views updated May 14 2018


If Hollywood is synonymous with the cinema, Broadway has come to signify the American theater. From its humble beginnings in downtown New York City in the early nineteenth century, to its heyday as the Great White Way in the mid-twentieth century, to its status as one of America's chief tourist attractions at the end of the twentieth century, Broadway has lured both aspiring actors and starstruck theatergoers for well over a century, becoming, in the process, one of America's chief contributions to global culture. As the home of the American musical theater and the breeding ground for both popular and cutting-edge drama, Broadway has helped to nurture America's performing arts, even as it has enticed the greatest stars of England and Europe to its stages. In a nation that struggled long and hard to define itself and its artistic community as separate from yet equal to Europe, Broadway stands as one of America's greatest success stories.

As early as 1826, New York City had begun making a name for itself as the hub of the nascent American theater. That year, the Park Theatre featured the debut of the first two American-born actors who would go on to achieve fame and fortune in the theater—Edwin Forrest and James H. Hackett. Later that same year, the 3,000-seat Bowery Theatre opened; it was the first playhouse to have both a press agent and glass-shaded gas-jet lighting. The grand new venue would soon become legendary for the frequently rowdy working-class theatergoers it would attract. Over the next 20 years, Americans flocked to the New York theater district in increasing numbers, and in 1849, when the celebrated British actor William Macready brought his Macbeth to the Astor Place Opera House, Edwin Forrest supporters turned out en masse to protest the British star. On May 10th, a riot of over 1,000 resulted in the death of 22 people.

During the mid-nineteenth century, the biggest stars of the American theater were Fanny Kemble and Edwin Booth. Booth's 100 performances of Hamlet at the Winter Garden would stand as a record for the Shakespearean tragedy until John Barrymore's 1923 production. In addition to European classics, among the most popular of American plays was Uncle Tom's Cabin, which, in its first production, ran for 325 performances. But while both dramas and melodramas drew steady audiences, a new kind of revue called vaudeville, featuring burlesques and other musical entertainment, was beginning to come into fashion at the Olympic Theatre.

By 1880, Broadway had become the generic term for American theater. Shows would premiere in the New York theater district, which was then centered downtown at Union Square and 14th Street. From New York, road companies would then travel to other cities and towns with Broadway's hit shows. That year, the world's most famous actress, France's Sarah Bernhardt, would make her American debut at the Booth Theatre. Over the remaining 20 years of the nineteenth century, many of the great English and European actors and actresses such as Lillie Langtree, Henry Irving, and Eleanora Duse, would come to Broadway before making triumphal national tours. Among the most popular American stars of this period were Edwin Booth and his acting partner, Lawrence Barrett; James O'Neill, father of playwright Eugene O'Neill; and Richard Mansfield.

One of Broadway's most successful playwright-cum-impresarios of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century was David Belasco, who made his Broadway debut in 1880 with Hearts of Oak, a play that touted stage realism to the degree that the audience could smell the food being served in a dinner scene. European realists such as Henrik Ibsen were also well received in America. But Broadway devoted equal, if not more time, to the growing desire for "family entertainment," and vaudeville became all the rage.

In 1893, the American Theatre opened on 42nd Street, an area that had previously been residential. In ensuing years, the theater district would gradually inch its way uptown to Times Square. By the end of the century, most theaters were located between 20th and 40th Streets, and vaudeville had firmly established itself as the most popular form of family entertainment in America. In just 75 years, the American theater had set down such deep roots that acting schools had begun to open around the country; organizations for the welfare of aging theatrical professionals were formed; and the first periodical devoted exclusively to the stage, Theatre Magazine, was founded.

With the start of the twentieth century came the beginnings of the modern American theater. In 1900, three brothers from Syracuse, New York—Sam, Lee, and J.J. Shubert—arrived in New York City, where they quickly made their presence felt. They not only leased the Herald Square Theatre, but they put Broadway star Richard Mansfield under contract and hired booking agent Abe Erlanger. The Shuberts were following the lead of other producers and booking agents, such as the Theatre Syndicate and the United Booking Office, who had begun the theatrical monopolies that soon came to rule Broadway—and the nation. When the Shuberts brought Sarah Bernhardt to the United States for her farewell tour in 1905, the Syndicate blocked her appearance in legitimate theaters throughout the United States. As a publicity ploy, the Shuberts erected a circus tent in New York City, in which the great star was forced to appear, garnering nationwide publicity, and $1 million in profits. It was during this contentious period that actors began to realize that they needed to form an organization that would guarantee their rights, and in 1912, Actors Equity was founded.

