Lena Horne was a trailblazer during her lifetime, becoming one of the first Black female stars to make it to the top rungs of show business. She’s still blazing trails 12 years after her death. The Nederlander Organization has announced that it will rename the Brooks Atkinson Theatre in Horne’s memory later this year — the first time a Broadway theatre has been named for a Black woman.
Playbill reports that the name change follows an agreement between Black Theater United and Broadway’s three major landlords, who each agreed to rename at least one of their Broadway theaters for a Black artist. The Shubert Organization previously announced that its Cort Theatre would be renamed for actor James Earl Jones (who is still living at 91), while Jujamcyn has had a venue named for Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson since 2005, two weeks after his death.
Ariana DeBose announced the renaming of the two theaters in honor of Horne and Jones at the 75th Tony Awards on June 12, which she hosted. It was fitting that DeBose would help spread the news because Horne unquestionably paved the way for the success of performers of color like DeBose, who won an Oscar in March for West Side Story; as well as Jennifer Hudson, who clinched EGOT status at the Tonys as a producer of best musical winner A Strange Loop; and six-time Tony winner Audra McDonald.
“I am overjoyed that the Nederlander Organization is honoring Lena Horne’s powerful legacy by renaming a theatre in her honor,” McDonald said in a statement. “Representation is everything. A Black woman being recognized and memorialized in this way is powerful. Lena Horne was a woman of fierce talent, incredible strength, and profound conviction. With the utmost grace, she broke down barriers. Beyond her indelible work on stage and screen, she was a civil rights activist who continues to inspire many of us today. Newly christened with her name, the Lena Horne Theater will affirm that Black women and girls are seen; we are heard, we BELONG and when we stand in her theatre, we will stand even taller on her mighty shoulders and her enduring legacy. This is truly a historic day.”
This theater renaming is similar to — and maybe even better than — a lifetime achievement award. Horne received her fair share of those too. She received a Kennedy Center Honor in 1984, a lifetime achievement award from the Recording Academy in 1989, and the Sammy Cahn lifetime achievement award from the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1994.
Horne may be best known to today’s audiences for playing Glinda the Good Witch of the South in the 1978 film adaptation of The Wiz, in which she appeared with Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Richard Pryor and more. Her stirring performance of “Believe in Yourself” is one of the highlights of the film and the Quincy Jones-produced soundtrack.
Horne’s biggest success arrived three years later. In May 1981, at the age of 63, her one-woman show, Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music, opened on Broadway at the Nederlander Theatre. It ran for 333 performances. In June 1981, she won a special Tony for the performance. “I’m just so happy that I’m getting all these flowers before I lose my teeth,” she said in her acceptance speech, which led into a performance of “Believe in Yourself.”
In February 1982 the double-disc album from that show won two Grammys – best cast show album (which went to producer Jones) and best pop vocal performance, female. In the latter category, Horne beat smash hits by four of the hottest female artists of the era – Olivia Newton-John, Sheena Easton, Kim Carnes and Juice Newton.
In 1985, Horne received an Emmy nomination for the show, which aired on PBS’ Great Performances. The show was nominated for outstanding variety, music or comedy program.
Horne’s Broadway credits span 48 years, from Dance With Your Gods in 1934 to the aforementioned one-woman show, which ran through 1982.
In 1958, Horne received a Tony nomination for best lead actress in a musical for Jamaica, in which she starred with Ricardo Montalbán.
In 1959, Horne teamed with Harry Belafonte to record Porgy & Bess. The album rose to No. 13 on the Billboard 200, Horne’s highest ranking on that chart, and brought Horne her first Grammy nomination — best vocal performance, female. The two stars reteamed for the 1971 ABC TV special Harry and Lena which received an Emmy nomination for outstanding single program – variety or musical.
In 1970, Horne teamed with Hungarian jazz guitar Gabor Szabo for an album Lena & Gabor, which cracked the Billboard 200. (A standout track from the album, “Watch What Happens,” bubbled under the Billboard Hot 100.) In 1974, she teamed with Tony Bennett for a Broadway show Tony & Lena Sing, which played 37 performances.
Horne received eight Grammy nominations – divided equally between pop and jazz vocal performances. In 1995 she won a second Grammy — best jazz vocal performance for her album An Evening with Lena Horne.
Horne’s only Hot 100 hit is a curiosity – “Now!,” a civil rights call-for-action set the tune of the Israeli folk song “Hava Nagila” (!). The track reached No. 92 in November 1963, three months after the March on Washington (which she attended). The lyrics are both pointed and clever. “The message of this song’s not subtle/No discussion; no rebuttal/We want more than just a promise/Say goodbye to Uncle Thomas/Call me naïve/Still I believe.”
In addition to all the awards she has won, others have named awards in Horne’s honor. The Soul Train Lady of Soul Awards, which were presented from 1995 to 2005, gave a Lena Horne Award for outstanding career achievement. In 2019, The Town Hall, a venerable midtown Manhattan venue, announced the Lena Horne Prize for Artists Creating Social Impact. Solange Knowles was the first recipient on Feb. 28, 2020 – just days before the pandemic shut down such gatherings.
The Brooks Atkinson Theatre, built in 1926 and originally named the Mansfield Theatre, was renamed in 1960 upon Atkinson’s retirement as The New York Times’ theater critic.
The Nederlander Organization will host an event this fall for the renaming ceremony. An official date will be announced in the coming weeks.
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