrest Theatre wore blue hoods over their heads to get the audience in the proper shivery mood, but The New York Times declared that after that device they expected the worst — and got it.
A farce, Stepping Sisters, about three ex-queens of burlesque, moved to the Forrest from the Royale Theatre in August 1930 and stayed for two months. In October of that year, the theatre suddenly became Edgar Wallace’s Forrest Theatre when Wallace’s play On the Spot opened there. This gangster play, with Anna May Wong and Glenda Farrell, was the theatre’s biggest hit thus far, running for 167 performances.
A terrible farce called In the Best of Families was pronounced dull and dirty by Brooks Atkinson of The Times, so it ran for 141 performances, moving to the Forrest from the Bijou in March 1931. From October of that year until November of 1932, this theatre housed seven plays of such mediocrity that none of them ran for more than 36 performances and four ran for fewer than 12 performances.
Things picked up a bit in 1932 when the Helen Hayes/Walter Connolly hit The Good Fairy moved here from Henry Miller’s Theatre and stayed for two months. A revival of Rachel Crothers’s comedy As Husbands Go chalked up 144 performances in 1933. The Ballets Jooss played a gratifying engagement from October to December of 1933.
From January through August 1934 the Forrest had seven flops, including a lavish musical romance, Caviar, with dancer Jack Cole in the cast, and a musical revue, Keep Moving, starring Tom Howard. Then in September 1934 a bonanza finally arrived at this theatre. It was Tobacco Road, Jack Kirkland’s shocking dramatization of Erskine Caldwell’s novel of the same name, which had opened at the Masque Theatre on December 5, 1933. Starring Henry Hull as Jeeter Lester, Margaret Wycherly as Ada, and Dean Jagger as Lou, this seamy play, which many critics disliked, stayed at the Forrest from September 1934 until May 31, 1941. When it ended its marathon run at the Forrest, it had played for 3,182 performances, making it the longest-running play in the history of the American theatre up to that time. Today it is second only to Life With Father (3,224 performances) among nonmusicals. Henry Hull was succeeded by the following actors during Tobacco Road’s record run: James Barton, James Bell, Eddie Garr, and Will Geer. Tobacco Road came back to the Forrest in 1942 after a long road tour, and then John Barton, son of James, was playing Jeeter Lester. But the return engagement lasted only 34 performances. Audiences had had enough of squalor, sex, and turnips in this drama about Georgia “crackers.” Meanwhile, the mayor of Chicago had deemed the play too dirty to be staged there, and Rhode Island and the American South had made the same decision.
The 1940s at the Forrest reverted to the unfortunate booking of a series of flop shows. Occasionally, hits from another theatre, such as Three Men on a Horse and Claudia, played there, but usually they were clinkers like Bright Lights of 1944; Manhattan Nocturne; Topical Revue; Listen, Professor; Dark Hammock; and Hand in Glove. The last show to play the Forrest before it changed its name was a comedy called The Overtons (1945), which moved in from the Booth. It played for three months at the Forrest before the theatre closed for extensive renovations.
In 1945 City Playhouses, Inc., with Louis A. Lotito as managing director, bought the Forrest from the Select Operating Corporation, which was controlled by the Shuberts. The new owners completely renovated this theatre, turning it into a stunning space covered with silken gray fabrics. Renamed the Coronet, it became one of the handsomest playhouses in Manhattan. And with this new dressing and new management, its luck changed — though not immediately. The first show to play the Coronet, Beggars Are Coming to Town, opened on October 27, 1945. It had an impressive cast: Paul Kelly, Luther Adler, Dorothy Comingore, Herbert Berghof, E.G. Marshall, George Mathews, and Adrienne Ames. Despite excellent acting and expert direction by Harold Clurman, it ran for only 25 performances.
But the Coronet’s second show turned out to be a winner. Elmer Rice’s enchanting fantasy Dream Girl was written for his wife, Betty Field, and she gave a captivating performance as a woman who enlivened her dull life with vivid daydreams. She was ably supported by Wendell Corey, Evelyn Varden, and Edmon Ryan, and the cheerful comedy ran for 348 performances.
In January 1947 Arthur Miller’s first successful play, All My Sons, opened here and stayed for 328 performances. The cast featured Ed Begley, Arthur Kennedy, Karl Malden, and Lois Wheeler. Brooks Atkinson in The New York Times wrote: “With the production of All My Sons at the Coronet …the theatre has acquired a new talent …Arthur Miller.”
