Zoot Suit premiered at The Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles on April, 1978. This production with Center Theatre Group marked the first professionally produced Chicano play. The initial ten-day run in April sold out in two days. An audience of season ticket holders and local Mexican-Americans gave standing ovations each evening of the performances at the Mark Taper Forum. A second run began in August and tickets sold out yet again. This extended run was held at the Aquarius Theatre, Los Angeles.
The Broadway production debuted at the Winter Garden Theater on March 25, 1979, and closed on April 29 after 41 performances and 17 previews. The production was directed by Luis Valdez and featured choreography by Patricia Birch. Edward James Olmos' portrayal of El Pachuco earned him a Tony Award nomination for best featured actor in a play, as well as a Theatre World award. Zoot Suit was the second Latino written and directed play produced on Broadway, coming second only to Miguel Piñero's Short Eyes in 1974. While Short Eyes won two Obie Awards, as well as the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for Best American Play, Zoot Suit ran a mere five weeks on Broadway.
Valdez also directed a filmed version of the play, combining stage and film techniques.
30th anniversary production
In April 2008, Alma Martinez, member of the original 1978 cast of Zoot Suit directed the 30 year anniversary production at Pomona College in Claremont, California. This was the first time since its stage debut in 1978 that Zoot Suit had been produced in the Los Angeles area. The two-week run managed to sell out prior to opening night, despite minimal advertisement, primarily in Latino publications. Many outreach opportunities were taken, including an alumni night, a staff appreciation performance, matinees allowing over 1,000 high school students to attend, and the development of a study guide for students attending the performances.
The alumni event featured a reunion of original 1978 cast members, as well as members of the film version of Zoot Suit. Luis Valdez and Alice McGrath, the community activist on whom Valdez based the character Alice, were given awards. Also in the audience were members of the family of Henry Leyvas, on whom Henry Reyna was based.
In casting the revival, Martinez cast across the Claremont University Consortium in search of Latino students. All of the Chicano roles featured actors making their stage debut, and the majority of the cast was composed of non-theatre majors. Assistant director Shakina Nayfack modified the script to reduce homophobic and sexist language where possible. Martinez cast a female in the traditionally male role of the Press.
Center Theatre Group’s 50th Anniversary
As part of the Center Theatre Group’s 50th Anniversary celebration, playwright and director Luis Valdez brought Zoot Suit to the Mark Taper Forum from January 31 to April 2, 2017. The play featured Rose Portillo and Daniel Valdez, who were original cast members from the 1978 production. Instead of reprising their roles of Henry Reyna and Della, respectively, they returned to the stage to play the roles of Henry Reyna’s parents. Rose Portillo was delighted to bring Zoot Suit to new audiences and stated, “I’m over the moon. It was a dream come true the first time. It’s a dream come true the second time, to come full circle and to work with Luis at the Taper, where Gordon Davidson and Luis were so influential on my artistic career. I’m looking forward to sharing Zoot Suit with a whole new crop of artists and audiences.” Similarly, Daniel Valdez said, “It’s great to come back to where it all started 38 years ago. I’m looking forward to inhabiting the world of Zoot Suit once again.” Academy Award nominated actor Demián Bichir also starred as El Pachuco.