History of New York’s Theatrical Broadway

Broadway refers to a location found in the theater district located in Manhattan in New York City. For a performance to be considered Broadway it must be held in any of the 40 professional theaters that have 500 or more seats found in this area. A performance to be held on Broadway is a mark of success that is considered to be the highest level attainable for commercial theater. Attending a production of Broadway theater is a popular tourist activity in New York. The 2015-2016 season numbers were just released in May 2016, and they have achieved an all-time high gross in both ticket sales and admissions. Ticket sales surpassed $1.373B and there were over 13.3 million admissions.

The origins of Broadway history in New York did not begin until 1750 when Thomas Kean and Walter Murray opened a theater company on Nassau Street. This theater was large enough to hold 280 patrons and typically put on Shakespearian plays and ballad operas.

One of the most popular ballad operas of the time was The Beggar’s Opera, by John Gay. Theater stopped in the city during the Revolutionary War but began again in 1798. The Park Theater, a 2,000 seat theater, was built.

After the success of the Park theater the Bowery Theatre was built in 1826.More theaters were built, particularly as blackface minstrel shows became popular. One of the premier nightspots in New York was Niblo’s Garden, a theater located at Prince and Broadway street. It produced both musical and non-musical acts. In the 1840s and entertainment complex was opened in lower Manhattan by P.T. Barnum. In 1849 the Astor Place Theatre opened and a riot occurred when the lower class audience that frequented the Bowery took offense to the snobbery of the upper class audiences that attended the Astor. This riot separated theater in New York as the upper classes attended the opera, the middle class attended melodramas and minstrel shows and the working class attended the variety shows.

Shakespeare was very popular during this time with many of his plays put on in Broadway. Edwin Booth was a famous American actor who was well known for his portrayal of Hamlet. Charles Fechter, Fanny Davenport, Tommaso Salvini and Henry Irving were other famous Shakespearean actors. Burlesque reached New York when Lydia Thomas arrived with her theater troupe in 1868. This troupe, known as the “British Blondes” was very popular in New York.

Musicals were first performed in the middle of the century. The Elves was the first ever long run musical that played in New York as it played for 50 performances. Other long run entertainment include The Seven Sisters, a musical burletta by Laura Keene. What can be considered the modern musical, with dance and original music did not appear on Broadway until 1866 with the opening of The Black Crook. This musical was five and a half hours long and ran for 474 performances. Vaudeville theater began in 1881 with the musical The Mulligan Guard Picnic, as the characters were people who could be found in everyday life.

Theater moved to Broadway in the middle of the century due to inexpensive real estate prices. Many theaters were located near Madison square with the heart of Broadway located at Union Square. Transportation also helped to remove the poverty found in New York which in turn improved theater as longer plays were produced with better profits and larger audiences. During the back half of the century there were fewer prostitutes in the audience which in turn increased the number of women who attended theater. Comic operas by Gilbert and Sullivan became very popular and many copycat productions such as El Capitan by John Philip Sousa and Robin Hood by Reginald Dekoven were performed.

At the start off the 20th century the “Princess theatre” shows became popular. These were shows written by Victor Herbert, Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse that staged musical plays set in modern times. Some of the most popular shows include Naught Marietta, The Red Mill and Babes in Toyland.

It was during this time that the famous Broadway electric signs began with The Red Mill as the first show with its own sign. White lights were used as colored bulbs burned out very quickly, providing the nickname “ The Great White Way”.

In 1919 standard contracts were required for all professional productions as stated by the Actors equity Association. Theatre experienced a low period when motion pictures had sound. Additionally the music of the Roaring Twenties infiltrated theater and did not tend to favor shows with a plot but instead showcased the lead actor or actresses. It was during this time that the Ziegfeld revues, mainly song and dance performances, were very popular. It was during this time that many of the most well known musical composers created shows. Some of the most well known include Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Vincent Youmans, Jerome Kern, Noel Coward and Rodgers and Hart.

Show Boat was the show that allowed drama to come back to Broadway as it had a completely integrated score and book that was all based on dramatic themes. After the Great Depression, Broadway entered its golden age with many blockbuster hits running for more than a thousand shows. Oklahoma! Is one of the longest running musicals with 2,212 performances.

During the 1920s the American playwright also became prominent with plays by Eugene O’Neil, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Maxwell Anderson and Elmer Rice emerging. This was also the start of revivals with many Shakespearian productions being revived as with George Bernard Shaw plays. Some of the most notable actors of these revivals were John Gielgud, John Barrymore, Paul Robeson, Katharine Cornell and Maurice Evans.

Below are some of the more famous Broadway theaters:

Belasco TheatreBooth TheatreAmerican Airlines TheatreVivian Beaumont Theatre at Lincoln CenterCort TheatreGershwin TheatreAmbassador TheatreBrooks Atkinson TheatreBroadhurst TheatreEthel Barrymore TheatreSamuel J. Friedman TheatreCircle in the Square TheatreFoxwoods TheatreWinter Garden Theatre
Studio 54Music Box TheatreMinskoff TheatreShubert TheatreStephen Sondheim TheatreNederlander TheatreEugene O’Neill TheatreNeil Simon Theatre August Wilson TheatrePalace TheatreRichard Rodgers TheatreNew Amsterdam TheatreGerald Schoenfeld TheatreSt. James Theatre
It was during the 20th century that the Tony Awards were established, in 1947. These awards recognized theater achievement in Broadway theaters. Other Broadway and theater awards include the Drama Desk Awards, New York Drama Critics Circle Award, Theatre World Awards and the Obie Awards. The Drama Desk Awards are the only award given to Broadway and off-Broadway productions, all competing against each other.

The Obie awards cover off Broadway and off-off Broadway productions.The Theatre World awards are given to actors for outstanding debut performances. The New York Drama Critics’ Circle award is the second oldest theater award in the US with the main award for Best Play.

The longest running plays on Broadway are typically musicals, with more than 100 different musicals that have all run for more than 1,000 performances.

The longest running show is The Phantom of the Opera which has more than 9,881 performances and is still playing in Broadway at this time in 2011. Before this Cats was the longest running show, closing after 7,485 performances in 2000 and then Les Miserables closing after 6,691 performances in 2003.

The longest running straight play is Life with Father that closed after 3,224 performances in 1947.

Broadway’s longest running revival is Chicago which is currently still performing after opening in 1996 and currently numbered at 6,208 performances. It is also the longest running show to have premiered on Broadway. The longest running revue is Oh! Calcutta! Which ran for 5,959 performance and closed in 1989.


For the 2015-2016 season, the established box-office titans which include The Lion King ($102M), Wicked ($91M), Aladdin ($81M) and The Book of Mormon at $76M, dominated the top 4 positions, with the newcomer Hamilton closing in on position 5.

Hamilton appears to be the rising star and is expected to climb the ranks over the course of the next few years after it brought in a very respectable $74M in only 45 weeks since it’s open. Some skeptics claim that due to the small size of Hamilton’s theater with only 1,321 seats, that it may never be able to claim the number one spot.

The top selling shows among non-musicals was The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time with $33M, followed by Al Pacino’s China Doll with $13M and Bruce Willis’s Misery at $12.5M.

According to the Broadway League, attendance in Broadway theaters easily surpassed the ticket sales of the 10 professional sports teams in New York and New Jersey by 2.7M admissions – a true testament to the popularity and timeless success of traditional theater.

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