For a change of pace, the Coronet next booked a revue, Angel in the Wings (1947), and it was one of the season’s big hits. Starring the infectious dance satirists Paul and Grace Hartman, assisted by Hank Ladd, Elaine Stritch, Nadine Gae, Johnny Barnes, and others, the revue cheered audiences for 308 performances. Another bright revue, Small Wonder (1948), followed this, and its scintillating cast included Tom Ewell, Alice Pearce, Mary McCarthy, Jack Cassidy, Joan Diener, and Jonathan Lucas. Staged by Burt Shevelove and choreographed by Gower Champion, it pleased revue lovers for 134 performances.
The indestructible Mae West revived her play Diamond Lil with sumptuous sets and gaudy costumes in February 1949, and the public flocked to it for 181 performances.
Maurice Evans was featured in Terence Rattigan’s double bill of The Browning Version and A Harlequinade, costarring with Edna Best, but the Peter Glenville production lasted only 69 showings. After two unsuccessful plays (Happy as Larry and The Bird Cage) the Coronet had another hit revue with the Hartmans — Tickets, Please! — in the spring of 1950. Their cast this time included Jack Albertson, Tommy Wonder, Larry Kert, and Dorothy Jarnac. The Hartmans’ formula paid off for 245 performances.
Other 1950's highlights at this theatre included Jessica Tandy, Beulah Bondi, Evelyn Varden, Eileen Heckart, and John Alexander in Samson Raphaelson’s Hilda Crane (1950), staged by Hume Cronyn; Lillian Hellman’s fascinating play about the middle-age crisis, The Autumn Garden (1951), with Fredric March, Florence Eldridge, Jane Wyatt, Ethel Griffies, and others, directed by Harold Clurman; Edna Best giving a memorable performance in S. N. Behrman’s Jane (1952), based on a W. Somerset Maugham story; and a revival of Miss Hellman’s explosive play The Children’s Hour (1952), with Patricia Neal, Kim Hunter, Robert Pastene, and Iris Mann.
More hits of the 1950s: Burgess Meredith, Martha Scott, Glenn Anders, and Una Merkel in Liam O’Brien’s The Remarkable Mr. Pennypacker (1953); Robert Anderson’s All Summer Long (1954), with John Kerr, Ed Begley, June Walker, and Carroll Baker; Noël Coward’s Quadrille (1954), starring the Lunts, Brian Aherne, and Edna Best, directed by Lunt, with striking sets and costumes by Cecil Beaton. Maxwell Anderson’s hit thriller about a sweet little murderess, The Bad Seed (1954), with Nancy Kelly, Patty McCormack, Eileen Heckart, Henry Jones, and Evelyn Varden, moved here from the 46th Street Theatre. Then came the original one-act version of Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge, with Van Heflin, J. Carrol Naish, and Eileen Heckart, on a double bill with Miller’s A Memory of Two Mondays (1955).
The Lunts returned in The Great Sebastians (1956), which transferred from the ANTA Theatre. Barbara Bel Geddes, Michael Redgrave, and Cathleen Nesbitt starred in Terence Rattigan’s The Sleeping Prince (1956). Siobhan McKenna transferred her St. Joan (1956), from the Phoenix Theatre. Sir Ralph Richardson and Mildred Natwick had fun in Jean Anouilh’s memorable play The Waltz of the Toreadors (1957), directed by Harold Clurman, followed by Katharine Cornell and Anthony Quayle in Christopher Fry’s The Firstborn (1958), with songs by Leonard Bernstein.
Jason Robards Jr. gave a Tony Award-winning performance as a writer (said to be inspired by F. Scott Fitzgerald) in The Disenchanted (1958), with Jason Robards Sr. also in the cast, along with George Grizzard, Rosemary Harris, and Salomé Jens. The last show to play the Coronet before it had yet another change of name was a revival of Eugene O’Neill’s The Great God Brown (1959), with Fritz Weaver, Robert Lansing, and Nan Martin, in a Phoenix Theatre production.
In November 1959 the Coronet was renamed the Eugene O’Neill Theatre, in honor of America’s greatest playwright, who had died in 1953. The first play at the O’Neill was William Inge’s A Loss of Roses, with Betty Field, Warren Beatty, Carol Haney, Robert Webber, and Michael J. Pollard, but the critics found the play dull and it closed after 25 performances.
