overview

Opened as the Little Theater in 1912, this venue, the smallest house on Broadway, has staged multiple productions involving major LGBT creators and performers, including Clyde Fitch, Rachel Crothers, George Cukor, Langston Hughes, Clara Ward, Noel Coward, and John Lee Beatty, among others.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the theater was home to two pioneering plays with gay themes: Albert Innaurato’s Gemini (1977) and Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy (1982). The venue was renamed the Helen Hayes Theater in 1983.

Header Photo

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

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History

The Little Theater, opened in 1912, was a project of Winthrop Ames, heir to a large New England industrial fortune, who rejected the family business and turned instead to theatrical producing. Ames envisioned his Little Theater as a house where the actors and audience would be in close proximity. Relating to the feeling that audience members were guests in Ames’ house, he had the theater designed in a “homey” Colonial Revival style.

Early plays with LGBT associations at the Little Theater included The Truth (revival, 1914) by Clyde Fitch, with actor Guthrie McClintic; A Little Journey (1918-19) and He and She (1920) by Rachel Crothers, with Crothers performing in the latter; Trigger (1927-28), staged by George Cukor; Let Us Be Gay (1929), a hit written and directed by Rachel Crothers, with actor Ross Alexander; Honeymoon (1932-33), with Ross Alexander; and Dark Victory (1934, opened at the Plymouth Theater), with Tallulah Bankhead.

The Little Theater was used as a lecture hall, and then leased to CBS Radio and ABC TV until 1963. As a legitimate theater, it produced Tambourines to Glory (1963), written by and with lyrics by Langston Hughes, starring gospel legend Clara Ward; and Baby Want a Kiss (1964), with scenic and costume design by Peter Harvey. The Westinghouse Corporation leased the building from 1965 to 1974.

Returning again to use as a legitimate theater, the Little Theater hosted two intimate family dramas that were pioneering Broadway plays dealing with gay themes. From 1977 to 1981, after Off-Broadway and regional productions, Albert Innaurato’s Gemini played here for 1,819 performances, with actor Jonathan Hadary. The protagonist of this antic comedy is Francis Geminiani, a working-class young man returning to his Philadelphia home from Harvard to celebrate his 21st birthday. Among other issues, Francis is confused about his sexuality, which is left unresolved at the end of the play. The previous incarnation of the play ran at the Circle Repertory Theater in Greenwich Village, which produced many gay-themed plays; it won a 1976-77 Obie award.

In 1982, Harvey Fierstein burst into the Broadway theater world with his Torch Song Trilogy, in which he also starred.

“Harvey Fierstein is easily the most unusual star Broadway has seen in awhile. . . . He is believed to be the first Broadway star who is both gay and willing to say so publicly.”
Jerry Parker, 'Newsday,' June 22, 1982

Torch Song Trilogy comprises three separate plays, International Stud, named for the gay bar at 117 Perry Street which had a famous back room, Fugue in a Nursery, and Widows and Children First!. The plays premiered individually at Off-Off-Broadway’s La MaMa Experimental Theater Club. They were then combined into a four-hour, three-act Off-Broadway production by The Glines, an organization founded by John Glines that presented gay-themed plays, before moving to the Little Theater where it ran for 1,222 performances. The play centers on the character of Arnold Beckoff, a gay, Jewish, drag queen, who craves a committed, romantic relationship and a traditional family with a husband and child. Torch Song Trilogy won an Obie Award and Tony and Drama Desk Awards for Best Play and Best Actor (Fierstein). Accepting his award for producing the play, Glines thanked his lover, co-producer Larry Lane, becoming the first person ever to acknowledge a same-sex partner on a televised awards ceremony. The play also featured stage design by Bill Stabile, and Jonathan Hadary replaced Fierstein in the leading role.

One other LGBT-associated play at the Little Theater was The Curse of an Aching Heart (1982), with scenic design by John Lee Beatty. This theater was renamed the Helen Hayes Theater in 1983, after the earlier Helen Hayes Theater, at 210 West 46th Street, was demolished in 1982. (This demolition, along with the Morosco Theater, prompted the public demand for designation of the Broadway theaters, which the Landmarks Preservation Commission undertook soon after).

LGBT-associated hits at the Helen Hayes have included The Nerd (1987-88), directed by Charles Nelson Reilly, with scenic design by John Lee Beatty, and with actor Robert Joy; Prelude to a Kiss (1990-91) by Craig Lucas; and The Last Night of Ballyhoo (1997-98), with scenic design by John Lee Beatty. Other LGBT-associated shows here have been Corpse (1986), with costume design by Lowell Detweiler; Oh Coward! (1986-87), with music and lyrics by Noel Coward; Artist Descending a Staircase (1989), with scenic design by Tony Straiges; Night Must Fall (revival, 1999, opened at the Lyceum Theater) by Emlyn Williams; and Epic Proportions (1999), with costume design by William Ivey Long.

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