After over a century of hosting premier live entertainment, The National spent several years as a cinema, leaving a major dearth in the Washington, D.C. arts scene. Thankfully, despite the establishment of Arena Stage, a regional theatre soon to become one of the most prominent in the country, a desire for an elite theatre of The National’s history and caliber remained strong in the capital. Once the cinema’s lease expired, Broadway producers Richard Aldrich and Richard Myers stepped in to establish an integrated theatre. In 1952, The National Theatre returned to its true self with a production of Call Me Madam starring Broadway legend Ethel Merman. Once again, the old mainstay was coming back strong.
As normal service resumed, The National once again started hosting big, big names. Among the many stars to grace The National stage following its reopening were Henry Fonda, Rex Harrison, Laurence Olivier, George C. Scott, John Gielgud, Audrey Hepburn, Angela Lansbury – the list goes on. As usual, a number of major productions have passed through since the 1952 reopening. In 1957, The National hosted one of the pre-Broadway tryouts for West Side Story, an innovative musical that would go on to become a legend of stage and screen; you can learn more about the show and watch our exclusive interview with original star Chita Rivera by visiting West Side Stories. Among the most notable production to make the trip from New York was the Broadway hit Hair. Despite stirring controversy with its counter-culture message, the show ran for 21 weeks and required The National to set up an extra office in order to accommodate long lines of patrons.
As in previous decades, presidents remained a staple at The National and were often photographed in attendance. Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor were frequent visitors during his tenure in the 1930s and 40s, and FDR’s successor Harry S. Truman continued the tradition of attending productions, followed by the likes of John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, and so on. Kennedy was a particularly avid theatre-goer, having been a National Theatre subscriber as both a Senator and President. Almost as ubiquitous as the presidents were plays about presidents and about Washington politics at large. FDR was a common character in major productions, including I’d Rather Be Right, Sunrise at Campobello, and Annie, while several plays explored the complex and controversial aspects of D.C. politics. Major musicals such as 1776 and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue paid tribute to Presidents and Founding Fathers, albeit with varying degrees of success. You can learn more about the many presidential visits to The National at National Theatre, National Politics.
By the mid-20th century, The National was one of the premier pre-Broadway tryout destinations. In addition to West Side Story, The National helped birth such classic musicals as Fiddler on the Roof and such influential plays as M. Butterfly, both of which you can learn more about by visiting the Big Before Broadway site. While The National has seen many success stories, theatre can be an unforgiving business, and there have been a handful of flops, such as the aforementioned 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and the musical Hellzapoppin’, starring comedian Jerry Lewis; learn more about 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue‘s troubled path to Broadway by visiting its page on Big Before Broadway. After closing for its failure to integrate, The National also came to host a number of productions that prominently featured Black talent. Musicals such as Bubblin’ Brown Sugar and Ain’t Misbehavin’ were major crowd-pleasers, while a celebrated all-Black production of Hello, Dolly! drew the attention of President Lydon B. Johnson. Sensing an opportunity to seize the moment, star Pearl Bailey invited President Johnson and his wife Lady Bird onstage to join in their three curtain calls; learn more about Pearl Bailey before and after Dolly by visiting her page on The National’s Leading Ladies.
While the mid-twentieth century saw plenty of success on stage, The National as an institution came under threat once again. As Washington, D.C. continued to transform, new competitors, such as the pristine new Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, emerged to test its longevity. As the Kennedy Center began to overshadow The National, Roger L. Stevens, the Center’s Chairman, set up the New National Theatre Corporation to oversee The National’s affairs and brokered a deal to have the Center take over The National’s bookings. However, the bookings tended to favored the Center, and eventually the Corporation leadership cut ties. Booking problems were not The National’s only challenges. In the late 1970s, the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corporation was formed to oversee a massive reconstruction effort and bought up most of the properties bounded by E and F Streets and 13th and 14th, including The National and its neighbors. A number of buildings were condemned and The National itself was even put on the chopping block. Pleas from the likes of noted actress Carol Channing and others were made to protect The National. After considering a variety of proposals, the PADC elected to remodel the building with a massive new backstage structure to house improved dressing rooms, storage facilities, and The National Theatre Archives. After closing for an 18-month renovation in 1982, The National reopened in 1984 under the management of the Shubert Organization and staged a celebrated production of the hit musical 42nd Street. The great Helen Hayes gave a toast and President Ronald Reagan spoke an afterword that you can listen to on the Timeline.
With The National saved from destruction once again, another period of relative stability set in. New programs, including children’s performances and casual evening entertainments, diversified The National’s offerings. In 1984, The National conducted its first performances accompanied with sign language interpreters thanks to a partnership with Washington D.C.’s Galludet University. In 1988, it participated in a significant breakthrough by hosting the pre-Broadway tryout for David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly, the first major Broadway success for an Asian American writer. Touring productions stopped by and a number of pre-Broadway productions went on to success on the Great White Way. Some musicals that first tested the waters at The National, including Fiddler on the Roof and West Side Story, have returned to much acclaim, while others, such as Mean Girls and Beetlejuice, have contributed to the growing spate of film-to-musical adaptations.
The National’s management has changed hands several times over the past few decades. After the Shubert Organization operated the theatre for nearly thirty years, the National Theatre Corporation (having dropped the “New” from their title) entered into an agreement with JAM Theatricals and SMG in 2012 to operate the theatre and program the main stage. The building had been relatively underused in the years leading up to this change in management, but JAM soon corrected that by programming full seasons of touring productions. This allowed the nonprofit to focus on fundraising for capital renovations, community programs, and the Archives. Then, in 2019 the Nederlander Organization acquired JAM Theatricals, returning management of the theatre and programming for the Broadway at The National season back to this legendary organization after forty-eight years.
Like all theatres, The National is currently facing unprecedented challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. Though the state of its in-person activities are in flux, one thing is for certain: The National’s record of rejuvenation puts it in prime position to come back strong.
Throughout its history, The National has witnessed a lot of change both onstage and off. Much of that change centers on race. Where once The National, like most theatres in the country, operated a segregated now, now it is open to all and its onstage offerings are considerably more diverse. Nevertheless, change does not come without some struggle and there may still be some change (and some struggle) required. Look at The National’s closure in 1948, for example, which came about because unions, prompted by civil rights activists, refused to participate in discriminatory practices. Taking all that into account, ask yourself the following questions:
- Can you find other examples of arts organizations taking a stand to protest against discriminatory practices?
- Based on your knowledge, what are some other ways in which theatre has changed as the world has changed?
- What can The National do to help contribute toward a fairer, more equitable society?
Leave your comments in the box below!
Bogar, Thomas A. American Presidents Attend the Theatre: The Playgoing Experience of Each Chief Executive. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co., 2006.
Henderson, Amy. “The Curse of the Presidential Musical: Mr. President and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.” White House History no. 30 (2011): 12-21.
Hershberg, Marc. “Nederlander Reclaims Control of National Theatre.” Forbes Online. Forbes Magazine, 27 November, 2019, https://www.forbes.com/sites/marchershberg/2019/11/27/nederlander-reclaims-control-of-national-theatre/?sh=760d1d017f0a.
Lee, Douglas Bennett, Roger L. Meersman, and Donn B. Murphy. Stage for a Nation: The National Theatre, 150 Years. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1985.
He did! In fact, we believe President Lincoln was actually in attendance for Wilkes’s turn in “Richard III” in 1863.…
Did John Wilkes Booth ever perform at the National?