Who Started Broadway?
Today’s Wonder of the Day was inspired by Heidi.
In the 1920’s, brash new American playwrights such as Eugene O’Neill penned work that veered far from Broadway melodrama and mainstream musical entertainment.
Theatre audiences also grew as transportation improved and poverty diminished. Lightnin’ became the first show to reach 700 performances.
The Black Crook
On September 12, 1866, a theater extravaganza called The Black Crook opened on Broadway. It ran for 474 performances and is considered by some to be the first musical.
The production combined a dramatic group with a Parisian ballet troupe. It also featured new songs and adapted music.
Its success ushered in a era of Broadway spectacles that evolved right up to today’s modern musicals. Despite criticism by the clergy for its abundant display of female pulchritude, it created a national mania.
The Great Depression
After the Great Depression ended, musical comedy regained popularity with shows like Anything Goes and Oklahoma! Both ran for more than a thousand performances. The 1920s also spawned a new age of American playwright with Eugene O’Neill. His plays Beyond the Horizon, Anna Christie, The Hairy Ape and Mourning Becomes Electra proved that there was a place for drama on Broadway.
However, it took a long time before Broadway productions could discuss serious issues such as love, infidelity, rape and poverty. Shows such as Du Bose Heyward’s Porgy and Bess debuted in 1935 and lasted only 124 performances.
The Second World War
As the echoes of gunfire faded and the world began to heal, Broadway experienced a transformation of its own. The post-war period brought a burst of creativity to the stage, with productions that challenged conventions and reflected the jubilant yet restless spirit of the Roaring Twenties.
Show Boat was the first musical to pull together story and score into a more meaningful whole, and this would eventually prove that serious drama could survive on Broadway alongside lighter fare. In addition, improvements to transportation removed the poverty that once kept many people from attending theater, and Gilbert and Sullivan’s family-friendly comic opera hits such as HMS Pinafore became popular.
The Renaissance was a period of cultural, artistic and political “rebirth” that took place in Europe from the 14th century to the 17th century. It promoted the rediscovery of classical philosophy, literature and art.
It also introduced new ideas like humanism to society. This was an ethical philosophy that focused on rational inquiry and the quest for knowledge.
New York’s first significant theatre presence started in 1750 when Thomas Kean and Walter Murray opened a theater company on Nassau Street. This theater held 280 people and put on Shakespeare plays and ballad operas such as The Beggar’s Opera.
The 1970s was an exciting time for Broadway. Gone were the days of conventional post-Oklahoma musicals as rock and “concept” shows fought it out for supremacy.
Grease won America’s heart with its 1950s rock n’ roll pastiche score and hokey story of white trash high school kids finding romance and friendship (“rama lama lama, ka dingy dee ding dong!”).
Broadway audiences also enjoyed the socially incisive musicals of Stephen Sondheim (Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd), Andrew Lloyd Webber (Evita, Jesus Christ Superstar) and old-fashioned musicals like Annie.
The 1980s saw Broadway re-emerge from the doldrums of postwar decline. Shows like Cats and the Phantom of the Opera pushed the form into a new age.
Productions like 42nd Street heightened the theatrical experience with big production numbers and special effects. Other plays focused on contemporary issues like industrialization, war, and the birth of Millenials. Meanwhile, innovative companies like the Wooster Group, Mabou Mines, and Richard Foreman’s Ontological-Hysteric Theatre explored ritual, sexuality, primitivism, and political conflict.
As the 1990s began, Broadway was reborn as a spectacle of family-friendly entertainment. Disney’s stage adaptations of Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King were a welcome breath of fresh air in a district once known for its vagrancy, crime and seedy theatres.
Older theatergoers seeking a familiar product flocked to exquisite revivals of Guys and Dolls, Carousel and Show Boat. Newer musicals like Hair proved that the genre was far from dead. Many stars, such as Idina Menzel, achieved fame in both Broadway and film.
At the turn of the 2000s, musical theatre dominated Broadway. But non-musical Broadway plays like August: Osage County were gaining in popularity.
While laughter was still a popular outlet, post-911 Broadway produced more shows dealing with serious subject matters. These plays sparked vital conversation, influenced the business of Broadway, and made strides in representation. This era also launched several new Broadway voices. These productions earned multiple Obies and other accolades. They changed the sound of musicals and broadened audiences.