Second Stage Theater’s road to Broadway began almost 40 years ago in a funky penthouse space atop the Park Royal Hotel on West 73rd Street. Led by cofounder and artistic director Carole Rothman, the company attracted loyal audiences as it moved to a revamped gymnasium on the Upper West Side and then, in 1999, to a former bank in the Theatre District. When the Hayes Theatre, Broadway’s smallest house, went up for sale, Second Stage felt ready for its most ambitious leap yet, and on March 1, the newly renovated theatre will open with a revival of Kenneth Lonergan’s 2001 drama Lobby Hero.
“We are the only theatre dedicated exclusively to living American writers,” says Rothman, “and I feel really good about being able to do that on Broadway. It’s a niche that’s different, and one that’s important for Broadway and for New York City. We want to be a place where people can come and see work that’s very exciting and very contemporary.”
Speaking of exciting and contemporary, the Hayes, which opened on 44th Street in 1912 as The Little Theatre, has undergone a $22 million renovation since being purchased by Second Stage in 2015. Architect and Tony Award–winning scenic designer David Rockwell collaborated with the company to make structural improvements, including ADA accessibility, a new café lounge, upgraded technical systems, expanded dressing rooms and restrooms, and a full-service elevator. Most visibly, the landmarked interior got a 21st century makeover that suits Second Stage’s thoroughly modern sensibility.
“The challenge was to respect the history of the space but also make it reflect the kind of work we do,” says Rothman. Inside the 575-seat auditorium, historic tapestries have been re-created as pixelated painted murals in a style Rothman calls “ombré blue,” surrounding gleaming copper-colored seats. “It’s intimate, with a nice curve that subtly envelops you,” she says of the theatre. “Because it’s landmarked, these are not major changes, but we came up with simple yet wonderful gestures that help create an ideal space for contemporary plays. If you want to get a younger audience to Broadway, you need to spiff things up a bit!”
Longtime fans of Second Stage are delighted the company hasn’t abandoned its Off-Broadway roots. Just west of 8th Avenue, its Tony Kiser Theater (the former bank) is in the midst of a season of plays by Harvey Fierstein, Greg Pierce, and Tracy Letts. Following the run of Lobby Hero, starring Chris Evans and Michael Cera, the company will present the Broadway premiere of Straight White Men by Young Jean Lee, the first Asian American woman writer to have a play produced on Broadway.
Rothman chose Second Stage’s inaugural Broadway productions with an eye toward the current fraught moment in American culture. As she explains, “The issues Lobby Hero deals with — sexual harassment, respect for law and order, shifts in what morality really means — have a lot of resonance today. Straight White Men, which is told from the perspective of a young Asian American woman, is not only timely, but it has an incredible sense of humor about itself. People will respond to it in very different ways, which is the beauty of the play.”
A huge advantage to owning a Broadway house, Rothman adds, is the ability to transfer or extend popular shows. “When something does well in our current home, it’s impossible to keep it running because the next show in the subscription series is coming up,” she says. Another plus: the bump in prestige (including Tony Award nominations) and awareness that comes from opening a show on Broadway. Second Stage will be collaborating with Center Theatre Group on a series of co-commissions to play both Los Angeles and New York.
In the midst of so much activity, Rothman maintains a good-humored calm. She insists that she didn’t have a long-term plan when she began putting on plays in a rundown penthouse near Central Park West in 1979. “You just go one day at a time, and suddenly 35 years have passed,” she says with a laugh. “I still think of myself as a 20-year-old moving from one show to the next, trying to do things better.”
That attitude has seen Rothman through more than 170 productions, including plays by August Wilson, Anna Deavere Smith, and Lynn Nottage, and early mountings of musicals such as Dear Evan Hansen, Next to Normal, and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Her motivation for staying at Second Stage for 39 years and counting? “I’m an optimistic person,” she says. “I can’t explain it in any way other than that. I love what I do, I rarely look back except to learn from my mistakes, and I’m always excited about what’s coming up.”
It helps that Second Stage expanded its mission beyond giving worthy but neglected plays a second look. “Sometimes I read an incredible new play and say, ‘Whoa! I get to do that?’” Rothman exclaims. “To give voice to writers like Leslye Headland or Gina Gionfriddo, or introduce actors like Annette Bening, as we did with Coastal Disturbances, is such a gift.” On the other end of the spectrum, “we did an Edward Albee [evening] based on A Zoo Story, and there I was at the first preview, standing in back holding the hand of one of my idols. I’m still that starry-eyed person who grew up in St. Louis, amazed that I’ve gotten this far.”
Going forward, Rothman envisions Second Stage showcasing exciting plays for a new generation of Broadway theatergoers. “What are the next five years going to look like?” she muses. “I can’t really answer that. But I hope we can bring some funny, sexy, provocative, diverse work to a wider audience. It’s an exciting challenge.”