Throughout the beginning of the century, feuds between competing producers, impresarios, theater circuits, and booking companies dominated Broadway, with such famous names as William Morris, Martin Beck, William Hammerstein, and the Orpheum Circuit all getting into the fray. But amidst all the chaos, the American theater continued to grow in both quality and popularity, as new stars seemed to be born almost every day. One of the most distinguished names on turn-of-the-century Broadway was that of the Barrymore family. The three children of actor Maurice Barrymore—sons Lionel and John and daughter Ethel—took their first Broadway bows during this period, rising to dazzling heights during their heyday.

Florenz Ziegfeld, another of the leading lights of Broadway, had made his debut as a producer in 1896. His Follies of 1907 was the first of the annual music, dance, and comic extravaganzas that would come to bear his name after 1911. Other producers soon followed suit with similar revues featuring comic sketches and songs. Among the most popular of these were the Shuberts' Passing Shows, George White's Scandals, and Irving Berlin's Music Box Revues. Many composers who would go on to great heights found their starts with these revues, including Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, and George Gershwin. But even more significantly, these revues catapulted singers and comedians to a new kind of national stardom. Among the household names featured in these reviews were Fanny Brice, Lillian Lorraine, Marilyn Miller, Bert Williams, Ed Wynn, Will Rogers, and Al Jolson.

By the 1910s, music had become an increasingly significant force on Broadway, and a slew of new young composers had begun to make their marks—including Cole Porter and George M. Cohan. By 1917, the United States had entered World War I, and Broadway embraced the war effort, with tunes such as Cohan's "Over There" and "You're a Grand Old Flag" becoming part of the national consciousness. But as Broadway began to hold increasing sway over popular taste, experimental theater groups such as the Provincetown Players began to crop up downtown near Greenwich Village, where brash young playwrights such as Eugene O'Neill and Edna St. Vincent Millay penned work that veered radically from Broadway melodrama and mainstream musical entertainment. These off-Broadway playhouses emphasized realism in their plays, and soon their experimentation began to filter onto Broadway.

In 1918, the first Pulitzer Prize for drama was awarded "for the original American play, performed in New York, which shall best represent the educational value and power of the stage in raising the standards of good morals, good taste, and good manners." And by 1920, Eugene O'Neill had his first Broadway hit when the Neighborhood Playhouse production of The Emperor Jones moved to the Selwyn Theatre. In 1921, he would win his first Pulitzer Prize for drama for Anna Christie. He would win a second Pulitzer in the 1920s—the 1927 prize for Strange Interlude. The new realism soon came to peacefully coexist with melodrama and the classics, as the acting careers of such leading ladies as Laurette Taylor, Katherine Cornell, and Eva Le Gallienne, and husband-and-wife acting sensations Lynn Fontanne and Alfred Lunt flourished.

Eugene O'Neill's 1921 "Negro drama," The Emperor Jones, also heralded a remarkable era of the American theater. Inspired by the burgeoning theatrical movement of Ireland, a powerful African-American theater movement had begun to develop during the late 1910s and the 1920s. Plays about the "Negro condition" soon found their way to Broadway and a number of significant African-American stars were born during this era. Chief among these were the incomparable Paul Robeson and Ethel Waters. But with the onslaught of the Great Depression, American concerns turned financial, and African-American actors soon found that mainstream (white) Americans were more focused on their own problems, and many of these actors soon found they were out of work.

But despite the proliferation of superb drama on Broadway, musical theater remained the most popular form of entertainment during the 1910s, and by the 1920s a powerful American musical theater movement was growing in strength and influence under the guidance of Cohan, Kern, Gershwin, Porter, and the team of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. Songs from such 1920s musical comedies as Gershwin's Girl Crazy, Porter's Anything Goes, Rogers and Hart's A Connecticut Yankee soon became popular hits, and performers such as Ethel Merman, Fred Astaire, and Gertrude Lawrence achieved stardom in this increasingly popular new genre.

