Broadway History Musicals Plays Theater

The American beginnings of “Broadway” musical theater came in 1750 when a resident professional theater company was established and presented early works such as The Beggar’s Opera and Shakespearean plays. More theaters opened in downtown New York as the popularity of watching plays grew. Later theaters moved to the less expensive midtown area and eventually migrated to the Times Square
area or Broadway as we know it today.

As the locations evolved, so did the nature of the theater productions that were staged, often reflecting the culture of the country at that point in time. Theaters began to produce plays such as The Black Crook, written by American playwrights, a change from the earlier European productions.
Often singing and dance numbers were added to the plays.

Plots, if any, were very loose and the early plays were often more like revues. More sophisticated than vaudeville and burlesque, they lacked the dramatic or comedic impact of the performances we see today.

New York prospered and street lighting made evening travel safer. The number of theater patrons grew and the variety and number of plays increased accordingly. Gilbert and Sullivan productions such as The Mikado and The Pirates of Penzance crossed the ocean in the late 1800’s and were very popular. At this time Broadway became known as The Great White Way when it was found that colored light bulbs burned out too quickly, and white light bulbs were installed in all the illuminated signs there.

During the years of World War I, the theater produced light plays, designed to let people escape from the worries of the day.

In the Roaring Twenties star power became the largest draw and musicals then had extravagant sets and costumes and featured elaborate song and dance numbers. They made up for their lack of plot by using lovely, memorable songs from composers such as George Gershwin and Cole Porter. Such songs as “Tea for Two” and “S Wonderful” came from the Twenties and remain as classics today.

In the late Twenties and into the Thirties, Broadway plays developed with meaningful plots. Show Boat tied lovely melodies together with a social commentary on the state of racial policies of the time. Porgy and Bess, by George Gershwin melded dramatic scenes with music that was nearer to opera than the usual carefree Broadway music.

In the 1940’s Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein dominated the world of Broadway. Oklahoma!,
Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I, and The Sound of Music kept theaters filled through the Fifties. Serious themes such as spousal abuse (Carousel) and prejudice (South Pacific) were interwoven with lighthearted moments and clever melodic songs.

Other plays to debut during the Fifties include Guys and Dolls, Paint Your Wagon, My Fair Lady and West Side Story which retold the story of Romeo and Juliet with a 1950’s New York setting and opposing gangs keeping the lovers separated.

In the 1960’s Jerry Herman was prolific, with plays such as Hello, Dolly! and Mame. Ethnic themes came to the forefront with Fiddler on the Roof telling the story of Jews living in Russia
in the early 1900’s. Hair began its Broadway run in the late 1960’s, combining unusual musical forms with strong statements about youth of the 60’s and the Viet Nam War.

Continuing the rock flavor of Hair, the 1970’s began with such rock musicals as Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell. Some, such as Tommy, began as record albums and were converted for stage production.
Strangely enough Evita emerged first as a concept album in much the same way, introducing the world to Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. The Wiz brought a new twist on the story of Oz using an all-black cast.
Chorus Line took us into the minds of dancers auditioning for a play. Broadway had continued to explore current social and cultural themes.

In the 1980’s the musicals of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice took over stages in London and Broadway and held them for years. The Phantom of the Opera is currently the longest running musical of all times. Cats and Les Miserables
were very popular as. well. Disney stories made their debut on Broadway with a production of Beauty and the Beast.

Many of the Andrew Lloyd Webber productions continued into the 1990’s joined by Rent, a modern day rock version of La Boheme
adapted to take place in Bohemian, AIDS threatened New York City. The Kiss of the Spider Woman, Smokey Joe’s Caf, Passion, and Titanic were award winners during the decade. And the Disney Studios made their second splash on Broadway with a lavish, puppet enhanced version of The Lion King.

In the 2000’s Disney has followed up with productions of Mary Poppins
and The Little Mermaid, bringing Broadway to hundreds of thousands of young patrons. In addition Broadway included strange and unusual productions such as Urinetown
(about a futuristic world where strict penalties follow anyone who doesn’t pay to use the lavatories), Avenue Q
(where actors speak through large puppets they carry around), and The 25th
Annual Putnam
County Spelling Bee.

Plays also reversed earlier trends, going from previously produced movies to plays with new songs written for them. The Producers and Young Frankenstein, as well as Hairspray and Legally Blonde started life on the silver screen then were transformed into successful Broadway plays. And this trend continues with 9 to 5 just opened.

Another trend developed from the highly successful production of Mama Mia! (made into a movie afterwards). which used the songs of Abba and wove a story around them. Similar productions have been produced using the songs of Billy Joel, Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, The Four Seasons and Bob Dylan.

Walking down Broadway in 2009, you’ll see a virtual history of modern Broadway Theater from South Pacific (1940’s) through Guys and Dolls
(1950’s) to Hair (1960’s), to Chicago (1970’s) to The Phantom of the Opera (1980’s) to The Lion King (1990’s) to 9 to 5 (2009). As you stroll along humming “Give My Regards to Broadway,” you’ll have no doubt that Broadway theater is alive and well!