WASHINGTON — The oldest continuously operating theater in the nation’s capital that has drawn top performers dating back decades before the Civil War is getting a fresh start and a makeover after years of struggle.
A season of shows announced recently at the National Theatre includes its first world premiere of a new musical bound for Broadway in years — “If/Then,” from the creative team behind the Tony-winning “Next to Normal,” will star Idina Menzel in November. The season also includes the return of “West Side Story,” which got its start at the National in the 1950s, the Tony-winning revival of “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess” and the Washington premiere of “American Idiot” from the group Green Day.
Perhaps most importantly, the long-neglected theater is getting some tender, loving care. National Theatre officials said they are planning refurbishments this summer that will include a warmer color scheme to replace the National’s outdated aqua interior. Backstage areas, dressing rooms and bathrooms also will get a deep scrubbing and fresh coat of paint.
A new programming team led by Chicago-based JAM Theatricals and Philadelphia’s SMG is aiming to revive the National on the nation’s entertainment circuit. They want to create a more modern performance space in the historic 1835 theater to host not only Broadway-level shows but also concerts, dance, comedy and other acts to keep the National’s marquee lit. Last year, the theater was dark for all but five weeks.
“There’s not a theater in the country that has a richer history than the National,” said Bob Papke of SMG, who runs the new National Theatre Group with JAM co-founder Steve Traxler. “It’s as iconic a theater as Carnegie Hall or the Apollo.”
The National is two blocks from the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue, frequently hosting presidents and national leaders. According to a history of the theater, President Abraham Lincoln learned of his nomination to a second term while attending a National Theatre performance. From 1882 to 1916, John Philip Sousa conducted the President’s Own United States Marine Band in frequent concerts.
In 1927, the musical “Show Boat” made its world premiere at the historic playhouse, followed by “West Side Story” in 1957.
It was a prime venue for shows on their way to Broadway until the opening in 1971 of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. The arrival of the larger performance spaces posed stiff competition for the National’s 1,670-seat house. For five years, Kennedy Center founding Chairman Roger Stevens, a notable Broadway producer, oversaw the National’s programming while also leading the Kennedy Center. The two organizations severed ties by 1980.
Broadway organizations managed the National’s bookings over the years with mixed success.
The nonprofit theater board and Executive Director Tom Lee were looking to give the theater a rebirth as a perform-ing arts center that can adapt to changing demands beyond theater. They turned to JAM Theatricals to keep the theater’s tradition of Broadway shows and SMG to expand its programming into concerts.
“If you’re not on Broadway and you’re only doing Broadway, then you’re limiting the possibility of what the theater can be,” Papke said. “I think it’s a fresh beginning.”
The first show under the new management, a Bryan Adams concert in January, was a sellout.
Theater officials have visions of adding educational programs, event spaces and perhaps a rooftop bar to generate more revenue for the theater. In coming years, it will need millions in renovations and support from donors.
To foster a loyal audience base amid tough competition in Washington’s theater scene, the National has begun selling its first subscription package of shows in years. It has also booked shows that are popular with audiences, including “Stomp,” “Blue Man Group” and “Mamma Mia!”
“For the theater itself, there’s great bones to the National Theatre. It feels very much like a Broadway theater does, for both audiences and performers on stage,” Traxler said. “The National Theatre is a historic, beautiful, intimate Broadway house, and we hope to keep the marquee lit as often as possible.”