Originally called the New Prince's Theatre when it opened on Boxing Day in 1911, the theatre changed its name to the Prince's Theatre in 1914. The theatre was sold to E.M.I. in 1962 and, after a refit and redecoration, was re-opened in 1963 as the Shaftesbury Theatre.
The opening production on Tuesday 26 December 1911 was a transfer from the Lyceum Theatre of Arthur Shirley and Ben Landeck's stage adaptation of Alexandre Dumas' The Three Musketeers which fitted into the theatre's initial aim of offering popular melodrama at popular (ie cheap!) prices. When the theatre opened the Times commented that "in accordance with custom nowadays, the theatre has two tiers. The stalls and the pit are on the lowest level, the dress circle is on a level with the street outside, and there is a large gallery above that. There will be seating accommodation for 2,500 persons. There are no pillars to obstruct the view in any part of the house, and the upper tiers are so well 'raked' that the view of the stage even from the back of the gallery is admirable... The stage is isolated from the other parts of te theatre by a safety curtain and the danger of fire is reduced to a minimum. There is little risk of a deficiency of water, as during the building operations a spring has been tapped, and it has been found necessary to keep a small pump constantly at work."
On Thursday 8 November 1928 the Gershwin musical Funny Face starring Fred Astaire and and Adele Astaire opened, but disaster struck at early in the morning on Thursday 20 December 1928 when there was the first of a series of violent subterranean gas explosions in a Post Office tunnel running directly under the road from Kingsway past the Princes Theatre to the top of Charing Cross Road. Further explosions took place during the day and this lead to performances of Funny Face being suspended for a few days for safety reasons and owing to the state of the thoroughfares and the barricades close to the theatre. Funny Face closed at the Princes on Saturday 26 January 1929 and transferred to the Winter Garden Theatre (now the location of the New London Theatre) from Monday 28 January 1929 where it went on to enjoy a combined run of 263 performances.
The most (in)famous production here is probably the 'hippy' musical Hair written by James Rado and Gerome Ragni with music by Galt MacDermot. Previously all public theatre performances need to be passed by the Lord Chancellor before they could be performed. This meant that some theatres such as the Comedy Theatre in London's West End became 'private members clubs' in order to present technically 'private' performances of otherwise banned plays. The Lord Chamberlain's 400-year-old 'censorship powers' had been exercised under Royal Prerogative having been given parliamentary authority in 1737, when Sir Robert Walpole decided to stop the satire aimed at him and his government in the playhouses. The most damaging had been John Gay's The Beggar's Opera with its biting comments on the corruption and hypocrisy of those in high places. In 1843 a new Act was passed, bringing the earlier one up to date and it as this that had operated unamended ever since. Interestingly, when Parliament discussed the possible removal of the Lord Chamberlain's powers in the mid-1960s, the Society of West End Theatre Managers objected saying that actually the Lord Chamberlain's acceptance of a morally questionable play enabled them to stage it when they would otherwise not have done so for fear of prosecution. Therefore they said that if this protection was removed the theatre could actually become more rather than less restrictive.
Finally, through a Private Member's Bill proposed by George Strauss, the Labour MP for Vauxhall, London, The Theatres Act of 1968 that did away with the Lord Chamberlain's powers was passed and came into power on Thursday 26 September 1968. The following day, Friday 27 September 1968 Hair opened at the Shaftesbury Theatre to a huge amount of media coverage due to the show's content regarding sex and drugs as well as the notorious Act One finale when the cast liberated themselves from their clothes. It had actually been proposed that the musical would opened in London in July 1968, but as Paul Nicholas, who originated the lead, Claude, in London said: "The producers couldn't get the nude scene and the four-letter words past the Lord Chamberlain's office, so we were all put on retainers until the office of Lord Chamberlain was abolished. Even then, it was controversial. We sang 'Sodomy', which lists all the perversions, as if we were in a church. If anyone in the audience left it was always the English during 'Sodomy' and the Americans during a scene where we folded the American flag."
The Hair had been scheduled to close on Saturday 1 September 1973 after a successful run of five years - unfortunately in the early hours of Friday 20 July 1973, part of the moulded wood-and-plaster ceiling fell into the front stalls - and following an inspection later the same day by surveyors from the Greater London Council, a 'dangerous structures' notice was issued, forcing the immediate closure of Hair. Therefore Hair effectively closed on Tuesday 19 July 1973 after a run of 1,997 performances, though the production did finally manage to celebrate its 2,000th performance when the production reopened, with a number of the same cast members, at the Queen's Theatre on Tuesday 25 June 1974 for a short run up to Saturday 28 September 1974.
It should noted that, even with the passing of the Lord Chamberlain's powers, if a stage play is deemed to be 'obscene' then both its producers and director (or an actor if he deliberately flouts the instructions of his director) could be prosecuted and punished under provisions similar to those of the Obscene Publications Act.
Having closed in July 1973, the Shaftesbury Theatre came under threat of being demolished and redeveloped which fortunately was averted after a public campaign and the listing of the building by the Government in March 1974 which meant it was protected from redevelopment. The theatre then reopened on Thursday 12 December 1974 with the first preview performance of a revival of the musical West Side Story. Since then other shows here have included Marvin Hamlisch's musical They're Playing Our Song in 1980 which enjoyed a successful run, Stephen Sondheim's musical Follies, Kander and Ebb's Kiss of the Spider Woman, the Royal National Theatre's production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Carousel and The Who's Tommy. The theatre hit the headlines in early 2002 when local residents complained about the noise from the show Umoja and the local council served an 'enforcement notice' to close the show down. Umoja did manage to run for another year, firstly at the Queen's Theatre and then at the New London Theatre.