In 1927, a new show opened on Broadway—one that would revolutionize the American musical theater. Showboat, written by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II,, was the first musical in which character development and dramatic plot assumed equal—if not greater—importance than the music and the performers. In this groundbreaking musical, serious dramatic issues were addressed, accompanied by such memorable songs as "Ol' Man River" and "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man." Music, lyrics, and plot thus became equal partners in creating a uniquely American contribution to the musical theater. Over the next 40 years, Broadway witnessed a golden age in which the modern musical comedy became one of America's unique contributions to the world theater. Richard Rodgers teamed up with Oscar Hammerstein II on such classic productions as Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I, and The Sound of Music. Another successful duo, Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe contributed Brigadoon, My Fair Lady, and Camelot. Other classic musicals of this era included Frank Loesser's Guys and Dolls; Burton Lane and E.Y. Harburg's Finian's Rainbow; Cole Porter's Kiss Me, Kate; Jule Styne's Gypsy; and Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim's West Side Story. This wealth of material naturally produced a proliferation of musical stars, including Mary Martin, Carol Channing, Chita Rivera, Gwen Verdon, Alfred Drake, Zero Mostel, Rex Harrison, Richard Kiley, Robert Preston, John Raitt, and Julie Andrews.

Although the American musical theater was flourishing, drama also continued to thrive on Broadway. Following the Crash of 1929, however, Broadway momentarily floundered, as Americans no longer had the extra money to spend on entertainment. And when they did, they tended to spend the nickel it cost to go to the movies. And, in fact, many of Broadway's biggest stars were being lured to Hollywood by large movie contracts and the prospect of film careers. But by 1936, the lights were once again burning brightly on the Great White Way—with playwrights such as Lillian Hellman, Maxwell Anderson, John Steinbeck, Noel Coward, Thornton Wilder, Clifford Odets, and William Saroyan churning out critically-acclaimed hits, and American and European actors such as Helen Hayes, Sir John Gielguld, Jose Ferrer, Ruth Gordon, Tallulah Bankhead, and Burgess Meredith drawing-in enthusiastic audiences. A new generation of brash young performers such as Orson Welles, whose Mercury Theater took Broadway by storm during the 1937-38 season, also began to make their mark, as Broadway raised its sights—attempting to rival the well-established theatrical traditions of England and the Continent.

By the start of World War II, Broadway was booming, and stars, producers, and theatergoers alike threw themselves into the war effort. The American Theatre Wing helped to organize the Stage Door Canteen, where servicemen not only were entertained, but also could dance with Broadway stars and starlets. Throughout the war, Broadway stars entertained troops overseas, even as hit shows such as Oklahoma!, This is the Army, The Skin of Our Teeth, Life with Father, and Harvey entertained theatergoers. But change was afoot on the Great White Way. After the war, New York City was flooded with GIs attending school on the U.S. government's dime. Young men and women flocked to the city as the new mecca of the modern world. And amidst the thriving art and theater scenes, a new breed of actor began to emerge during the late 1940s and throughout the 1950s, trained in the Stanislavski-inspired method by such eminent teachers as Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler. Among these young Turks were future film and theater stars Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, James Dean, Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, and Kim Stanley. Soon a whole new kind of theater took form under the guiding hand of hard-hitting directors such as Elia Kazan and through the pen of such playwrights as Tennessee Williams, whose passionate realism in hit plays such as Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Glass Menagerie, and A Streetcar Named Desire changed the face of the American theater.

In 1947, the American Theatre Wing created the first Tony awards—named after Antoinette Perry—to honor the best work on Broadway. But by the 1950s, the burgeoning television industry had come to rival Broadway and Hollywood in influence and popularity—and soon had superseded both. Statistics revealed that less than two percent of the American public attended legitimate theater performances. But Broadway continued to churn out hit musicals at the same time that it remained a breeding ground for cutting-edge new American drama—such as that being written by Arthur Miller (Death of a Salesman and The Crucible). And, for the first time in almost thirty years, African Americans were finding work on the Great White Way; in 1958 playwright Lorraine Hansberry won the Pulitzer Prize for drama for Raisin in the Sun, while director Lloyd Richards made his Broadway debut.

