McCarter Theatre Center for the Performing Arts – the region's Leading performing arts center – has a rich history of artists who have graced its stage for over 65 years. Built as a permanent home for the Princeton University Triangle Club with funds from Thomas N. McCarter, class of 1888, the theater opened its doors on February 21, 1930 with a special performance of the 40th annual Triangle show, The Golden Dog. One of its stars was Joshua Logan, a junior and a sophomore named James Stewart was in the chorus.
During the 1930's, McCarter gained popularity as a pre-Broadway showcase, due to its large seating capacity, its 40-foot proscenium stage, and its short distance from New York. Thornton Wilder's Our Town had its world premiere at McCarter, as did George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart's You Can't Take It With You, James Thurber and Elliot Nugent's The Male Animal (starring Gene Tierney), Philip Barry's Without Love (starring Katharine Hepburn) and William Inge's Bus Stop (starring Kim Stanley and Elaine Stritch).
Music has been a part of the Theatre's life since the building opened. Although not built as a concert hall, McCarter played host for almost a half-century to the Princeton University Concerts before they moved to Richardson Auditorium. The first major, non-campus-related program of "classical music" at the then-new McCarter was the Philadelphia Orchestra in March, 1932, to be followed in later years by all the great musical figures and orchestras of the day including the Cleveland Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, Rudolf Serkin, Jascha Heifetz, Myra Hess, Robert and Gaby Casadesus, Zino Francescatti, and Gregor Piatigorsky.
The first dancer to set foot on the stage of McCarter Theatre (if one doesn't count the Triangle Club kick line) was none other than the great Ruth St. Denis herself, who appeared in a solo evening on March 7, 1930 (a scant two weeks after the theater had been officially opened) and returned that same fall with Ted Shawn and the full troupe of the pioneering Denishawn dancers. But the next several decades saw few dance offerings of any significance, with perhaps one notable exception: a single performance in 1935 by a company of dancers touring under the name of "American Ballet" – the first troupe of dancers assembled in this country by an émigré Russian choreographer named George Balanchine, and as such the early precursor of what would eventually evolve into what we know today as the New York City Ballet.
In the post World War II years, Broadway producers cut costs by having extended preview periods in New York City rather than out-of-town try outs. Thus, the number of touring Broadway shows declined. With increasing debt, the Theatre could no longer be self-supporting and in 1950, Princeton University and the Triangle Club agreed that the University should take title to the building and assume responsibility for its operating costs. In the late 1950's, Princeton University appointed a Faculty Advisory Committee to determine the best use of the building.
Noted director Milton Lyon was hired in 1960 as consultant to the Faculty Advisory Committee and in time was appointed the first Executive Producer of the McCarter Theatre Company. Lyon's vision was to create a theater, which "should reflect the outlook of the University, and thus become an educational asset to the University and the community, as well as a place of entertainment."
Lyon proposed to the University that McCarter become a "producing" rather than a "booking" theater. His plans included the formation of a company to perform plays, thus establishing the first resident professional theater in America on a university campus. He instantly formed such a company by hiring APA (Association of Performing Artists) for the inaugural theater season, 1960-61. Under the artistic direction of Ellis Rabb, actors in the APA Company included Rosemary Harris, Donald Moffat, Frances Sternhagen, and Edward Asner. In 1973, Princeton University transferred its direct operation of McCarter to the McCarter Theatre Company, which was separately incorporated at that time. McCarter flourished as a producing theater under Milton Lyon and his successors – most notably Arthur Lithgow, Michael Kahn, Nagle Jackson, and the Theatre's current artistic director, Emily Mann – while continuing to present a wide range of dance and classical music concerts.
When guitarist/lutenist Julian Bream brought his Elizabethan Consort to McCarter in the fall of 1963, little did anyone realize that he would eventually be followed over the next decades by virtually every major musical figure of the age: Rubinstein and Rostropovich, Pavarotti and Perlman, Battle and Bartoli, Stern and Segovia. In fact, it is probably safe to say that with few exceptions, virtually every important concert artist of the past quarter century has been a part of McCarter music at one time or another. William W. Lockwood Jr., who began presenting shows at McCarter as a Princeton University student, established the extraordinary Music-at-McCarter series with the Bream concert in 1963 and has been McCarter's Special Programming Director ever since.
