A Brief Look into the History of New York's Broadway Theatre
The 19th century gave birth to Broadway theatre in New York as the marvelous invention of electric lighting enabled STARS to shine brightly from this platform. Theaters sprung up on Broadway and along 42nd Street and the narrative of the time, the Broadway musical was full of hope and glory. These comedies featured characters and situations taken from everyday life, but portrayed American culture as one of abundance, despite the poverty of the time. As a result these musicals were an inspiration to many who dared to dream.
From these humble beginnings a theater movement was born that over the years would launch the careers of many legendary stars. The Broadway stage is still considered hallowed ground for actors, singers and dancers from around the world still consider it an honor to ‘tread the boards’ there.
Broadway is the primary business street of New York stretching for about six miles, until Central Park. "Broadway" theater takes its name from this street, but not all Broadway theaters are located there. A Broadway show, defined as a play or musical, is staged in one of 39 theaters located in New York City’s borough of Manhattan. These theaters meet the criteria of having 500 seats or more with productions guaranteed to have universal appeal.
The famous Theater District, also known as the Great White Way is situated in midtown Manhattan, near Times Square, where Broadway crosses Seventh Avenue.
You can enter the world of Broadway pre-show by reading the fascinating retrospective “It Happened on Broadway An Oral History of the Great White Way” by Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer, showcasing wonderful tales of the ‘fantasies, foibles and flops’ of Broadway Theater through the years.
The Way We Were
New York Broadway shows are rooted in the 19th century variety show which was known as vaudeville. It was a style of drama where the audience were entertained by different forms of spectacle. Musicians, comedians, female and male impersonators, animal acts and acrobats all formed part of one show.
There were also elements of the burlesque personified by performance art and adult entertainment such as the popular strip tease. Female performers would dress up in colorful costumes against the background of dramatic lighting and mood music. The art of fire-breathing was also birthed during this era.
The Theater Guild founded in 1919, was responsible for moving American theater away from the commercial standards. The Guild started bringing over more serious plays from Europe, by writers like Bernard Shaw and August Strindberg. As a result, European influences started to assert themselves in the form of grand opera, operetta and realist drama.
American theatre would never have blossomed into the most commercially viable in the world without the input of early investors. Theater impresario Oscar Hammerstein amongst others, helped develop the Broadway theater district by building opera houses, theaters and a vaudeville house. The Schubert family of New York City were also instrumental in growing this district. They owned the renowned Winter Garden Theatre at 1634 Broadway and the Sam S. Shubert at 221 West 44th Street plus the Imperial Theaters. Together they managed, owned or booked over 1000 theaters.
The legacy of New York’s Broadway theatre is that it gave the world access to some of the most influential American composers, notably, George Gershwin, who wrote both for Broadway and the classical concert hall. His popular songs were sure hits for artists Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Judy Garland, and Nina Simone to name a few. Cole Porter was the composer and songwriter of many American musical comedies like Kiss Me, Kate, Fifty Million Frenchmen and Anything Goes, as well as ‘songs that would live forever’ like "Night and Day", "I Get a Kick Out of You" and "I've Got You Under My Skin".
Leonard Bernstein was another inspired American composer, pianist and conductor who embodied the spirit of Broadway. He was the first American born conductor to receive world-wide acclaim, and is known for both his conducting of the New York Philharmonic, and his many compositions, which include the ever-popular musical, West Side Story.
Famous American playwrights came into their own during Broadway shows in New York City. The dramatic realism drama of Anton Chekhov, and Henrik Ibsen, found its modern voice in the works of Eugene O’ Neil, the Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning American playwright, who was the first to use truly American vernacular in his narrative. O'Neill wrote only one comedy (Ah, Wilderness!); all his other plays focus on the battle of the outsider, highlighting his personal struggle.
Neil Simon the prolific and lauded American playwright and screenwriter has won a total of three Tony Awards and has been nominated for an additional fourteen. His work ranges from light comedies (Barefoot in the Park, The Odd Couple), to the more introspective (Brighton Beach Memoirs, Biloxi Blues) plus his original screenplays (The Out-of-Towners, Murder by Death, and The Goodbye Girl).
Stars on Broadway
Unfortunately, we will never have the chance to see Marlon Brando in a ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ or witness the acting prowess of Katherine Hepburn, the iconic four-time Academy Award-winning American star.
However, the good news is that film stars have become stage-struck and now want to appear in Broadway shows. Lately there has been a desire amongst actors in the film community to embrace the real culture of performance, to experience the thrilling live interaction between actor and audience. Nicole Kidman, Ewan McGregor, John Malcovich and Julia Roberts have all appeared on Broadway and Julianne Moore and Bill Nighy have made their stage debuts there. Chances are you’ll book a show and see a STAR.
Broadway still remains the theatrical rite of passage.