New York's Public Theater Marks 50 Years New York is celebrating 50 years of the Public Theater. What Joe Papp started in a church basement on the Lower East Side became one of the most important theater companies in the world.
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New York's Public Theater Marks 50 Years

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New York's Public Theater Marks 50 Years

New York's Public Theater Marks 50 Years

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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This summer, New York's Public Theater is celebrating 50 years of charming and challenging audiences. What Joseph Papp started as a young stagehand in a church basement on the Lower East Side has become one of the most important theater companies in the world. Today it may best be known for presenting free Shakespeare in Central Park. Public Theater's also responsible for creating such award-winning productions as "That Championship Season," "Sticks and Bones," "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf," "Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk" and "A Chorus Line." Our man Jeff Lunden has this appreciation.

JEFF LUNDEN reporting:

For someone who was to become a major figure in New York City's cultural history, Joseph Papp was not to the manor born. He grew up poor in Brooklyn, the child of immigrants, and his first language was Yiddish. But he never forgot going to the park for free band concerts as a kid, or going on class field trips to the theater, where he first saw Shakespeare. As he told WHYY's "Fresh Air" in 1987, he came up with the idea of combining the two.

(Soundbite of 1987 broadcast of "Fresh Air")

Mr. JOSEPH PAPP (Founder, Public Theater): I started with this notion of wanting to bring Shakespeare to the people without charge and play in the city's parks, playgrounds. I felt he'd been taken over too much by the academics. He was being presented in a way that would turn a lot of people off. And so I made it sort of my commitment to develop American actors to act the works of Shakespeare with the right emotionality, the right speech, clarity.

(Soundbite of "Hamlet")

Mr. KEVIN KLINE (Actor): (As Hamlet) Oh, that this too, too solid flesh would melt, fall and resolve itself into a dew; that the Everlasting had not fixed his canon against self-slaughter.

LUNDEN: It was a long road between Kevin Kline as Hamlet and the young Joe Papp seeing Shakespeare in school. He served in the Navy, studied acting in Los Angeles and then returned to New York, where he became a stage manager for CBS Television. In his spare time, he and a group of like-minded artists began experimenting in the basement of Emmanuel Church, says his widow, Gail Papp.

Mrs. GAIL PAPP (Widow of Joseph Papp): They did sort of staged readings at first. Then they started productions in kind of plain clothes. And it attracted some people like Colleen Dewhurst, George C. Scott--the beginnings of their careers.

LUNDEN: Joe Papp took his Shakespeare experiments outdoors in 1956 to the East River Amphitheater. Then he took them on the road.

Mrs. PAPP: He thought, `Well, if I'm doing it in one place outdoors, why don't I take it around so it gets to neighborhoods such as the one I grew up in?' And so he started a mobile truck tour, with the idea of starting and ending the tour in Central Park next to the lake. So he ended there, and the truck had really fallen apart. It wasn't much good for another season. So he decided he would stay there and continue with the summer performances for free.

LUNDEN: But he ran afoul of New York's powerful Parks commissioner, Robert Moses. After front-page coverage in The New York Times and a favorable court ruling, Papp's troupe was allowed to stay. The city eventually built the Delacorte Theatre for the New York Shakespeare Festival in 1961 as a permanent summer home.

(Soundbite of "Much Ado About Nothing")

Unidentified Actress: Is it possible to stage a die, while she had such mead food to feed it as Captain Benedict?

Unidentified Actor: It is certain I am loved of all ladies, only you excepted. And I would I could find in my heart that I had not a hard heart, for truly I love none.

LUNDEN: Sam Waterston was another top-flight actor Joe Papp got to play Shakespeare in the Park. Not long after the Delacorte opened, Papp began looking for an indoors space to present contemporary work alongside the classics. Gail Papp says he wrote to the Landmarks Commission asking about abandoned buildings.

Mrs. PAPP: And that's how he found the Astor Library building, a former Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, and he loved its history. So very quickly we moved in there, even--well, it was still kind of open to the birds and the mice--and set up shop, and we began playing our first season.

(Soundbite of "Hair")

Unidentified Performers: (Singing) When the moon is in the seventh house and Jupiter aligns with Mars, then peace will guide the planet...

LUNDEN: The first production at the Astor Library--meaning the Public Theater--was "Hair."

(Soundbite of "Hair")

Unidentified Performers: (Singing) This is the dawning of the age of Aquarius, the age of...

LUNDEN: "Hair" was the first of many Public Theater productions to go to Broadway, though Papp initially resisted. Another producer transferred it and made most of the money. Throughout his career, Joe Papp had a love-hate relationship with Broadway.

(Soundbite of "Fresh Air" interview)

Mr. PAPP: The reason I go to Broadway are two reasons. One is that it's important to us. We have to make money. We play free in the park, and that's $2 1/2 million; we charge very little admission. So we constantly have to finance our operation. And the other reason, and closely allied, is you do reach a large, popular audience on Broadway.

LUNDEN: And, at heart, Papp was a populist. He embraced multiracial, multiethnic casting from the very beginning, his widow says.

