Joseph Papp

For the Hungarian-Canadian engineer/inventor, see Josef Papp. For the American professional cyclist, see Joseph M. Papp.
Joseph Papp
Born Joseph Papirofsky
(1921-06-22)June 22, 1921
Brooklyn, New York, US
Died October 31, 1991(1991-10-31) (aged 70)
New York City, New York, US
Occupation Producer, director
Spouse(s) Peggy Marie Bennion[1]
Gail Bovard Merrifield[2]
Children Tony, Miranda

Joseph "Joe" Papp (June 22, 1921 – October 31, 1991) was an American theatrical producer and director. Papp established The Public Theater in what had been the Astor Library Building in downtown New York. "The Public," as it is known, has many small theaters within it. There, Papp created a year-round producing home to focus on new creations, both plays and musicals. Among numerous examples of these creations were the works of David Rabe, Ntozake Shange's For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf, Charles Gordone's No Place to Be Somebody (the first off-Broadway play to win the Pulitzer Prize), and Papp's production of Michael Bennett's Pulitzer Prize–winning musical, A Chorus Line.[3] Upon Papp's death, The Public Theater was renamed the Joseph Papp Public Theater.[4]

Early life

Papp was born Joseph Papirofsky in Brooklyn, New York, New York, the son of Yetta (née Miritch), a seamstress, and Samuel Papirofsky, a trunkmaker.[5] His parents were Jewish immigrants from Russia. (The 2010 documentary film Joe Papp in Five Acts says his mother was a Lithuanian Jew, and his father a Polish Jew.) He was a high school student of Harlem Renaissance playwright Eulalie Spence.


Papp founded the New York Shakespeare Festival 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. This legacy of Papp has continued at the open-air Delacorte Theatre every summer in Central Park.[3]

Founder of the Public Theater

Papp spent years of entrepreneurial zeal and dogged persistence promoting his idea of free Shakespeare in New York City.[3] Papp's 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 Brooks Atkinson, known as the dean of American theatre critics, went downtown to see it and endorsed Papp's vision in The New York Times. Actress Colleen Dewhurst, who played Kate the shrew, recalled the beginning of the shift in fortune (in an autobiography published posthumously as a collaboration with Tom Viola):

With Brooks Atkinson's blessing, our world changed overnight. Suddenly in our audience of neighbors in T-shirts and jeans appeared men in white shirts, jackets and ties, and ladies in summer dresses. Suddenly we were 'the play to see,' and everything changed. We were in a hit that would have a positive effect on my career, as well as Joe's, but I missed the shouting. I missed the feeling of not knowing what might happen next or how that play would that night move an audience unafraid of talking back.

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 amphi-theatre, 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 got it, in 1967, at a reported one dollar yearly rental 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 to new and innovative playwrights.

At the Public Theater, Papp's focus moved away from the Shakespearean classics and toward new work. Notable Public Theater productions included Charles Gordone’s No Place to Be Somebody (the first off-Broadway show, 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.[6] Papp managed to produce plays that spoke to their own time. Just as Rabe's work reflected the concerns of its time (Vietnam and American imperialism), Papp's production in 1985 of Larry Kramer's play The Normal Heart dared to address, in its time, the prejudicial political system which was turning its back on the AIDS crisis and the gay community.

As festival designer Ming Cho Lee put it, “With the new playwrights, the whole direction of the theater changed. Joe changed direction and none of us realized for a while that he had changed direction. The Public Theater became more important than the Delacorte. The new playwrights became more interesting to Joe than Shakespeare."

