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HISTORY AND RESTORATION

Lyric Theatre, which opened in 1997 as the Ford Center for the Performing Arts, stands on a site formerly occupied by two classic theatres on 42nd Street, the Lyric and the Apollo. While the facility was renovated in 1996 and modernized into a state-of-the-art Broadway musical house, the Lyric and the Apollo’s historic splendor was preserved, adhering to the guidelines for development established by The New 42nd Street to “promote the preservation, restoration and reconstruction of the historically significant elements of each theatre.”

LYRIC THEATRE

The original Lyric, managed by the Shubert Brothers, opened on October 12, 1903 with Old Heidelberg starring Richard Mansfield. Most of its successes were musical. Two major composers of operetta had hits there: Oscar Straus, whose most famous show, The Chocolate Soldier (based on Shaw’s Arms and the Man), opened at the Lyric in 1909 to run for 296 performances, and Rudolf Friml, whose first show, The Firefly, opened at the Lyric in 1912. Friml’s last hit, The Three Musketeers, produced by the fabled Florenz Ziegfeld, played there for seven months in 1928 (an impressive run in those days).

The glory years of the Lyric, the 1920s, belonged to musical comedy in an era when both the music and the comedy were equally dazzling. During that decade, Fred and Adele Astaire appeared in For Goodness Sake, scored partly by the Gershwins. The Marx Brothers had their second Broadway hit (and the source of their first film) at the Lyric with The Cocoanuts (book by George S. Kaufman, songs by Irving Berlin). And in 1929, the young Cole Porter wrote his first successful full-length score (and one of the best of his entire career) for Fifty Million Frenchmen. It turned out to be the Lyric’s last successful show. In 1934, the Lyric became a movie house until it closed in 1992.

THE APOLLO THEATRE

The Apollo Theatre opened in 1910 as The Bryant, a combined film and vaudeville house. In 1920, the Selwyn brothers rebuilt the theatre, making it the twelfth and final theatre to be built on 42nd Street’s Times Square block. Renamed the Apollo, the theatre began operations on November 11, 1920 with Oscar Hammerstein’s Jimmie.

In 1923 The Apollo housed its first successful show, Poppy, starring W.C. Fields. Following this George White’s Scandals mounted several successful editions of the series at the Apollo, with stars including Ethel Merman, Jimmy Durante, Ray Bolger, Rudy Vallee and Ed Wynn. In 1932, the rowdy Take a Chance gave Ethel Merman one of her trademark songs, “Eadie was a Lady”, and also gave the Apollo its last hit before it closed in 1933. It reopened in 1934 as a burlesque house, and in 1938 began a long and checkered career as a movie theatre.

In 1979, the Brandt Organization attempted to bring live theatre back to the Apollo, heralding the New Apollo Theatre. The New Apollo Theatre housed three noteworthy plays in succession: On Golden Pond, Bent, and Lanford Wilson’s The Fifth of July. In 1983, the theatre went back to housing movies and eventually switched to rock concerts and Parisian-styled cabaret.

REVITALIZATION

In 1990, the State and City of New York created a plan to redevelop the 42nd Street area through the revitalization of its theatres. During May 1992, New 42nd Street signed a 99-year master lease for six theatres, including the Apollo and the Lyric. In August 1996, under the management of Livent, construction began within the existing exterior walls of the Lyric and the Apollo to renovate the interior spaces and form a new Broadway theatre.

The product of collaboration between architects, engineers, craftsmen, and designers, including Beyer Blinder Belle, Peter Kofman and the Roger Morgan Studio (now Sachs Morgan Studio), the goal of the restoration was to preserve the historical design elements of the two theatres while creating a functional space that could meet the demands required for a Broadway musical house (such as seating capacity, size of stage, proscenium opening, handicapped access, dressing rooms, lobby areas, and public restrooms to name a few).

One of the largest theaters on Broadway, The Lyric is built on the site of the old Apollo and Lyric theatres. Many of the features of both theatres were given Landmark status and so architect John Belle incorporated them into the new design, weaving together the old and the new.

New features include Greek inspired murals and some of the old are The Lyric’s magnificent turn of the century 42nd Street facade has been restored to its original grandeur. The historic 43rd Street brick and terra-cotta facade, with its lovely tiers of windows and balconies, has been restored and maintained. The new Lyric Theatre is grand theatre for large-scale shows.

Key historic interior elements and themes of the Apollo are now used inside the theatre. The lobby was restored and is used as a lounge during intermission. Plaster elements, including ceiling domes, the proscenium arch, sail vault, and side boxes, were cut into sections, removed from the Apollo, restored and expanded, painted and gilded to be the feature design elements, and reinstalled in the new theatre by Iconoplast Designs Inc./Jean-Francois D. Furieri. The side walls design of pilasters and scalloped panels were first established by the structural grid and acoustical considerations and then designed as supporting elements in a sympathetic manner and in a similar vocabulary to the historic elements. Murals were commissioned to form a frieze over the new side boxes in a Greek mythological theme recalling the original concept of the Apollo. The historic dome, set within a new second dome, is washed with light to be featured as the theatre’s centerpiece.

Every one of the nearly 1,900 seats in the auditorium has excellent sightlines and an intimate relationship to the performance. From the back of the orchestra, you are only 90 feet away from the stage. Lyric Theatre combines the most modern technology and the finest acoustics with a traditional sense of contact between actors and audiences. The design combines preservation with new and state of the art construction to create the spirit and character of a grand historical theatre with the needs of a modern one.

 

An aerial view of the reconstruction project. Photo by Fiona Spaulding-Smith
The final result of the historical 43rd Street exterior after its revitalization. Photo by Fiona Spaulding-Smith
The 43rd Street façade during the run of the theatre’s inaugural production, 'Ragtime.' Photo by Fiona Spaulding Smith
The 42nd Street marquee of the original Lyric Theatre. Photo credit Byron Company, 1903
The 42nd Street marquee of the original Apollo Theatre. Photo credit Wurts Brothers, 1922
Historical detail of the 43rd Street façade, which still exists today. Photo by Fiona Spaulding-Smith
Historical detail of the 43rd Street façade, which still exists today. Photo by Fiona Spaulding-Smith