Broadway theater, or more popularly known as Broadway, pertains to the theatrical performances presented in the 41 professional theaters located in the Theater District and the Lincoln Center along Broadway, Midtown Manhattan, New York City. These places embody the highest commercial level of live theater in the English-speaking world.
The Theater District is a very popular tourist attraction in New York City. Also, most Broadway shows are musicals, and they are among the most influential forms of American pop culture. In fact, Broadway musicals contributed to making New York City the cultural capital of the world. If you are interested to learn more about Broadway, you’re in the right place. Read on as we’re giving you the ultimate guide to Broadway.
The History of Broadway
Early Theater in New York
The first noteworthy theater presence rose around 1750, during the time when actor-managers Walter Murray and Thomas Kean founded a resident theater company at the Theater on Nassau Street. This held around 280 people. In this theater, they presented plays and ballad operas by Shakespeare, including The Beggar’s Opera.
William Hallam, an English actor and theater manager, sent a company of twelve actors in 1752 from Britain to the colonies along with his brother Lewis as their manager. They founded a theater in Williamsburg, Virginia, and opened it with The Merchant of Venice and The Anatomist. In 1753, the company moved to New York and performed ballad operas and ballad farces, such as Damon and Phillida.
For a while, the Revolutionary War suspended theater in New York. Fortunately, it was resumed in 1798, which was also the year when the Park Theater was built on Chatham Street, which is now called Park Row. This theater has 2000 seats. In 1826, the Bowery Theater opened, and it was followed by many others.
Phineas Taylor Barnum, an American showman, politician, and businessman, was operating an entertainment complex in Lower Manhattan by the 1940s. Niblo’s Garden opened in 1829 at Broadway and Prince Street, and it soon became one of the premier nightspots in New York. Palmo’s Opera House opened in 1844 and presented opera for about four seasons before it went bankrupt. It was then rebranded under the name Burton’s Theater.
In 1847, the Astor Opera House opened. However, a disturbance broke out in 1849, when the lower-class patrons of the Bowery protested to what they alleged as snobbery by the upper-class audiences at Astor Place. After that incident, entertainment in New York City was divided along class lines. Opera was predominantly for the upper-middle and upper classes, minstrel shows, and melodramas were for the middle-class, and variety shows in concert saloons were for men of the working class and the slumming middle-class.
During these times, the plays of William Shakespeare were usually performed on the Broadway stage, most particularly by American actor Edwin Booth, who was popular for his act as Hamlet.
Start of the Musical and Post-Civil War
From downtown, theater in New York moved to midtown Manhattan gradually, starting around 1850 to seek less expensive realty. At the start of the 19th century, the place that now comprises the Theater District was owned by a few families and encompassed a few farms. Mayor Cornelius Lawrence opened 42nd Street in 1836 and invited the people in Manhattan to enjoy the pure, clean air.
The first long-run musical of Broadway was the 50-performance hit titled The Elves, which was in 1857. The heart of Broadway used to be in Union Square in 1870, but by the end of the century, a lot of theaters were near Madison Square. In the early 1900s, theaters arrived in the Times Square area, and the Broadway theaters united thereafter a large number were constructed around the square during the 1920s and 1930s.
The first-ever theatrical piece that adapts to the modern conception of a musical, which includes dance and original music, is considered to be The Black Crook, which was shown in New York in 1866. It was a five and a half hours long production and was able to run for a record-breaking 474 performances.
The first vaudeville theater was opened in 1881 at one block east of Union Square. It was where Lillian Russell performed. As transportation improved, poverty in New York lessened. More street lights also made travel at night safer for people, and the number of patrons for the rising number of theaters increased immensely. Even though plays run longer, they still draw in the audiences, which led to better incomes and enhanced production values.
Broadway in 1900 to 1925
In the early-20th century, translations of popular late-19th century continental light operas were joined by the Princess Theater shows of the 1910s by writers like Guy Bolton, Harry B. Smith, P.G. Wodehouse, and Victor Herbert. Some of their works included intimate musical plays with modern settings, such as Babes in Toyland in 1903, The Red Mill in 1906, and Naughty Marietta in 1910.
From 1906, Broadway shows installed electric signs outside the theaters. During those times, colored bulbs burned out too fast. Therefore, white lights were used, and Broadway was labeled “The Great White Way.” A standard contract for all professional productions was demanded by the Actors’ Equity Association in 1919. When a strike shut down all the theaters, producers were left with no choice but to agree. When the 1920s came, the Shubert Brothers, which was responsible for the establishment of the Broadway District, had risen to take over the majority of the theaters from the Erlanger syndicate.
