The The James Earl Jones Theatre was known as the Cort Theatre until September of 2022. Originally built by and named for John Cort, general manager of the Northwestern Theatrical Association. Cort transitioned from performing to management in the 1890s after being in a vaudeville comedy team called Cort and Murphy. Two years before Cort’s death in 1927, the Shuberts took over the theatre.
Debuts and Celebrities
The Cort’s opening production was Peg O’ My Heart (1912) with Laurette Taylor. It ran for 603 performances, which was a promising start for the new playhouse. John Cort’s first production at the theatre was the operetta The Princess Pat in 1915. It was one of only twelve musicals to be staged at the Cort, and it had a famous tune: “The Neopolitan Love Song.” In 1974, The Magic Show opened and ran for 1,920 performances, making it the longest running musical at the Cort.
The Cort also presented star-studded shows such as the revival of The Second Mrs. Tanquerray (1924) with Ethel Merman and Henry Daniell and These Days (1928) with Katharine Hepburn. It was in this show where Hepburn made her Broadway debut and propelled her remarkable career (with only a few lines amongst a large cast). In 1946, Antigone and Candida were produced in rep featuring Wesley Addy, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, and Marlon Brando. In 1949, Grace Kelley made her Broadway debut in Strindberg’s The Father.
Noteworthy productions of the 1950s and 1960s include the revival of As You Like It (1950) starring Katharine Hepburn and William Prince, Saint Joan (1951) with Uta Hagen, The Shrike (1952) starring Jose Ferrer, The Rainmaker (1954) with Darren McGavin and Geraldine Page, Sunday in New York (1961) starring a young Robert Redford, and Purlie Victorious (1961) written by and featuring Ossie Davis, along with Ruby Dee.
In 1963, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest had a short, unsuccessful run at the Cort, but Kirk Douglas’s and Gene Wilder’s careers were launched from this production. In 1960, Jane Fonda made her debut on the Broadway stage in There Was A Little Girl, and in 1969, Al Pacino performed in Richard III. Prominent productions of the 1980s and 1990s include Rose (1981) starring Glenda Jackson and Jessica Tandy, the revival of Medea (1982) with Zoe Caldwell, who won a Tony Award for her intense performance, and the admired revival of The Heiress (1995) starring Cherry Jones, which won seven Tony Awards. In 1998, John Leguizamo staged his one-man show, Freak, where he shockingly satirized his rough childhood. Director Spike Lee adapted his play into an HBO movie. In 1998, Nicole Kidman made her brief nude appearance in The Blue Room. This play was a profitable success, but it received many negative reviews.
The Cort Theatre is Thomas Lamb’s only remaining, still dynamic, legitimate theatre. Lamb was inspired by the 18th century French Petit Trianon at Versailles in designing the timeless exterior. The interior was inspired by architecture from the age of Louis XVI. The lobby is built with marble, and the panels are made up of Marie Antoinette plasterwork. The stage features a proscenium arch that used to be capable of lighting up during performances.
A Rich History
On November 17, 1987, the 1,082-seat Cort Theatre with its four-column exterior was elected a New York City landmark. It is one of only three Broadway venues located East of Broadway. It features more plays than musicals (as the space is rather condensed), and it has decent sightlines. This theatre has been home to numerous classics and all-star performances and continues to be a popular venue.