The Savoy Theatre is a West End theatre located in the Strand in the City of Westminster, London, England. The theatre opened on 10 October 1881 and was built by Richard D'Oyly Carte on the site of the old Savoy Palace as a showcase for the popular series of comic operas of Gilbert and Sullivan, which became known as the Savoy Operas as a result.
The theatre was the first theatre, and the first public building in the world, to be lit entirely by electricity. In 1889, Richard D'Oyly Carte built the Savoy Hotel next to the theatre. For many years, the Savoy was the home of the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company, and it was run by the Carte family for over a century. Richard's son Rupert D'Oyly Carte rebuilt and modernised the theatre in 1929, and it was rebuilt again in 1993 following a fire.
Apart from The Mikado and other famous Gilbert and Sullivan premières, the theatre has hosted such notable premières as Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit in 1941. In recent years it has presented opera, Shakespeare and other non-musical plays and musicals. Today, the theatre is owned by the Ambassador Theatre Group.
The House of Savoy was the ruling family of Savoy descended from Humbert I, Count of Sabaudia (or "Maurienne"), who became count in 1032. The name Sabaudia evolved into "Savoy" (or "Savoie"). Count Peter (or Piers or Piero) of Savoy (d. 1268) was the maternal uncle of Eleanor of Provence, queen-consort of Henry III of England, and came with her to London. King Henry made Peter Earl of Richmond and, in 1246, gave him the land between The Strand and the Thames where Peter built the Savoy Palace in 1263. On Peter's death, the Savoy was given to Edmund, 1st Earl of Lancaster, by his mother, Queen Eleanor. Edmund's great-granddaughter, Blanche, inherited the site. Her husband, John of Gaunt, 2nd Duke of Lancaster, built a magnificent palace that was burned down by Wat Tyler's followers in the Peasants' Revolt of 1381. King Richard II was still a child, and his uncle John of Gaunt was the power behind the throne and so a main target of the rebels.
In about 1505, Henry VII planned a great hospital for "pouer, nedie people", leaving money and instructions for it in his will. The hospital was built in the palace ruins and licensed in 1512. Drawings show that it was a magnificent building, with a dormitory, dining hall and three chapels. Henry VII's hospital lasted for two centuries but suffered from poor management. The sixteenth-century historian Stow noted that the hospital was being misused by "loiterers, vagabonds and strumpets". In 1702 the hospital was dissolved, and the hospital buildings were used for other purposes. Part of the old palace was used for a military prison in the eighteenth century. In the nineteenth century the old hospital buildings were demolished and new buildings erected.
In 1864 a fire burned everything except the stone walls and the Savoy Chapel, and the property sat empty until D'Oyly Carte bought it in 1880 to build the Savoy Theatre there. The new theatre was built speedily, and accounts noted that it "was situated on a site which, though rich in historical associations, was also rich in the olfactory sense. Mr Rimmeil's scent factory was close by as was Burgess's Noted Fish-Sauce Shop."
Gilbert and Sullivan's comic opera Patience, which had opened at the smaller Opera Comique, moved to the Savoy on 10 October 1881 and was the first production at the new theatre. Carte had hired George Edwardes, later the famous manager of the Gaiety Theatre, London, and now named him as the Savoy Theatre's first managing director. The Savoy was a state-of-the-art theatre and the first public building in the world to be lit entirely by electricity. About 1,200 incandescent lamps were used, powered by a 120 horse-power generator on open land near the theatre. The Times concluded that the theatre "is admirably adapted for its purpose, its acoustic qualities are excellent, and all reasonable demands of comfort and taste are complied with. At a performance shortly after the theatre opened, Carte stepped on stage and broke a glowing lightbulb before the audience to demonstrate the safety of the new technology. Gaslights had also been installed as a backup, but they rarely had to be used. Also unusually for the period, Carte instituted numbered seating, and a policy of no tipping for coat check.
The last eight of Gilbert and Sullivan's comic operas were premièred at the theatre (including such popular favourites as Iolanthe, The Mikado, The Yeomen of the Guard and The Gondoliers), and the term Savoy Opera has come to be associated with all their joint works. After the end of their partnership Carte, and later his widow, Helen (and her manager from 1901–1903, William Greet), staged other comic operas, notably by Ivan Caryll, Sullivan, Sydney Grundy, Basil Hood and Edward German.
In 1903, the theatre closed and was reopened under the management of John Leigh and Edward Laurillard from February 1904 to December 1906. The D'Oyly Carte Opera Company returned to the Savoy for repertory seasons between 1906 and 1909, in which year C. H. Workman took over the management of the theatre. He produced, among other works, Gilbert's final opera, with music by German, Fallen Fairies in 1909–10, which ran for only 51 performances. He also produced Two Merry Monarchs and Orpheus and Eurydice in 1910, the latter or which starred Marie Brema and Viola Tree in the title roles. The D'Oyly Carte Opera Company did not play in the theatre from 1911 until 1919, instead touring throughout Britain, and other works held the stage of the Savoy.