During those times, the first Broadway show to achieve 700 performances was the play Lightnin’ by Winchell Smith and Frank Bacon. After that, it went on to become the first show to reach a thousand performances and was the longest-running Broadway show until it was overtaken in performance totals in 1925 by Abie’s Irish Rose.
Broadway in 1943 to 1970
After the Great Depression, Broadway theater entered a golden age with the blockbuster hit Oklahoma! in 1943, which ran for more than 2,000 performances. Broadway kept on hopping due to public demand, a booming economy, and plentiful creative talents. Up to this day, the shows of the 1950s form the fundamentals of musical theater performance. However, it was observed that during the 1960s and 1970s, Time Square worsened and, there was a decrease in the number of legitimate shows produced on Broadway. During the 20s, there were around 70 to 80 theaters. However, by 1969, there were only 36 left.
Broadway in the 1980s
In early 1982, there was a “Save the Theaters” campaign led by Joe Papp, the theatrical producer, and director who built the Public Theater. This was a non-profit group supported by the Actors Equity union to save the theater houses in the neighborhood from pulling down by rich Manhattan development interests.
In Papp’s bidding, a bill was introduced in July 1982 in the 97th Congress, entitled H.R.6885. It was a bill to designate the Broadway/Times Square Theater District in New York City as a national historic site. However, this bill was not passed as it faced strong opposition and lobbying by Mayer Ed Koch’s Administration. After that, the campaign then turned their efforts to support the founding of the Theater District as a registered historic district.
If you are looking into learning more or discovering the best Broadway shows of all time, you can click on the following links below:
- Top Broadway Musicals
- Off-Broadway Musicals That Are Worth Checking Out
- Top Broadway Shows of All Time
- Oh! Calcutta!
- Fiddler on the Roof
- Mary Poppins
- Les Misérables
- Beauty and the Beast
- The Lion King Musical
- Phantom of the Opera
- Mamma Mia!
- Jersey Boys
- The Book of Mormon
The Greatest Broadway Stars of All Time
In one of our previous articles, we’ve listed The Best Female Broadway Singers of All Time. But if you’d like to learn more about the stars of the Broadway theaters, read on as we’re giving you a list of the greatest Broadway Stars of All Time:
1. Neil Patrick Harris
Neil Patrick Harris is an American actor, writer, producer, comedian, magician, and singer. He’s popularly known for his comedy roles on TV and dramatic and musical roles on the theater stage. In Broadway, he played great roles in Assassins, Proof, Cabaret, and Hedwig and the Angry Inch, where he won a Tony Award. Learn more about his life and works in our article, Neil Patrick Harris.
2. Ben Platt
Benjamin Schiff Platt, more popularly known as Ben Platt, is an American actor, singer, and songwriter. He started his career in theater when he was still a child, and he appeared in Broadway productions of Dear Evan Hansen and The Book of Mormon. He is also famous for his role in Pitch Perfect. Learn more about his life and works in our article, Ben Platt.
3. Chita Rivera
Chita Rivera is an actress, singer, and dancer. She is popular for her roles in musical theater. She is also the first Hispanic woman and the first Latino American to be given a Kennedy Center Honors award in 2002. She performed in Broadway shows, including Guys and Dolls and Can-Can. Learn more about her by reading our post, Chita Rivera.
4. Mary Martin
Mary Martin was an actress and singer. She was a muse of Rodgers and Hammerstein and originated many leading roles throughout her career. This includes Nellie Forbush in the South Pacific in 1949 and Maria von Trapp in The Sound of Music in 1959. Read more about her life and career in our article, Mary Martin.
5. Gwen Verdon
Gwen Verdon was an actress and dancer. She achieved four Tony Awards for her musical comedy performances. She was a critically acclaimed performer on Broadway from the 1950s to the 1970s. She played many roles in musicals, such as the title character in Sweet Charity and Roxie Hart in Chicago. Find out more about her Broadway career by reading our article, Gwen Verdon.
6. Jonathan Groff
Jonathan Groff is an actor and singer. He is popular for his performances on stage, screen, and as well as television. He became popular through his performance in the lead role of Melchior Gabor in the original Broadway production of Spring Awakening. With that, he became one of the youngest nominees for a Tony Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role in a Musical in 2007. Learn more about his life and career in our article, Jonathan Groff.
