Years before the end of her long, illustrious life, Lena Horne, singer, actress, dancer, elegant beauty, combative civil rights activist, groundbreaking movie star — the first black actress to sign a long-term contract from a major Hollywood studio, told an interviewer: “I am a black woman. I am free. I say I am free because I no longer have to be a “credit”. I don’t have to be a symbol for anyone. I don’t have to be first for anyone. I don’t have to be an imitation of some white woman that Hollywood hoped I would become. I am me and I am like no one else.”
But twelve years after her death at the age of 92, Lena Horne has achieved another first. The Nederlander Organization announced this week that it will be naming a Broadway theater after her – making her the first black woman to be so honored. The theater at 256 W. 47th St. was built in 1926 as the Mansfield Theater and was renamed in 1960 after longtime New York Times theater critic Brooks Atkinson. It is currently the home of the musical “Six”.
The renaming fulfills an agreement the three major Broadway theater owners reached with advocacy group Black Theater United to name at least one of their theaters after a black artist. At first glance, Lena Horne is a less obvious choice than the others – prolific Broadway playwright August Wilson (a Jujamcyn theatre) and 21-time Broadway veteran James Earl Jones. (A Shubert Theater.) Lena Horne made her name in Hollywood and in nightclubs, not on Broadway. She made her Broadway debut in 1934, aged 17, in a play called Dance With Your Gods, but as one of 46 cast members (the only newcomer), and the play lasted only nine performances – followed a few years later by a revue with over 70 casts, which also only lasted nine performances. In 1957 she returned to Broadway to star opposite Ricardo Montalban in the Harold Arlen/Yip Harburg musical Jamaica, for which she was nominated for a Tony, and again in 1974 for a month-long concert series with Tony Bennett.
But it was arguably in her fifth and final foray into Broadway that Lena Horne found herself as an artist. She pretty much argued that herself in “Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music,” a one-woman show at the Nederlander Theater in 1981, when she sang her signature song “Stormy Weather” twice — first the way audiences had known it since she debuted it as the theme song of a 1943 film, but then with the tumultuous vigor and emotion of a lady who’d survived a life of humiliation as a black artist in Hollywood (“tired of being typecast… [standing] against a pillar singing a song. I’ve done that 20 times too many times.”) and as a black woman in America. “I had to grow into this song,” she explained.
The show became a hit and it received a special Tony award, but that was the least of it. The lady had taken command of her life and her art. Lena Horne owned the stage. And Broadway embraced her—then and now.