Years before the end of her long illustrious life, Lena Horne, singer, actor, dancer, elegant beauty, fierce civil rights activist, pioneering movie star — the first Black performer to be signed to a longtime contract by a major Hollywood studio –- told an interviewer: “I’m a Black woman. I’m free. I say I’m free, because I no longer have to be a ‘credit.’ I don’t have to be a symbol to anybody. I don’t have to be a first to anybody. I don’t have to be an imitation of a white woman that Hollywood sort of hoped I’d become. I’m me, and I’m like nobody else.”
Yet twelve years after her death at age 92, Lena Horne has achieved another first. The Nederlander Organization announced this week it will rename a Broadway theater after her – making her the first Black woman to be so honored. The theater they’re renaming, at 256 W. 47th St., was built in 1926 as the Mansfield Theater, and renamed in 1960 after longtime New York Times drama critic Brooks Atkinson. It is currently home to the musical “Six.”
The renaming fulfills an agreement that the three major Broadway theater owners made with the advocacy group Black Theater United to name at least one of their theaters for a Black artist. At first glance Lena Horne is a less obvious choice than the others — the prolific Broadway playwright August Wilson (a Jujamcyn theater) and the 21-time veteran Broadway performer James Earl Jones. (a Shubert Theater.) Lena Horne made her name in Hollywood and in nightclubs, not on Broadway. She did make her Broadway debut at the age of 17 in 1934 in a play called “Dance With Your Gods,” but as one of 46 cast members (the only newcomer), and the play lasted just nine performances — followed a few years later by a revue with a cast of 70+ that also lasted just nine performances. She returned to Broadway in 1957 to star opposite Ricardo Montalban in the Harold Arlen/Yip Harburg musical “Jamaica,” for which she was nominated for a Tony, and then again in 1974 for a month-long series of concerts with Tony Bennett.
But it was arguably in her fifth and final foray on Broadway that Lena Horne came into her own as an artist. That’s what she herself more or less argued 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 title song of a 1943 movie, but then with the gale force and feeling of a lady who had survived a lifetime of indignities, as a Black artist in Hollywood (“tired of being typecast… [standing] against a pillar singing a song. I did that 20 times too often.”) and as a Black woman in America — and emerged like nobody else. “I had to grow into this song,” she explained.
The show became a hit, and she was given a special Tony Award, but that was the least of it. The lady had taken command of her music, and her life. Lena Horne owned the stage. And Broadway embraced her — then, and now.