The first theatre on this site, also called the Savoy Theatre, was designed by C J Phipps and opened on 10 October 1881. Its main entrance was on to the Embankment facing the River Thames and it was noted for being the first public building in the world to be lit entirely by electricity - which had the distinct advantage over gas lighting which was both oxygen burning and heat producing! The theatre was financed by Richard D'Oyly Carte from the profits of Gilbert and Sullivan's operettas and in the early years it provided a permanent home for their work. The opening production was a transfer from the Opera Comique (now long demolished, but located approximately where the Australian Embassy is on the Aldwych) of Gilbert and Sullivan's Patience.
The adjacent Savoy Hotel was built in 1889 and, like the theatre, was built with the profits from the Gilbert and Sullivan operas. The theatre's entrance was then moved to its current position on Savoy Court, off The Strand, in 1902. Interestingly Savoy Court, which now forms the forecourt to both the hotel and theatre, was the only public highway road in Britain where traffic is required by law to drive on the right hand side - this was originally conferred as a special privilege by Parliament in order that visitors could be let out of their carriage straight into the theatre as traditionally the lady or dignitary would sit behind the driver. Although now private property, traffic going in and out of Savoy Court is still controlled by traffic lights.
Following a performance of R C Sheriff's Journey's End on Saturday 1 June 1929 the theatre closed to be internally completely rebuilt to designs by Frank A Tugwell with interior designs by Basil Ionides. The only part of the old C J Phipps designed theatre to remain where the main outer walls. The theatre then reopened on Monday 21 October 1929 with a season of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, the opening production being a a revival of The Gondoliers - the first time in 20 years that a G&S operetta had been staged here. While the original theatre had been noted for it's advanced use of electricity for lighting - the new theatre was noted for something else - as was described on the eve of it re-opening: "There is a special apparatus for washing the air, and for warming or cooling it according to seasons." The seating accommodation was also increased from just under 980 to 1,200 seats. This was due to the replanning of the entire floor space which included taking away all the stage box seats (leaving only one 'Royal Box'), removing all the standing areas and moving the bar and cloakrooms from the back of the theatre to the side.
The early years of the Savoy Theatre were associated with the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas - in fact most of the G&S canon has been presented on this stage. Later successes included Agatha Christie's The Spiders Web with Margaret Lockwood in 1954 which enjoyed a run of over two years. More recent long runners have included Alibi For A Judge in 1965, two comedies, The Secretary Bird in 1968 and Lloyd George Knew My Father in 1972, both by William Douglas Home. In 1982 the Michael Frayn farce Noises Off started a run of over 4 years.
Disaster struck the theatre in the early hours of Monday 12 February 1990 when a fire broke out in the auditorium, spreading rapidly, with flames fifty feet high, devastating the auditorium. Guests were evacuated from adjacent Savoy Hotel, but the fire was fortunately contained within the theatre and no-one was injured. The stage safety curtain also proved effective, saving most of the back stage areas. The theatre had been 'dark' at the time, with no production running, but a revival of Ben Travers' comedy Thark starring Griff Rhys Jones and Dinsdale Lander had been due to transfer here from the Lyric Theatre Hammersmith from 20 February 1990. Unfortunately the production was unable to find another West End theatre to move to in time and so the transfer was cancelled.
The architect Sir Wiliam Whitfield oversaw the restoration of the theatre back to its former art deco glory which included some detective work at the Victoria and Albert Museum to reinstate Basil Ionides' aluminium coated wall panels in the main auditorium. In addition to restoring the theatre, the owners also took the opportunity during the rebuilding work to incorporate an additional floor on top of the theatre to provide added facilities to the adjacent hotel. The theatre then finally reopened on Monday 19 July 1993 with a week long season from English National Ballet. The opening programme, attended by Diana, Princess of Wales, included an especially choreographed piece by Wayne Sleep entitled 'Savoy Suite'.
Since reopening productions here have included an award-winning revival of the musical She Loves Me which opened on 12 July 1994 and run until 1 July 1995. Gilbert and Sullivan's operettas have once again been staged here in recent years presented by The D'Oyly Carte Opera Company - including H.M.S. Pinafore, The Mikado, The Pirates of Penzance, Iolanthe and Yeomen of the Guard. In 2004 the producers Raymond Gubbay CBE and Sir Stephen Waley-Cohen joined forces to launch new permanent opera company giving eight performances each week at the Savoy Theatre under the banner 'The Savoy Opera' from April 2004. The first season was due to last 11 months, but was abruptly cut short in June 2004 following poor ticket sales. The stage musical Legally Blonde opened in January 2010 played for just over two years.