New York's Theatre History: Broadway

The word "Broadway" is special because it denotes both a profession and a place: the theater industry and a major boulevard running the length of Manhattan. While this may seem obvious to a New Yorker, many non-natives don't associate the two until they've stood on the sidewalks of Broadway. To make things even more confusing, many Broadway shows aren't actually on Broadway itself, and some of the shows that are staged on this famous street are labeled "off-Broadway." But even before the first American musical was staged, Broadway was an important street, a status it retains to this day.

The Origins of Broadway

Before "Broadway" became synonymous with the theater industry, it was simply a means of transportation. When Native Americans lived on the island called Mannahatta, their name for Broadway was the Wickquasgeck Trail. The trail naturally stretched the length of Mannahatta, and when Dutch colonists arrived to create New Amsterdam, they began using this thoroughfare, too, calling it de Heere Straat, or "Gentleman's Street." The road stretched from Fort Amsterdam through the settlement to a fortification against the English along what is now Wall Street. When the English took over New Amsterdam, renaming it New York, they renamed Broadway as well.

The Origins of Broadway Theater

While the English theater industry was well established by the time colonists began venturing to the New World, building settlements was rigorous work with little time for entertainment of this scale. No record of an organized theater production in America is available until 1732. On Dec. 6, 1732, a troupe of actors described as Londoners performed George Farquhar's The Recruiting Officer in what was known as the New Theater, a building owned by the governor, Rip Van Dam. Later, the Nassau Street Theater, also owned by Van Dam, would host productions like Richard III as well as John Gay's The Beggar's Opera, the first musical production to be performed in New York, in 1750. Many of the early New York theaters were little more than wooden houses painted red, and though they would serve their purpose as a venue for stage productions, it would not be until the construction of the Park Theater in 1798 that theater venues in New York would resemble those in England.

The Great White Way

Today, Broadway itself stretches all the way from Inwood to Bowling Green, but only a portion of this boulevard is a part of the theater district. The section of Broadway that is famous for entertainment is called the Great White Way, and it lies between 42nd and 53rd streets. In the 1890s, this section of Broadway was one of the first roadways to be lit with electric lights. This led to a headline in the Feb. 3, 1902, edition of the New York Telegram, "Found on the Great White Way," which led to the nickname. The Broadway of the early 1900s embodied its nickname: It was a source of novelty and adventure brightly lit by hundreds of arc lamps. Vaudeville, silent pictures, and Broadway variety shows such as the Ziegfeld Follies coexisted as the most popular forms of entertainment.

The Great Depression

The Great Depression was a hard time in Broadway's history. With the economy in shambles and unemployment high, the audiences of 1920s Broadway diminished considerably. This caused an estimated 75% of Broadway performers and producers to move to Hollywood. Many Broadway theaters were also renovated into movie theaters as success of talking pictures grew. On Broadway, productions sought to find humor in the Depression. Notable shows to debut during the 1930s include Anything Goes (1934), Porgy and Bess (written by Du Bose Heyward and George and Ira Gershwin, who returned to Hollywood after the musical's mediocre reviews), Irving Berlin and Moss Heart's As Thousands Cheer (1933), and Once in a Lifetime. Three political satires opened in 1937: Rodger and Heart's I'd Rather Be Right, about the FDR administration, Pins and Needles, and The Cradle Will Rock, which was directed by Orson Welles.

The Middle Years

Following the Great Depression, interest in Broadway rose. Many view the debut of Rodger and Hammerstein's Oklahoma! in 1943 as the start of the "golden age" of Broadway, which lasted well into the 1960s. Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals were at the forefront of Broadway's success during this time, featuring dance routines, catchy tunes, and boy-meets-girl plots. Other Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals to debut at this time include Carousel (1945), South Pacific (1949), and The King and I (1951). The Lerner and Lowe productions followed a similar path, with Brigadoon (1947), My Fair Lady (1956), and Camelot (1960) being a few examples.

The 1970s was a second time of decline on Broadway: New York City was struggling with vandalism and crime, and the optimism of the postwar era was fading. Programs to reinvest in Broadway made the 1980s a more successful time, and business increased when hit shows like Les Misérables (1987) and The Phantom of the Opera (1988) debuted.

Modern-Day Theater

Today, Broadway is a billion-dollar industry. The 2017-18 season, which lasted 53 weeks, was the highest-grossing season in Broadway's history, netting $1,697,458,795, with a total show attendance of 13,792,614. And these figures do not include off-Broadway and off-off-Broadway productions, which also saw healthy figures. The difference between Broadway and off-Broadway shows is the size of the theater they're in: Broadway theaters are classified as having 500 or more seats, while off-Broadway theaters have 100 to 499 seats and off-off-Broadway theaters typically have 99 seats or less.

Longest-Running Plays

The longest-running Broadway show is The Phantom of the Opera, which has run for more than 12,000 performances since its opening night on Jan. 26, 1988. But the title of longest-running musical in New York City is still a ways off: The off-Broadway musical The Fantasticks opened in 1960 and closed in 2002, running for 17,162 performances. The show then reopened in 2006; combining its two runs, it has been a part of Broadway for more than 50 years. Some other long-running shows include the revival of Chicago, which debuted in 1996, The Lion King, which has been performed since 1997, and Les Misérables, which opened in 1987, closed in 2003, and has since been revived twice.