In the 1965 season, William Lockwood inaugurated Dance-at-McCarter, which was initiated in conjunction with the Princeton Ballet Society. That first season, the Robert Joffrey Ballet and Canada's Royal Winnipeg Ballet joined Princeton Regional Ballet (now the American Repertory Ballet) on the premiere series. Over the next thirty two years, over sixty different dance companies and/or solo artists helped make the art of dance a cornerstone of the McCarter program, presenting a total of more than 200 performances.
McCarter's dance concerts have ranged from America's finest classical troupes and a cross-section of American contemporary, modern and "post-modernist" dance, to the most important ethnic, national and folk companies from both this country and around the world; in short, everything from the New York City Ballet to Merce Cunningham to Mexico's Ballet Folklorico. The most frequent dance visitor to McCarter and certainly the Theatre's all-time favorite dance attraction has been the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, which made its McCarter "debut" on March 15, 1970 and has returned faithfully fifteen more times. Other frequent visitors which have established loyal followings from McCarter's dance audience over the years include Pilobolus, the Paul Taylor Dance Company, the Feld Ballet, both Martha Graham and Dance Theatre of Harlem, and Hubbard Street Dance/Chicago.
Introduced as a subscription series in 1995, Jazz-at-McCarter was built on a history of "the jazz greats" appearing as special events over the past 20 years. Standing-room-only concerts by Wynton Marsalis, Joshua Redman, Christian McBride, Nicholas Payton, Cyrus Chestnut, Cleo Laine and Sonny Rollins have made Jazz one of McCarter's fastest growing and most popular series
During McCarter's early years, it would have been difficult, if not impossible to offer an entire series comprised of musical and dance performers from other lands and cultures. While a handful of artist, like the legendary sitar play Ravi Shankar, Jose Greco, the undisputed flamenco king of all time, Batsheva Dance Company of Israel, and The Bulgarian Voices: Angelite, did appear on the McCarter stage, these pioneers were few and far between. In recent years McCarter has welcomed companies from Eastern Europe, Tibet, Senegal, Republic of China, Ghana to create two unconventional and unforgettable series, World Dance and World Music.
Over the past 30 years, an astounding roster of on-night-only special events has further broadened the scope of McCarter's diverse subscription series programming - including performances by Bill Cosby, James Taylor, Bob Dylan, Richie Havens, Joan Baez, Bette Midler, Gregory Peck, Billy Joel, Tony Bennett, Penn & Teller, Carol Burnett, Tom Chapin, Richard Thompson, Shawn Colvin, George Winston, and the Flying Karamazov Brothers, to name a few.
With the arrival of Emily Mann as Artistic Director in 1990, the Theatre began to achieve the widespread acclaim it so richly deserved. Under Ms. Mann's artistic leadership, McCarter has evolved into a nationally recognized theater. In June of 1994, Ms. Mann, along with Managing Director Jeffrey Woodward and Board of Trustees President Liz Fillo, accepted McCarter's Tony Award as the nation's Outstanding Regional Theatre.
As Artistic Director, Ms. Mann maintains McCarter's commitment to the highest professional and artistic standards by attracting some of the finest theater artists in the country and the world. Athol Fugard, Stephen Wadsworth, Baikida Carroll, Thomas Lynch, David Leveaux, Polly Pen, Nilo Cruz, Mark Nelson, John Henry Redwood, Susan Hilferty and many others regard McCarter as an artistic home for the creation and development of new work, and the re-examination of works from the classic repertoire.
As the next millennium approaches, Emily Mann, William Lockwood, Jeffrey Woodward and a committed staff and Board of Trustees work together with the support of thousands of loyal audience members and contributors to ensure that the long and illustrious tradition of outstanding productions and performances will carry on into McCarter's future.