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 While many know that the theaters that makeup 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.
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. 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.
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