Theatres We Love: Remembering My Times Visiting the St. James
Most people who attend Broadway plays and musicals on a regular basis have established a certain affection for a particular venue. Maybe we had a wonderful experience at a particular theatre, or maybe we have had several. Perhaps a certain theatre is more comfortable, more conveniently located, or maybe it just glows with the wonderful ghosts of shows gone by? For me, my favorite theatre will always be the St. James, owned and operated by Jujamycn Theatre and the home of a long line of Broadway hits that have been ensconced within its walls on 44th street, between 7th and 8th Avenues.
Why do I love the St. James so much? First and foremost, it was the home of my first Broadway musical. In 1988, my high school took a trip to New York City to see the original Broadway production of 42nd Street. True, 42nd Street hadn’t opened at this theatre (it played the Wintergarden and the Majestic first), but it was the first Broadway theatre I would step inside and I was instantly enchanted by the Moorish revival architecture. For me, this was already a show like I had never seen before. One of the few Broadway theatres with a second balcony, we climbed and climbed to take our seats in its front row. I didn’t realize you had to literally climb to heaven to witness heaven.
42nd Street blew my mind, from its electric choreography, to its score chocked full of hit after hit, to the delightful performances of Elizabeth Allen, Jamie Ross, Clare Leach, and Bobo Lewis who were all replacements for the long-since departed original cast. The climax of the show for me was “Lullaby of Broadway”, an orgasm of musical theatre worship. Performer upon performer piled in, one by one and then two-by-two, singing the praises of Broadway until the entire stage was filled with a frenzied kick line that rendered my breathless. It was then that the fifteen-year-old me fell in love with the Broadway musical and, just as I remember the time and place of my first kiss and my first spoon of Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream, The St. James became imprinted upon my brain as the wonderful home of my first Broadway show.
I have since returned to the St. James Theatre on several occasions. In 1991, I had one of my greatest theatergoing experiences when I saw the original Broadway production of The Secret Garden. As cast that included Mandy Patinkin, Rebecca Luker, Alison Fraser, John Cameron Mitchell, Robert Westenberg, and a young Daisy Eagan, and a haunting score by Lucy Simon and Marsha Norman, seemed to summon the ghosts of St. James and invited them to join them on the stage. The song “Lily’s Eyes” in and of itself was so infused with an energy that had to come from a spectral plane, it was musically like having a ghost walk through you. I wax poetic, but The Secret Garden was that kind of experience.
In 2001, I was lucky enough to have one of my former students buy me a ticket to The Producers as a thank you gift for having been his theatre instructor for two years. The palpable excitement of an audience readying themselves to see Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick in the hottest ticket in town was its own special experience, never mind the gut busting experience of actually seeing this show. The musical would go on to practically sweep the Tony Awards just a few weeks later, and I had that wonderful memory of knowing I saw the original cast.
My most recent visit to the St. James was to see the rock musical American Idiot, based on the popular album by Green Day. Rock musicals are usually outside of my particular interest, so it was all the more special to me that I loved American Idiot. The energy in that production was raw, performances boiling with angst and emotion. Director Michael Mayer’s staging was relentless, but also poetic including an aerial ballet that reminded me of my first visit to the St. James, climbing into the rafters to take my seat in the second balcony.
We all have our favorite theatre to see a Broadway show in. Memories of a wonderful night of escapism, artistry, and thought are not only inspired by what is onstage, but by the venue that houses the experience. For me, it will always be the St. James Theatre that I hold close to my heart for just this very reason.