Revue opens Off Broadway site

Another opening, another show, but not just another theater.

The Little Shubert makes its debut tonight with the revue “Tommy Tune: White Tie and Tails.” The new 499-seater on West 42nd Street marks the Shubert Organization’s first foray into Off Broadway, not as producers but as theater builders.

The mighty Shuberts own 16 Broadway venues as well as a half-interest in the Music Box Theater. The Little Shubert, however, is the org’s first Off Broadway house and the first theater the org has built in New York City since Lee and J.J. Shubert opened the Ethel Barrymore Theater in 1928.

Cut to 60 years later: It was 1988, or thereabouts, when Shubert chairman Gerald Schoenfeld and Bernard Jacobs, the late Shubert president, discussed building a new Broadway musical theater.

“But you can’t build a Broadway-size house these days,” Schoenfeld said. “It’s just too expensive, unless there is some kind of government support. You can’t pay the debt service.” He estimated the cost today at around $70 million.

The Shubert Organization thus turned its attention to constructing an Off Broadway house of 499 seats. Years passed as they searched for an appropriate site. “We didn’t want to squeeze something in or do a conversion,” Schoenfeld said. “We wanted to construct the best Off Broadway theater there is. I think we have succeeded.”

Legit observers note the state-of-the-art Little Shubert combines the best of Broadway and Off Broadway: the steep rake of the Richard Rodgers auditorium, the intimate bowl of the Promenade and the Booth’s large stage (71 feet wide, 26 feet deep, 39 feet high). It also has a 400-square-foot orchestra pit that can be covered to convert the proscenium stage into a thrust.

Schoenfeld called the Little Shubert the first Off Broadway theater built “from the ground up.” Technically, that’s true. In 1984, an old tin-can factory in Greenwich Village was converted to the Minetta Lane Theater, its architect keeping three extant walls to satisfy zoning requirements.

Escalating costs

To build their Off Broadway theater, the Shuberts broke ground at 422 W. 42nd St. in June 2000. Back then, estimates for the cost of the theater came to $7.5 million. Schoenfeld recently put the final figure at close to $13 million. “Certainly over $12 million,” he said.

Blame the overages on Manhattan’s vertical complex.

“Professionally, it is so complicated to knit this one with seven other theaters under a high-rise,” said architect Hugh Hardy. The Little Shubert rests under a 39-story apartment building alongside Playwrights Horizons’ two new theaters as well as five Theater Row venues. “The cost has do with the density of the activities going on there,” Hardy explained. “If you build a single theater, you don’t get these associated costs. But we had to isolate each activity, not just acoustically but the mechanical systems as well. Fortunately, there wasn’t a subway nearby.”

Would Schoenfeld have built the Little Shubert if he had known the final pricetag from the get-go?

“Maybe not,” he replied, “and that’s the truth.”

In addition to possessing deep pockets, legit pros must be protean in outlook. A year ago, Schoenfeld said the new Shubert theater, then unnamed, would open with the “world premiere of a play by a well-established American playwright.”

Instead, the Little Shubert makes its debut with the Tune revue.

“It wasn’t finished in time,” Schoenfeld said of that great American play. “It’s still being written.”

In the meantime, the Shubert chairman took great satisfaction in one letter from a very relieved theatergoer. She had recently seen a preview of “White Ties and Tails” and wrote a rave of the ladies’ room at the new venue.

“There was one woman in line when I entered,” she wrote. “I’m used to standing in line … for at least 20 minutes.”

Thank you, Mr. Schoenfeld.

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