From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
--"On Broadway" (1963) by Mann and Weil
Broadway theatre, commonly known as Broadway, refers to the theatrical performances presented in the 41 professional theatres with 500 or more seats located in the Theater District and Lincoln Center along Broadway, in Midtown Manhattan, New York City. Along with London's West End theatres, Broadway theatres are widely considered to represent the highest level of commercial theatre in the English-speaking world.
Early theatre in New York
New York did not have a significant theatre presence until about 1750, when actor-managers Walter Murray and Thomas Kean established a resident theatre company at the Theatre on Nassau Street, which held about 280 people. They presented Shakespeare plays and ballad operas such as The Beggar's Opera. In 1752, William Hallam sent a company of twelve actors from Britain to the colonies with his brother Lewis as their manager. They established a theatre in Williamsburg, Virginia and opened with The Merchant of Venice and The Anatomist. The company moved to New York in the summer of 1753, performing ballad operas and ballad-farces like Damon and Phillida. The Revolutionary War suspended theatre in New York, but thereafter theatre resumed in 1798, the year the 2,000-seat Park Theatre was built on Chatham Street (now called Park Row). The Bowery Theatre opened in 1826, followed by others.
By the 1840s, P.T. Barnum was operating an entertainment complex in Lower Manhattan. In 1829, at Broadway and Prince Street, Niblo's Garden opened and soon became one of New York's premiere nightspots. The 3,000-seat theatre presented all sorts of musical and non-musical entertainments. In 1844, Palmo's Opera House opened and presented opera for only four seasons before bankruptcy led to its rebranding as a venue for plays under the name Burton's Theatre. The Astor Opera House opened in 1847. A riot broke out in 1849 when the lower-class patrons of the Bowery objected to what they perceived as snobbery by the upper class audiences at Astor Place: "After the Astor Place Riot of 1849, entertainment in New York City was divided along class lines: opera was chiefly for the upper middle and upper classes, minstrel shows and melodramas for the middle class, variety shows in concert saloons for men of the working class and the slumming middle class."
The plays of William Shakespeare were frequently performed on the Broadway stage during the period, most notably by American actor Edwin Booth who was internationally known for his performance as Hamlet. Booth played the role for a famous 100 consecutive performances at the Winter Garden Theatre in 1865 (with the run ending just a few months before Booth's brother John Wilkes Booth assassinated Abraham Lincoln), and would later revive the role at his own Booth's Theatre (which was managed for a time by his brother Junius Brutus Booth, Jr.). Other renowned Shakespeareans who appeared in New York in this era were Henry Irving, Tommaso Salvini, Fanny Davenport, and Charles Fechter.
Birth of the musical and post-Civil War
Theatre in New York moved from downtown gradually to midtown beginning around 1850, seeking less expensive real estate. In the beginning of the 19th century, the area that now comprises the Theater District was owned by a handful of families and comprised a few farms. In 1836, Mayor Cornelius Lawrence opened 42nd Street and invited Manhattanites to "enjoy the pure clean air." Close to 60 years later, theatrical entrepreneur Oscar Hammerstein I built the iconic Victoria Theater on West 42nd Street.
Broadway's first "long-run" musical was a 50-performance hit called The Elves in 1857. In 1870, the heart of Broadway was in Union Square, and by the end of the century, many theatres were near Madison Square. Theatres did not arrive in the Times Square area until the early 1900s, and the Broadway theatres did not consolidate there until a large number of theatres were built around the square in the 1920s and 1930s. New York runs continued to lag far behind those in London, but Laura Keene's "musical burletta" The Seven Sisters (1860) shattered previous New York records with a run of 253 performances. It was at a performance by Keene's troupe of Our American Cousin in Washington, D.C. that Abraham Lincoln was shot.
The first theatre piece that conforms to the modern conception of a musical, adding dance and original music that helped to tell the story, is considered to be The Black Crook, which premiered in New York on September 12, 1866. The production was five-and-a-half hours long, but despite its length, it ran for a record-breaking 474 performances. The same year, The Black Domino/Between You, Me and the Post was the first show to call itself a "musical comedy".