Among the myriad plays and musicals Papp produced, he is perhaps best known for four productions which transferred to commercial Broadway runs: the original version of Galt MacDermot's Hair; a star-studded production of The Pirates of Penzance; black feminist Ntozake Shange's for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf; and the anomaly that was A Chorus Line.[3]

A Chorus Line originated with a series of taped interviews of dancers' reminiscences, down at the Public, overseen by director/choreographer Michael Bennett. Papp had given Bennett the kind of entrepreneurial support for which he was known, trusting Bennett with the time and space to flesh out his dream. Previously, Papp had not kept his producer's hands on the rights to Hair and did not gain from its Broadway transfer. Not so with this one. After this ground-breaking musical (which theatricalized its performers' true-life stories) transferred to a highly lucrative Broadway run, the show's earnings became a continuous financial support for Papp's work. The show received 12 Tony Award nominations and won nine of them, in addition to the 1976 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It ran for 6,137 performances, becoming the longest-running production in Broadway history up to that time. Its Tony Award for the Best Musical of the Year 1975 went to Papp, its producer. Its workshop system for developing musicals, which Bennett and Papp had pioneered, revolutionized the way Broadway musicals were created thereafter, and many of the precedents for workshops' aesthetics and contract agreements were set by Papp, Bennett and A Chorus Line.

Outdoor performances at the Delacorte Theatre

The Delacorte Theater where Shakespeare in the Park is performed

Papp's Delacorte Theatre brought some of the most exciting actors and actresses in America, some celebrated, some not, to outdoor Shakespeare and to New York audiences for free. Among the memorable performances (including some from before Papp had the Delacorte for his Shakespeare) were George C. Scott's Obie-award winning Richard III in 1958; Colleen Dewhurst's Kate, Lady Macbeth, Cleopatra (opposite George C. Scott's Mark Antony), and Gertrude; the Prince Hamlet of Stacy Keach opposite Dewhurst's Gertrude with James Earl Jones' King Claudius, Barnard Hughes's Polonius and Sam Waterston's Laertes; Sam Waterston's Hamlet (opposite the Gertrude of Ruby Dee) with the Laertes of John Lithgow and Andrea Marcovicci's Ophelia; the Benedick and Beatrice of Sam Waterston and Kathleen Widdoes in Much Ado About Nothing with Barnard Hughes's Keystone Kops version of Dogberry; the early work of Meryl Streep as Isabella in Measure for Measure; Mary Beth Hurt as Randall Duk Kim's daughter in Pericles; James Earl Jones as King Lear (1973) with Rosalind Cash and Ellen Holly as his wicked daughters; Raul Julia as Edmund in Jones' 1973 King Lear, as Osric to Keach's Hamlet, and as Proteus (in a musical adaptation of Two Gentlemen of Verona which transferred to a Broadway run). Julia also played Othello with Frances Conroy as his Desdemona and Richard Dreyfuss as Iago. And, in 1968, one year before his breakthrough in The Subject was Roses, Martin Sheen played Romeo.

The New York Shakespeare Festival's Delacorte was not exclusively for Shakespeare. Papp would sometimes vary the summertime fare. In the summer of 1977 Gloria Foster was Clytemnestra in the towering Greek tragedy Agamemnon followed by Raul Julia as Macheath in Richard Foreman's production of Bertolt Brecht/Kurt Weill's The Threepenny Opera, which later transferred to Lincoln Center. Papp was also a Gilbert and Sullivan lover, and in 1980, to commemorate the centenary of The Pirates of Penzance, he mounted a new staging of the opera at The Delacorte Theatre in Central Park. The show was a sensation, and Papp transferred it to the Broadway stage, where it ran for over 800 performances. It won Tony Awards for Best Revival, Best Director (Wilford Leach), and Best Actor (Kevin Kline). Linda Ronstadt was nominated for Best Actress in a Musical.[3]

Papp's aesthetic included an egalitarian, political vision. He was a pioneer in a commitment to non-traditional casting, using a variety of ethnicities and colors of actors in his new plays and Shakespeare productions. Likewise, partly out of his relationship with his gay son Tony, Papp aligned himself with gay and lesbian concerns in at least two specific instances. He fought anti-obscenity provisions that Congress briefly imposed on the National Endowment for the Arts during the Reagan Presidency, and he chose to produce The Normal Heart, which passionately decried institutionalized "homophobia" as well as Mayor Koch's response to the AIDS crisis.

