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Broadway Musicals: History & Shows

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Instructor: Sunday Moulton

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

Since the late 1800s and early 1900s, Broadway musicals and performances have been a staple of the New York City theater scene. Learn about the history of Broadway musicals, the difference between Broadway and Off-Broadway, and Broadway in the 21st century. Updated: 01/13/2022

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.

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're 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.

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  • 0:04 What Is Broadway?
  • 1:06 Broadway vs. Off-Broadway
  • 1:57 Where It All Began
  • 2:53 The Great White Way
  • 3:36 Broadway in the 21st Century
  • 4:18 Lesson Summary
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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 larger 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.

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