A Brief History of Broadway

November 9th, 2021

How did one area in New York City become synonymous with musical theater all over the world? How did Broadway become Broadway? Like so many things in life, it was the result of a serendipitous accident.

A Serendipitous Accident

In 1866, a New York Theater entrepreneur had a problem. He had booked two properties— a French ballet company and a “sell your soul” melodrama—but found himself with only one theater due to a fire. The solution? To combine the two productions into one! And thus, “The Black Crook“, which has been identified by theater historians as the first Broadway musical, was born.


The First Broadway Theater?

It premiered at Niblo’s Garden, on the corner of Broadway & Prince Street. Niblo’s was a magnificent theater of the old ‘pleasure Garden” variety, an outdoor entertainment complex for New York’s wealthy and fashionable.  Since then, Broadway has been synonymous with musical theater.

With the advent of the railroads, touring theatrical companies were born. These original troupers would always claim that their show came “straight from Broadway”, which was now recognized as the primary venue of musical theater in the United States.

In the early 1900’s, Broadway shows began to install electric signs outside the theaters. White bulbs were preferred, as colored bulbs burnt out too fast, giving Broadway its nickname, “The Great White Way”.

Broadway’s theaters would cluster near Union Square until the subway was built around 1901, enabling the theater district to move closer to Madison Square, and eventually settling near 42nd Street.

An Ode to Vaudeville

Vaudeville would grow out of the music hall venue to dominate Broadway in the mid-19th century. It would remain huge throughout the early twentieth century. Vaudeville shows featured dozens of different acts: songs, comedy, dance, acrobatics, anything that could plausibly be called entertainment.

Famous Hollywood entertainers such as Mickey Rooney, Charlie Chaplin, and Mae West, got their start in vaudeville.

The Golden Age

From the 1900’s to the late 1920’s, musical comedy ruled Broadway. Lighthearted spectacle was preferred to more serious fare. But by the 1940’s, musical drama shifted into the form we’re more familiar with today. Classics like Showboat, Oklahoma, Fiddler on the Roof, and Porgy and Bess brought more serious themes to Broadway and achieved great commercial success doing so. The era that’s considered the golden age of Broadway was from approximately 1940 through 1966.

The Modern Musical

Today’s Broadway musicals are guaranteed to be a highly polished production and frequently tie into a movie, book, or other entertainment sensation. Disney has reigned supreme, providing us with hits such as The Lion King, The Little Mermaid, and Mary Poppins. There are new shows premiering all the time on Broadway and though their storylines vary, the impeccable singing, dancing, and entertainment value remain the same. Over 60% of Broadway tickets are sold to out-of-towners – it is full of theatergoers from all over the world!

Off Broadway

As Broadway’s success grew, a new form of art sprang up around it —Off Broadway. Off Broadway productions could be as far off Broadway as Queens Boulevard, and the quality of the presentations certainly varies.

However, varied the quality, Off Broadway (And Off Off Broadway) is where the spirit of the old Vaudeville troupe resides. Although today’s Off-Broadway production is more likely to be avant-garde than slapstick, the opportunity and egalitarian attitude of the original Broadway has found a home here. Musicals such as Rent, A Chorus Line, Little Shop of Horrors, and many others started their theatrical lives as off-Broadway productions!

There will always be an influx of people longing to see their name in lights heading to New York City. It will always be home to the stage. Dancers, actors, artists, and writers will always flock to Broadway and its environs, hoping to make a name for themselves.

Gotta Dance is where the spirit of Broadway thrives