A complete listing of Festival productions is available in Joe Papp: An American Life by Helen Epstein.[7]

Fostering the growth of New York theatre

In addition to founding the New York Shakespeare Festival, Papp played a key role in the fostering of theatre throughout New York City, in particular, the development of numerous Off Broadway theatres during his years as head of the NYSF. Among the many theatres that Papp supported (often with funds from successful Broadway transfers, such as A Chorus Line) were Theatre for a New Audience, which presented several productions at the NYSF, and the Riverside Shakespeare Company, for whom Papp took a special interest, beginning with the sponsorship of the New York premiere of Brecht's The Life of Edward II of England in 1982, continuing with the financial underwriting of Riverside's New York Parks Tours of Free Shakespeare, including The Comedy of Errors in (1982), Merry Wives of Windsor in 1983, Romeo and Juliet in 1984, and Romeo and Juliet in 1985.[3] In 1983, Papp dedicated newly renovated theatre of The Shakespeare Center with Helen Hayes.[8]

"Save the Theatres" effort

Papp also took a keen interest in preservation of the historic Broadway/Times Square Theater District. In the early 1980s, he helped lead the "Save the Theatres" movement, and to found "Save the Theatres, Inc."[9] along with a number of actors, directors, producers and other theatre folk, and film and television personalities.

The movement's aim was to preserve the various vintage playhouses that were then being threatened with demolition by monied Manhattan development interests.[7][10][11] Papp's initiative was sparked by the impending demolition in 1982 of the historic Morosco and Helen Hayes theatres, as well as the old Piccadilly Hotel, on West 45th Street.[12]

Although Papp was unsuccessful in saving the Morosco or the Helen Hayes, at his encouragement Congressman Donald J. Mitchell of New York introduced legislation in the United States Congress(97th Congress – H.R.6885) with 13 co-sponsors,[lower-alpha 1] to designate a "Broadway/Times Square Theatre District National Historic Site" in Manhattan. The bill as drafted proposed designation of the Broadway/Times Square Theater District in New York as the "Broadway/Times Square Theatre District National Historic Site."

The Mitchell bill would have required the United States to provide assistance in the preservation of the historical, cultural, and architectural character of the site and in its restoration, upgrading, and maintenance. It directed the Secretary of the Interior, acting through the National Park Service, to designate theatre preservation sites and other appropriate real property within the site as national historic landmarks if they met the criteria for national historic landmarks, and would have prohibited the demolition or alteration of real property located within the site unless such demolition or alteration would contribute to the preservation, restoration, or enhancement of the site for traditional legitimate theatre purposes. It also would require the National Park Service to provide technical assistance to carry out the Act, and authorized NPS to provide property owners within the site with emergency assistance in preserving or protecting their property. Finally, it would have established a Federally chartered citizens advisory group to be chaired by Papp known as the "Broadway/Times Square Theatre District Preservation Commission" which would provide advice to the Government on actions that could be taken and policies that should be appropriately applied in carrying out the Act.[14]

Faced with fierce opposition and extensive lobbying against its passage by Mayor Ed Koch's administration and big-money Manhattan development interests,[11] Congressman Mitchell's bill was not enacted into law, but the ultimate effect of Papp's "Save the Theatres" efforts and the publicity surrounding Mitchell's legislative initiative was to slow destruction of the old Theater District enough to eventually ensure preservation of a number of other historic playhouses, which resulted in the retention of a measure of the District's original flavor, atmosphere, charm and historic character for future generations.[15]

Due in large part to Papp's "Save the Theatres" efforts, New York City's Theater District remains in the 21st Century as one of the City's primary and most popular tourist attractions and destinations.[15][16]


Joseph Papp died of prostate cancer at age 70, on October 31, 1991. He is buried in the Baron Hirsch Cemetery on Staten Island.[17] His son, Tony, died of complications to AIDS only months before Joseph Papp's death, leaving his fourth wife, Gail Merrifield Papp (Partner of the Public Theatre).


