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How Broadway became theatrical and has retained its prestigious status for 300 years
How Broadway became theatrical and has retained its prestigious status for 300 years

Leaving Hollywood for Broadway, if not forever and even for a short time, is a common practice for actors. And the New York theater itself boasts a brilliant and rather long history. For almost three centuries, the process of evolution of shows on Broadway has been going on: once operas were superseded by operettas, vaudeville, variety shows, musicals appeared, old plays were rethought and new ones received recognition. Even the appearance of cinema did not deprive Broadway of the status of the center of cultural life in New York, but it affected the repertoire of theaters.

Theater as part of the entertainment industry of old New York

The history of New York began in the twenties of the 17th century, when this settlement was still called New Amsterdam, since until 1667 it was part of the Dutch colony. The name "Broadway" is a tracing of the Dutch breede weg, which also meant "wide path". Broadway became one of the first big streets in the city, and now it stretches for tens of kilometers. Offices, shops, shopping centers - everything is almost like in any metropolis in the world, with the exception of the part that brought worldwide fame to Broadway. It's about the Theater District on Manhattan Island.

Broadway is one of the oldest streets in New York

In 1732, actors Walter Murray and Thomas Keane, who had previously traveled with the troupe to cities in America, opened the first theater in the New World. It was located on Nassau Street in Manhattan and could accommodate up to 280 spectators. Quite an insignificant size by today's standards - now such a theater would not even have received the status of a proper "Broadway". Nevertheless, the beginning of a new industry was laid.

One of the Broadway theaters in the 19th century

The second theater appeared three years later - a demonstration of acting skills in front of New Yorkers turned out to be a lucrative business. Shakespeare's plays were very popular. And since the audience was willing to pay to attend the performances, new venues were not long in coming. The next century was the heyday of New York theater. The Bolshoi Theater with 2,000 seats opened in New York in 1798.

Edwin Booth with brothers

Opera, which was attended by representatives of the upper class; variety shows and melodramas, which attracted those who were simpler, enjoyed constant success and regularly replenished the wallets of theater owners - especially if stars were invited to the main roles. One of the best actors in New York, the "main Hamlet" in the middle of the 19th century was Edwin Booth, whose career turned out to be overshadowed by his kinship with John Wilkes Booth, also an actor. Edwin's younger brother committed the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln in April 1865 - again during a performance, though not in New York, but in Washington.

Broadway vs Hollywood

Broadway, or rather a small part of it in Manhattan, where theatrical life was concentrated, offered viewers more and more spectacular and vivid shows. Musicals appeared, in which the actors not only sang, but also danced, after them came the time of burlesque - a comedy, and then an entertaining and erotic show. The popularity of theaters was facilitated by both the improvement of the transport situation in the city and the reform of street lighting: in the second half of the 19th century, the part of Broadway that passed through the Theater District was illuminated so brightly that it was called the Great White Road.

Musicals have flourished since the end of the century before last

But then the time came for cinematography - he threatened not only to create serious competition for the theater: it was said that the entire industry of Broadway performances would now become a thing of the past. Nevertheless, the shows continued - with vibrant musical numbers and spectacular sets that cinema at the beginning of its history could not yet afford. The performances based on the works of contemporaries, including Palem Grenville Wodehouse, were very popular. In addition, “serious” plays by Eugene O'Neill, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller were also in demand. In the fifties, Broadway as the center of theatrical life experienced its next heyday.

Scarlett Johansson in the play based on the play by T. Williams

A show on Broadway could run for only a few weeks, or it could exist for years or even decades, depending on the interest of the public. At the moment, the record holder for the number of performances is the musical "The Phantom of the Opera", first played on stage in 1988 and still not withdrawn from the show. The second place on this list is the musical "Chicago", the third is "The Lion King". Successful projects, as a rule, also survive film adaptation.

Al Pacino in a Broadway play

The box office grosses at Broadway theaters over the past decades have been mind-boggling, and industry bosses are focused on keeping audiences interested and profitable. Therefore, the favorite technique of theater directors was to attract the stars of the same Hollywood to participate in the performances: theater lovers are guaranteed to come to see an actor or actress whose face is recognized all over the world. In addition, tourists provide the lion's share of ticket sales (at least until recently, when the pandemic made its own adjustments).

Tom Hanks in a Broadway production

On Broadway and Off-Broadway: Theater and Actors

Only theaters with a capacity of 500 spectators or more can become Broadway theaters. Other, more intimate New York theaters, therefore, got the name "off-Broadway", or "off-Broadway" - these are institutions that are ready to take on the show from 100 to 499 spectators. There is also "off-off-Broadway", these are very small theaters with a capacity of up to 99 people. However, some of the "small" theaters also managed to stage musicals, which later became the most "Broadway" ones, for example, the famous production of "Hair".

Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick

For actors of Broadway theaters, a separate award has been established - "Tony". It is awarded to those who are involved in the performances of the Theater Quarter. Among the brightest stars of Broadway - Angela Lansbury, Lisa Minnelli, Elizabeth Taylor, Anthony Quinn, Al Pacino - and in general, the list is too long to list them all. Those who create world famous musicals also become stars. One of the leading composers and Tony laureate, Andrew Lloyd Webber, has written several works that have become hits on Broadway - the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar, the musical Cats, which first saw the light of day on the London stage in May 1981 and later A year and a half who came to Broadway, "The Phantom of the Opera" and "Evita." This can be seen both on the signs of the institutions themselves and on the posters. Since March 2020, Broadway theaters will be closed, and the resumption of theatrical life in New York is planned from the fall of 2021.

Broadway theater

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