Today in History: November 16

Composers Rodgers and Hammerstein
Composers Rodgers and Hammerstein / John Springer Collection/GettyImages

Looking back through history, November 16th has been a huge day when it came to popular entertainment. ABBA began their first European tour on November 16, 1974. 23 years later, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone premiered. While these may seem like wildly different events, they both prompted huge changes in the media landscape of their time.

However, November 16 has also been a shockingly popular date when it comes to theatrical productions, with dozens of shows premiering or closing on that day over the last two centuries. Even more notably, many of these shows became incredibly successful, prompting the question why live theatre seems to succeed best when runs begin in mid-November.

In a surprising twist, records actually show that this trend goes back farther than anyone might have guessed. While it is incredibly difficult to know precisely when plays opened in pre-modern or early modern history, we do know that William Shakespeare's Richard III had its first documented performance on November 16, 1633.

November 16, 1633: Earliest known performance of Shakespeare's Richard III

Gloucester and Princess Anne. Scene from Shakespeares Richard III. Creator: Ernst Josephson
Gloucester and Princess Anne. Scene from Shakespeare's Richard III. Creator: Ernst Josephson / Heritage Images/GettyImages

Richard III details many critical events during the period known as the War of the Roses, where the houses of York and Lancaster fought over the English throne. Beginning with Richard's schemes to come into power and ending with his defeat at the Battle of Bosworth Field, the play is both a historical re-enactment and a character study of a villain.

Though the historic depiction of Richard III has often been negative, as he is frequently blamed for the disappearance and presumed deaths of his young nephews, Shakespeare went further in his portrayal, going out of his way to paint the king in as negative a light as possible. Richard is shown to be not only cruel but also disfigured and ineffective as a leader.

It's no wonder that William Shakespeare would have written such a negative take on the York king, as it was likely written in the 1590s, when Queen Elizabeth reigned. Her grandfather was Henry VII, the man who defeated Richard and claimed the throne.

However, we don't actually know whether Queen Elizabeth saw the play performed. Though the play was documented on October 20, 1597, John Jowett mentions in his 2008 edition of the play that the first known performance was for King Charles I and his wife in 1633.

It seems highly unlikely that this was truly the first performance of the historical tragedy, but it is notable that it was first recorded to have been performed for a king whose lineage also could be traced back to Henry VII and his children.

Other Major Theatrical Openings On November 16

1859: Aleksandr Ostrovsky's play Гроза opens in Moscow

The play Гроза, often translated as The Storm or The Thunderstorm, is often considered one of Aleksandr Ostrovsky's best works. The playwright was known for his social critiques, and while critics tore the play apart (likely because they were among the groups targeted), audiences were largely supportive of the play both during its run at Moscow's Maly Theatre and when it moved to St. Petersburg.

1903: Babette debuts at the Broadway Theatre in New York City

Babette was a three-act operetta written by Harry B. Smith and Victor Herbert. Premiering on November 16, 1903, the musical starred Fritzi Scheff as the titular character, who sought help from the French King to gain freedom from Spain. The 1903 production ran for 59 performances, and while it prompted a short 1976 revival, it has not gained much attention since.

1925: In a Garden premieres at the Plymouth Theatre in New York City

In a Garden was playwright Philip Barry's third Broadway play, which drew on Sigmund Freud's psychoanalytic theory to explore a new perspective on marriage. While it drew comparisons to Henrik Ibsen's play, A Doll's House, it has not had much commercial success since the original run finished after 73 performances.

1935: Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart's Jumbo opens

Jumbo follows the story of a circus that fell on hard times, and while it hasn't become a household name, it was definitely a success in its own time. The show ran for 233 performances, and it received a concert revival in 2002. The musical's producer, Billy Rose, also made a film version using most of the same score in 1962.

1959: The Sound of Music gets its Broadway debut at the Lunt Fontanne Theater

Before Julie Andrews became the face of The Sound of Music, it had an extremely successful stage run. After opening on Broadway on November 16, 1959, the show ran for 1,443 performances. It then was adapted to film in 1965 and had major revivals in 1981, 1998, and 2006. There can be no question that this Rodgers and Hammerstein musical was a massive success.

1972: Dear Oscar opens at the Playhouse Theater

Dear Oscar was a musical by Caryl Gabrielle Young and Addy O. Fieger based on the life of Oscar Wilde. Sadly, the show was torn apart by critics and closed only three days later.

1981: Merrily We Roll Along opens at the Alvin Theater

Based on a 1934 play, Merrily We Roll Along was written by Stephen Sondheim and George Furth. Hal Prince directed, continuing a frequent partnership with Sondheim. However, the show was largely unsuccessful, closing after only 16 performances. Despite its initial failure, the musical has gained support after subsequent rewrites, leading to a 2023 Broadway revival starring Daniel Radcliffe, Jonathan Groff, and Lindsay Mendez.

1982: The Real Thing premieres in London

The Real Thing, by Tom Stoppard, is a mildly autobiographical play about the relationship between a playwright and an actress. While this isn't well-known by the average person, it was very successful, running in both London and on Broadway. The Broadway production included major names such as Glenn Close, Jeremy Irons, Christine Baranski, Peter Gallagher, D. W. Moffett, and more.

The show won multiple Tonys in its original Broadway run and for its revival in 2000. While its 2014 revival was unsuccessful, there is no questioning the play itself, which was included on The Guardian theatre critic Michael Billington's list of the 101 best plays in history.

1989: The Broadway revival of Gypsy opens

The musical Gypsy first premiered on Broadway in 1959, before prompting six revivals between Broadway and the West End, along with a film and a made-for-television adaptation. The original run lasted for 702 performances, and the 1989 revival ran for 476. The 1989 version is notable for winning a Tony Award for Best Revival, as well as Best Actress in a Musical for Tyne Daly.

1993: Any Given Day opens on Broadway at the Longacre Theatre

Any Given Day, written by Frank D. Gilroy, opened on November 16, 1993, but it only had 32 performances before closing. While this might have been an indictment on the quality of the play, Gilroy did have many other successful works. Another possible explanation might be that the theatre itself had some notoriety, as it had been used for three years as a courtroom, instead of a performance space.

Why do so many live entertainment events happen in November?

According to the New York Theatre Guide, most Broadway plays and musicals open in either the spring or the fall season. Given that the Tony Award season traditionally runs from May to April, November is a good time for shows to open so they will have ample time to be seen, but are less likely to close before the award ceremony.

However, the Tony Awards only began in 1947, so many of the shows mentioned here pre-date them.

Another possible reason for shows to open in November is to take advantage of the holiday season. Many people travel to New York City around the winter holidays, so it's ideal to have a show established just before the boom in tourism.

Regardless of the reasoning, the results speak for themselves. While there were certainly some flops, many of the best plays and musicals of all time began their runs in November.

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