In this new series, Jennifer Ashley Tepper, the author of The Untold Stories of Broadway book series and creative and programming director of Feinstein’s/54 Below, will be sharing fascinating facts about Broadway’s historic venues. Next up, the August Wilson Theatre!
From the Guild Theatre to the August Wilson
The Wilson opened in 1925 and was first home to the Theatre Guild, the group responsible for shows including Heartbreak House, Saint Joan, Strange Interlude, Ah, Wilderness!, Porgy and Bess, Oklahoma!, Carousel, Picnic, and many more.
In the 1940s, the theatre was a radio station for a while before it was taken over by the American Theatre and National Academy. From 1950 to 1981, the venue was known as the ANTA, until Jujamcyn purchased it and renamed it the Virginia. The Virginia played host to productions ranging from the hit 1983 revival of On Your Toes to the legendary flop Carrie and the Tony Award winner City of Angels before being renamed the August Wilson in 2005. The August Wilson Theatre is currently home to the new musical Mean Girls; its prior tenant was Jersey Boys, which is also the theatre’s longest running show.
President Calvin Coolidge announced the opening of the theatre in 1925 by flipping a switch in Washington, D.C., that turned the lights on in New York! More than 80 years later, President Bill Clinton visited Jersey Boys. For the rest of the musical’s run, there was a sign with the presidential seal on it in the stage management office bathroom that read:
“Here, on this spot, on May 17, 2006 Former President William Jefferson Clinton peed.”
Neighbors on 52
The August Wilson is directly across 52nd Street from the Neil Simon, which has created some exciting traditions over the years. From the casts of Flower Drum Song and Hairspray performing dances for each other, and dressing room windows facing each other to Jersey Boys and The Last Ship having sing-offs at half-hour to showtime, the proximity of the Wilson to the Simon makes Broadway feel just like summer camp.
Star Dressing Room
The star dressing room at the Wilson is directly off stage left, although it is sometimes used as a quick-change room instead, depending on the production. Stars who have appeared at the Wilson over the years include Henry Fonda, Elizabeth Ashley, Rosalind Russell, and Humphrey Bogart.
August Wilson, one of the premier dramatists of the 20th century, has had only one play at the theatre that bears his name: King Hedley II, in 2001. The two-time Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright is responsible for The Pittsburgh Cycle, which depicts the African American experience throughout the 1900s. Ironically, he did work briefly on a musical that wound up playing what is now the Wilson: Jelly’s Last Jam. Wilson was the librettist of Jelly’s during its development, but it didn’t work out.
Out for Blood
The musical Carrie, often referred to as Broadway’s most infamous bomb, played the theatere in 1988. For 16 previews and five performances, outcast high school student Carrie White was covered in pig’s blood by her classmates and then she murdered them all. This outrageous plot had flop collectors flocking to the theatre.
For more on Broadway’s August Wilson Theatre, check out Tepper’s book series, The Untold Stories of Broadway, available at dresscirclepublishing.com.