On August 23, 1960, Broadway blacked out all its lights for one minute—it was the first time since World War II that all the lights had been dimmed. Oscar Hammerstein II had died; an era had ended. During the 1960s, Broadway continued both to expand its horizons as well as to consolidate its successes by churning out popular hits. After a rocky start, Camelot, starring Richard Burton and Julie Andrews, became a huge hit in 1960—the same year that a controversial production of Eugene Ionesco's Rhinoceros opened on Broadway. Throughout the decade, mainstream entertainment—plays by the most successful of mainstream playwrights, Neil Simon, and musicals such as A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Funny Girl, and Man of La Mancha occupied equal time with radical new work by playwrights such as Edward Albee (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf) and LeRoi Jones. By late in the decade, the new mores of the 1960s had found their way to Broadway. Nudity, profanity, and homosexuality were increasingly commonplace on stage, following the success of such hit shows as Hair and The Boys in the Band. A slew of musicals aimed at the younger generation, incorporating new sounds of soft rock, followed with Stephen Schwartz's Godspell ; Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's Jesus Christ, Superstar ; and the Who's Tommy.

Meanwhile, avant-garde English and European dramatists such as Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard, and Samuel Beckett brought their radical new work to Broadway, even as a new kind of musical—the concept musical, created by Stephen Sondheim in such hits as Company and Follies —took the American musical theater in a whole new direction. In this new form of a now time-honored American tradition, narrative plot was superseded by songs, which furthered serial plot developments. Other successful musicals of the type were Kander and Ebb's Cabaret and Chicago, and Michael Bennett's immensely popular A Chorus Line. During the 1970s, two producer-directors who had begun working in the mid-1950s rose to increasing prominence—Hal Prince, who was the guiding hand behind most of Sondheim's hit musicals; and Joseph Papp, whose Public Theatre became the purveyor of New York's high brow and experimental theater.

With the election of President Ronald Reagan in 1980 came an era of conservatism in which Broadway became the virtual domain of two men—composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and producer Cameron Macintosh. Les Miserables, Cats, Evita, Phantom of the Opera, Sunset Boulevard, and Miss Saigon were among the most successful of the mega-musicals that took over Broadway for more than decade-long runs. At the same time, however, Broadway was hit by the AIDS epidemic, which from 1982 on began to decimate its ranks. Called to activism by the apathy of the Reagan administration, the Broadway community began to rally behind the gay community. In plays from this period such as Torch Song Trilogy, Bent, M. Butterfly, and La Cage aux Folles, homosexuality came out of Broadway's closet for good. And during the decade, increasing numbers of African-American actors, playwrights, and plays found a permanent home on the Great White Way—from the South African-themed plays of Athol Fugard, to the Pulitzer Prize-winning work of August Wilson, to musicals about the lives of such musicians as Fats Waller and Jelly Roll Morton. Broadway also became increasingly enamored with all things English during the 1980s—from the epic production of Nicholas Nickleby, to the increasing presence of top English stars such as Ian McKellen, to the increasing infatuation with the mega-musicals of Andrew Lloyd Webber. But homegrown playwrights such as David Mamet, Neil Simon, John Guare, and August Wilson nonetheless continued to reap the lion's share of the critic's awards, including Pulitzers, New York Drama Critic's Circle, and Tonys.

In the late 1980s, a new phenomenon hit Broadway when Madonna starred in Speed the Plow. In her critically acclaimed performance, the pop and film star boosted Broadway box office sales to such a degree that producers soon began clamoring to find Hollywood stars to headline their plays. Throughout the 1990s, as the mega-musicals of Andrew Lloyd Webber, and popular revivals such as Damn Yankees, Guys and Dolls, and Showboat dominated the box office, Broadway producers sought to make profits by bringing in big names to bolster sales. Over the course of the decade, Hollywood stars such as Kathleen Turner, Robert De Niro, Nicole Kidman, and Glenn Close opened plays and musicals on the Great White Way. But the district received a multi-billion dollar facelift when Disney came into the picture, creating a showcase for its hugely successful musical ventures such as Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King. But despite what many critics saw as the increasingly commercialization and suburbanization (playing to the tourists) of Broadway, powerful new voices continued to emerge in the plays of Wendy Wasserstein (The Heidi Chronicles), Tony Kushner (Angels in America), and Jonathan Larson (Rent).

At the millennium, Broadway remains one of America's singular contributions to both high and popular culture. Despite the puissance of the film and television industries, the lure of the legitimate theater remains a strong one. Broadway is at once a popular tourist attraction and the purveyor of the tour de force that is the theater. With its luminous 175-year history sparkling in America's memory, Broadway can look forward to a new century filled with change, innovation, extravaganza, and excess—as the continuing mecca of the American theater.

