The intersection of Lafayette Street and Astor Place was this morning officially co-named Joseph Papp Way, honoring the late Joseph Papp, founder of The Public Theater. When you pass by, look up at the new street sign and thank Joe Papp for the massive legacy he left our city!
The co-naming honors the late founder of the The Public Theater, which is celebrating the 50th anniversary of its landmark home on Lafayette Street. The sign was unveiled this morning by Gail Papp, wife of the late Joe Papp, with remarks from The Public Theater Artistic Director Oskar Eustis, Commissioner of the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs Tom Finkelpearl and District 2 City Councilwoman Rosie Mendez.
Papp founded the New York Shakespeare Festival (now called Shakespeare in the Park) in 1954, with the aim of making Shakespeare's works accessible to the public. In 1957, he was granted the use of Central Park for free productions of Shakespeare's plays. These Shakespeare in the Park productions continue after his death at the open-air Delacorte Theatre every summer in Central Park. Papp spent much of his career promoting his idea of free Shakespeare in New York City. His 1956 production of Taming of the Shrew, outdoors in the East River Amphitheatre on New York's Lower East Side, was pivotal for Papp, primarily because critic Brooks Atkinson endorsed Papp's vision in The New York Times.
By age 41, after Papp had established a permanent base for his free summer Shakespeare performances in Central Park's Delacorte Theater, an open-air amphitheatre, Papp looked for an all-year theater he could make his own. After looking at other locations, he fell in love with the location and the character of Lafayette Street’s Astor Library. Papp rented it, in 1967, reportedly for one dollar per year, from the City. It was the first building saved from demolition under the New York City landmarks preservation law. After massive renovations, Papp moved his staff to the newly named Public Theater, hoping to attract a newer, less conventional audience for new and innovative playwrights.
At The Public Theater, Papp's focus moved away from the Shakespeare classics and toward new work. Notable Public Theater productions included Charles Gordone’s No Place to Be Somebody (the first off-Broadwayshow, and the first play by an African American, to win the Pulitzer Prize) and the plays of David Rabe, Tom Babe and Jason Miller. Papp called his productions of Rabe's plays "the most important thing I did at the Public. Papp's 1985 production of Larry Kramer's play The Normal Heart addressed, in its time, the prejudicial political system which was turning its back on the AIDS crisis and the gay community. Designer Ming Cho Lee commented: "With the new playwrights, the whole direction of the theater changed [but] none of us realized for a while. ... The Public Theater became more important than the Delacorte. The new playwrights became more interesting to Joe than Shakespeare."
Among all the plays and musicals that Papp produced, he is perhaps best known for four productions that later transferred to Broadway runs: Hair, The Pirates of Penzance, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf and A Chorus Line. The last of these originated with a series of taped interviews, at the Public, of dancers' reminiscences, overseen by director/choreographer Michael Bennett. Papp had not kept the rights to produce Hair, and he did not gain from its Broadway transfer. But he kept the rights to A Chorus Line, and the show's earnings became a continuous financial support for Papp's work.
Today The Public Theater is a theater of, by, and for the people. Artist-driven, radically inclusive, and fundamentally democratic, The Public continues the work of Joe Papp as a civic institution engaging, both on-stage and off, with some of the most important ideas and social issues of today. The Public continues to create the canon of American theater and is currently represented on Broadway by the Tony Award-winning musical Hamilton by Lin-Manuel Miranda and John Leguizamo’s Latin History for Morons. Their programs and productions can also be seen regionally across the country and around the world. The Public has received 59 Tony Awards, 169 Obie Awards, 53 Drama Desk Awards, 54 Lortel Awards, 32 Outer Critic Circle Awards, 13 New York Drama Desk Awards, and 6 Pulitzer Prizes.