Emerson College’s Colonial Theatre, on the south side of Boylston, has an unassuming façade, but a long history of groundbreaking performances. Behind the gold rococo entrance is a space that seats 1,700, designed at the turn of the 20th century by the firm of Clarence Blackall, who would go on to design over three hundred New England theaters. The opening performance in 1900 was a production of Ben-Hur, which featured a cast and crew of 350 people, eight live horses, and several treadmills under the stage for the chariot race sequence. At the time, it was considered such an engineering marvel as to be featured on the cover of Scientific American.
In the years following, the Colonial Theatre gained notoriety as a venue in which to test musicals before they opened on Broadway. The now-famous Ziegfeld Follies, known for their fantastically costumed chorus girls and star performances, began its tour at the Colonial. Not seventy years later, the Sondheim musical Follies, based on the Ziegfeld performances and prominently featuring a derelict theater, also came to the Colonial for a tryout. It went on to win seven Tony Awards, including for its original score.
Perhaps most famously, a show called Away We Go! ran for tryouts at the Colonial in 1943. It was a production that already had a reputation in New York for having “No legs, no jokes, no chance,” and the librettist had recently come off what was being called his sixth consecutive flop. At the last minute, however, a new number—written in the Colonial and rehearsed for the first time on the lobby steps—was added to the show, a song called “Oklahoma!” The name of the production was changed to Oklahoma! and the writing team that became Rodgers and Hammerstein went on to win Tonys, Grammys, Academy Awards, and the Pulitzer Prize. Hammerstein supposedly perfected the play by standing at the back of the Colonial Theatre, listening to the audience’s coughs, and making changes accordingly.
Today, the Colonial is the oldest continuously operating theater in the US, and is notable for its outstanding acoustics and lush, gold-leafed interior.