Most people who look at James McMullan's marvelous art for LCT's production of Act One - it graces not only promotional materials such as the Playbill but also St. Martin's reissue of Moss Hart's autobiography (Random House, 2001) - notice two things. There is the young man in the left foreground, representing Hart's desire for success on Broadway. And there is the Music Box Theatre to which his gaze travels: Once in a Lifetime, his collaboration with George S. Kaufman, opened there to acclaim on September 24, 1930.
The Music Box currently houses a revival of Pippin, for which Andrea Martin, appearing in LCT's Act One, last year received a Tony. The two theaters to the left of the Music Box in McMullan's work are easy to overlook: the Imperial, which today has a return engagement of Les Miserables, and the Klaw.
Let's consider the Klaw for a moment. It was built in 1921, by architect Eugene De Rosa, for Marcus Klaw, a producer who financed early versions of the Ziegfeld Follies. The inaugural production was Rachel Crothers' Nice People, starring Tallulah Bankhead, already a Broadway veteran at age 19, and Katharine Cornell, in her Broadway debut at the antediluvian age of 28. I would most liked to have been at the Klaw on February 4, 1923, when Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire had its western-hemisphere premiere. Although the presence of George Gershwin in the audience conferred a mainstream patina on the occasion, the composition's atonality would not, I suspect, afford it a home in any Broadway house today that still regularly welcomes music by the "Rhapsody in Blue" creator.
The Klaw's penultimate production, in early 1929, was Maxwell Anderson'sGypsy, a play about a highly emotional woman. (No, this was not the source material for the 1959 Ethel Merman-associated musical.) Broadway plays ceased to find a home at the theater in 1934, when the building was leased to CBS and renamed the CBS Radio Playhouse No. 2; it was razed for a parking lot in 1953.
What was playing at the Klaw in September, 1930, when Hart made his first Broadway splash with Once in a Lifetime? Strictly Dishonorable, a romantic comedy by Preston Sturges, which featured no actors who are household names any longer but which was respected enough to have been made into a film twice by Hollywood, in 1931 and 1951.
I could be a pedant and point out that when the Sturges play and Hart's first Broadway play were running the theater's name had been changed from the Klaw to the Avon. Thus, the McMullan poster art perhaps should mark that building Avon not Klaw. But as the Music Box exterior does not clearly advertise Once in a Lifetime I think we can offer the interpretation that the poster represents a young and yearning Hart - Hart as Broadway office boy rather than Hart as arriving Broadway playwright. In historical terms, Klaw may not be as poetic as Avon, but the former name does more accurately signify what the hard-working Hart had to do to make his way to the top.
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com