—Victoria Price

Further Reading:

Atkinson, Brooks. Broadway. New York, Macmillan, 1970.

Baral, Robert. Revue: A Nostalgic Reprise of the Great Broadway Period. New York, Fleet, 1962.

Blum, Daniel. A Pictorial History of the American Theatre, 1860-1970. New York, Crown, 1969.

Brown, Gene. Show Time: A Chronology of Broadway and the Theatre from Its Beginnings to the Present. New York, Macmillan, 1997.

Churchill, Allen. The Great White Way: A Recreation of Broad-way's Golden Era of Theatrical Entertainment. New York, E.P. Dutton, 1962.

Dunlap, David W. On Broadway: A Journey Uptown over Time. New York, Rizzoli, 1990.

Ewen, David. The New Complete Book of the American Musical Theater. New York, Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1970.

Frommer, Myrna Katz, and Harvey Frommer. It Happened on Broadway: An Oral History of the Great White Way. New York, Harcourt, 1998.

Goldman, William. The Season: A Candid Look at Broadway. 1969.Reprint, New York, Limelight Editions, 1984.


views updated Jun 08 2018


Broadway is a street in New York City running the length of the borough of Manhattan. A few theaters were built along Broadway around the turn of the nineteenth century; more soon followed. In the twentieth century, the Broadway district became the center of mainstream American theater and the home of some of the best-known musical and dramatic productions in the English-speaking world. In 2007, thirty-nine professional theaters made up the Broadway theater district.

The early theaters

The earliest theater in the Broadway district, the elegant Park Theater, opened in 1798. By 1820, a few more were built in the area, notably the

3,000-seat Bowery Theater and Chatham Gardens. The Park brought in English actors to perform classic drama such as the plays of William Shakespeare (1564–1616). The other theaters catered to more popular tastes. With the rise of industrialism and immigration in the mid-1800s, increasing numbers of the working class attended these urban theaters.

Melodrama, blackface minstrelsy, and vaudeville

The most popular form of play in the early nineteenth century was the melodrama, with its exaggerated moral conflicts, stock characters (types used over and over again), and predictable format. Some of the better melodramas drew a mix of sophisticated and uneducated audiences. One example was the six-act adaptation of Harriet Beecher Stowe's 1852 novel Uncle Tom's Cabin by George L. Aiken (1830–1876). The play had the basic elements of the melodrama, with its arch villain, suffering innocents, thrilling spectacles, comic relief, and poetic justice. It also dealt seriously with slavery , the most heated social issue of its time.

Blackface minstrelsy, another popular form of entertainment, was featured in Broadway theaters beginning in the late 1820s. It usually consisted of several white male performers imitating in an exaggerated style the songs, dances, and speech patterns of southern blacks. Performers blackened their faces with burnt cork, dressed in rags, and played banjos, fiddles, and tambourines.

Vaudeville shows were popular variety acts featuring comedians, jugglers, singers, and dancers. In its original form, vaudeville was rowdy and often crude, with audience participation sometimes spiraling out of control. By the end of the nineteenth century, theater owners began to produce “refined vaudeville” acts for family audiences. The 3,200-seat Niblo's Gardens was one of the first Broadway theaters for the new vaudeville.

In 1866, The Black Crook: An Original Magical and Spectacular Drama in Four Acts opened at Niblo's Garden. This is considered the first American “book musical”—that is, a musical with a plot and characters. The rather high-brow cultural event at a low-brow vaudeville house was the most commercially successful Broadway play up to that time.

The Syndicate

By 1900, theatrical touring troupes based in New York took their long-running Broadway shows on the road, performing them in theaters throughout the country. The system of booking plays nationwide was complicated, and six New York theater owners took advantage of the turmoil. Emulating the robber barons of the steel, railroad, and oil industries (business leaders whose unethical practices often involved driving competitors out of business), these theater owners formed the Theatrical Syndicate in 1896. They brought order to theater bookings, but took nearly complete control over American theater in the process.

By 1900, the Syndicate controlled more than five thousand U.S. theaters, including virtually every first-class stage. To maximize its profits, the Syndicate began to cut costs, undermining the quality of its shows. It soon faced competition from ambitious new rivals such as the Shubert brothers (Lee, Sam, and Jacob), who in 1905 began building their own chain of theaters. They managed to break the Syndicate's monopoly on the American theater in 1915, but like the Syndicate, the Shuberts exerted tight control over their extensive theatrical empire.

