"Finishing the Hat" ... and Finishing the Theatre
FEB 28, 2017
Georges Seurat’s masterwork “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” comes to life once more on Broadway courtesy of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine — plus Tony-winning composer turned producer Jeanine Tesori and director Sarna Lapine (James’ niece) — after a successful three-night benefit at City Center last fall. Produced by Ambassador Theatre Group, Tesori, and Riva Marker, Sunday in the Park With George stars Hollywood A-lister Jake Gyllenhaal as the title character opposite Tony winner Annaleigh Ashford.
The revival not only marks Gyllenhaal’s Broadway musical debut, but it’s also the first show to reopen the historic Hudson Theatre. NY1 entertainment reporter Frank DiLella recently caught up with Tesori and the theatre’s general manager, Eric Paris, to chat about bringing back Sondheim and unveiling Broadway’s “newest/oldest” theatre.
Congratulations on opening Broadway’s “newest/oldest” theatre!
EP: Thank you. Sunday in the Park With George was the perfect show to open the theatre with. It’s a perfect fit. It was supposed to be a different show that Jake was attached to too, but it’s interesting how it all worked out.
JT: I agree. It’s nice to say that now that it’s over, every intention — you don’t know until you meet the space — you understand what the event is. I remember when Lin-Manuel Miranda was opening Hamilton and his wife was having a baby. I remember him saying, “I don’t recommend it.” But he did it. He and Vanessa did it with elegance and grace. [Laughs.] That’s how I feel.
Jeanine, you’re really the force behind this new production of Sunday in the Park. What was to be a three-night-only staged concert for City Center ended up turning into a full-blown Broadway revival.
JT: After we were done with the concert, I knew that Jake Gyllenhaal wasn’t finished with this show. And he was the one who called executive producer for the Ambassador Theatre Group Adam Speers and said, “I have enough time to do something at the theatre. I can’t do a full run that goes past the Tonys, butwould you consider this?” And then Adam called me and I told him the size of the cast, and I said, “I won’t be involved unless we have the full orchestra. And the full orchestra needs to be on stage, because that’s part of the Encores! And ‘Off Center’ experience.” That was in early December, and by December 15 we announced that the show was opening on Broadway.
EP: It’s unbelievable. Even just starting from the early days, the original owners and builder, Henry B. Harris and Renee Harris, they lived in the apartment above the theatre, which is still there today. They properly ran this place successfully for the first 30 years — them together for the first 12 — and the infamous story of the Titanic and him not surviving and her coming back and learning the business alone and becoming the first female producer and one of the most successful women on Broadway, all the way to the early ’30s. And then it had its life as CBS radio and bouncing back and forth as a legitimate playhouse off and on again. And I think its most famous years were during the 1950s, when NBC owned it and The Steve Allen Show, which turned into Steve Allen on The Tonight Show, and then The Jack Paar Show. This theatre has played host to Barbra Streisand, Elvis Presley, Sammy Davis Jr., Carol Burnett — real star of stars.
Let’s go back to the Titanic connection, shall we?
EP: Henry B. Harris and Renee Harris, it was in 1912, they went on the Titanic. She actually broke her arm — her arm was injured on the Titanic — so she was one of the people who had the ability to get on a lifeboat on the way out. And as they were parting, she took all of her precious jewels and put them into her husband’s pockets, thinking she would see him soon after that. And unfortunately she was on the last lifeboat on the Titanic and he ended up perishing. We have dedicated a whole room to them in the lower lobby of our theatre; we found poems that she had written to him and stories about them — a lot of photos of them.
Renee was a true pioneer of the theatre. Do you feel like you’re carrying her torch, Jeanine?
JT: Yes. And I stand on the shoulders of so many women — including my grandmother, who lost her husband who was a composer. She lost him in her thirties, raising three children, two of whom had to go to an orphanage in a convent and the other went to a military orphanage. She was a cook at a restaurant, then a seamstress — she did everything she could, and never married again. She lost the love of her life and never would consider marrying again. Think of all these women: They just show up and get it done, and there’s no sort of showiness to it. It’s hard to make it work, and Renee did.
Did you guys discover anything in the theatre while you were restoring the space?
EP: What really brings the beauty of the space to life is the Tiffany mosaic that runs all the way through the auditorium. That, interestingly enough, was covered up by NBC in the 1950s because they wanted a more modern space for television. Then it was uncovered and restored about 20 years ago when Millennium Hotels came in and restored much of the theatre. We finished that project off, of course. But that mosaic beautifies the space. And then the Tiffany glass domes that are in the Tiffany lobby when you walk in. We took that out piece by piece and restored it and beautified it during this period. One of the coolest things we found in the theatre when we knocked through the box office was a door that was from the NBC decade. It was a door that says “Tex and Jinx Productions.” We didn’t know what it was, but we did some research and we found out they were a husband-and-wife team and they used to go into celebrity homes and they would interview celebrities in their homes. And their office was here at the Hudson Theatre.
One of my favorite things about The Hudson is that as soon as you walk through the front door, you begin your theater “night out” experience.
EP: The Ambassador Theatre Group does things quite differently from a retail and concession standpoint. We believe when people walk into a theatre, we want to create an event for them. Theater should be an event. And being able to provide different tiers of wine and champagne, we don’t want to throw that in a sippy cup. Having wine in a proper glass and champagne in a champagne flute — it adds to the experience. It makes it more of an elegant evening.
Eric, compare and contrast The Hudson versus other Broadway theatres.
EP: The one thing that pops out to me is the foyer, which is something most theatres do not have. From a design standpoint, the seats, are all 23 inches wide, which, generally seats in a Broadway venue are 16, 18, or 21 inches wide. I have to believe we have the widest seats on Broadway. Everything is gold — all our seats are gold. They mesh well with the Tiffany mosaic. From a restroom standpoint, we started this project with 12 toilets and ended the project with 27 toilets total for both men and women. We have a total of 24 places for actors in the dressing rooms.
Jeanine, now that you’ve opened Sunday in the Park, what’s next for you?
JT: I would love for Sunday to get recorded. I’m hoping it will happen. And past that, I have got to get back to my own work. [Laughs.]