Chicago Theatre District Guide

The city of Chicago has much to offer on the stage; community theatres abound here and there is something happening on a set almost every night of the week. But some of the most iconic Chicago theatre experience take place in its downtown theatre district, which includes a number of well-known names.

The Chicago Theatre district is known for its productions headed to or coming from Broadway, and this city features some very affordable ticket prices for major productions such as Wicket, Le Mis, Chicago, and The Book of Mormon.

Chicago Theatre District

A Guide To The Chicago Theatre District

Some of the biggest names in the downtown Chicago Theatre district include:

  • James M. Nederlander Theatre
  • Lyric Opera House
  • Chicago Theatre
  • Black Ensemble Theatre
  • Broadway Playhouse At Water Tower Place
  • Cadillac Palace Theatre
  • CIBC Theatre
  • Auditorium Theatre

James M. Nederlander Theatre

Once named the Oriental Theatre, this venue opened in 1926 as a movie theatre with a stage. There was no shortage of live performances here including some very then-famous names such as:

  • Judy Garland
  • Al Jolson
  • Sophie Tucker
  • Fanny Brice
  • Duke Ellington
  • Stevie Wonder
  • Gladys Knight and the Pips
  • Little Richard.

The theatre was added to the National Register of Historic Places in the late 1970s, but it was closed in the early 1980s. For a time it was considered for a complete refit as a shopping mall/theater, but those plans never happened. In 1996, the City of Chicago made a move to restore the theatre to its original look and purpose.

It was rebranded as the Ford Center for the Performing Arts and reopened in 1998 with production of Ragtime, In the year 2000, a three-year-plus run of Wicked started a long chain of Broadway-in-Chicago productions.

2019 saw the theatre rebranded as the James M. Nederlander Theatre, and it operates to this day as one of the premiere destinations for important productions in Chicago.

Lyric Opera House

Built in 1929, this Art Nouveau/Art Deco style property has been renovated, upgraded, and improved over the years. In the early 1990s, Lyric Opera purchased Civic Opera House to expand its own operation, and is known today as the Lyric Opera House.

The venue is well-known for its opera productions including the complete nine-hour Ring cycle. But it also hosts Broadway productions such as Sunset Boulevard and The Phantom Of The Opera. Some 100 thousand people attend Lyric productions each season.

Chicago Theatre

Once known as the Balaban and Katz Chicago Theatre, this venue was constructed in 1921 and ran as a movie theatre until at least 1945. In 1979 the site was added to the National Register of Historic Places and is designated a Chicago landmark.

You can see the Chicago Theatre marquee in many Hollywood films and the theatre sign is said to be an unofficial Chicago emblem”. Today this impressive venue is owned by Madison Square Garden, Ic. and hosts stage plays as well as live performance, comedy, even sporting events. This theatre was once the home of the Chicago International Film Festival.

Black Ensemble Theatre

Formed in 1976 by Jackie Taylor, this venue started as a community arts operation and grew into an internationally-known theatre. In 2011 the theatre benefitted from the addition of a cultural center to the operation; today the venue bills itself as “the only theater in the nation whose mission is to eradicate racism” through theatre and educational outreach programs.

Founder Jackie Taylor has been very active as an acclaimed playwright and an author of “musical biographies” including productions such as The Marvin Gaye Story, Don’t Shed A Tear: The Billie Holiday Story, and many others.        

Broadway Playhouse At Water Tower Place

In the 1970s, the building that houses Broadway Playhouse was originally billed the Drury Lane Theatre. It, like other Chicago venues before it, made the journey from live theatre to cinema and back again before getting a major restoration in 2010. It was modernized, upgraded, and began running shows by Nora Ephron, the musical Rock of Ages, and entertainer Colin Quinn’s show Long Story Short.

The Broadway Playhouse is on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile and is billed as a more intimate theatre suited for smaller productions. If you’re looking for a smaller and cozier place to see a show in the area, this venue is one worth a look.

Cadillac Palace Theatre

Originally opened as the Palace Theatre in 1926, this theatre was originally built for vaudeville shows and featured elaborate design. But vaudeville wasn’t destined to last and it was converted into a movie theatre in the 1930s.

Business was booming until the 1950s when television began competing for the American entertainment dollar–after all, television at the time was 100% free to watch.

That meant theatres like the Palace had to go bigger and better; Broadway shows such as Gentlemen Prefer Blondes would start bringing theatergoers back into the fold. But live entertainment wasn’t the only attraction; movies still played there but in the 1980s the Palace was renamed the Bismarck Theatre and live music became the main attraction for a time.

It fell out of regular use for a time but at the end of the 1990s, the venue was renovated once more and opened with a premiere of Elton John and Tim Rice’s production, Aida.

Since then there have been pre-Broadway and Broadway productions alike including The Lion King, and The Color Purple.

CIBC Theatre

When it opened in 1906 as the Majestic Theatre, it was said to be the first theatre venue in the area with a price tag above one million 1906 dollars–multiply one million 1906 dollars by 32% to learn what that is worth in today’s money–an impressive sum.

The Majestic Building was said to be the tallest in Chicago when it was originally built, and as such became an instant landmark. The venue was originally popular with the vaudeville crowd but the venue went dark in 1932 during the Great Depression.

It reopened in 1945 as the Sam Shubert Theatre, which hosted Guys And Dolls, The King And i, A Chorus Line, and many other well-known productions of the time. The venue was sold in 1991 but the Shubert continued running shows there including Cabaret, The Goodbye Girl, Rent, and many others.

In 2005 the theatre closed for a massive renovation, and reopened in 2006 as the LaSalle Bank Theatre, and in 2008 the facility was renamed the Bank of America Theatre. It has become well-known for productions like The Book of Mormon and Jersey Boys.

Auditorium Theatre

In Chicago, the name Louis Sullivan is practically synonymous with unique architecture. In 1889 Sullivan and Dankmar Adler brought the Auditorium Theatre into Chicago history. Said to be one of the first multi-purpose projects to include a hotel, offices, and retail in addition to the theatre itself, this project was also among the first public spaces to incorporate an electric light and climate control systems as part of the building.

In spite of all these innovations, the venue did not survive the Great Depression; it fell out of use from the 1940s to the 1960s.

In 1967, the property underwent a major renovation and the theatre reopened with a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream by the New York City Ballet. In the 21st century the Auditorium Theatre is partnered with Broadway In Chicago to bring shows such as Sister Act and Priscilla Queen Of The Desert to the windy city.