Since 1663 the Theatre Royal Drury Lane has provided entertainment for the masses and has been visited by every monarch since the restoration. Previous buildings were managed by the great actor David Garrick and the famous playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan and the current fourth building was opened in 1812.
The theatre was renowned for its spectacular Victorian melodramas and pantomimes, but since the 1920s its history has mirrored the development of the modern musical. From the original London productions of American musicals Rose Marie, The Desert Song and Show Boat, through Ivor Novello’s romantic operettas and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s groundbreaking post-war shows to The Producers and The Lord of the Rings. My Fair Lady held the record as the theatre’s longest run for many years but Cameron Mackintosh’s record breaking production of Miss Saigon is the current record holder at 10 years. After Shrek the Musical followed the family spectacular Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory directed by Sam Mendes. Most recently the theatre played host to 42nd Street, Broadway’s biggest show on the West End’s biggest stage.
The theatre has not one, but two, Royal boxes and it was here that the public first heard both the National Anthem and Rule, Britannia! The Theatre celebrated its 350th years of operation on 7 May 2013 and the current building had its 200th birthday in October 2012.
The first theatre was erected in 1663 by Thomas Killigrew, who had received a patent to do so from King Charles II. We still operate under this Royal Charter today and a copy is proudly displayed although the original is now in the safe-keeping of the V&A Theatre and Performance Collections. This building, about the current size of the present stage, was visited by Samuel Pepys and was where Charles II first encountered Nell Gwynne, who made her debut on the stage in 1665. It was short-lived, being destroyed by fire in 1672.
Killigrew built a second theatre, opening in 1674 and remaining in operation for 117 years. This building witnessed the triumphs of Thomas Betterton who played Hamlet when he was over 70, Charles Macklin who murdered a fellow actor in the Green Room and lived to be over 100, Peg Woffington, Mrs Jordan, Sarah Siddons and Charles Kemble. David Garrick became the manager in 1747 and introduced many reforms which have shaped modern theatre. He ruled the roost for 29 years and was succeeded in 1776 by Richard Brinsley Sheridan, whose best known play, The School for Scandal, received its first performance here in 1777.
Sheridan oversaw the demolition of the ageing building and its replacement by a larger theatre to seat 3,600 people, designed by Henry Holland, in 1794. It opened in March with a performance of sacred music by Handel because theatrical performances were banned during Lent. This building boasted the world’s first safety curtain but still burned down only 15 years later, bringing Sheridan’s management, and personal fortune, to the ground along with it.
The fourth and present building opened in 1812. It was designed by Benjamin Wyatt and the front of house areas today are much as they were at the first performance. In early 2013 the front of house areas were all refurbished with a major decoration project restoring the areas as closely as possible to the original 1812 scheme. The building was financed by a ‘Committee of Renters’ recruited by the brewer Samuel Whitbread, and Lord Byron was chairman of the board. It was here that Edmund Kean became a star overnight with his performance of ‘Shylock’, where the great clown Joseph Grimaldi gave his farewell benefit performance and where Dan Leno and Herbert Campbell triumphed in a series of spectacular pantomimes.
Theatre Royal Drury Lane became famous throughout the rest of the 19th and early 20th centuries for producing spectacles under the guidance of its adventurous managers, most notably FB Chatterton, Augustus Harris, Arthur Collins and Alfred Butt. Scenes staged included chariot races in Ben Hur, the Derby and an earthquake in The Hope, the Battle of Rorke’s Drift in Youth, a train crash in The Whip, sinking ships, air balloons, underwater fights, the Chelsea Flower Show, Madame Tussaud’s Chamber of Horrors, the flooding of Paris and Alpine avalanches.
Shrek The Musical was the latest all-singing, all-dancing spectacular to grace the stage of ‘The Lane’, which since the 1920s has become London’s major home for the lavish musical. Rose Marie introduced the American singer and actress Edith Day (1924-27) who went on to head the casts of The Desert Song (1927-28), in which Anna Neagle also made her stage debut, and Show Boat (1928) with Cedric Hardwicke and Paul Robeson. The New Moon (1929) starred Evelyn Laye who received ‘torrents of applause’ and included a blazing pirate ship as one of its scenic attractions.
Noël Coward had a major success with Cavalcade (1931). Produced by C.B. Cochrane, the cast of 400 included a young John Mills and set-pieces included a troopship setting sail, the relief of Mafeking and Queen Victoria’s funeral. Coward’s post-war musical Pacific 1860 (1946) starred Mary Martin but did not tap into the public psyche so well and closed after four months.
