Exterior of the National Theatre. (Marvin Joseph/THE WASHINGTON…)
Carol Channing, Rex Harrison, Tallulah Bankhead, Laurence Olivier, Mae West, Jack Lemmon, Audrey Hepburn, Noel Coward: These are among the legends who have graced the stage of the National Theatre since it opened more than 175 years ago. And now, ladies and gentlemen . . .
Uh, Bryan Adams?
The “Cuts Like a Knife” rocker will headline the 1,676-seat theater Jan. 26, and while virtually nothing else is booked just yet, the concert signals a fresh direction for the historic but dramatically underused theater three blocks east of the White House. It’s the first oar in the water as new leadership tries to turn the often-empty vessel around.
“The National’s not just for Broadway anymore,” declares Bob Papke, vice president of theaters for SMG, a Philadelphia-based management group.
In September, the National Theatre Corporation announced that the building would be programmed by SMG, which handles venues from performing arts facilities to stadiums such as Soldier Field and the Superdome, and Chicago’s JAM Theatricals, which produces on Broadway and presents theatrical tours across the country.
“There’s no end to what we could do,” says Tom Lee, who is entering his third year as the National’s executive director.
Not that the National is doing away with touring musicals such as “Les Misérables,” which just wrapped up a three-week holiday stand. In fact, a Broadway series is hoped for by next winter, as is a breed of customer that the National hasn’t courted for years: subscribers.
You can’t court subscribers without a steady slate of shows, of course, and gigs like “Les Miz” have tended to come in fits and starts. Lee notes that during the National’s fiscal year 2011, the theater was occupied for a scant 28 days.
“That just wasn’t acceptable to our board of directors,” says Lee, speaking in the theater’s upstairs offices during a matinee of “Les Miz.” Besides “Les Miz,” “Beauty and the Beast” played for two weeks, making the National occupied for only five weeks in 2012.
Often the National is left out as top Broadway titles — “Wicked,” “The Book of Mormon” and big-time Disney products among them — opt for the Kennedy Center’s Opera House. At 2,300 seats, the Opera House is significantly bigger; it’s also easier to load in scenery, and it comes with a subscription base.
The National’s spotty bookings have been an issue for decades — at least since the Kennedy Center opened in 1971. In fact, the Kennedy Center ran the National for a while in the 1970s, before a rancorous split and some smack talk in the 1980s devolved into the sleepy pattern that has marked one of the city’s great theaters.
An ever-changing cast
The National has passed through many hands since opening in 1835, and by 1974 it was being operated by Broadway’s Nederlander Organization. But downtown Washington had not begun to bounce back from the late 1960s riots, and the Nederlanders found the commercial landscape so inhospitable that they gave up the theater.
Led by Kennedy Center founder and chairman Roger Stevens, the not-for-profit New National Theatre Corporation was established in 1974. That inaugurated a five-year period when Stevens, a notable Broadway producer, oversaw the National’s bookings while heading the Kennedy Center.
In 1977 the theater was nearly torn down as the National Press Club pursued plans to convert the block to commercial use. Instead, in 1978 the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation — a federally mandated entity that oversaw redevelopment contracts for two decades — awarded the block to the only group proposing to save the theater.
That group included Quadrangle Development Corporation, which still owns the theater and the hotel space around it. In the early 1980s the National signed a 99-year lease with Quadrangle, with rent reportedly $100,000 a year. (Mr. Lee says the current rent is “manageable,” though he declines to share a figure.)
In 1980 the National severed ties with Stevens over the Kennedy Center honcho’s objections. The KenCen-National rivalry intensified when the National teamed with Broadway’s Shubert Organization, led by longtime chairman Gerald Schoenfeld and president Bernard B. Jacobs, to book the theater.
In New York, the Nederlanders filed suit, charging that controlling the National meant the Shuberts — the Nederlanders’ Broadway and tour competitors — were monopolizing the road. The Nederlanders lost.
In Washington, meanwhile, the cross-town sniping between the city’s two big stages was juicy.
“I’ve blotted the National from my mind,” Stevens said in a 1980 Washington Post article headlined “The Kennedy Center v. The National: The War’s Over — Let the War Begin.”
Jacobs said, “Roger’s hysteria — if I may characterize it that way — about us coming to Washington was illogical.”
Schoenfeld crowed, “I think we have the best shows.”