Restoring A Masterpiece
The legendary and iconic Royal Alexandra Theatre, one of the oldest continuously operating legitimate theatres in North America, will close its doors on May 15, 2016, after KINKY BOOTS ends its successful 11-month run, to undergo a major renovation and restoration. The theatre will reopen on November 15, 2016 with the Canadian premiere of COME FROM AWAY, the Canadian-written, Broadway-bound musical about the people of Gander, NL.
Opened in 1907, the Royal Alex was built by the “boy millionaire” Cawthra Mulock “as a public and cultural service” to the city. He boldly stated it would be “the finest, most modern on the continent.” Which the theatre proved to be, especially in the opinions of the scores of legendary performers who have played on the Royal Alex stage over the years – everyone from Al Jolson to Katharine Hepburn. They loved how the three-level auditorium design brought the audience as close as possible to the performers onstage, creating an intimacy that has never been matched in other theatres. Audiences also valued the intimacy, and they loved the unparalleled sightlines and the excellent acoustics.
By 1963, only operational a few weeks a year, the theatre was threatened with demolition. Businessman Ed Mirvish bought the building and saved it from the wrecking ball. Immediately he set about restoring the building, stripping the interior to its floorboards and making sure the theatre remained the finest on the continent for its next half century.
Today, 53 years later, the Royal Alex is about to be given another restoration, this time to welcome it to the 21st century.
When the building reopens, on November 15, 2016, the Royal Alex will be born anew.
All the beautiful and elegant elements of its gracious interior, including the beaux-arts influenced plaster mouldings on the balcony fronts and ceiling, will be lovingly cleaned and restored to their original look.
Architect John Lyle’s revolutionary design of the auditorium – that introduced the concept of cantilevered balconies so that no audience member’s sightline of the stage was blocked by pillars – will remain.
However, there will be substantial changes:
- The capacity of the auditorium, which is currently 1,497 seats, will be reduced to 1,244 seats. This will allow for extra legroom – up to 9 inches more – throughout the seating areas, bringing the auditorium in line with the increased height of our modern population.
- The auditorium has three seating levels: orchestra, dress circle and balcony. The orchestra will lose 75 seats, the dress circle 70 seats, and the balcony 108 seats.
- Brand new seats will be installed. These will look identical to the original 1907 seats – with their distinctive RA insignia brass seat-end plates (called end standards, in the trade) and wire hat-racks under the seats – but will be made with the latest technology and cushioning to provide excellent comfort and support. The seats will be upholstered in a fabric that recreates the original’s striped mohair design.
The new seats will be much wider than the original ones, with many 23 inches wide (compared to 19 inches of the old ones).
The rake of the orchestra level, which has been altered over the years, will be restored to its original angle.
Explains David Mirvish:
“What we are doing in the Royal Alex is significant is many different ways. Not only will we restore an auditorium of historical importance, both in architecture and in the legacy of the thousands of artists who have graced its stage; we will also do something that theatre owners never do.
“Theatre owners always want to increase seating capacity so as to maximize their revenue. We are doing the opposite: we are decreasing the seating capacity so as to increase the audience’s comfort and to create the best circumstances in which an audience can enjoy and appreciate the artists’ work onstage.
“It may sound counterintuitive in terms of revenue, but we believe in the long term a happier, more comfortable audience will lead to greater loyalty and return visits, which in turn will lead to a more profitable theatre. In fact, we are spending $2.5 million on this renovation; that’s how important we believe it is.
“Our goal is to continue to build Toronto’s reputation of being a great theatre city. The Royal Alex has always been the jewel of the city, and we want to ensure it always will be.”