Tony Pastor opened the first vaudeville theatre one block east of Union Square in 1881, where Lillian Russell performed. Comedians Edward Harrigan and Tony Hart produced and starred in musicals on Broadway between 1878 (The Mulligan Guard Picnic) and 1890, with book and lyrics by Harrigan and music by his father-in-law David Braham. These musical comedies featured characters and situations taken from the everyday life of New York's lower classes and represented a significant step forward from vaudeville and burlesque, towards a more literate form. They starred high quality singers (Lillian Russell, Vivienne Segal, and Fay Templeton), instead of the women of questionable repute who had starred in earlier musical forms.
As transportation improved, poverty in New York diminished, and street lighting made for safer travel at night, the number of potential patrons for the growing number of theatres increased enormously. Plays could run longer and still draw in the audiences, leading to better profits and improved production values. As in England, during the latter half of the century, the theatre began to be cleaned up, with less prostitution hindering the attendance of the theatre by women. Gilbert and Sullivan's family-friendly comic opera hits, beginning with H.M.S. Pinafore in 1878, were imported to New York (by the authors and also in numerous unlicensed productions). They were imitated in New York by American productions such as Reginald Dekoven's Robin Hood (1891) and John Philip Sousa's El Capitan (1896), along with operas, ballets and other British and European hits.
1890s and early 1900s
Charles H. Hoyt's A Trip to Chinatown (1891) became Broadway's long-run champion, holding the stage for 657 performances. This would not be surpassed until Irene in 1919. In 1896, theatre owners Marc Klaw and A. L. Erlanger formed the Theatrical Syndicate, which controlled almost every legitimate theatre in the US. for the next sixteen years. However, smaller vaudeville and variety houses proliferated, and Off-Broadway was well established by the end of the 19th century.
A Trip to Coontown (1898) was the first musical comedy entirely produced and performed by African Americans in a Broadway theatre (largely inspired by the routines of the minstrel shows), followed by the ragtime-tinged Clorindy: The Origin of the Cakewalk (1898), and the highly successful In Dahomey (1902). Hundreds of musical comedies were staged on Broadway in the 1890s and early 1900s made up of songs written in New York's Tin Pan Alley involving composers such as Gus Edwards, John Walter Bratton, and George M. Cohan (Little Johnny Jones (1904), 45 Minutes From Broadway (1906), and George Washington Jr. (1906)). Still, New York runs continued to be relatively short, with a few exceptions, compared with London runs, until World War I.
A few very successful British musicals continued to achieve great success in New York, including Florodora in 1900–01.
In the early years of the 20th century, translations of popular late-19th century continental operettas were joined by the "Princess Theatre" shows of the 1910s by writers such as P. G. Wodehouse, Guy Bolton, and Harry B. Smith. Victor Herbert, whose work included some intimate musical plays with modern settings as well as his string of famous operettas (The Fortune Teller (1898), Babes in Toyland (1903), Mlle. Modiste (1905), The Red Mill (1906), and Naughty Marietta (1910)).
Beginning with The Red Mill, Broadway shows installed electric signs outside the theatres. Since colored bulbs burned out too quickly, white lights were used, and Broadway was nicknamed "The Great White Way". In August 1919, the Actors' Equity Association demanded a standard contract for all professional productions. After a strike shut down all the theatres, the producers were forced to agree. By the 1920s, the Shubert Brothers had risen to take over the majority of the theatres from the Erlanger syndicate.
During this time, the play Lightnin', by Winchell Smith and Frank Bacon, became the first Broadway show to reach 700 performances. From then, it would go on to become the first show to reach 1,000 performances. Lightnin' was the longest-running Broadway show until being overtaken in performance totals by Abie's Irish Rose in 1925.
