Kathy Apuzzo leading a tour at the Shubert Theater in New Haven, CT

Backstage Pass

Late in the 1950 film All About Eve, a scene opens in downtown New Haven.

“To the theater world, New Haven, Connecticut, is a short stretch of sidewalk between the Shubert Theater and the Taft Hotel, surrounded by what looks very much like a small city,” the narrator says. The camera captures the long-gone brick facade of the Shubert, emblazoned with a claim that may seem strange to contemporary theatergoers: “BIRTHPLACE OF THE NATION’S GREATEST HITS.”

Oklahoma! My Fair Lady. The King and I. A Streetcar Named Desire. These and dozens of other top-tier plays and musicals debuted at the Shubert, with glittering stars like Audrey Hepburn, Julie Andrews and Clark Gable performing them.

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On the first Wednesday and Saturday of each month, you can walk the stage they once graced—also, the green room, the loading docks and more. At 11 a.m. those days, Kathy Apuzzo, whose more regular job is coordinating the nonprofit theater’s volunteer show staff, conducts a free hourlong tour spotlighting the Shubert’s visible and less visible areas.

The East Haven native has been with the Shubert for 20 years in different capacities. “It’s a fun place,” she says, adding that she’s been doing the tours, which are also available by appointment for groups, for more than a decade.

“We never know how many people are going to show up,” says Anthony Lupinacci, the director of marketing and community relations at the Shubert, and like the stage presentations, the show must go on. “One time this winter on a Saturday morning in a snowstorm, we had 25 people,” recalls Apuzzo, which is a lot of people to fit into a dressing room.

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The tours start on the mezzanine in the main lobby. A video presentation runs through the theater’s history, then attendees are led downstairs and into the backstage hallways, where colorful surprises await.

According to Apuzzo, when the Shubert reemerged in 1983 after a seven-year closure, a tradition began. On occasion, a member of a cast or crew adds a poster-like painting to a spot on the walls backstage, commemorating their particular show. Afterwards, the painting is covered in company signatures. There are tributes to productions of Annie Get Your Gun, Fame, South Pacific and many more.

The murals follow the tour group down the stairs into the building’s lower level. The barebones space has private dressing rooms for the show’s stars, long communal dressing rooms for the chorus and a green room where writers and producers lounge and might make last-minute show changes.

Overhead was the Shubert’s stage floor. Made for a time when dancing was more popular than today, it was designed to have a “bounce”—to help dancers push off the floor and to be less hard on the feet—so, as a youth tour went by overhead, its creaking echoed throughout the basement.

The pièce de résistance was, of course, the theater hall itself. The seating area was a vision in crimson and gold, while the stage was empty, anticipating the next show. There, a “ghost light” glows at all hours, since the whole theater is a long way to cross to turn on a light switch. “The inside of the theater is basically what it looked like in 1914,” Apuzzo says, noting that the recent restorations done to the theater mostly involved modernizing amenities, like adding more bathrooms and an updated air conditioning system.

Times have changed, and the Shubert with them. Shows no longer try out at the Shubert before hitting Broadway—though two contemporary hits, Jersey Boys and Matilda, used the Shubert as a docking pad to figure out their national tours in 2007 and 2015, respectively. Owned by the Connecticut Association for the Performing Arts as of 2013, the Shubert is planning a second phase of renovations, including a lobby redesign, and its present community engagement efforts include theater camps and Girl Scout initiatives.

Next season, it’s a mix of old and new at the Shubert, like touring runs of The Sound of Music, whose original production premiered here in 1959, and Bright Star, a recent Tony-nominated musical from comedy legend Steve Martin.

Although, to the theater world, New Haven’s become more than a short stretch of sidewalk between the Shubert and the Taft, the Shubert keeps walking forward.

Shubert Theater Tours
247 College St, New Haven (map)
First Wednesdays and Saturdays at 11am
(203) 624-1825

Written and photographed by Anne Ewbank.

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