The Shaftesbury Theatre was the last theatre to be built on Shaftesbury Avenue which was originally named The Princes Theatre. To its initial owners, Walter and Frederick Melville, it stood as a vision to host fashionable melodrama, much like their other theatre, The Lyceum. Designed by Bertie Crewe, the talented Victorian architect responsible for some of the country's finest theatres, it was considered a flamboyant masterpiece in the early 1900's from the life-size groups of statuary representing Comedy, Tragedy, Poetry and Music that still adorn the tops of the boxes, as well as the restoration of original artwork that exists in paintings above the boxes.
On Boxing Day 1911, the theatre opened with a production of The Three Musketeers. The Melville brothers became Popular Playhouses Ltd and The Princes Theatre was born. The theatre changed its name to the New Princes Theatre in 1914 and the repertoire was slowly broadened under new manager Seymour Hicks in 1916 as light operettas such as Andre Messager's Monsieur Beaucaire starring the famous soprano Dame Maggie Teyte were introduced. This tradition was then continued on by Sir Charles Cochran, a famous veteran of variety, who presented the first Gilbert and Sullivan seasons by the D'Oyly Carte Company. The company returned over the following three decades celebrating nearly every opera written by Gilbert and Sullivan.
There are too many worthy productions to name in detail, but notable shows over the earlier decades include Sarah Bernhardt in Daniel (1921), Sybil Thorndike and Henry Ainley in Macbeth (1926) and Funny Face with Fred Astaire (1928). Hence came a period of change when manager Firth Shepard produced successful shows described as a ‘medley of mirth and music' like Merrie England (1934 and 1945), Fun and Games (1941) and The Shepard Show (1939 and 1946). Despite two occasions of bombing during the Second World War, the theatre remained open, offering audiences a cultural programme of international talent such as Serge Diaghaleff's Ballet featuring Margot Fonteyn and the Sadler's Wells Opera and Ballet.
The variety and revue producer, Bertram Montague, presented an equally diverse programme from 1947-52, including Ram Gopal and His Indian Dancers (1947), Broadway success Hellzapoppin (1948) starring Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson as well as yearly traditional pantomimes which he devised and directed with Barry Lupino and Arthur Ash. At this time, the theatre's presenter was Jack Hylton, the infamous band-leader and impresario who interestingly is credited as the man who discovered an unknown Audrey Hepburn. He went on to launch shows at the Princes Theatre such as The Shrike (1953) with Sam Wanamaker, the classic musicals Pal Joey (1954), Wonderful Town (1955) and Urfaust (1959) directed by Ingmar Bergman.
The theatre underwent extensive changes in the early 1960's and under the new management of Charles Clore and EMI, the theatre was renamed the Shaftesbury Theatre in 1962. Its new name brought the theatre luck as it reopened with the Broadway success How to Succeed in Business Without Trying which ran for over 500 performances. To mark the end of theatre censorship in September 1968, the revolutionary musical Hair opened. It played for over 5 years and was about to celebrate its record-breaking 2000th performance when the need to carry out renovation work forced the Theatre to close its doors. Only prolonged and passionate opposition from members of the actor's union and members of the entertainment industry saved the building from redevelopment and it is now a Grade II listed building
The Theatre reopened in 1974 with West Side Story and over the following years it saw several changes in ownership and management, involving some of the leading names in British theatre. By 1978 the theatre was owned by Laurie Marsh, millionaire theatre impresario and Ray Cooney. The most successful production during this time was the musical They're Playing Our Song (1980), starring Tom Conti and Gemma Craven, which ran for nearly two years.
In 1983 Ray Cooney formed the Theatre of Comedy Company, with some thirty leading actors, writers and directors, to take a lease on the Shaftesbury Theatre and presented Run for your Wife followed by a season of comedies that promoted British comedy at its finest. The success of the season allowed the Company to purchase the Theatre in 1984 during the run of Two into One starring Donald Sinden and Michael Williams.
The Theatre of Comedy Company mixed high calibre drama with musicals over the 80's and 90's in a programme that included Stephen Sondheim's Follies (1987), Kiss of the Spiderwoman (1992) starring Chita Rivera and the National Theatre's production of Carousel (1993). Plays included M Butterfly (1989) starring Anthony Hopkins, Out of Order (1990), reuniting Donald Sinden and Michael Williams, Peter O'Toole in Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell (1991) and John Malkovich in A Slip of the Tongue (1992). The second half of the decade saw two groundbreaking musicals, The Who's Tommy (1996) and Jonathan Larson's award winning Rent (1998) inspired by La Boheme.
The Theatre has always prided itself on presenting original work and the new millennium ushered in shows like Napoleon (2000) as well as musical adaptations of the classic films Peggy Sue Got Married (2001) and Thoroughly Modern Millie (2003), the latter starring Maureen Lipman and Amanda Holden. The famous novel by M.M Kaye The Far Pavilions was adapted to a musical in 2005, uniting Indian and British culture with a richness and splendour seldom seen on stage. It is currently scheduled to be retold as a major Bollywood movie. The Christmas season in 2005 was celebrated with Cole Porter's High Society, and this was followed in 2006 by the contemporary musical Daddy Cool (2006) which featured the music of the pop phenomenon Boney M.
In May 2007, the Theatre commenced a long term production deal with Europe's largest theatre owners Stage Entertainment with an exhilarating summer season of the time-honoured musical Fame. The second production, the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical Hairspray, opened in October 2007 to huge acclaim and went on to win many awards. Having secured 40 major awards and playing to capacity audiences Hairspray is the most successful production in the history of the Shaftesbury Theatre. After two and a half sensational years, Hairspray closed on Sunday 28th March 2010.
Summer 2010 saw the international dance sensation Burn the Floor grace the Shaftesbury's stage consistently wowing audiences with its reinvention of Ballroom and Latin dancing. Flashdance The Musical followed based on the classic 1980s Paramount Pictures film, continuing the dance theme into 2011. June will see Derren Brown's Svengali arrive at the Theatre and later Broadway hit Rock of Ages, making our centenary year one not to be forgotten.
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