Theatre Royal Drury Lane also hosted most of Ivor Novello’s major successes. Glamorous Night (1935), Careless Rapture (1936), Crest of the Wave (1937) and The Dancing Years(1939) all had audiences flocking to Covent Garden. Novello starred in all of the productions and in true Drury Lane fashion, introduced as many major scenic effects as possible, including sinking ships, a fair on Hampstead Heath, a train crash and an earthquake.
During the Second World War, the theatre was the home base for ENSA and received a direct hit from a gas bomb which, fortunately, did not explode but did destroy the rear of the auditorium.
The Lane was taken over for almost a decade by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II with a succession of ground-breaking hits. Oklahoma! (1947-50) starring Howard Keel, Carousel (1950-51), Mary Martin in South Pacific(1951-53) and The King and I (1953-56) with Valerie Hobson and Herbert Lom were all big hits. A revival of The Boys from Syracuse (1963) with Bob Monkhouse and Ronnie Corbett did not fare so well.
My Fair Lady (1958-63) opened with the original Broadway cast of Julie Andrews, Rex Harrison and Stanley Holloway, and Cecil Beaton’s costume designs, so familiar from the film version. Cameron Mackintosh’s revival of the show transferred here from the National Theatre in 2001 starring Jonathan Pryce.
Camelot (1964-65) was an enormous spectacle and Mary Martin returned to the theatre in Hello, Dolly! (1965-67). Dora Bryan took over the leading role in 1966 to great acclaim. Ginger Rogers flew in for another Jerry Herman extravaganza in Mame (1969) and Harold Fielding produced the surprise hit The Great Waltz (1970-72) and a musical version of Gone with the Wind (1972).
Michael Crawford became a star overnight in Billy (1974-76), with Roy Castle succeeding him, and Michael Bennett’s A Chorus Line (1976-79) opened with its American company before equally talented British chorines became the ‘singular sensation’.
The original production of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd (1980) starred Denis Quilley and Sheila Hancock, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1981) was deemed a little too risqué and The Pirates of Penzance (1982), in a newly scored production by Joseph Papp, was a genuine crowd pleaser. 42nd Street (1984-89) made tap dancing fashionable again and was enormously popular.
Cameron Mackintosh’s production of Miss Saigon (1989-99) holds the record as the theatre’s longest-running show, with a total of 4263 performances. The helicopter landed at almost every one of them!
In the 21st century the theatre hosted The Witches of Eastwick (2000), The League of Gentlemen (2001), The Stars of the Bolshoi (2001) and Trevor Nunn’s award-winning NT production of Anything Goes (2003). The Producers (2004) kept the building alive with laughter for over two years while The Lord of the Rings (2007) continued the theatre’s tradition of presenting the best and newest trends in musical theatre and using cutting-edge technology to create a stage spectacle reminiscent of the late Victorian and Edwardian productions so popular with the masses.
Next Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders chose The Lane as the venue for their farewell live performances prior to the opening of Cameron Mackintosh’s revival of Oliver! (2009) starring Rowan Atkinson and Jodie Prenger (cast as Nancy in the BBC’s I’d Do Anything). Before Shrek The Musical (2011), the Theatre Royal Drury Lane hosted the Society of London Theatre’s Laurence Olivier Awards in a spectacular production which included guest appearances from Barry Manilow, Angela Lansbury and Stephen Sondheim. A brand new musical production of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory began to fit up in March 2013, beginning previews in May and opening in June.
In 2013 Andrew Lloyd Webber supervised a complete restoration of the Regency front of house areas taking them back as closely as possible to the original decorative scheme. In February 2014 John Travolta flew in from America for an on-stage interview with Michael Douglas doing the same in 2016.
In 2015 the theatre hosted the British Academy Television Awards, concerts by Lulu and Opeth, an all-star 85th birthday tribute for Sondheim and Michael McIntyre’s Big Christmas Show, broadcast by the BBC on Christmas Day. All subsequent episodes of McIntyre’s Big Show have been recorded here and other concert appearances have included Engelbert Humperdinck, Petula Clark, Michael Douglas, David Essex, Katie Melua, ABC, M People, KT Tunstall and Elaine Paige.
Michael Grade and Michael Linnit’s revival of 42nd Street opened in March 2017 starring Sheena Easton as Dorothy Brock. Lulu took over the role in March 2018. In 2018 Westminster City Council gave approval for plans to make substantial alterations front-of-house and backstage to ensure that this most historic of theatre buildings may continue to be commercially viable for another 100 years. Space does not allow for the detailed inclusion of all productions at this theatre.
On 5 January 2019 following the final performance of 42nd Street, the Theatre Royal Drury Lane closed for a 20-month redevelopment, to re-open in September 2020.