When Kelli O’Hara moved to New York City from Oklahoma, one of the first shows she ever saw was a production of “Carnival.” The musical was playing at a historic theater called New York City Center.
The show starred Brian Stokes Mitchell and a 19-year-old actress who was unknown to O’Hara named Anne Hathaway. “I loved the staged concert style of it and dreamed of being a part of something there one day,” shares O’Hara.
In fact, O’Hara’s wish came true. In 2017, she earned high praise playing Fiona in a cherished production of “Brigadoon” at her dream theater, New York City Center, in their Encores! series. “Each time I have performed there, whether in a show or gala event, I have remembered that dream,” said the Tony-winning performer. “When I made my final entrance in Brigadoon coming down the aisle in the house, through the audience, up onto the stage, I couldn’t help but appreciate the symbolism.”
New York City Center is also a favorite of Jake Gyllenhaal who performed there in Little Shop of Horrors opposite Ellen Greene. The show marked the first time he sang before an audience in New York. “Every time I talk about the most thrilling experience of my artistic career, it always starts here,” said Gyllenhaal about New York City Center. In fact, he was so taken by Greene’s performance, especially singing “Somewhere That’s Green,” he felt that all his hard work had cumulated to bring him to that point. He later shared, “It’s almost like I met the little boy who watched the movie for the first time in the moment watching her sing.”
The historic building was originally built in 1923 by The Shriners as a meeting hall. By 1943, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and City Council President Newbold Morris reopened the space as Manhattan’s first performing arts center.
Known as “The People’s Theater” the idea was to bring the arts to everyone at ticket prices that cost much less than Broadway. It was also one-stop shopping to experience dance, theater, opera and music.
In the years that followed, Leonard Bernstein, Barbara Cook, José Ferrer, Helen Hayes, Marcel Marceau, Paul Robeson, Beverly Sills, Orson Welles and other legends performed on the City Center stage. George Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein famously established New York City Ballet. Laszlo Halasz founded New York City Opera there. The Joffrey Ballet began a 30-year residency.
More than seventy-five years later New York City Center continues to thrive even during the shut down. This month New York City Center is presenting a new digital concert “Sutton Foster|Bring Me to Light.” Filmed live at City Center, the concert is available through Monday, May 31.
The concert features performances by Kelli O’Hara and Wren Rivera, Foster’s student at Ball State University. It also reunites Foster Raúl Esparza and Joaquina Kalukango who perform songs from their shared productions at City Center—“Anyone Can Whistle” and “The Wild Party.” The performers also sing music theater favorites from "Camelot," "Oklahoma!," "South Pacific," "Violet," and more. The cast is accompanied by Music Director Michael Rafter (piano) and Matt Hinkley (guitar). Sutton Foster|Bring Me to Light is directed by Leigh Silverman, with Jeanine Tesori serving as Creative Producer.
Digital access for “Sutton Foster|Bring Me to Light” begins at $35, with additional packages including behind-the-scenes footage. Learn more at NYCityCenter.org. “With so many theaters dark for the last year, City Center’s commitment to turning the lights on and supporting artists by providing opportunities to get back on stage has been such a beacon of hope,” said Foster.
City Center’s President and CEO Arlene Shuler couldn’t be more thrilled. “Bringing artists back to our stage and connecting them to our loyal audience digitally is a crucial step toward reopening our theater to the public which we hope to do this fall,” said Shuler. “We are delighted to welcome Sutton Foster back to City Center and to present this extraordinary group of artists as part of our digital season.”
In fact, while the theater remains closed, the Encores! creative team has been exploring the artistic process behind future musical theater productions in a documentary series, produced in partnership with filmmaker Juan L. Espinal. In December, the first episode on the future Encores! production of "The Life"—directed and adapted by Emmy and Tony Award-winning artist Billy Porter—premiered on New York City Center's Youtube and website.
New York City Center continues to be a beacon of hope to countless artists for so many decades. “I saw some of the greatest performing arts there over the past 50 years that are emblazoned in my mind with the early New York City Ballet, especially Nora Kay, Melissa Hayden, Jacques d’Amboise and Tanaquil Le Clercq,” shared Joel Grey, who has performed there in productions of “Chicago,” “Little Murders” and “Hey, Look Me Over!” He will never forget the first preview of the musical Chicago. “Every single number stopped the show,” he recalled.
The theater continues its mission to make performing arts accessible to audiences by subsidizing affordable tickets throughout the year. “I love what they stand for,” said O’Hara. “They bring new light and life to older works with their Encores! series. They promote new artists bringing groundbreaking work to a diverse audience with their summer program, Off-Center. And they offer educational programs which spark the love of the arts in all generations.”