To its initial owners, Walter and Frederick Melville, The Princes Theatre, as it was then called, stood as a vision to host fashionable melodrama, much like their other theatre, The Lyceum. Designed by Bertie Crewe, it was considered a flamboyant masterpiece in the early 1900’s from the life-size groups of statuary representing Comedy, Tragedy, Poetry and Music that still adorn the tops of the boxes, to the original paintings above the boxes.
On Boxing Day 1911, the Theatre opened with a production of The Three Musketeers. The Melville brothers became Popular Playhouses Ltd and The Princes Theatre was born. The Theatre changed its name to the New Princes Theatre in 1914 and the repertoire was slowly broadened under new manager Seymour Hicks in 1916 as light operettas such as Andre Messager’s Monsieur Beaucaire, starring the famous soprano Dame Maggie Teyte, were introduced. This tradition was then continued by Sir Charles Cochran, a famous veteran of variety, who presented the first Gilbert and Sullivan seasons by the D’Oyly Carte Company. The company returned over the following three decades presenting nearly every opera written by Gilbert and Sullivan.
Notable shows over the earlier decades include Sarah Bernhardt in Daniel (1921), Sybil Thorndike and Henry Ainley in Macbeth (1926) and Funny Face with Fred Astaire (1928). Then followed a period of change when manager Firth Shepard produced successful shows described as a ‘medley of mirth and music’ like Merrie England (1934 and 1945), Fun and Games (1941) and The Shepard Show (1939 and 1946). The Theatre remained open, despite two occasions of bomb damage, during the Second World War, offering audiences a cultural programme of international talent such as Serge Diaghaleff’s Ballet featuring Margot Fonteyn and the Sadler’s Wells Opera and Ballet.
The variety and revue producer Bertram Montague presented an equally diverse programme from 1947-52, including Ram Gopal and His Indian Dancers (1947), Broadway success Hellzapoppin (1948) starring Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson, as well as yearly traditional pantomimes which he devised and directed with Barry Lupino and Arthur Ash. At this time, the Theatre’s presenter was Jack Hylton, the infamous band-leader and impresario who interestingly is credited as the man who discovered an unknown Audrey Hepburn. He went on to launch shows at the Princes Theatre such as The Shrike (1953) with Sam Wanamaker, the classic musicals Pal Joey (1954), Wonderful Town (1955) and Urfaust (1959) directed by Ingmar Bergman.
The theatre underwent extensive changes in the early 1960s and, under the new management of Charles Clore and EMI, the theatre was renamed the Shaftesbury Theatre in 1962. Its new name brought the Theatre luck as it reopened with the Broadway success How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying which ran for over 500 performances. To mark the end of theatre censorship in September 1968, the revolutionary musical Hair opened. It played for over 5 years and was about to celebrate its record-breaking 2000th performance when the need to carry out renovation work forced the Theatre to close its doors. Only prolonged and passionate opposition from members of the actor’s union and members of the entertainment industry saved the building from redevelopment and it is now a Grade II listed building.
The Theatre reopened in 1974 with West Side Story and by 1978 the Theatre was owned by Laurie Marsh, millionaire theatre impresario, and Ray Cooney. The most successful production during this time was the musical They’re Playing Our Song (1980), starring Tom Conti and Gemma Craven, which ran for nearly two years.
In 1983 Ray Cooney formed the Theatre of Comedy Company, to take a lease on the Shaftesbury Theatre and presented Run for your Wife followed by a season of plays that promoted British comedy at its finest. The success of the season allowed the Company to purchase the Theatre in 1984 during the run of Two into One starring Donald Sinden and Michael Williams.
The Theatre of Comedy Company mixed high calibre drama with musicals over the 80s and 90s in a programme that included Stephen Sondheim’s Follies (1987), Kiss of the Spiderwoman (1992) starring Chita Rivera, and the National Theatre’s production of Carousel (1993). Plays included M Butterfly (1989) starring Anthony Hopkins, Out of Order (1990), reuniting Donald Sinden and Michael Williams, Peter O’Toole in Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell (1991) and John Malkovich in A Slip of the Tongue (1992). The second half of the decade saw two groundbreaking musicals, The Who’s Tommy (1996) and Jonathan Larson’s award winning Rent (1998) inspired by La Bohème.
The new millennium ushered in musical adaptations of the classic films Peggy Sue Got Married (2001), Thoroughly Modern Millie (2003), starring Maureen Lipman and Amanda Holden and the famous novel The Far Pavilions (2005). In 2006 the music of the pop phenomenon Boney M featured in the musical Daddy Cool.
The Tony Award-winning Broadway musical Hairspray opened in October 2007 to huge acclaim and went on to win many awards. Having secured 40 major awards, including 3 Olivier awards, and playing to capacity audiences Hairspray became the most successful production in the Shaftesbury Theatre’s history, playing for almost three sensational years.
After Hairspray the international dance sensation Burn the Floor enjoyed two successful seasons in 2010 and 2013 Derren Brown’s Svengali received an Olivier Award for Best Entertainment and Rock of Ages gave a blast of 1980s rock music. The Theatre was privileged to host the world premiere of Sir Tim Rice’s From Here to Eternity in the autumn of 2013 and then, in 2014 enjoyed a short season of The Pajama Game, directed by Sir Richard Eyre. Opening in October 2014 the Tony award-winning musical Memphis, staring Beverley Knight, won both Whatsonstage and Olivier awards during its 13 month run.
Magic is now on the Theatre’s stage with the worldwide phenomenon The Illusionists starring seven world leading magicians including the UK’s Jamie Raven. It will be followed by a musical that celebrates the story of the musical legend Berry Gordy and his record label Motown.