The Sparknotes version of the essential background information that you need to understand my impending temper tantrum: one of the best off-Broadway, nonprofit theatre companies – Second Stage (2ST) – recently upped their digs to the Great White Way by buying the Helen Hayes Theatre, the smallest on Broadway and thus perfectly suited for plays and more intimate musicals. For anyone who bemoans the lack of new plays on Broadway, this is objectively a stupendous development because 2ST has long been devoted to exclusively producing such work (they also stage new musicals like Next to Normal and Dear Evan Hansen, but despite the superior quality of these, I just can’t be AS excited about the prospect of more always-prevalent new musicals on the Great White Way). To quote lyrics from the former musical: “It’s gonna be good/It’s gonna be good/It’s gonna be great/It’s gonna be fucking great!” Or is it?
Similar to how the joy of Next to Normal’s Dan proves double-sided, so too has Second Stage’s announcement. Don’t get me wrong – I still exponentially support their move uptown. BUT, it sounds like they’re making a grave mistake in the eyes of anyone who cares about preserving the historical architectural legacy of Broadway theatres.
According to this article in The New York Times, 2ST is in the process of completely renovating the beautifully simple classic interior of this century-old theatre; here’s the before, during, and planned after:
Before we storm the construction site with fire and pitchforks, a few disclaimers:
- Master architect-cum-set designer David Rockwell is overseeing the project, so it couldn’t be in much better – or more theatrically knowledgeable – hands.
- Everyone – ESPECIALLY stereotypically change-resistant theatre folk – should always be wary of becoming a ‘get off my lawn’-type person who blindly rejects anything new.
- It’s of course impossible to completely judge the new design without experiencing it firsthand, which obviously can’t happen until the theatre reopens.
Despite all these reasons to relax, I still feel – given the theatre’s feminine name, and to continue the Clint Eastwood-related quotes – like busting into the Helen Hayes right now with the despondently enraged fervor of Sean Penn’s signature (basically Oscar-winning) scene in Mystic River: IS THAT MY DAUGHTER IN THERE?! IS THAT MY DAUGHTER IN THERE?!?!?!?!
Losing a part of theatre history is of course a far more bearable tragedy than the death of a daughter, but I’m still furious that 2ST had the audacity to do this, especially considering the Hayes was – according to The New York Times– the only theatre on Broadway with a neo-Colonial design. Yet even without this distinction, such an overhaul of a theatre’s architecture honestly should not be allowed by the Broadway League nor the City of New York. These are historical landmarks, and the walls contain the respective histories of the buildings. The Hayes may not have been as much of a looker as some of her counterparts, but history is still history, period. Broadway theatres can’t just be erected anymore; they can only be reclaimed, like the imminent re-opening of the Hudson Theatre.
Broadway theatres can basically undergo three types of changes, in descending order of appropriateness: refurbishments (yay!), renovations (fine, as long as they’re needed), and redesigns (FOH).
The best: REFURBISHMENTS, where these theatres basically get a facelift, making all of the old design features look new without altering them in any significant way.
Another satisfactory approach: RENOVATING Broadway theatres is often necessary because many are not equipped to handle the modern dictates of theatrical producing, and as such functional modifications must always not only be expected but also tolerated and perhaps even celebrated (the easier it is for shows to be produced in theatres, the more shows that will be produced). BUT, these acceptable modifications should never mandate messing around with the historical appearance of the theatres. Which brings us to:
The worst: having the gall to REDESIGN a Broadway theatre. I promise that I’m not just being a typical theatrical traditionalist who refuses to acknowledge new can be good: yes, theatres have long undergone massive alterations, and the last iteration of the Hayes was of course not the original…but in no way does that justify another iteration, especially because every time the theatre was noticeably differed in the past was a shameful disregard of the history the interior design of the building represents; just because a mistake was committed in the past does not excuse committing that same mistake again. Though the best productions every season are often produced off-Broadway, the significance of the Great White Way’s history is hard to match. As such, the importance of feeling that you’re a part of that history every time you walk into a historic looking Broadway theatre cannot be understated.
Though apparently it can be by Second Stage! I’m of course open to the idea of updating Broadway theatres if absolutely necessary – which cannot be the case here because The Humans sold out the Hayes perfectly fine last season – but I fail to see how that egregious white design and whatever John-Tiffany’s-The-Glass-Menagerie-esque-mirror-thing they’re doing to the stage is essential. Yes, 2ST exclusively produces new plays, but in no way does that mean the theatre in which they’re staging their shows needs to be just as contemporary. Plus, since they’re keeping BOTH of their more modern off-Broadway houses, why would they not want to have as much diversity as possible in the types of the theatres that they own, especially considering the fact that spaces can often wondrously shape a production? Their past work that has transferred to other Broadway theatres was not hindered by the typically classic architecture around them. In fact, this merging of a new work within an old theatre almost represents the plight of most theatre practitioners: how to utilize WITHOUT FORSAKING the traditions of this most ritualistically traditional of art forms to say something new. Completely abandoning the theatre’s interior design is basically – sorry to be crass, but it’s called for here – taking a shit on that tradition. What would Tevye say?
I refuse to believe that Second Stage could not figure out a way to retain the superficial history of the Helen Hayes while simultaneously bringing her into the 21st century. Again, I’m excited about 2ST on Broadway because, at the end of the day, it is not a theatre’s architecture but the work the theatre houses that historically defines the space for the past, present, and future, and Second Stage moving into the Helen Hayes will undoubtedly be followed by a wealth of quality – and almost more importantly, based on their lack of exclusive commercial interests, different – shows. Even so, every time I step into Second Stage’s new home, I will feel a tinge of sadness at not being able to accompany my kids one day into what I have long considered to be one of my favorite theatrical homes on Broadway. “Life has gone by as if I’ve never lived…”
 That’s just a turn of phrase based on the false notion that all off-Broadway theatres are located downtown; 2ST’s current home is literally in the heart of the Broadway theatre district.
 If you’re baffled as to where this random reference to the man with no name came from, click on ‘get off my lawn’ above. Hyperlinks, FTW!
 The rest are “in the Beaux-Arts and classical styles.”