Because of the Syndicate's emphasis on profits in the early years of the century, Broadway theater became, and has remained, an extremely conservative commercial enterprise. It produces expensive shows designed to appeal to large audiences and make a large return on investors’ money. Broadway is not known for experimenting with new art forms.

The boom period

Around the turn of the twentieth century, there were sixteen theaters on Broadway, with others nearby and many new theaters under construction. The theater district extended more than a mile, from Thirteenth Street to Times Square (formerly Longacre Square). Streetlights illuminated the thriving area, which became known as the Great White Way. Broadway theaters offered about seventy plays in the 1900–1901 season, and that number increased each year.

As the Roaring Twenties began, Broadway was in its heyday. In 1917, 126 plays were produced; that number soared to 264 in 1928. The Broadway district was home to seventy to eighty theaters. Melodrama and vaudeville gave way to many new forms, ranging from serious drama to musical comedy to light entertainment.

Development of musical theater

In 1900, vaudeville performer George M. Cohan (1878–1942) began to focus his ambitions as a playwright, songwriter, and performer on the Broadway theater. In 1904, Cohan created the patriotic musical comedy Little Johnny Jones, which featured the hit songs “Give My Regards to Broadway” and “Yankee Doodle Boy.” Other Cohan musical comedies included such popular songs as “You're a Grand Old Flag” and the popular World War I –themed “Over There.” Audiences craved his simple patriotic messages and upbeat songs. The title of one of Cohan's 1901 shows, The Man Who Owns Broadway, soon became his own nickname.

By the 1910s, musical forces such as Irving Berlin (1888–1989) and George (1898–1937) and Ira Gershwin (1896–1983) were putting their song-writing talents to work to create generally mediocre musical plays featuring outstanding songs. These artists first wrote the songs and then developed a thin plot to tie them together in a show. The Gershwin production Lady Be Good in 1924 introduced dancing star Fred Astaire (1899–1987). Singer Al Jolson (1886–1950) made his debut (first appearance as a performer) at the Winter Garden Theatre in 1911, winning the audience over with a brilliant performance.

In 1907, Florenz Ziegfeld (1867–1932) presented the Follies of 1907, the first of his famous series of revues featuring beautiful showgirls in lavish costumes. The Ziegfeld Follies became the longest-lived series of musical revues in show-business history. As the Follies progressed, the acts became more elaborate. Rope-twirling humorist Will Rogers (1879–1935) made his Follies debut in 1916, and singer-comedian Eddie Cantor (1892–1964) in 1917. Together with Fanny Brice (1891–1951) and W. C. Fields (1880–1946), these comics added a crucial dimension to the beautiful-girls show.

During the 1910s and 1920s, Ziegfeld mounted more than three dozen Broadway shows in addition to his Follies, most of them musical comedies. Perhaps his greatest triumph was the 1927 production of Show Boat, by Jerome Kern (1885–1945) and Oscar Hammerstein II (1895–1960). The musical featured acclaimed songs such as “Ol’ Man River” and “Can't Help Lovin’ Dat Man.” Show Boat is considered the forerunner of the modern American musical drama.

The Depression and World War II

The Roaring Twenties were followed by the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression (1929–41), a time of economic troubles around the world. Many Broadway theaters went out of business; others greatly reduced their productions. Many former theaters became movie houses, as movies took over a significant portion of theater audiences. Despite the obstacles, Broadway produced some of its greatest musicals in the 1930s. It was the prime era for the Gershwin brothers’ work, and for musicals from new composers such as Cole Porter (1891–1964).

The turning point for the modern Broadway musical occurred during World War II (1939–45) with the Richard Rodgers (1902–1979) and Oscar Hammerstein musical play Oklahoma! Taking up where Show Boat had left off, Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote the play for this musical first and then made everything in it, including the songs, work to develop the plot, characters, and drama. Oklahoma! was an instant success, setting a record for its Broadway run and forever changing the nature of the American musical. The 1950s saw many more musical dramas, including My Fair Lady (1956), which set the record for the longest run of any theater production in history; West Side Story (1957); and Rodgers and Hammerstein's final musical, The Sound of Music (1959).

