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History of Broadway

Published on: Jul 1, 2022
Last Updated on: Apr 17, 2023
By: Kathryn Willingham
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A Timeline

Music and dance have been used to tell stories all the way back to ancient Greece in the 5th century BCE. Commedia dell’arte, pantomime, pageants and masques were all popular during the Renaissance in the 15th and 16th centuries. But let’s skip forward in time to what looks a little more like modern Broadway theater.

1750 – Actor-managers Thomas Kean and Walter Murray opened a theater on Nassau Street that could hold 280 people. The resident theater company produced Shakespeare plays and “ballad operas” like The Beggar’s Opera with libretto by John Gay. 

1775 – The American Revolutionary War suspended all professional theater, though there are records of Shakespearean plays being performed, mostly by British soldiers.  

1798 – Theater resumes and the Park Theatre, originally called the New Theatre, was built with a 2,000-seat capacity in what is now the Financial District of Manhattan. The theater changed hands many times until Stephen Price became manager in 1808 and programmed star vehicles for performers like Edwin Forrest (more on him later). The theater burned down in 1848 and the Astor family decided not to rebuild it. 

1816 – William Alexander Brown, a free black man from the West Indies, built The African Grove theater on the corner of Mercer and Bleecker in what is now Greenwich Village. The theater held up to 400 seats and was famous for its productions of Shakespeare. James Hewlett and Ira Aldridge quickly emerged as popular actors in the theater. In fact, their productions’ popularity soon put the theater in competition with the much larger Park Theatre, and tensions quickly mounted. The Park was segregated, so The African Grove created a “whites only” section for their productions. Then The African Grove rented a hotel next door to the Park and began competing performances of the same play. The manager of the Park Theatre, Stephen Price, hired men to stop The African Grove’s production, and the troupe fought back, giving the police a reason to shut the theater down. The African Grove reopened shortly after with a production of “The Drama of King Shotaway,” a play about an insurrection from the Caribs against British rule on St. Vincent – for reference, this play was put on four years before New York State abolished slavery. The end of the theater, and what became of William Alexander Brown, is unclear, but the theater ultimately closed in 1824. For more information, check out The New York Times articles “A New Black Theater” or “A Black Theater Flourished in New York. 200 Years Ago.”

1826 – The Bowery Theater opened on the Bowery in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The theater contained 3,500 seats and was at its time the largest theatrical venue in North America and provided direct competition for the previously built Park Theater. Fun fact: Alexander Hamilton’s son James Hamilton was an investor in The Bowery Theater as was founding father James Monroe. The theater programmed pantomime shows, blackface performers, animal acts, and melodramas and was known for appealing to the working class - it was given the nickname “The Slaughterhouse'' for its “lowbrow” offerings.

1834 - The Bowery Theater’s English-born and abolitionist stage manager George P. Farren made what anti-abolitionists took to be anti-American statements. Thousands mobbed the theater in what is now known as the Farren Riot, until Farren appeased the crowd by displaying an American flag and actor George Washington Dixon performed in blackface, singing “Yankee Doodle.” The theater later changed hands multiple times until it finally burned down in 1929.

1847 – The Astor Opera House opened on Lafayette between Astor Place and East 8th Street. The theater required a strict dress code and controlled who could attend. The upper classes were welcomed, and the working class was limited. The Astor Opera House was intended to be, in many ways, the opposite of the tawdry and raucous Bowery, but that didn’t stop the Astor Place Riot from taking place, which caused the permanent closure of the theater.  

