The History Of Broadway Theatre In New York City

by Annie Saxena on Feb 09, 2023

The History Of Broadway Theatre In New York City

In its truest definition Broadway Theatre refers to the theatrical performances presented in the 41 professional theatres, each with 500 or more seats located in the Theater District and Lincoln Center along Broadway, in Midtown, New York City.

Majority of the shows in Broadway Theatre are musicals. A performance to be held on Broadway is a mark of great success. Broadway Theatre has an interesting history to look back at.

New York did not have a notable theatre presence until about 1750, after actor-managers Walter Murray and Thomas Kean established a resident theatre company at the Theatre on Nassau Street, that held about 280 people. They presented Shakespeare’s plays and ballad operas. Post that, Niblo’s Garden opened at Broadway and Prince Street in 1829, becoming one of New York’s premiere nightspots. The 3,000-seat theatre presented musical as well as non-musical shows. And by the 1840s, P.T. Barnum started operating an entertainment complex in Lower Manhattan.

Theatre in New York gradually moved from downtown to midtown around the 1850s, seeking less expensive real estate. Broadway’s first “long-run” musical was a 50-performance hit called The Elves and its first musical comedy entirely produced and performed by African Americans was called A Trip to Coontown. In 1870, Union Square was the heart of Broadway and by the end of the century, many theatres opened near Madison Square.

Theatres did not arrive in Times Square until the early 1900s, and the Broadway theatres did not develop there until the 1920s and 1930s. The number of potential patrons increased as transportation improved and street lighting made it safer to travel at night. Plays could run longer, leading to better profits and improved production values. In the 1990s, Broadway shows installed electric signs outside the theatres. White lights were used for these signs, nick-naming Broadway as “The Great White Way”. By the end of the 1920s, motion pictures were presented with synchronized sound, making critics wonder if cinema would replace live theatre altogether. At first, films were silent, presenting limited competition.

However, both maintained their own audiences.

As World War II approached, a dozen Broadway dramas addressed the rise of Nazism in Europe and the issue of American non-intervention. After the Great Depression, Broadway theatre had entered a golden age with the blockbuster hit Oklahoma! in 1943, which ran for 2,212 performances.

In 1982, Joe Papp, the theatrical producer and director who established The Public Theater, led the “Save the Theatres” campaign. It was a non-profit group supported by the Actors Equity union to save the theater buildings in the neighborhood from demolition by rich Manhattan development projects. In December 1983, Save the Theatres put together “The Broadway Theater District, a Preservation Development and Management Plan”, and demanded that every theater within the district receive landmark designation. Ever since, Broadway has become a major tourist attraction. The history of Broadway theater is interesting and has seen much change as well as growth in the industry. Much of this change reflects New York culture as well as the culture and views of the world.