It was 2003 when British director Deborah Warner first heard of the plans to “renovate” the decaying Liberty Theater on 42nd Street. That gloriously decrepit space––which had played crepuscular host to Warner’s 1996 presentation of TS Eliot’s “The Waste Land”––was to be converted (…wait for it…) into a Cipriani restaurant. Oh joy! At the time, Warner told the Grey Lady, “This is a potential scandal. You [New Yorkers] are very bad. Your lack of preservation is outrageous. You will kick yourself in 10 years. We need these theaters for our souls.”
Well, it’s almost been a decade, so let the kicking begin. While the 2003 deal with Cipriani didn’t work out (thank God––it would’ve castrated the theater of its balconies), that most illustrious of restaurant chains, BBQ, has just opened its doors in this former Broadway house. I recently paid a visit to this newly-opened architectural “improvement” and snapped a few pictures. Compare the new, chipper decor with the eerie beauty I was lucky enough to see (and photograph) in 2009.
Here are some more oldies…
And here’s what we’ve got now…
So here’s the good news: the theatricality of the space is basically intact. The boxes, proscenium and balconies are back in shape, and the space feels like it’s still a theater, even if it is garishly lathered in (oh dear) bright orange and white.
As for the bad? The simple fact that New 42nd Street and the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission find BBQ an acceptable reappropriation of the Liberty is endlessly disappointing. There’s a dangerously limited number of classic Broadway houses, and pity the city that prefers mass-market gluttony over something as irreplaceable and location-specific as Broadway theater performance.
All we can do is hope that a theatrically legitimate future isn’t out of the cards for the Liberty. Her ghosts, which include the likes of George S. Kaufman, Laurette Taylor, George Gershwin and Helen Hayes, are counting on us and waiting in the wings for their next big entrance. Until then, all that’s left to do is to pass the brisket and enjoy the (obstructed) view.