1849 – The Astor Place Riot began with a feud between American actor Edwin Forrest and British actor William Charles Macready. Both famously played Shakespearean characters, and the conflict stemmed from an argument about which was the better actor. Supporters of each would heckle and disrupt the other’s performances. Exacerbating this argument was tension between working-class Americans and upper class, often Anglophile, Americans. Both Macready and Forrest had toured the other’s country, and the proceedings came to a head when Macready and Forrest were both meant to play Macbeth just a few blocks from each other in New York. Macready was set to perform at the Astor Opera House, and Forrest was scheduled to play at the Broadway Theater. After a horrible performance where Forrest’s supporters threw eggs and vegetables at the stage, Macready was ready to leave New York. He was persuaded to stay, but by the time his performance on May 10th was due to start, ten thousand people had assembled in the surrounding streets. A riot broke out that police were unable to quell. Soldiers were called and opened fire, shooting into the crowd. Over 200 people were injured or killed, almost all of them working class. If you want to know more, Nigel Cliff’s book “The Shakespeare Riots: Revenge, Drama, and Death in Nineteenth-Century America” does a deep dive into the conflict. 

1861 – The Civil War began. Touring was limited, but theater companies continued to perform.

1866The Black Crook marks what many see as the first modern musical. With a book by Charles M. Barras and music arranged by Thomas Baker, this romantic melodrama follows an evil Count who wants to marry the beautiful villager Amina. The count devises a way for Amina’s fiancé Rudolphe to come under the control of Hertzog, an expert in black magic who has made a deal with the devil. But when Rudolphe saves the life of a dove who turns out to be a Fairy Queen, they triumph over the Count’s plans. The show opened at the Niblo’s Garden 3,200-seat theater and ran for 474 performances, which broke the record of the time. It then toured for years. 

1878 – Gilbert and Sullivan created a hit with H.M.S Pinafore, which moved from London to the US, creating the first international hit. Gilbert and Sullivan went on to write The Pirates of Penzance and The Mikado among others and were hugely influential to the development of musical theater.  

1881 – Tony Pastor opened the first vaudeville theater near Union Square. The theater had a capacity of 1,400 and included performers like Ben Harney (an early pioneer of ragtime), Sophie Tucker, Buster Keaton, May Irwin, and Eddie Leonard. Fun Fact: the line “We’ll join the Astors at Tony Pastor’s” in the song “Put On Your Sunday Clothes” from the musical Hello, Dolly! references this theater owner and impresario. 

1895 – Oscar Hammerstein I built the Olympia Theater, one of the first theaters to move uptown to Longacre Square (now called Times Square) in what is now the theater district. He had to sell the theater just a few years later in 1898 due to debts accrued during the building’s construction. The theater hosted the first Ziegfeld Follies and was later leased to Roundabout Theatre Company before Toys “R” Us built a flagship store in the building. The space is now inhabited by a Gap and Old Navy. 

1900 – Sam Shubert arrived in New York City, shortly followed by Lee Shubert and Jacob Shubert. They began rapidly acquiring theaters and by the 1920s, the Shubert Brothers owned more than one thousand theatrical houses across the United States. The Shubert Organization is still the largest theater owner on Broadway, controlling 17 theaters.  

1904 – Longacre Square was renamed Times Square after The New York Times moved its headquarters to the Times Building at One Times Square. The same site is where the ball drops on New Year’s Eve.  

1906 – Broadway shows begin to install electric lights. The Red Mill at the Knickerbocker Theater was one of the first theaters to adopt this practice, constructing a rotating mill of red lights and creating the first electric billboard. When the colored lights burned out too quickly, theaters switched to white lights instead, giving Broadway the nickname “The Great White Way.”

1919 – The Actors Equity Association was formally recognized by the American Federation of Labor. Equity demanded a standard contract for professional productions resulting in a strike and theater shutdown that closed 37 plays and prevented the opening of 16 more. The strike lasted 30 days, and producers signed a five-year contract that accommodated most of Equity’s demands. 

1920 – Jesse Lynch Williams won the first Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1918 for his play Why Marry? 

1930 – Broadway theater owners came together to form The Broadway League and bargain with the theatrical guilds and unions. The league now includes theater owners and operators as well as producers, presenters, general managers, and other service providers. It runs programs like the Tony Awards, Jimmy Awards, Kids’ Night on Broadway, and Broadway Bridges.