After several quick failures, the theatre housed Carol Channing in Charles Gaynor’s revue Show Girl, with Jules Munshin and Les Quat’ Jeudis, a quartet of singing Frenchmen. It ran for 100 performances. John Mills starred in Terence Rattigan’s Ross (1961), about Lawrence of Arabia; Jason Robards Jr. and Sandy Dennis enjoyed a long run in Herb Gardner’s comedy A Thousand Clowns (1962), which perfectly captured the growing anti-establishment spirit of the time.
The 1960s brought Hal Prince’s production of the charming musical She Loves Me (1963), by Joe Masteroff, Sheldon Harnick, and Jerry Bock, with Jack Cassidy, Daniel Massey, and Barbara Cook singing what became one of her signature tunes, “Ice Cream”; plus two hits from other theatres, The Odd Couple and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1966-67); and the London musical version of The Canterbury Tales (1969), with George Rose, Sandy Duncan, Hermione Baddeley, Martyn Green, and Reid Shelton.
In the late 1960s, playwright Neil Simon bought this theatre but did not change its name. A series of Simon plays were then staged here, beginning with the successful comedy Last of the Red Hot Lovers (1969), with James Coco, Linda Lavin, Marcia Rodd, and Doris Roberts; The Prisoner of Second Avenue (1971), with Peter Falk, Lee Grant, and Vincent Gardenia, who won a Tony Award for his performance; The Good Doctor (1973), a series of sketches and songs that Simon adapted from Chekhov stories, starring Christopher Plummer, Marsha Mason, René Auberjonois, Barnard Hughes, and Frances Sternhagen; God’s Favorite (1974), Simon’s comedy version of the biblical story of Job, with Vincent Gardenia, Charles Nelson Reilly, and Rosetta LeNoire, staged by Michael Bennett.
The Simon parade was interrupted in 1975 by the arrival of Yentl, a play by Isaac Bashevis Singer and Leah Napolin, starring Tovah Feldshuh, which stayed for seven months and was later adapted as a film with Barbra Streisand. Simon returned with California Suite (1976), an evening of four short plays, with Tammy Grimes, Jack Weston, and George Grizzard, which ran for 445 performances. Simon’s hit play Chapter Two moved here from the Imperial in 1979, followed by another of his comedies, I Ought to Be in Pictures (1980), with Ron Leibman, Joyce Van Patten, and Dinah Manoff, who won a Tony Award for her performance. Simon’s play Fools, with John Rubinstein, had a brief run in 1981, followed by Annie, which moved in from another theatre. A revival of Simon’s musical Little Me, starring James Coco and Victor Garber, did not succeed in 1982, and the hit musical The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas returned from its tour and played at this theatre for a month.
In 1982 Jujamcyn Theatres bought the Eugene O’Neill from Simon and has operated the theatre ever since. In October of that year Beth Henley’s play The Wake of Jamey Foster, with Anthony Heald, played a short run here, followed by William Gibson’s Monday After the Miracle, a sequel to his acclaimed play The Miracle Worker. Then came a legendary fiasco, Moose Murders, which closed on its opening night. Eve Arden, who had starred in it, wisely left the show after an early preview. Arthur Bicknell’s dreadful comedy/thriller, about high jinks at a hunting lodge decorated with mounted moose heads, became a touchstone for Broadway flopdom.
Jessica Tandy, Amanda Plummer, Bruce Davison, and John Heard starred in a 1983 revival of Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie, directed by John Dexter. In 1985 a musical called Big River, based on Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, opened and won the following Tony Awards: Best Musical, Best Book (William Hauptman), Best Score (Roger Miller), Best Direction (Des McAnuff), Best Featured Actor (Ron Richardson), Best Scenic Design (Heidi Landesman), and Best Lighting (Richard Riddell). Two years later this hit was followed by Tom Waits in Concert on Broadway for a limited engagement.
Another hit arrived in 1988 when David Henry Hwang’s controversial play M. Butterfly opened and won three Tony Awards: Best Play, Best Direction (John Dexter), and Best Supporting Actor (B. D. Wong). Kathleen Turner and Charles Durning opened in a revival of Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in 1990, and Durning was rewarded with a Tony for his performance as Big Daddy.