Attendance at musicals dropped during the late 1960s and 1970s. As tastes changed with the introduction of rock music, some musicals, such as Hair and Grease, attempted to adapt to the times. Broadway still had its share of traditional musicals, and some continued to be smash hits. But the decrease in productions and audiences continued into the 2000s.

Non-musical Broadway plays

The 1920s brought a boom in serious American drama as well as musical productions. In 1920, Beyond the Horizon, the first full-length play by Eugene O’Neill (1888–1953), debuted on Broadway and won that year's Pulitzer Prize. O’Neill probed the dark side of humanity and bucked the trend towards lighter fare. His plays were critical successes, and many cultural observers felt he raised the artistic standards on Broadway.

Continuing the development of realism were the two major play-wrights of the 1940s and 1950s, Arthur Miller (1915–2005) and Tennessee Williams (1911–1983). Miller's first major triumph, Death of a Salesman, premiered on Broadway in 1949. It was America's first tragedy of a common man, Willy Loman. Williams's The Glass Menagerie premiered on Broadway in 1945, using Williams's own troubled family relations as subject matter. A Streetcar Named Desire, which opened on Broadway in 1947, was directed by Elia Kazan (1909–2003) and starred Marlon Brando (1924–2004).

Most Broadway plays of the 1950s were written and directed by white men, but in 1959 A Raisin in the Sun, a play by Lorraine Hansberry (1930–1965) about an African American family confronting racism, debuted to a standing ovation. It was the first play by a black woman to be produced on Broadway. Gradually, Broadway stages began to reflect the multicultural society. By the 1980s, many plays written by and about minorities and women were commercial and critical successes.

Non-musical Broadway plays were not universally serious. Neil Simon (1927–) became Broadway's most reliable and commercially successful playwright beginning in the 1960s by dedicating himself to light entertainment. Simon's well-made Broadway comedies include The Odd Couple (1965) and The Sunshine Boys (1972).

Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway

In the 1950s, the enormous expense of producing theater on Broadway led to the development of smaller theaters outside Times Square, collectively referred to as Off-Broadway. Off-Broadway provided a challenge to Broadway, opening the door for alternative theater. The 1960s saw the rise of Off-Off-Broadway, alternative theatrical performances staged in small coffeehouses off Broadway's main theater row. These coffeehouses boomed, allowing experimentation in drama to flourish. By 1966, the number of Off-Off-Broadway productions was twice that of Broadway and Off-Broadway combined.

Broadway today

Broadway celebrates its own players every year with the Antoinette Perry Awards, better known as the Tony Awards, established in 1947. These awards are only for productions that open in the major Broadway theaters.

In 2007, Broadway had only about half the number of theaters it had in the 1920s. It has never been able to regain the popularity it enjoyed during the 1920s. Still, some of the best writers, directors, performers, costume and set designers, composers, and many other theater professionals continue to bring their talents to this center of U.S. theater. The thirty-nine official Broadway theaters remain a popular tourist attraction in New York City and continue to draw crowds. Total Broadway attendance in 2005 was just under twelve million.


views updated Jun 08 2018


Even though the roadway named "Broadway" extends the length of the New York City borough of Manhattan, the name has come to indicate the area, in midtown Manhattan, in which a majority of the city's primary theaters are located. The word "Broadway" has come to represent bright, flashing lights and oversized billboards towering over playgoers as they crowd around theater entrances most every evening just before 8 p.m. (and on Wednesday and Saturday for matinees, or afternoon performances). For those who choose to devote their life to the stage, appearing on Broadway is a significant accomplishment and starring on the Broadway stage is a dream come true.

New York City's status as the hub of American theater dates to 1826, when the three-thousand-seat Bowery Theatre opened; it was the first playhouse to feature glass-shaded gas-jet lighting. By the 1880s, "Broadway" had become the general term for American theater, and the New York theater district was nearby the street, only farther downtown, at East 14th Street and Union Square. As the city expanded, clusters of playhouses opened further uptown, in what today is midtown Manhattan. Eventually, most were constructed in the crosstown streets of the West Forties, by and directly above Times Square. The first major playhouse in the area arrived in 1893, when the American Theatre opened on West 42nd Street.