As a result, in large part to the "Save the Theatres" preservation effort led by Papp in the 1980s, the Theater District remains one of New York City's primary and most popular tourist attractions and destinations today.[15]

In 2000 the Joseph Papp Children's Humanitarian Fund was founded. The Fund serves as the humanitarian arm of international Jewish children's club Tzivos Hashem's, activities in the Ukraine. Papp co-founded, along with Rabbi Marc Schneier, the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding to strengthen ties between Blacks and Jews.

On April 23, 1992, the Public Theater was renamed The Joseph Papp Public Theater. His biography Joe Papp: An American Life was written by journalist Helen Epstein and published in 1996.[4]

See also


  1. Turan, Kenneth; Papp, Joseph (November 2010). Free for All: Joe Papp, The Public, and the Greatest Theater Story Every Told. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. p. 45. ISBN 978-0-7679-3169-4. Retrieved May 27, 2014.
  2. "Anthony Papp, Jewelry Designer, 29". The New York Times. June 4, 1991. Retrieved February 22, 2013.
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Turan, Kenneth - "Free for All: Joe Papp, The Public, and the Greatest Theater Story Every Told", Knopf Doubleday, November 2010. ISBN 978-0-7679-3169-4
  4. 1 2 Epstein, Helen. Joe Papp: An American Life, Da Capo Press, March 1, 1996. ISBN 978-0306806766
  5. "Joseph Papp Biography (1921–1991)". Retrieved February 22, 2013.
  6. "Land of Lost Souls," by John Lahr, The New Yorker, November 24, 2008.
  7. 1 2 Epstein, Helen (March 1, 1996). Joe Papp: An American Life. Da Capo. pp. 403, 554. ISBN 978-0-306-80676-6. Retrieved May 27, 2014.
  8. O'Haire, Patricia. "Dickens lends the Bard a Hand", The New York Daily News, 13 September 1982.
  9. The name of the organization was "Save the Theatres, Inc., as noted in court papers. See Shubert Organization, Inc. v. Landmarks Preservation Commission of the City of New York and Save the Theatres, Inc., Supreme Court of New York, Appellate Division, First Department, May 16, 1991; accessed March 10, 2013
  10. Corwin, Betty. "Theatre on film and tape archive", International Association of Libraries and Museums of the Performing Arts, accessed May 10, 2013
  11. 1 2 "City Panel Near Vote On Save-The-Theaters Proposals". New York City: April 15, 1984. Retrieved June 23, 2015.
  12. "Proposal to Save Morosco and Helen Hayes Theaters", LHP Architects, accessed March 10, 2013.
  13. Bill Summary & Status – 97th Congress (1981–1982) – H.R.6885 - Co-Sponsors Retrieved December 10, 2015
  14. H.R. 6885, Library of Congress
  15. 1 2 3 New York City's Theater District (officially zoned as the "Theater Subdistrict") is an area in Midtown Manhattan where most Broadway theatres are located, as well as many other theaters, movie theaters, restaurants, hotels, and other places of entertainment. It extends from West 40th Street to West 54th Street, from west of Sixth Avenue to east of Eighth Avenue, and includes Times Square.
  16. "New York City Department of City Planning". Retrieved March 3, 2013.
  17. Blau, Eleanor (November 2, 1991). "Joseph Papp Is Remembered in Words and Song". New York Times. Retrieved February 22, 2013.


  1. Co-sponsors of the Mitchell bill included: Rep. Michael D. Barnes (MD), Rep. Barber B. Conable, Jr. (NY), Rep. Thomas A. Daschle (SD), Rep. Arlen Erdahl (MN), Rep. David W. Evans (IN), Rep. Hamilton Fish, Jr. (NY), Rep. Thomas M. Foglietta (PA), Rep. Peter A. Peyser (NY), Rep. Peter W. Rodino, Jr. (NJ), Rep. Louis Stokes (OH), Rep. Ted Weiss (NY), Rep. George C. Wortley (NY), and Rep. Ron Wyden (OR).[13]
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