Mrs. PAPP: It wasn't even a policy so much as it just is the way Joe was. He grew up in neighborhoods that were mixed. He was always committed to social justice. So it was always part of his artistic approach to anything, that the people in a play, the actors, should look like the city that they're performing in, should reflect the population.

(Soundbite of "Two Gentlemen of Verona")

Unidentified Performer #1: (Singing) OK! How lucky that scarecrow. He's dressed like a young man.

Background Singers: (Singing) La-la-la-la.

Unidentified Performer #1: (Singing) How lucky that scarecrow. He's dressed like a young man.

Unidentified Performer #2: (Singing) Ramba Rose(ph).

Unidentified Performer #1: (Singing) ...that scarecrow.

Unidentified Performer #1 and Background Singers: (Singing in Spanish)

LUNDEN: One of Papp's biggest hits in the Park and on Broadway was a musical production of "Two Gentlemen of Verona," with sections entirely in Spanish. Throughout his career, Papp embraced the work of black and Hispanic playwrights, including Ntozake Shange and Miguel Pinero, as well as David Rabe and David Hare: writers with strong political leanings. But that approach didn't always encourage funders. Kevin Kline appeared at the Delacorte the summer before he began studying acting at Juilliard.

Mr. KLINE: This was in 1970. It was my first professional job. I'm a mere spear carrier. And because they're running out of money and can't finish the season, Joe Papp in his infinite madness and wisdom says, `We're going to do a marathon. We're going to start with "Henry VI, Part 1" at 7:00 at night, go through the night, end with "Richard III"; have the Battle of Bosworth Field as the sun comes up, and at 6 or 6:30 in the morning have the cast of "Hair" come on stage and sing "Let the Sunshine In."'

(Soundbite of "Let the Sunshine In")

Unidentified Performers: (Singing) Let the sunshine--let the sunshine in, the sunshine in.

LUNDEN: Kline says the stunt worked and donations increased. But in 1975, the Public launched a production that would make it rich: "A Chorus Line." It began modestly enough when director and choreographer Michael Bennett played Joe Papp some tapes of interviews he'd done with Broadway dancers, thinking they're might be a show in it. Again, Gail Papp.

Mrs. PAPP: So Joe listened to the tapes and he agreed to subsidize--I forget, it was about eight months of work with the dancers, everybody on payroll--Marvin Hamlisch, Ed Kleban, Jim Kirkwood, Nicholas Dante. It was an amazing group of people that just cobbled it together day after day after day, working in the Newman Theatre. They'd try this; they'd try that. That's how it was done.

(Soundbite of "A Chorus Line")

Unidentified Performer: (Singing) One singular sensation every little step she takes. One...

LUNDEN: Gail Papp says that "A Chorus Line's" phenomenal success and the money it brought to the Public may have hurt as much as it helped.

Mrs. PAPP: One thing, Joe probably couldn't fund-raise while that money was coming in, so that whole aspect of the operation atrophied. That was not good. And the other thing that happened was that the Theater became known for the "Chorus Line," and that weakened the institutional fabric.

LUNDEN: The Public was also devastated by the AIDS crisis in the 1980s. Papp's son Tony, a sculptor, died of AIDS, as did "A Chorus Line's" director, Michael Bennett, and Wilford Leach, the Public's artistic director. The theater became one of the first in the country to address the epidemic with Larry Kramer's drama "The Normal Heart." And Papp kept on discovering new writers, including George C. Wolfe, whose play "The Colored Museum" came to the Public in 1986. Seven years later, after Joe Papp's death, Wolfe took over as artistic director. He brought in a new generation of playwrights: Suzan-Lori Parks, Jose Rivera and Nilo Cruz among them. And he, too, generated some hits that transferred to Broadway, including tap dancer Savion Glover's "Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk."

(Soundbite of "Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk")

Unidentified Performer: (Singing) Bringing in the funk. Bringing in the funk.

LUNDEN: One of the things George Wolfe says he's most proud of is the Public's continued support of free Shakespeare in the Park.

Mr. GEORGE C. WOLFE (Artistic Director, Public Theater): Anytime I would go up there to check on productions, I had this extraordinary sense of pride because I felt as though I was in charge of an institution that was doing the best of what New York City can do, which is creating wonderful art and doing it free and saying, `Everybody come on in.'

LUNDEN: Wolfe stepped down this year, and a new artistic director, Oscar Eustis, is overseeing the current revival of "Two Gentlemen of Verona" in Central Park. And the Lincoln Center Library is presenting an exhibition: A Community of Artists: 50 Years of the Public Theater.

For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

SIMON: Photo and videos from the Public Theater on our Web site,

(Soundbite of "A Chorus Line")

Unidentified Performers: (Singing) Oh, one moment in the present and you can forget the rest. For the girl is second best to none, son. Oooh! Sigh! Give her your attention. Do I really have to mention she's the one? One? Kind. One? Kind.

SIMON: Get those heals higher, Mr. Martinez!

This is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Scott Simon.

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