Competing with motion pictures
The motion picture mounted a challenge to the stage. At first, films were silent and presented only limited competition. By the end of the 1920s, films like The Jazz Singer were presented with synchronized sound, and critics wondered if the cinema would replace live theatre altogether. While live vaudeville could not compete with these inexpensive films that featured vaudeville stars and major comedians of the day, other theatre survived. The musicals of the Roaring Twenties, borrowing from vaudeville, music hall, and other light entertainment, tended to ignore plot in favor of emphasizing star actors and actresses, big dance routines, and popular songs. Florenz Ziegfeld produced annual spectacular song-and-dance revues on Broadway featuring extravagant sets and elaborate costumes, but there was little to tie the various numbers together. Typical of the 1920s were lighthearted productions such as Sally; Lady Be Good; Sunny; No, No, Nanette; Harlem; Oh, Kay!; and Funny Face. Their books may have been forgettable, but they produced enduring standards from George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, Vincent Youmans, and Rodgers and Hart, among others, and Noël Coward, Sigmund Romberg, and Rudolf Friml continued in the vein of Victor Herbert. Clearly, the live theatre survived the invention of cinema.
Between the wars
Leaving these comparatively frivolous entertainments behind and taking the drama a step forward, Show Boat premiered on December 27, 1927, at the Ziegfeld Theatre. It represented a complete integration of book and score, with dramatic themes, as told through the music, dialogue, setting and movement, woven together more seamlessly than in previous musicals. It ran for 572 performances. The 1920s also spawned a new age of American playwright with the emergence of Eugene O'Neill, whose plays Beyond the Horizon, Anna Christie, The Hairy Ape, Strange Interlude and Mourning Becomes Electra proved that there was an audience for serious drama on Broadway, and O'Neill's success paved the way for major dramatists like Elmer Rice, Maxwell Anderson, Robert E. Sherwood, Clifford Odets, Tennessee Williams, and Arthur Miller, as well as writers of comedy like George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. Classical revivals also proved popular with Broadway theatre-goers, notably John Barrymore in Hamlet and Richard III, John Gielgud in Hamlet, The Importance of Being Earnest and Much Ado About Nothing, Walter Hampden and José Ferrer in Cyrano de Bergerac, Paul Robeson and Ferrer in Othello, Maurice Evans in Richard II and the plays of George Bernard Shaw, and Katharine Cornell in such plays as Romeo and Juliet, Antony and Cleopatra, and Candida.
As World War II approached, a dozen Broadway dramas addressed the rise of Nazism in Europe and the issue of American non-intervention. The most successful was Lillian Hellman's Watch on the Rhine, which opened in April 1941.
After the lean years of the Great Depression, Broadway theatre had entered a golden age with the blockbuster hit Oklahoma!, in 1943, which ran for 2,212 performances. According to John Kenrick writing of Broadway musicals, "Every season saw new stage musicals send songs to the top of the charts. Public demand, a booming economy and abundant creative talent kept Broadway hopping. To this day, the shows of the 1950s form the core of the musical theatre repertory." Kenrick notes that "the late 1960s marked a time of cultural upheaval. The changes would prove painful for many—including those behind the scenes, as well as those in the audience." Of the 1970s, Kenrick writes: "Just when it seemed that traditional book musicals were back in style, the decade ended with critics and audiences giving mixed signals."
Ken Bloom observed that "The 1960s and 1970s saw a worsening of the area [Times Square] and a drop in the number of legitimate shows produced on Broadway." By way of comparison, in the 1950 to 1951 season (May to May) 94 productions opened on Broadway; in the 1969 to 1970 season (June to May) there were 59 productions (fifteen were revivals).
In the spring of 1982, Joe Papp, the theatrical producer and director who established The Public Theater, led the "Save the Theatres" campaign. Papp provided resources, recruited a publicist and celebrated actors, and provided audio, lighting, and technical crews for the effort.
At Papp's behest, in July 1982, a bill was introduced in the 97th Congress, entitled "H.R.6885, A bill to designate the Broadway/Times Square Theatre District in the City of New York as a national historic site". The legislation would have provided certain US government resources and assistance to help the city preserve the district. Faced with strong opposition and lobbying by Mayor Ed Koch's Administration and corporate Manhattan development interests, the bill was not passed. The Save the Theatres campaign then turned their efforts to supporting establishment of the Theater District as a registered historic district.