David Hirson’s verse drama La Bête was an interesting failure in 1991, followed by the New Vaudeville Penn & Teller: The Refrigerator Tour; the hit British revue Five Guys Named Moe; and a new production of the musical Grease! (exclamation point added for this production), which ran for 1,503 performances. Producers Fran and Barry Weissler opened Grease! with comedian/actress (and later talk show and Tony Awards host) Rosie O’Donnell as Rizzo. This began what became a signature Weissler policy of bringing in stars from other media for brief stints to extend the runs of their shows. Among those who stepped into this production during its nearly four-year run: Brooke Shields, JoAnne Worley, Debby Boone, Sheena Easton, Jon Secada, Al Jarreau, Chubby Checker, and Darlene Love. Comedian Joe Piscopo was playing Vince Fontaine on January 8, 1996, when a blizzard shut down all of Broadway… except Grease! For that one night, Piscopo and Grease! had Broadway all to themselves.
The Herbal Bed, Peter Whelan’s hit London drama about Shakespeare’s daughter, was one of the most eagerly awaited events of spring 1998. Unfortunately, it did not repeat its success in New York and closed after 13 performances. In October 1998 an even bigger disaster arrived. More to Love, by radio comic Rob Bartlett and also starring him, received brutal notices. Subtitled “A big fat comedy,” the play about obesity was dubbed “A stand-up dramedy” by Peter Marks of The New York Times. It wasted away after four performances.
The 50th-anniversary production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (from Chicago’s Goodman Theatre) opened on February 10, 1999, and was acclaimed. Brian Dennehy and Elizabeth Franz won Tony Awards for their performances as Willy and Linda Loman. Robert Falls won a Tony as Best Director of a Play, and the production received a Tony as Best Revival of a Play. It ran for 276 performances and was taped for broadcast on cable TV, where it won more awards.
Playwright David Hirson, who had endured the 25-performance run of his La Bête in 1991, returned to the O’Neill in January 2000 with another intelligent comedy, Wrong Mountain, which did better — 28 performances.
A bonanza opened at the O’Neill Theatre on October 26, 2000. The Full Monty, a musical comedy based on the popular film of the same name, with music and lyrics by David Yazbek and a book by Terrence McNally, came to Broadway from the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego and proved an immediate hit. With its appealing story of six men who lose their jobs and decide to become male strippers to support their families, the show quickly (though briefly) established itself as Broadway’s hottest ticket. Not all theatregoers were impressed. Many older playgoers felt the musical had a mediocre score, but the general public embraced its warmhearted comedy. Following 20 years during which musical drama was king, The Full Monty was hailed for heralding a rebirth of musical comedy. The production also demonstrated what a fine showcase the O’Neill was for small- to medium-sized musicals, which dominated its programming for the next few years.
A two-night benefit titled Short Talks on the Universe attracted major names on November 17 and 18, 2002. Angela Lansbury, Matthew Broderick, Bette Midler, Alec Baldwin, and Raúl Esparza were among the stars who performed original one-acts by Steve Martin, Tony Kushner, Elaine May, Terrence McNally, Nora Ephron, and Jon Robin Baitz. Proceeds went to the Friends in Deed foundation and to Bay Street Theatre.
April 10, 2003, brought Roundabout Theatre Company’s stylish revival of the Maury Yeston/Arthur Kopit musical Nine, directed by David Leveaux, who at one point flooded the all-white stage for a scene set in Venice. Antonio Banderas played the charismatic Italian film director Guido Contini, whose “body’s nearing 40 as his mind is nearing ten.” His all-female supporting cast included Jane Krakowski (Tony Award), Laura Benanti, Mary Stuart Masterson, Nell Campbell, Mary Beth Peil, and, performing a showstopping “Folies Bergère” at a blooming age 70, Chita Rivera. Nine won the 2003 Tony Award as Best Revival of a Musical and continued for 283 performances.