In the early twentieth century, revues featuring music, dance, and comedy were especially popular on Broadway. As the American musical theater evolved, scores of significant composers and performers earned fame writing music for and appearing in Broadway hits. Before radio (see entry under 1920s—TV and Radio in volume 2) and television (see entry under 1940s—TV and Radio in volume 3), countless popular songs originated on Broadway. For example, during World War I (1914–18), "Over There," a patriotic national rallying cry composed by George M. Cohan (1878–1942), was introduced at the New Amsterdam Theatre before becoming a hit record. Musical theater flourished on Broadway during a good portion of the twentieth century, but serious dramas and nonmusical comedies were increasingly staged. One notable Broadway dramatist who emphasized realism in his writing was Eugene O'Neill (1883–1953), who during the 1920s authored The Emperor Jones, Anna Christie, and Strange Interlude.

Many film actors started out on Broadway. Marlon Brando (1924–), for one, became a theater legend in 1947 with his riveting performance as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire. Brando made his screen debut in 1950, replayed Kowalski in the film version of Streetcar the following year, and never came back to Broadway. Meanwhile, other actors preferred stage over screen, even though a successful movie actor will have far more international fame than a counterpart on the stage. Such Broadway legends as Laurette Taylor (1884–1946), Eva Le Gallienne (1899–1991), Katherine Cornell (1893–1974), Alfred Drake (1914–1992), and the husband-and-wife team of Alfred Lunt (1892–1977) and Lynn Fontanne (1887–1983) became major stage personalities, while barely, if ever, appearing on screen.

For several decades, theater-lovers have lamented the general decline in quality of the American theater. Yet Broadway—also known as the Great White Way—remains one of New York's top tourist attractions and symbolizes American theater.

—Rob Edelman

For More Information

Atkinson, Brooks. Broadway. New York: Macmillan, 1970.

Blum, Daniel. A Pictorial History of the American Theatre, 1860–1970. New York: Crown, 1969.

Brown, Gene. Show Time: A Chronology of Broadway and the Theatre from Its Beginnings to the Present. New York: Macmillan, 1997.

Dunlap, David W. On Broadway: A Journey Uptown over Time. New York: Rizzoli, 1990.

Frommer, Myrna Katz, and Harvey Frommer. It Happened on Broadway: An Oral History of the Great White Way. New York: Harcourt, 1998.

League of American Theatres and Producers. The Internet Broadway Database. (accessed April 16, 2002).


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BROADWAY, a street in New York City running the length of Manhattan. Most of the lower course of Broadway is said to follow the routes of old Indian trails, and farther north it generally follows the line of the Bloomingdale Road to 207th Street. Beyond the Harlem River it becomes a part of the highway to Albany.

In New Amsterdam (now New York City) its first quarter mile was originally called the Heerewegh or Heere Straat. The name was anglicized to Broadway about 1668. George Washington lived at 39 Broadway for a time during his presidency. In 1852 a cable-car line gained a franchise on Broadway, then the city's chief residential street. The line, fought in the courts for more than thirty years, was finally built in 1885, but by then the street had become the city's main business thoroughfare. The first subway line under Broadway was begun in 1900.

In the late nineteenth century, theaters clustered along Broadway, first below and then above Longacre (now Times) Square, so that its name became synonymous with the American theater. The first arc electric streetlights in New York were placed on Broadway in 1880, and the brilliant lighting in the early twentieth century earned it the nickname "the Great White Way."


Burrows, Edwin G., and Mike Wallace. Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Jackson, Kenneth T., ed. The Encyclopedia of New York City. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1995.

Alvin F. Harlow / c. w.

See also Railways, Urban, and Rapid Transit ; Theater .


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Broadway Major thoroughfare of New York City that began as the principal ns axis of the old town. It runs from the s tip of Manhattan to the northern city limit in the Bronx. Famous sites along the route include the Woolworth Building, the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, and Columbia University. In the vicinity of Times Square, its theatres and cinemas have made it known worldwide as the ‘show-centre’ of the USA.


views updated May 11 2018

Broadway a street traversing the length of Manhattan, New York. It is famous for its theatres, and its name has become synonymous with show business (it is also known informally as the Great of Chancery).
off-Broadway (of a theatre, play, or performer) located in, appearing in, or associated with an area of New York other than Broadway, typically with reference to experimental and less commercial productions. The term off-off-Broadway is now used for productions regarded as even more experimental, avant-garde, and informal.