The Gaiety Theatre opened on December 21 1868, with On the Cards and several companion pieces, including the successful Robert the Devil, by W. S. Gilbert, a burlesque of the opera Robert le Diable. The theatre was a venue primarily for burlesque, variety, continental operetta and light comedy under the management of John Hollingshead from 1868 to 1886, including several operettas by Jacques Offenbach and musical burlesques arranged by the theatre's music director, Wilhelm Meyer Lutz. Nellie Farren soon became the theatre's star "principal boy" in all the burlesques and played in other comedies. She and comic Fred Leslie starred at the theatre for over 20 years, with Edward Terry for much of that period. Her husband, Robert Soutar was an actor, stage manager and writer for the theatre. Gilbert also wrote An Old Score for the theatre in 1870. A typical evening at the Gaiety might include a three-act comic play, a dramatic interlude, a musical extravaganza, which might also include a ballet or pantomime (in the tradition of a Harlequinade). During such four hour long bills-of-fare, regular patrons might skip an item on the programme to eat in one of the theatre’s plush restaurants, play billiards in the on-site Billiard Room or drink in one of its several bars.
In 1870, H. J. Byron's Uncle Dick's Darling starred a young Henry Irving. This was the last play that theatre buff Charles Dickens saw before his death. Irving also played in the popular and frequently played comical interlude, The Trial of Mr. Pickwick, with Gaiety favourites J. L. Toole and Nellie Farren, who played Sam Weller. Thespis, the first collaboration between Gilbert and Sullivan, played at the theatre in 1871, with Farren as Mercury and J. L. Toole in the title role. Offenbach's Les deux aveugles played in 1872, starring Fred Sullivan. Two Dion Boucicault plays produced here in the early 1870s were Night and Morning and Led Astray. Boucicault's Don Caesar de Bazan was travestied in Byron's Little Don Caesar de Bazan. In the late 1870s, the theatre became the first to install electric lighting on its frontstage. Lutz and Robert Reece's version of The Forty Thieves was performed in 1880 (following an 1878 charity production of the same story), and Aladdin in 1881. In 1883, F. C. Burnand wrote a burlesque of The Tempest called Ariel for the theatre. Hollingshead's last production at the theatre was the burlesque Little Jack Sheppard (1885-86), produced together with his successor, George Edwardes. Hollingshead called himself a "licensed dealer in legs, short skirts, French adaptations, Shakespeare, taste and musical glasses."
Edwardes's first show was Dorothy. Although Dorothy called itself a comic opera, as did most of the British musical works of the era that were neither burlesque, pantomime nor low farce, Dorothy incorporated some of the elements that U.S. duo Harrigan and Hart were using on Broadway, integrating music and dance into the story line of the comedy. Edwardes sold that production, but it went on to become the longest-running hit that the musical stage had ever seen. Edwardes then returned the theatre to burlesque for a half dozen more years. However, in the 1860s and 1870s, burlesques were one-act pieces running less than an hour and using pastiches and parodies of popular songs, opera arias and other music that the audience would readily recognize. Edwardes expanded the format, adding an original score composed chiefly by Meyer Lutz, and the shows were extended to a full-length two or three act format. These "new burlesques" included Little Jack Sheppard (1885), Faust up to Date (1888), Ruy Blas and the Blase Roue(1888), Carmen up to Data (1890), Joan of Arc by Adrian Ross and J. L. Shine (1891) and Cinder Ellen up too Late (1891). The age of burlesque was coming to an end, and with the retirement of Nellie Farren and Fred Leslie, it was essentially over.
For Joan of Arc, Edwardes had hired a young writer, Adrian Ross, who next wrote a less baudy, more lightly comic piece, similar to Dorothy, with a minimum of plot, focusing on songs with clever lyrics, In Town (1892), with stylish costumes and urbane, witty banter. Edwardes also engaged Ivan Caryll as resident composer and music director at the Gaiety and soon put Caryll together with the writing team of Owen Hall, Harry Greenbank, Ross and Lionel Monckton. Edwardes and this team created a series of musical shows similar to Dorothy, but taking its lighter, breezier style a step further. These shows featured fashionable characters, tuneful music, romantic lyrics, witty banter and pretty dancing. The success of the first of these, A Gaiety Girl (1893), which played at other theatres, confirmed Edwardes on the path he was taking.
For the next two decades, the "girl" musicals packed the Gaiety Theatre, including titles like The Shop Girl (1894), My Girl (1896), The Circus Girl (1896), and A Runaway Girl (1898). These musicals were imitated at other theatres. A particular attraction of the Gaiety shows was the beautiful, dancing Gaiety Girls. These were fashionable, elegant young ladies, unlike the corseted actresses from the burlesques. Gaiety Girls were polite, well-behaved young women and became a popular attraction and a symbol of ideal womanhood. Some became popular leading actresses. The young ladies appearing in George Edwardes's shows became so popular that wealthy gentlemen, termed "Stage Door Johnnies", would wait outside the stage door hoping to escort them to dinner. In some cases, a marriage into society and even the nobility resulted. Edwardes arranged with Romano's restaurant, on the Strand, for his girls to dine there at half-price. It was good exposure for the girls and made Romano's the centre of London's night-life.
Alan Hyman, an expert on burlesque theatre who penned the 1972 book The Gaiety Years, wrote:
The building was demolished in 1903 as part of the road widening of the East Strand and the new Aldwych-Kingsway road development, and Edwardes quickly built the New Gaiety Theatre at the corner of Aldwych and The Strand. The Orchid (1903) opened the new theatre, followed by The Spring Chicken (1905), The Girls of Gottenberg (1907), Our Miss Gibbs (1909), Peggy (1911), The Sunshine Girl (1912), The Girl on the Film (1913), Adele (1914), and After the Girl (1914). Perhaps to balance the "girl" musicals for which the Gaiety was famous, Edwardes also presented a series of "boy"-themed musicals, such as The Messenger Boy (1900), The Toreador (1901, which introduced Gertie Millar), Two Naughty Boys (1906), The New Aladdin (1906), Havana (1908). Later, George Grossmith, Jr. and Edward Laurillard produced a number of successes at the theatre, including Tonight's the Night (1915) and Theodore & Co (1916). Many of these popular musicals toured after their runs at the Gaity, both in the British provinces and internationally.
Musicals continued at the Gaiety. In 1929, Love Lies, by Stanley Lupino and Arthur Rigby, starring Cyril Ritchard and Madge Elliott, had a successful run at the theatre. In the 1930s, the theatre played works such as Sporting Love (1934) by composer and pianist Billy Mayerl, also with Lupino, which ran for 302 performances. The last show at the theatre was the farce Running Riot, in 1939.
By 1938 the Gaiety Theatre was in need of refurbishment. However, the theatre no longer conformed to the then current licensing regulations, and so extensive modernisation was required. This was not considered to be financially viable and in 1939 the Gaiety Theatre closed. The interior fittings were stripped from the building, and sold at auction. Standing empty during World War II, the building suffered further damage as a result of bombing during air raids.
In 1946 the shell of the Gaiety Theatre was purchased by Lupino Lane for £200,000. It was the intention to rebuild the theatre and make it, once again, a centre of musical comedy. Although restoration did commence, it was found that the structural problems were worse than expected and the work discontinued. The building was once again sold, resulting in it being demolished in 1956 and replaced by an office development.
In 2006, the site of the Gaiety is once again being developed, with The Silken Hotel, a luxury hotel, being built on the land. To protect the vista of the street in which it is located, one of the walls of the old restaurant has listed building status and has been incorporated into all the subsequent development.