Broadway is to New York what the West End is to London. The area is situated in Manhattan in New York City and is home to the city’s theatre of industry. Broadway actually consists of a road that runs from north to south through the city and passes from Manhattan into the Bronx. Within the area of Broadway there are 41 theatres that have seating capacities for audiences over 500 people. The theatres specialize particularly in musicals and have made the New York the culture capital of the nation.
The first theatre to appear on Broadway was in 1750 when a company was established at The Theatre on Nassau Street by Walter Murray and Tomas Keane. The Theatre held 280 people and it started by presenting Shakespeare plays which proved popular. The Revolutionary War suspended theatre productions in New York but in 1798 the 2000 seat Park Theatre was built and the start of the 19th century saw other theatres being built.
The popularity of the growing theatre industry in the United Kingdom was spreading across the Atlantic, and several touring groups gave performances in New York. The theatres that were being built on Broadway seemed to be bigger than the ones in the West End, and this was certainly the case with Niblo’s Garden that opened in 1829 with a seating capacity of 3000. The Astor Opera House was opened in 1847 and in 1849 a riot broke out after a confrontation between the lower class and upper class audiences. From this point performances were class based with only the middle classes and middle classes attending the Opera. The lower classes were attracted to the variety shows while the majority of the idle classes were attracted to the melodramas.
Shakespeare productions were still popular and actor Edwin Booth played Hamlet on 100 consecutive occasions at the Winter Garden Theatre in 1865. His brother John Wilkes Booth later assassinated Abraham Lincoln at a production of “Our American Cousins’ in Washington DC. During these early years the productions on Broadway lagged behind those in the West End as they would run for very long. Broadway needed something to give it a sense of identity and in the musicals they found it.
The first real musical that included dancing, was the “Black Crook” that premiered in 1866 and the show lasted for five and a half hours. It was however popular enough to run for 474 performances. This was the start of numerous other theatres producing musicals. As street lighting appeared on the streets of New York it became safer to travel to and from the thatres and more women became part of the audiences. The start of the 20th century saw audience figures at record highs and this meant that more money was being invested in future productions.
Musical comedies were becoming increasingly popular on Broadway and the theatre was attracting writers such as P.G Wodehouse and Guy Bolton who specialized in musical plays. The quality of the productions were improving and “Lightnin” by Winchell Smith and Frank Bacon became the first show to surpass a thousand performances. The Great Depression of the 1930’s represented a difficult time for Broadway especially as it was receiving competition from the film industry. However, after the Second World War Broadway was boosted by the writing of new blockbuster musicals.
Although many of these produced as films the Broadway audiences loved to see them in the theatre. Oklahoma was first performed in 1943 and ran for 2,212 evenings. It seemed that the start of a new season would be greeted with another new major musical production. Many of these musicals that were produced just after the Second World War are still popular today. Broadway still attracts enough audiences to keep 41 large theatres running, and visitors to New York invariably visit the theatre area for an evening’s entertainment.