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History of Theatre in New York City

New York City’s theatrical community has a rich and storied past. At the beginning of the 20th century, the theatre district was so brilliantly illuminated by white lights that O.J. Gude would refer to it as the “great white way.” In 1904, New York City Mayor George B. McClellan officially re-named Longacre Square as Times Square, in recognition of the arrival of the offices of The New York Times.

Turn of the century theatre genres included light comedies and operettas. Many traditions were also adapted from vaudeville, and in 1921, Eubie Blake and Noble Sissel’s Shuffle Along became Broadway’s first show produced by and starring black actors. The show is also credited with sparking the Harlem Renaissance.

Musicals also made an early debut on Broadway. Jerome Kern and Guy Bolton’s 1915 show Very Good Eddie is often credited as being the first to incorporate songs as part of the action. This style was continued by Kern, Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse, and most fully realized in 1927 in Showboat, the first show in which songs were written to match the story line, rather than the other way around.

When the United States entered World War I in 1917, the theatre community rallied. Broadway stars organized food drives, promoted Liberty Bonds on stage and even volunteered on a seventeen-city tour, raising well over half a million dollars for the Red Cross.

During the Depression, it has been estimated that 25,000 people in the theatre community lost their jobs, with the majority of the unemployed located in New York. The Stage Relief Fund helped actors pay their living expenses, and the Actor’s Dinner Club served meals each night and charged only those who could afford to pay. President Franklin D. Roosevelt also created the Theatre Works Project, which distributed $46 million to the industry and financed more than 1,200 productions, many of them extremely socially progressive.

To help the war effort during World War II, the American Theatre Wing War Service opened the Stage Door Canteen where Broadway stars provided free food and entertainment to members of the military and traveled to war plants performing Lunchtime Follies to boost the spirits of the workers.

The 1940s began the golden era of the musical with Rodgers and Hammerstein, who combined the elements of song, dance, comedy and drama in the 1943 smash-hit Oklahoma! In 1949, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific became the second Pulitzer Prize-winning musical, and in 1957, Jerome Robbins’ West Side Story, with music by Leonard Bernstein, electrified audiences at the Winter Garden Theatre.

In 1947, the American Theatre Wing held the first Tony Awards, named after Antoinette Perry, to recognize excellence in theatre. The 1940s also saw the birth of off-Broadway productions, with the growth of small theatres in Greenwich Village.

In 1950, the tradition of the gypsy robe was born on Broadway, when a chorus member in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes sent the worn-out robe of a fellow chorus member to a friend in a different production. Since then, the robe has been passed to the chorus member with the most credits on the opening night of Broadway plays, with each former “gypsy” adding a prop from his or her performance. See past robes by clicking here.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Broadway continued to capture headlines and hearts. In 1975, Michael Bennett’s musical masterpiece A Chorus Line dominated Broadway with a Pulitzer Prize and nine Tony awards. Cats opened at the Winter Garden Theatre in 1982, beginning its course as the second longest- running show in Broadway history. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera currently holds the title of longest-running show.

This far-reaching scope of Broadway was recognized again in 1982, when the League of New York Theatres and Producers changed its name to the League of American Theatres and Producers. The organization is now known as The Broadway League. In 1988, most of Broadway’s theatres were designated historic sites by the New York Landmarks Preservation Commission.

After the terrorist attacks of September 11, many Broadway theatres re-opened on September 13, some singing “God Bless America” before performances. The theatre community raised money for the families of the victims and encouraged theatergoers to continue to support Broadway. Organizations like Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS continue to support the community and raise awareness about important issues.

Today, the Broadway district stretches from 41st street to 53rd street between Sixth Avenue and Ninth Avenue, encompassing 40 theatres – only four of which are actually located on Broadway! Broadway spends approximately $11.2 billion in New York City each season and supports 86,000 jobs, not to mention the indirect economic impact of visitor spending as well as selling an estimated 12 million tickets annually. And, as always, the New York City theatre community continues to enrapture audiences with its brilliant actors and ground-breaking performances.
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