The culture of Broadway thrives on tradition and continuity. But occasionally, some change is called for. We don’t want to ruffle any feathers on Broadway’s magnificent boa, but we’re going to just come out and say it: We think the time has come to rename the Ambassador Theatre.
We know what most of you are thinking: Why rename the Ambassador Theatre? And also, what is the Ambassador Theatre? Even serious theater lovers can be forgiven for not remembering. It’s not just that the name itself is eminently forgettable; it’s also that the 49th Street venue has been occupied since 2003 by the tourist-friendly revival of the musical Chicago, which had already been playing on Broadway for seven years before moving to the Ambassador, and which an estimated total of six New York City residents have seen in the past decade.
So why switch monikers now? Because a new fish has swum into the small pond of major Times Square theater landlords. As we reported two weeks ago, the lovely 112-year-old Hudson Theatre will reopen next season as a playhouse, after nearly half a century of nontheatrical use. When it does, it will be the second Broadway venue controlled by the international theater power that also bought the giant Lyric Theatre back in 2013. The name of that organization? The Ambassador Theatre Group.
Ambassador Theatre Group is still a smaller player than Broadway’s four other major landlords, who among them control a combined 34 of the Great White Way’s 40 current venues. The largest, by far, is the Shubert Organization, which operates 17 houses—including, yes, the Ambassador Theatre, which it built and opened in 1921.
Doesn’t it seem awkward that the Shuberts have a theater named after one of their competitors? Doesn’t it seem potentially confusing? Shouldn’t the Shuberts consider changing that? The Shubert Organization, at least for now, doesn’t think so. “There are no plans to rename Shubert's Ambassador Theatre,” confirms Bill Evans, the company’s director of media relations.
That’s not a surprise. The Shuberts are the oldest-school of Broadway landlords. While other companies have rechristened theaters after playwrights, composers and even journalists, nearly all of the Shubert theaters have kept their original names, which tend to reference original owners (e.g. the Broadhurst, the Belasco) when they are not grandly generic (e.g. the Imperial, the Majestic). But in 2005, the company did—somewhat controversially—rename two spaces after Bernard Jacobs and Gerald Schoenfeld, who had run the Shubert operation for decades and were widely credited with saving it from ruin. Another exception may be in order now.
But what should the Ambassador be called? Here are a few possibilities.
The Kander and Ebb Theatre: John Kander and Fred Ebb are giants of American musical theater, whose collaborations include Cabaret and Chicago. The latter’s revival is the longest-running American musical of all time, and it has been at the Ambassador for the past dozen years, far longer than any other production in the venue’s history. Naming the space for them would be a fitting tribute to their lasting contribution.
The Bob Fosse Theatre: No Broadway theaters are currently named for director-choreographers, and no such auteur (except maybe Jerome Robbins) has left so deep a personal stamp on Broadway history. Fosse directed the original Chicago, and its revival is inspired by his style; the Ambassador was also home to his 1980 revue, Dancin’. And the unusually diagonal layout of the Ambassador’s auditorium could be considered a tip of the hat to Fosse’s off-angle approach to movement.
The Tennessee Williams Theatre: Several theaters are named for American playwrights—the Eugene O’Neill, the August Wilson, the Neil Simon—and the author of A Streetcar Named Desire, The Glass Menagerie and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof merits as place among them. According to John Lahr’s biography, the playwright’s estate bungled an overture by a Shubert rival, Jujamcyn, to name a venue after him in the 1980s. This would be a chance to correct that missed opportunity.
The Arthur Miller Theatre: Like Williams, Miller is a mainstay of American drama whose work gets revived on a regular basis. There are two Miller revivals on Broadway this season alone—A View from the Bridge and The Crucible—and his Death of a Salesman is a leading contender for the title of Great American Play. Attention must finally be paid to such a person!
The Edward Albee Theatre: If the Shuberts would rather honor a living American playwright, the brilliantly thorny playwright of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and A Delicate Balance would be a prime candidate. And it would be worth it just to see his barely contained contempt for the whole affair.
The Ethel Merman Theatre: There’s already a Broadway theater named for an Ethel—that would be the Barrymore—but another actor deserves equal treatment: the greatest Broadway musical diva of all time, Ethel Merman. No voice evokes the golden age of the musical more than the Merm’s, and her name on a theater would help keep her no-biz-but-show-biz legend alive.
The Philip J. Smith Theatre: If the Shuberts want to honor their own, as they did in 2005, they could put Smith’s name on the marquee. Now 84, Smith has been with the company for nearly 60 years, having worked his way up from ticket-taker to president to his current position as chairman and co-CEO. He was instrumental in creating the TKTS booth in Times Square, and has overseen a period of great prosperity for the organization.
The Ambassador Theatre: To be fair, there’s something to be said for tradition. And if the Shuberts want to rename a theater, it has one with an even duller and more generic name—the Broadway Theatre. (Seriously.) Also in the plus column: Keeping the name would be a gesture of insouciant power. Oh, are you there, newcomer Ambassador Theatre Group? Sorry, we couldn’t hear you from inside that venue we built in 1921. You know, the Ambassador Theatre.
So what do you think, dear reader? We’ve set up this little poll to find out. Let us know—or feel free to offer your own suggestions. We’ll be sure to pass them along to the Shubert Organization in 2016.