a street sign showing broadway in new york city

New York’s Broadway: The Home of Live Theater

Internationally recognized alongside London’s West End theater scene for its success in theatrical arts, Broadway, America’s own home of live theater since the mid-nineteenth century, attracts visitors from all over the world. Over 50 million tourists visit New York City each year, and 12 million of those people stop to see a Broadway performance. Generally bringing to mind images of the bright lights of Times Square, gigantic billboard posters, and of course, the stage and all its actors, Broadway is a magical place that many travelers would like to experience in their lifetime, but few know the history of this enchanted street.

The Beginnings

Around 1829, Broadway gained its notoriety as a lively area, with the opening of popular theater hotspots like Niblo’s Garden and the Astor Opera House near Prince Street downtown. As the years passed, theaters gradually moved north towards midtown Manhattan, seeking less expensive property. In late 1866, The Black Crook, considered to be the first musical on Broadway, was performed and, although a great success, lasted nearly 6 hours. More theaters began opening their doors and faster-paced vaudeville shows gained popularity as well. In the early twentieth century, colored light bulbs expired too quickly so theater owners started using plain white bulbs. This lead to Broadway’s new nickname: “The Great White Way.”

The Theater Takes Shape

It was not until the early 1900s that theaters started opening their doors in the area along Broadway that we know today as Times Square. The 1910s and 20s saw an emergence of great playwrights and a booming Broadway theater industry. The theaters that opened in this area were successful for a few decades until a drastic change in the arts industry occurred. As 1930 approached, “talkies,” the original term coined for movies with sound, became the most popular form of entertainment. This forced plays and other live performances onto the back burner, along with social and political factors like the Great Depression and World War II that stunted funds and dampened spirits.

Theater's Golden Age

After the war, America saw a brighter future, and in the 1950s, Broadway flourished as many classical hits were written during this time period. In contrast, the 1960s and 70s were not a particularly successful era for Broadway. Due to the lack of spectatorship, the Save the Theatres campaign was launched in the early 1980s that designated Broadway and its theaters as historical landmarks to be maintained and cherished. The Theatre Development Fund group is a non-profit that offers discounted ticket rates to theatergoers today. All proceeds go to support plays, musicals, and other live performance art.

Broadway Today

Today, the term Broadway refers to the 40 professional theaters located on Broadway (the street) in Manhattan with 500 or more audience seats only. Off-Broadway productions must be no more than 499 seats and are less expensive than Broadway shows. Theater production has evolved from burlesque, vaudeville, and lengthy classical dramas to a more modern variety of comedy, adaptations, plays, and musicals, but the feeling of history and tradition remains and can be felt along Broadway and inside of the theatres.

Last Updated: April 12, 2015