June 25th – TKTS

1973

Today in 1973, the Theatre Development Fund (a non-profit organisation designed to aid the struggling New York theatre business) opening the first discount ticket booth in New York City.

The First TKTS booth in NYC

The First TKTS booth in NYC

Broadway was a very different place in the 1960s and 1970s. Musicals were losing popularity, fewer people could afford the legitimate theatre and the area around Times Square saw more cheap cinemas and sex shops than long-running extravaganzas. In the 1920’s there were 70-80 theatres in the Broadway area, by 1969 there were just 36.

In the historic Duffy Square, part of the Times Square district, the TKTS booth opened after being built with a budget of just $5000, offering same day tickets discounted by up to 50%

Forty years later they have sold over 58 million tickets to theatregoers and recently underwent a major renovation and rebuild, this time costing closer to $19 million.

May 23rd – Larson’s Legacy

2002

At tonight’s Outer Critics Circle Awards, the musical “tick..tick..Boom!” written by Jonathan Larson wins for Outstanding Off Broadway Musical, eight years after his death.

Jonathan Larson who died in 1996, aged 35

Jonathan Larson who died in 1996, aged 35

Larson, noted for writing about social issues such as homophobia, racism and addition, was the genius behind the musical phenomenon “Rent”, a modern re-working of “La Boheme” set in New York.

“tick…tick…Boom!” is largely autobiographical and Larson started performing it as a solo piece in 1990. He died on the morning that “Rent” was to open off-Broadway in 1996 and shortly afterwards it was revised by playwright David Auburn as a three-hander and premiered in 2001.

It has since been performed all over the US and in London.

Larson has posthumously received three Tony Awards, two Drama Desk awards and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

March 29th – Brynner and the King

1951

Today marked the opening of the new Broadway musical adapted from the 1944 novel by Margaret Landon, “The King and I”.

Yul Brynner & Gertrude Lawrence in the original 1951 production of The King & I

Yul Brynner & Gertrude Lawrence in the original 1951 production of The King & I

Starring theatrical icon Gertrude Lawrence, whose health was already deteriorating (she would die less than 18 months later of cancer), and a less well known theatre actor named Yul Brynner.

Composer Richard Rodgers described Brynner’s audition:

“He came out…and sat cross-legged on the stage. He had a guitar and he hit his guitar one whack and gave out with this unearthly yell and sang some heathenish sort of thing, and Oscar and I looked at each other and said, “Well, that’s it.”

Brynner was horrified at being instructed to shave his already thinning hair but this quickly became his trademark look for the rest of his life.

He went on to play the role of King Mongkut no less than 4625 times with many different Anna’s until 1985 and on film with Deborah Kerr.

May 10th – Astor Place Riots

1849

One of the biggest riots in the history of New York City occurred today at the Astor Opera House leaving at least 25 dead and more than 120 injured.

The nominal cause of the riot was the rivalry between two Shakespearean actors and their followers. British star William Charles Macready was already called the greatest Shakespearean of his generation and his followers were amongst the well-heeled of society. Edwin Forrest was one of the first American-born home-grown theatre stars.

"As one window after another cracked, the pieces of bricks and paving stones rattled in on the terraces and lobbies, the confusion increased, till the Opera House resembled a fortress besieged by an invading army rather than a place meant for the peaceful amusement of civilized community."  - New York Tribune

“As one window after another cracked, the pieces of bricks and paving stones rattled in on the terraces and lobbies, the confusion increased, till the Opera House resembled a fortress besieged by an invading army rather than a place meant for the peaceful amusement of civilized community.” – New York Tribune

Their rivalry was set against the backdrop of growing antipathy between America and Britain, often uniting the working and immigrant communities in their common hatred.

The American theatre’s need to prove its cultural prowess was centred around trying to “do” Shakespeare better than the English. On Macready’s second tour of the US, Forrest had taken to following him around the country and often staging the same play on the same night. Three nights before the riot, Macready’s performance of Macbeth had been pelted by rotten vegetables by Forrest’s supporters. After much persuasion he agreed to play the role again.

On the 10th May, handbills were given out asking “SHALL AMERICANS OR ENGLISH RULE THIS CITY?” and by curtain up more than 10,000 people swarmed the streets around the theatre pelting it with rocks. They tried and failed to set fire to the theatre and inside the audience were in a state of siege. In panic the authorities called out the troops who eventually opened fire on the crowd killing and injuring many innocent bystanders.

May 1st – Junius Brutus Booth

1796

Born today in St Pancras, London is Junius Brutus Booth.

If the name sounds oddly familiar, it could be because he became a popular actor at Drury Lane before emigrating to America in 1821 with a flower girl (abandoning his young wife and son). In America he was even more successful, compared favourably with Edmund Kean, and remained at the top of his profession for over thirty years.

Junius Brutus Booth

Junius Brutus Booth

It could also be because he had a turbulent personality, depending increasingly on alcohol and becoming notoriously unpredictable, often tumbling over the line into madness. He wrote a letter threatening to assassinate President Jackson, and surely enough his first marriage caught up with him towards the end of his life.

His name might be familiar because he was named after Marcus Junius Brutus, one of the lead assassins in “Julius Caesar”.

But it’s probably because he was the father of John Wilkes Booth, the man who (continuing his father’s legacy) assassinated President Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre, Washington DC.