1943 - The Broadway musical Oklahoma! ran for 2,212 performances and marked the beginning of the professional collaboration between Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. Oklahoma! was also the first original cast album to be released.

1947 – The Tony Awards are established by the American Theatre Wing and named after actress-producer Antoinette Perry. A Tony Award is meant to signify excellence in Broadway musicals and plays. 

1943 – 1959 - Broadway’s Golden Age began with Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! This period, when America was coming out of the Great Depression, saw huge strides in the development of the American musical. Other musicals from this period include On the Town with music by Leonard Bernstein and book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green; Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I, Cinderella, and The Sound of Music; Annie Get Your Gun with music and lyrics by Irving Berlin and book by Dorothy and Herbert Fields; Lerner and Loewe’s Brigadoon and My Fair Lady; Kiss Me, Kate with music and lyrics by Cole Porter and book by Bella and Samuel Spewack; Guys and Dolls with music and lyrics by Frank Loesser and book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows; Peter Pan with music and lyrics by Leonard Bernstein; The Music Man with music and lyrics by Meredith Wilson and book by Franklin Lacey and Meredith Wilson; West Side Story with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim; and Gypsy with music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and book by Arthur Laurents. 

The 1960s and 70s saw slower growth in the American theater and fewer productions than in previous years. 

1973 – The first TKTS booth opens in New York City offering discount Broadway tickets to New Yorkers and tourists. Subsequent booths opened at Lincoln Center and South Street Seaport. 

1975Chicago opened on Broadway starring Chita Rivera as Velma Kelly, Gwen Verdon as Roxie Hart, and Jerry Orbach as Billy Flynn. The 1996 revival is the longest-running Broadway revival and is still running today. 

1982 – Joe Papp, who founded The Public Theater, leads the “Save the Theatres” campaign to save theater buildings from demolition. 

1987Les Misérables opens at The Broadway Theatre. This iconic Broadway musical ran for 16 years. 

1988 – Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera begins on Broadway. It is the longest-running Broadway show in history. 

1997The Lion King based on the animated movie began performances on Broadway at the New Amsterdam Theatre on 42nd Street, won the Tony Award for Best Musical, and became one of the longest running shows on Broadway as well as the highest grossing piece of entertainment

2015Hamilton began Broadway performances at the Richard Rodgers Theatre and proceeded to win 11 Tony Awards and break box office records. 

2020 – Broadway theaters in New York shut down on March 12, 2020 due to the coronavirus and stayed closed until August 4, 2021 when Pass Over by Antoinette Nwandu began performances at the August Wilson Theater. 

2023 - The Phantom of the Opera, the longest-running show on Broadway, ended its record-breaking run on April 16, 2023.

Interested in Broadway History? Want to read more about your favorite Broadway actor or composer? Check out our article on Best Books About Broadway! (And start with Something Wonderful: Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway Revolution for details on the partnership that spawned shows like Oklahoma!, The King and I, The Sound of Music, and South Pacific.)

Kathryn Willingham

Head of Creative Development at Jean Doumanian Productions

Kathryn Willingham has worked in entertainment for over ten years, and recent credits include: Co-producer of SHRINK currently streaming on Peacock, Associate Producer of the independent film UNA, and Creative Executive on multiple theatrical productions including HANGMEN by Martin McDonagh on Broadway, NASSIM by Nassim Soleimanpour Off-broadway and Associate on productions EVERY BRILLIANT THING by Duncan Macmillan with Jonny Donahoe and THE EFFECT by Lucy Prebble. She was Producer of Todd Almond’s musical travelogue “Wyoming and Parts of Kansas” and Production Coordinator for Karen O and KK Barrett's “Stop the Virgens.”


Education: B.A. in English, Literature & Creative Writing from Rhodes College
Knowledge: Theaterical Production


Jul 1, 2022

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