George Augustus Richardson managed the theatre from November 1911 to February 1915. In 1914, Basil Rathbone made his London stage debut at the Savoy, appearing as Finch in The Sin of David. In 1920, he returned to the theatre playing the title-role in Peter Ibbetson.
On 3 June 1929, Carte closed the Savoy Theatre, and the interior was completely rebuilt to designs by Frank A. Tugwell with elaborate décor by Basil Ionides. The ceiling was painted to resemble an April sky; the walls, translucent gold on silver; the rows of stalls were all richly upholstered in different colours, and the curtain repeated the tones of the seating. Ionides said that he took the colour scheme from a bed of zinnias in Hyde Park. The entire floor space had been replanned: the old cloakrooms and bar at the back of the theatre were relocated to the side, and instead of 18 boxes there was now only one. The new auditorium had two tiers leaving three levels: stalls, dress, and upper circle. The capacity of the old house, originally 1,292, had been reduced to 986 by 1912, and the new theatre restored the capacity almost completely, with 1,200 seats. The new stage was 29 feet, 4 inches wide, by 29 feet, 6 inches deep. The theatre reopened on 21 October 1929 with a new production of The Gondoliers designed by Charles Ricketts and conducted by Malcolm Sargent. In the only box sat Lady Gilbert, the librettist's widow.
There were Gilbert and Sullivan seasons at the Savoy Theatre in 1929–30, 1932–33, 1951, 1954, 1961–62, 1975, 2000, 2001, 2002 and 2003. Other works presented at the Savoy included the première of Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit (1941, which ran 1,997 consecutive performances, which was then the longest in musical theatre run since Chu Chin Chow), Robert Morley in The Man Who Came to Dinner, and several comedies by William Douglas-Home starring, among others, Ralph Richardson, Peggy Ashcroft, and John Mills.
After Rupert D'Oyly Carte's death in 1948, his daughter, Bridget D'Oyly Carte, succeeded to the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company and became a director and later president of the Savoy Hotel group, which controlled the theatre. Management of the theatre was taken over in 1948 by Sir Hugh Wotner. The D'Oyly Carte Opera Company closed in 1982, and Dame Bridget died childless in 1985, bringing the family line to an end.
In 1993, Noel Coward's Relative Values, played at the theatre, having premièred there in 1951. Tom Stoppard's Travesties, with Anthony Sher was next, and in 1994 the musical She Loves Me played, with Ruthie Henshall and John Gordon Sinclair. These were followed by Terry Johnson's Dead Funny; Alan Ayckbourn's Communicating Doors, with Angela Thorne; J B Priestley's When We Are Married, with Dawn French, Alison Steadman, and Leo McKern; and Ben Travers' Plunder, with Griff Rhys Jones and Kevin McNally. In 1997, a group led by Sir Stephen Waley-Cohen was given management of the theatre by The Savoy Group. Productions that followed included Simon Callow in The Importance of Being Oscar; Pet Shop Boys in concert, Ian Richardson in Pinero's The Magistrate; Edward Fox in A Letter of Resignation; the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of Richard III, with Robert Lindsay; and Coward's Hay Fever, with Geraldine McEwan.
In 2000, the briefly reconstituted D'Oyly Carte Opera Company produced H.M.S. Pinafore; Donald Sutherland starred in Enigmatic Variations, followed by a second D'Oyly Carte season, playing The Pirates of Penzance; and Antarctica by David Young played at the theatre. In 2002, a season of Return to the Forbidden Planet was followed by the D'Oyly Carte productions of Iolanthe, The Yeomen of the Guard, and The Mikado, and then a revival of Yasmina Reza's Life x 3. In 2003, the D'Oyly Carte revived Pinafore, followed by Bea Arthur at The Savoy, John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, Peter Pan, and Pirates. These were followed by The Marriage of Figaro and The Barber of Seville performed by The Savoy Opera Company in 2004. Next were seasons of Lorna Luft starring in Songs My Mother Taught Me and the new salsa musical Murderous Instincts. Coward's Blithe Sprit was revived in 2004-05.
According to the Irish Post, the Savoy Hotel group and the theatre were sold around 2004 to a group of Irish investors who in turn sold the theatre in 2005 to Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal. The hotel was purchased by the Ambassador Theatre Group, who produced The Rat Pack, which closed in October 2006, and a new musical version of Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, directed by Trevor Nunn, which premièred November 9, 2006. The theatre was sold in 2007 to Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal. Fiddler On The Roof, starring Henry Goodman as Tevye, played at the theatre from May 2007 to February 2008.