The Theatre Royal Drury Lane Theatre has the longest continuous theatrical traditional in the UK and is one of the most important theatres in the world. The first theatre was built for Thomas Killigrew, the last of the King's jesters, and was opened by Charles the Second on Thursday 7 May l663. Called the Theatre Royal on Bridges Street, or Bridges Street Theatre for short, it was at this theatre that Nell Gwynne made her first appearance in the play The Indian Queen written by Sir Robert Howard with John Dryden.
In 1672 it was burnt down, and was rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren at a cost of £4,000. This second theatre, now named the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, was opened on Thursday 26 March 1674, and was controlled first by Christopher Rich and later by David Garrick, for whom Robert Adam built a new facade. Then Richard Brinsley Sheridan took over the theatre, and it was rebuilt in 1791 by Henry Holland, the architect of Carlton House and Sloane Street. This third theatre was finally opened on Wednesday 12 March 1794, but was unfortunately burnt down on Friday 24 February 1809. It was again rebuilt, by Benjamin Wyatt, and opened, with a prologue written by Byron, on Saturday 10 October 1812 with a production of Shakespeare's Hamlet. The front portico was added later in 1820 while the side colonnade that runs along Russell Street was added in 1831. It is this fourth theatre which can be seen today.
This theatre has virtually always presented 'legit' theatre, one exception was in 1915 when the theatre was given over to showing two films - D W Griffiths' The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance. On Thursday 24 June 1920 The Garden of Allah, adapted for the stage from the novel by Robert Hitchens by Mary Anderson with music by Landon Ronald, opened directed by Arthur Collins. The extravagant staging, which included real palm trees and real camels, horses, sheep and goats, nearly proved to be disastrous during the sand-storm scene when the real sand half-choked many of the audience sitting in the stalls. Despite this - or maybe because of it - the production proved to be a huge success. Playing nine performances-a-week, the show finally closed on Saturday 2 April 1921 after a run of 358 performances, becoming the longest running production here at the time.
After it closed the builders were brought in and the existing auditorium, which had five levels of seating (including the stalls) with the four tiers supported by two large cast-iron pillars, was completely reconstructed. The four tiers where demolished along with the two supporting pillars to be replaced by the existing three tiers which were constructed on the cantilever principle with each tier supported on steel frames and cross girders built into the walls, with each tier now deeper to accommodate a greater number of rows of seats than before.
When the newly remodelled theatre opened just over a year later it was commented on that "The great drawback to the old Drury Lane Theatre was the imperfect view of the stage from many of the seats. In the new house there is an uninterrupted view from every seat, even from the topmost side seats in the amphitheatre, and from the dozen or so front seats at the farthest sides of this part of the house. The change from four tier to three tiers has given the house a much lighter appearance than it wore formerly, and the pleasing effect is heightened by a colour scheme in which pearl grey, Italian pink, Wedgewood blue, and bronze gilt attract the eye. At the sides of the auditorium are decorative panels after Fragonard, and on the walls of the grand staircase in front of the house hand-painted tapestries of scenes from Shakespeare. The exterior of the theatre, the grand vestibule, the rotunda, and the staircases remain in form unchanged. There is, however, a new entrance to the stalls through the rotunda, and above it is the memorial tablet to the late Sir Henry Irving."
The opening production on 20 April 1922, which was attended by the recently married Princess Mary and Viscount Lascelles, was the operetta Decameron Nights, adapted from Giovanni Boccaccio by Robert McLaughlin with lyrics by Boyle Lawrence and music by Herman Finck. The production enjoyed a very successful run of just under a year, closing on Saturday 3 March 1923. The huge stage is 24 metres deep and there are extensive back stage areas - well suited to the mega musicals that this theatre has become synonymous with since the 1920s. The list of musicals and operettas presented here include Rose Marie which opened on Friday 20 March 1925 and run for just over two years before finally closing on Saturday 26 March 1927 after some 851 performances, at the time, the longest running show here at this theatre. Noel Coward's Cavalcade - which featured a cast and crew of 300 and over 100 extras - opened on Tuesday 13 October 1931 and had a successful and profitable run of 403 performances before closing on Saturday 10 September 1932.
From the mid-1930s to mid-1940s the theatre became associated in particular with the work of Ivor Novello whose musicals Glamorous Nights, Careless Rapture, Crest of the Wave and The Dancing Years were all presented here. Ivor Novello lived for a number of years above nearby Novello Theatre (which was renamed from The Strand Theatre in 2005 in honour to the composer). On Monday 11 September 1939 Drury Lane Theatre was taken over by The Navy, Army, and Air Force Institutes (N.A.A.F.I) for national service purposes where is served as the headquarters for both the NAAFI and the entertainments branch ENSA, and from where the various voluntary committees were able to organise entertainment for the troops. In November 1940 a bomb fell through the roof, the gallery, the upper circle, and the grand circle, and exploded at the back of the stalls. The nose-cap of the missile penetrated the floor of the auditorium and smashed the Stalls Bar below. The safety curtain on the stage took the blast and saved everything behind it.
After the war the theatre was repaired to bring it back into public theatrical use and it reopened on Thursday 19 December 1946 with Noel Coward's Pacific 1860 starring Mary Martin. The following year the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Oklahoma! opened, running for a total of 2,281 performances. Since then, other long-running shows here have included Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I, My Fair Lady, A Chorus Line and 42nd Street. The longest ever running production at the Drury Lane Theatre was the musical Miss Saigon which opened on Wednesday 20 September 1989 and run for a total of 4,264 performances before finally closing on Saturday 30 October 1999.