Why Some Broadway Marquees are Jarring

Aaron Netsky

While my first priority was always seeing whatever shows I had come to see that particular trip, early visits to New York City were also consumed by my eagerness to take it all in. Not the city; Broadway, specifically the fabled theatres. Long before thousands of pictures from a single day could be stored effortlessly on one's mobile phone, my dad would, fortunately, pack enough film (long, black, shiny plastic-y stuff with chemicals that fixed themselves into images when exposed first to light and then to other chemicals) to get pictures of me in front of every Broadway marquee we could find. With no idea what most of the shows were, and absolutely no idea who the theatres were named after, I collected Broadway marquees in a camera. It was really quite innocent if I do say so myself.

Now, I'm old and I know things, and things that used to be pure fun are borderline offensive to me. Watching a television report on a new Broadway show recently, I found myself asking, "What business does that show have in that theatre with that namesake?" It was an irrational response to an ultimately harmless coincidence that I realized I have felt several times over the past few years at least, and something I thought worth exploring. Why is it jarring to see certain Broadway marquees?

Mean Girls at the Wilson.jpg

The musical was Mean Girls and the theatre was the August Wilson Theatre. I haven't seen the musical adaptation of Mean Girls, and I pass no judgment on it, though I will say I'm a fan of the movie. But its searing red and pink signs are up there with the name of one of America's greatest dramatists and a barrier breaker for black theatre artists. The August Wilson Theatre was the first Broadway theatre named after a black person. Now, Tina Fey, the screenwriter of the 2004 movie Mean Girls and the bookwriter/driving force behind the musical, is a cultural treasure and barrier demolisher as well, but her style is very different than Wilson's. If there were an Ethel Merman Theatre or a Carol Burnett Theatre, I could see Mean Girls fitting perfectly with the legacy suggested by the names, but something about it being at the August Wilson just doesn't compute for me. And I know musicals don't get their theatres based on their names or the artists involved. Broadway theatres are vessels that only still exist because productions open that bring money to their owners. Mean Girls will probably bring in a lot of money, and I will accept the dissonance I see when I walk past. But it is far from the only example of a tenant not perfectly matched with its theatre's namesake. 

Travesties at the Airlines.jpg

At the theatre named after Stephen Sondheim, scribe of some of the most original scores in the history of musical theatre, is a jukebox musical that is obviously beloved, since it has been there for four years, but which, by definition, does not have an original score: Beautiful: The Carole King Musical. I love the songs of Carole King as much as anybody, and where she leads, I will follow, but to me it feels like the Sondheim Theatre should feature works by potential future Sondheims. That might not be profitable, but it would be right. Summer: The Donna Summer Musical is about to open at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, named after actors and longtime life and professional partners Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. They performed together in such classic plays as The Taming of the ShrewDesign for Living, and The Visit, which was the basis for Chita Rivera's most recent musical (she'll have a Broadway theatre named after her one day, mark my words). Their namesake will probably host the Donna Summer musical for years to come. Leaving off jukebox musicals, one more example: I'm on record as a supporter of a new age of Nickelodeon musicals. I've made my suggestions. But does SpongeBob SquarePants really belong in a theatre called The Palace Theatre? Again, not judging the musicals, just the optics.

Beautiful at the Sondheim.jpg

Which brings me to another thing that bothers me: theatres with corporate names. Even in my more innocent years, the current Lyric Theatre's name, the Ford Center for the Performing Arts, just seemed wrong. Lyric is not only a much more palatable name, but reflects the theatre's fascinating construction, which used preserved structures from the original Lyric Theatre and the Apollo Theatre. Those theatres had fallen into disrepair and were demolished so that the new space could be built. Similarly, the Marquis Theatre is part of a building that sits on land previously occupied by five theatres. The Marquis is part of the Marriott Marquis Hotel, and is named after it, but it doesn't have to be. They could call it anything. Although, admittedly, the name does make it easier for me to process it being the home of something like Escape to Margaritaville. If a Broadway theatre is going to be named after a hotel, it may as well house a jukebox musical about a hotel. But does the real hotel need to remind theatre goers about its existence with the name of the theatre within? Audiences know about the hotel; they're on its 3rd floor, no advertising necessary. The American Airlines Theatre once made me wonder, just how desperate does a non-theatre company have to be to want its name on a theatre that should be named after some showbiz luminary? I can see it maybe, maybe working for Come from Away, but its current tenant is Tom Stoppard's classic, Tony-winning comedy Travesties, and I just wish there was a word to express how unfortunate I find that juxtaposition of theatre name and play. I understand it as a business move for the Roundabout Theatre Company, which owns the theatre, and as a "thank you" to the airline company that put up much of the money for its renovation, but does nobody at either company think it's tacky?

Speaking of Roundabout, that brings me to Broadway marquees that could say anything and it would not bother me. Studio 54, which has in the past been called the Gallo Opera House, the WPA Federal Music Theatre, and the New Yorker Theatre, all much more classical sounding names for a theatre, retains the name it went by during its most infamous period, when it was a raunchy night club. The name is elegant, carries a meaning, but is not overbearing, and I have never seen a marquee that clashed with it, though one could argue that more wholesome productions exist there ironically given what went on during its club days. Similarly, the Nederlander and Shubert theatres, named after the namesakes of the companies that own them, can go with anything. It's the right kind of corporate branding. Al Hirschfeld did not discriminate when it came to which productions he would capture in his line drawings, so the theatre that bears his name can host any kind of show, as far as I'm concerned. Same with the Circle in the Square, which is less a name than a description anyway, and the Music Box, though perhaps it might bother me to see a non-musical go up there (that's probably not happening any time soon, seeing as it's Dear Evan Hansen's home).

In the cases of some Broadway theatres, I simply do not know enough about the namesakes to be bothered...yet.Hamilton at the Richard Rogers Theatre is actually a perfect match, as far as I'm concerned, since Richard Rogers did so much to shape musical theatre and Lin-Manuel Miranda is doing so much to re-shape it. Some people probably think it's blasphemy. I try to maintain a "nothing is sacred" attitude, but it is hard in theatre, because the longer you're with it, the more meaningful more things become. It is ultimately not for me to care what goes where. It's not like the theatres' namesakes care about what's playing on their stages. Not every play at the Wilson can be a play by Wilson. The last Broadway production of a Wilson play, Jitney, was at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, named after a Broadway publicist. Should that theatre be reserved for productions of Sweet Smell of Success? No, though a revival of that musical is overdue. How many theatre goers even pay attention to the names on the theatres they attend, on Broadway and elsewhere? It certainly wouldn't spoil my enjoyment of Mean Girls, knowing I was sitting in a theatre named after the writer of Fences. It's just one more way of appreciating the Broadway theatre experience, noticing any kind of clash between the piece and the place. Best if it's not a visceral reaction. I've often wondered what I would name a theatre given the opportunity. What would I want to do with the theatre, what could I imagine other people doing with the theatre, and what name could encompass all of that? It's too much responsibility for a name. The name of a Broadway theatre is a tribute, not a law. I must remember that.

Aaron Netsky (@AaronNetsky on Twitter) is a singer, writer, actor, and all-around theatre professional who has worked off and off-off Broadway and had writing published on AtlasObscura.com, TheHumanist.com, Slate.com, StageLightMagazine.com, and ThoughtCatalog.com, as well as his own blogs, Cantonaut (http://cantonaut.blogspot.com) and 366 Musicals (https://366days366musicals.tumblr.com), and his Medium account.