Playwright Tony Kushner, who had won back-to-back Tony Awards for the two parts of Angels in America, delved into his Georgia childhood for the libretto of an unusual musical, Caroline, Or Change, which debuted Off-Broadway at the Public Theater, then moved to the O’Neill May 2, 2004, with the help of producers more interested in its message than its profit potential. Tonya Pinkins played Caroline, a black housekeeper who finds herself in conflict with her employers, a well-off and well-meaning Jewish family. Jeanine Tesori wrote the innovative score, while Kushner supplied book and lyrics. In place of a chorus, Kushner gave voices and personalities to inanimate objects, including a washing machine (Capathia Jenkins), a bus (Chuck Cooper), and even the moon (Aisha de Haas). Caroline, Or Change was nominated for Best Musical and ran 136 performances. Anika Noni Rose won the Tony Award as Best Featured Actress in a Play as Caroline’s daughter Emmy.
An attractive young cast spent a good part of the evening in bathing suits in the February 2005 jukebox musical Good Vibrations, featuring the music of the rock group The Beach Boys. As part of the fun, the cast tossed large beach balls through the fourth wall and into the house for the audience to bat around. But the show was washed away in a tsunami of bad reviews after 94 performances.
Things got much more serious for the O’Neill’s next show, John Doyle’s fall 2005 revival of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s mass-murder musical Sweeney Todd, which was remarkable for merging the cast with the orchestra. The huge cast of the original was slashed to just ten actors for this production, and when those actors weren’t performing a scene, they picked up instruments and played the skillfully shaved-down orchestrations by Sarah Travis, who earned a Tony Award for her work. The cast was led by Michael Cerveris (Sweeney/guitar and percussion) and Patti LuPone (Mrs. Lovett/tuba and triangle). Instead of spurting blood during the throat-cutting scenes, cast members slowly poured blood from one eerie white pail into another. Some critics found these innovations revelatory; others found them just stingy. But at Tony time Doyle was named Best Director of the season and the show dished up the meat pies for 349 performances.
Young audiences embraced the O’Neill’s next presentation, Spring Awakening, a tragic musical about the catastrophic sexual awakening of a group of 19th-century German teens. Alt-rock composer Duncan Sheik worked with lyricist-librettist Steven Sater on the adaptation of Frank Wedekind’s drama. An electrifying young ensemble led by future stars Lea Michele, Jonathan Groff, and John Gallagher Jr. performed the anachronistic rock score that had them pulling microphones from their clothes and singing rock-concert style. The R-rated staging included scenes of simulated flagellation, group masturbation, and a seduction aboard a swinging platform. The show opened on December 10, 2006, and struggled financially until it won the 2007 Tony Award as Best Musical, along with seven more Tonys: Best Score, Best Book, Best Featured Actor in a Musical (Gallagher), Best Director (Michael Mayer), Best Choreography (Bill T. Jones), Best Orchestrations (Sheik), and Best Lighting (Kevin Adams). Spring Awakening then cruised to a two-year, 859-performance run.
After a forty-six-year absence from Broadway, film actress and exercise guru Jane Fonda returned to the boards March 9, 2009 in 33 Variations, Moisès Kaufman’s intriguing drama about a music historian trying to crack a mystery in the career of composer Ludwig van Beethoven before she succumbs to a terminal illness. Fonda’s was the main character, but actor Zach Grenier had a remarkable monologue that took audiences inside Beethoven’s head as he composed one of the variations. Fans followed the show’s progress on Fonda’s thoughtful diarylike blog throughout the show’s 31 previews and 85-performance run.
Another fascinating musical transferred from Off-Broadway on November 23, 2009: Fela!, a biography of Nigerian musical/political activist Fela Anikulapo Kuti, with his own songs woven into a book by Jim Lewis and Bill T. Jones. The busy Jones also served as director and choreographer and won the 2010 Tony Award for Best Choreography. Other Tonys went to Marina Draghici (Costume Design) and Robert Kaplowitz (Sound Design). Among the show's producers were Shawn Carter, aka Jay-Z, the hip-hop artist, and film stars Will and Jada Pinkett Smith, who brought a bit of glamour to the production. It closed in January 2011 after 463 performances.
The O'Neill's next tenant snuck in a bit under the radar, and then proceeded to blow much of the competition out of the water. The Book of Mormon, an irreverent musical comedy by the duo behind TV's South Park — Matt Stone and Trey Parker — and Avenue Q's Robert Lopez, debuted in spring 2001. It won nine Tony Awards including Best Musical, Best Score (Robert Lopez, Trey Parker, Matt Stone), Best Actress in a Featured Role (Nikki M. James), and Best Direction (Casey Nicholaw and Trey Parker).