Opened in 1928, the Ethel Barrymore Theater has staged multiple productions involving major LGBT performers and creators, including Noel Coward, Katharine Cornell, Tennessee Williams, James Baldwin, Montgomery Clift, John Van Druten, and Cynthia Nixon, among others.

Premiering here in 1959 was Lorraine Hansberry’s groundbreaking play A Raisin in the Sun, the first work on Broadway by an African-American woman and winner of the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award.

Header Photo

Credit: Christopher D. Brazee/NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project, 2017.

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Early 20th-century censors, excited about “controversial” subjects being explored in New York’s theaters, focused mainly on sexuality – in particular, homosexuality and interracial relationships. In 1927, the New York Legislature passed the Wales Padlock Law, which made it illegal “depicting or dealing with, the subject of sex degeneracy, or sex perversion,” and offending theaters could be closed. (Similarly, Hollywood movies were subjected to the infamous Motion Picture Production (Hays) Code of 1930.)

Although the New York law was not often enforced, and was protested by the theater community, it had a huge and censorious effect on the Broadway stage. Despite the law, which remained on the books until 1967, lesbian and gay characters did manage to make it to Broadway, often in the works of lesbian and gay playwrights. At the Ethel Barrymore Theater, for instance, there were a number of important productions with subtle gay themes: Design for Living (1933) by Noel Coward (who also performed in it), and with actors Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne; A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), a big hit by Tennessee Williams, with actor Marlon Brando (winner of the Pulitzer Prize and New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award); Bell, Book and Candle (1950-51) by John Van Druten; and Tea and Sympathy (1953-55), a big hit by Robert Anderson, and with Anthony Perkins as a replacement in the lead role.

Other LGBT-associated productions that were big hits at the Barrymore included Bird in Hand (1929, opened at the Booth Theater), with Jill Esmond; The Women (1936-38), with Marjorie Main; Look Homeward Angel (1957-59), with Anthony Perkins; I Love My Wife (1977-79), with book and lyrics by Michael Stewart; Rumors (1989-90, opened at the Broadhurst Theater), with scenic design by Tony Straiges and with actor Lisa Banes; The Sisters Rosensweig (1993-94), with scenic design by John Lee Beatty and lighting design by Pat Collins; and The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife (2000-02) by Charles Busch. Premiering here was the groundbreaking, hit play, A Raisin in the Sun (1959-60), by Lorraine Hansberry, which was the first work on Broadway by an African-American woman and winner of the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award.

The large number of shows by LGBT creators at the Barrymore also included The Love Duel (1929), adapted by Zoe Akins; Scarlet Sister Mary (1930), with costume design by Orry-Kelly, and with actor Marjorie Main; The Truth Game (1930-31), by and with Ivor Novello; There’s Always Juliet (revival, 1932), written and staged by John Van Druten; Gay Divorce (1932-33), with music and lyrics by Cole Porter; Jezebel (1933-34) and Divided by Three (1934), staged by Guthrie McClintic, the latter with actor Judith Anderson; Point Valaine (1935), written and staged by Noel Coward, and with actors Alfred Lunt, Lynn Fontanne, and Louis Hayward; Parnell (1935-36) and Key Largo (1939-40), staged by Guthrie McClintic; Night Must Fall (1936), written and directed by Emlyn Williams (who also performed in it); No Time for Comedy (1939), staged by Guthrie McClintic, with actors Katharine Cornell and Laurence Olivier; Pal Joey (1940-41), with lyrics by Lorenz Hart, and with actor Van Johnson; Best Foot Forward (1941-42), with costume design by Miles White; Count Me In (1942), with costume design by Irene Sharaff and with actor Jean Arthur; The Three Sisters (revival, 1942-43), staged by Guthrie McClintic, and with actors Judith Anderson and Katharine Cornell; The Perfect Marriage (1944-45), with scenic design by Oliver Smith; Rebecca (1945) by Daphne Du Maurier; The Barretts of Wimpole Street (revival, 1945), directed by Guthrie McClintic, and with actor Katharine Cornell; The Duchess of Malfi (1946), adapted by W.H. Auden, with costume design by Miles White; The Telephone/ The Medium (1947) and The Consul (1950), with books, music and lyrics by Gian Carlo Menotti (who also staged them); I’ve Got Sixpence (1952), written and staged by John Van Druten; The Chalk Garden (1955-56), with scenic and costume design by Cecil Beaton; The Hostage (1960, opened at the Cort Theater) by Brendan Behan; The Amen Corner (1965) by James Baldwin; The Seven Descents of Myrtle (1968) by Tennessee Williams, and with actor Brian Bedford; Black Comedy/ White Lies (1967) by Peter Shaffer; Noel Coward’s Sweet Potato (1968), with book, music and lyrics by Noel Coward, and with actor George Grizzard; Inner City (1971-72), conceived and directed by Tom O’Horgan, and with Linda Hopkins (Best Featured Actress in a Musical Tony Award); Noel Coward in Two Keys (1974) by Noel Coward, with scenic and lighting design by William Ritman; Lunch Hour (1980-81), with scenic design by Oliver Smith; Baby (1983-84), with scenic design by John Lee Beatty and lighting design by Pat Collins; Lettuce and Lovage (1990) by Peter Shaffer; Mule Bone (1991) by Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, with costume design by Lewis Brown; A Streetcar Named Desire (revival, 1992) by Tennessee Williams; Indiscretions (1995) by Jean Cocteau, and with actors Rogers Rees and Cynthia Nixon; An Ideal Husband (revival, 1996-97) by Oscar Wilde; Amy’s View (1999), with scenic and costume design by Bob Crowley; and Putting It Together (1999-2000), with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, musical staging by Bob Avian, scenic and costume design by Bob Crowley, and with actor John Barrowman.

LGBT performers at the Barrymore included Spring Byington in Jigsaw (1934); Will Geer in Bury the Dead/ Prelude (1936); Montgomery Clift in Foxhole in the Parlor (1945, opened at the Booth Theater); Roddy McDowall in Misalliance (revival, 1953); George Grizzard in The Desperate Hours (1955); Michael Redgrave and Sandy Dennis in The Complaisant Lover (1961-62); Claudette Colbert and Cyril Ritchard in The Irregular Verb to Love (1963); Alec McCowen in The Philanthropist (1971); John Glover in Holiday (revival, 1973-74); Anthony Perkins in Romantic Comedy (1979-80); Katharine Hepburn in West Side Waltz (1981); and Cynthia Nixon in Hurlyburly (1984-85).

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