Broadway Musicals: History & Shows

Instructor: Sunday Moulton

Sunday recently earned a PhD in Anthropology and has taught college courses in Anthropology, English, and high school ACT/SAT Prep.

What is Broadway, and what makes a show a Broadway production? This lesson looks at the history of Broadway theater, what decides Broadway vs. off-Broadway productions, and today's most successful shows.

What Is Broadway?

If you've ever seen a Broadway play, either on Broadway, as an off-Broadway production, or as a film adaptation, you know what a marvelous spectacle these performances deliver. However, what makes a play, musical or not, a Broadway production? Is it the play itself, the location of the theater, or something more? The answer might surprise you.

Theater District in New York City
Theater District Street view

While many know that the theaters that make up Broadway are located in New York City, and perhaps are even aware the theaters are found in Manhattan, a common misconception persists that they are all on the street known as Broadway. Over 40 establishments in the theater district are designated as Broadway theaters, but few of them possess Broadway addresses. And several theaters with Broadway addresses are actually considered off-Broadway.

So why are they called Broadway theaters? It's an old tradition. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the majority of large, successful theaters were located on Broadway, but over the last century, many moved to neighboring streets within the area.

The Lion King Advertisement
The Lion King Advertisement on Bus

Broadway vs. Off-Broadway

So now we know how the name came about, and that today's Broadway theaters are mostly located on other streets. But what makes a theater Broadway, off-Broadway, or off-off-Broadway? Yes, there is such a thing as off-off-Broadway.

While these designations involve some complexity having to do with performers and crew contracts, the rule of size effectively makes the distinction in nearly all cases. Broadway theaters hold at least 500 seats, whereas off-Broadway theaters generally hold 99-499 seats. Off-off-Broadway theaters, however, hold fewer than 99 seats. Broadway theaters also pay more to performers and crews, mainly because they can sell more seats. Their large stages allow for more elaborate productions, meaning larger audiences and more expensive tickets.

Where It All Began

The origins of Broadway date to the mid-1700s with the formation of a theater company on Nassau Street to perform operas and Shakespearian plays for audiences as large as 280 patrons. While the Revolutionary War temporarily halted New York theater performances, the art returned in full force after the war with the construction of the Park Theater, seating 2,000 patrons, in 1798.

By the middle of the next century, several more theaters had emerged and the popularity of Shakespeare gave way to the first wave of musical performances. Vaudeville, a popular theater form involving song, dance, comedy and burlesque, also came to Broadway in the late 1800s around the time that plunging real estate prices enticed theaters to buy space on Broadway. This created an expansive district stretching from Madison Square to Union Square, and thus the name Broadway theater came to be.

Vaudeville on Broadway
Vaudeville on Broadway

The Great White Way

In the early 20th century, theaters began lighting their marquees with bright lights framing play posters and titles, lending the theater district the name The Great White Way. Unfortunately, the introduction of sound to movies and the popularity of musical performances in the 1920s caused a decline in theater popularity. To compensate, music productions without plots kept the doors open for many commercial theaters. The decline was short-lived, with the return of musical theater and the dawn of Broadway's golden-age ushered in at the end of the Great Depression. Recognition of this resurrection officially came in 1947 with the first Tony Awards, acknowledging achievements in Broadway theater.

Broadway Today: Success and Shows

Phantom of the Opera Poster
Phantom of the Opera Poster

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