7. Billy Porter
Billy Porter is a popular actor, singer, and style icon. He achieved fame when he performed on Broadway before starting a solo career as a singer and actor. He won a Tony Award in 2013 for Best Actor in a Musical for his role as Lola in Kinky Boots. He’s also included in the 100 Most Influential People of 2020 by Time Magazine. If you want to learn more about him, read our article, Billy Porter.
8. Michael Crawford
Michael Crawford is an English actor, singer, voice artist, and comedian. He had won many awards due to his performances on TV and stage on both London’s West End and on Broadway in New York City. The title role in the musical The Phantom of the Opera was what made him a household name. Find out more about his life and career in our article, Michael Crawford.
9. Bernadette Peters
Bernadette Peters is an actress, singer, and author of a children’s book. She has starred in musical theater, television, and film. She is among the most critically acclaimed performer on Broadway, with seven Tony Awards nominations. Some of her roles on the Broadway stage include the musicals Mack and Mabel in 1974, The Goodbye Girl in 1993, Gypsy in 2003, and Hello Dolly! in 2018. Learn about her success on stage by reading our article, Bernadette Peters.
10. Nathan Lane
Nathan Lane is an actor and writer. In his 40 years on stage and screen, he had played a lot of roles, including Albert in the musical The Producers, Nathan Detroit in Guys and Dolls, and Pseudolus in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. He had received six Tony Award nominations and won three of them. Find out more about his Broadway success in our article, Nathan Lane.
11. Liza Minnelli
Liza Minnelli is the daughter of the actress and singer Judy Garland and director Vincente Minnelli. She went to New York City in 1961 to start her career as a musical theater actress and traditional pop artist. She won a Tony Award for starring in Flora the Red Menace in 1965. Her roles on stage and screen added to her status as an enduring gay icon. Find out more about her in our article, Liza Minnelli.
12. Alan Cumming
Alan Cumming is a Scottish actor, singer, and filmmaker. Some of his London stage appearances include Hamlet. On Broadway, he appeared in The Threepenny Opera, in Cabaret, Design for Living, and Macbeth. Learn more about his life and career in our article, Alan Cumming.
13. Ethel Merman
Ethel Merman was an actress, singer, and artist. She was popular for her characteristic powerful voice and lead roles in musical theater. In fact, she has been referred to as the undisputed First Lady of the musical comedy stage. Some of her iconic performances are in shows like Annie Get Your Gun, Anything Goes, Hello, Dolly! and Gypsy. Discover more about her works in our article, Ethel Merman.
14. Lin-Manuel Miranda
Lin-Manuel Miranda is an actor, singer, songwriter, playwright, and producer. He made and starred in the Broadway musicals Hamilton and In the Heights. He is more popular for writing the script, music, and lyrics for Hamilton. Find out more about his life and career by reading our article, Lin-Manuel Miranda.
15. Norbert Leo Butz
Norbert Leo Buts is an actor and singer. He is popular for his work in Broadway theater. He won the Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical twice and was among the only nine actors to ever have won the award twice as a lead actor. He made his Broadway debut in Rent in 1996. Learn more about his Broadway career in our article, Norbert Leo Butz.
16. Patti LuPone
Patti LuPone is a singer and actress popular for her work in stage musicals. She made her Broadway debut in 1973 when she starred in Three Sisters. She also won the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical for her role as Eva Peron in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita in 1979. If you want to know more about her, read our article, Patti LuPone.
17. Angela Lansbury
Angelica Lansbury is an actress who has played in a lot of theater, film, and television roles. She took on the title role of Mame Dennis in the musical Mame, which is Jerry Herman’s adaptation of the novel Auntie Mame. Find out more about the roles she played in Broadway by reading our article, Angela Lansbury.
18. Danny Burstein
Danny Burstein is an actor and singer popular for his work on the Broadway stage. He is a seven-time Tony Award nominee for his performances in The Drowsy Chaperone in 2006, Cabaret in 2014, Fiddler on the Roof in 2016, and Moulin Rouge! in 2020, to name a few. Learn more about his other works and awards by reading our article, Danny Burstein.
Broadway has indeed produced many wonderful shows, and it still continues to do so in the present time. In addition to shows and musicals, many stars have been discovered on the Broadway stage and have become beloved by many audiences of all ages. There are also many other Broadway stars today that are just starting to make their marks. We hope that this helped you learn more about Broadway.