New York has always had a thriving theatre life, but they haven’t always been performing the Broadway shows we know and love today. When the first theatre opened in New York City in 1750, it only held 260 people. The bright white lights, eye-catching marquees, and enrapturing stories came much later. Here is a timeline of the best shows on Broadway from different eras to highlight how times have changed.
1750s: The Beggar’s Opera was one of the notable shows that played in the first New York theatre. Somewhere between an opera and a satire, the play poked fun at Italian operas and the English’s fascination with them. Aligning with their pre-revolutionary anti-British sentiment, many of the colonists enjoyed the play’s humour. It was called “the most popular play of the eighteenth century” and was the first musical to be performed in New York.
1830s: Variety shows were the highlights of this decade. For only 25 cents you could watch a whole array of acts from song and dance numbers, to circus shows and dramas. With different performances that appealed to everyone, these shows drew crowds from every corner of the city.
1849: Macbeth changed theatre in the city for years to come. Two actors performing in productions of Macbeth at the same time split the favour of the audience. The upper class favoured one actor while the lower class favoured the other, and soon tensions rose and opponents disrupted shows. The divide drove wealthy New Yorkers to attend operas while the middle and lower class audiences instead flocked to melodramas and minstrel shows.
1900: Attractive real estate prices and ample audience space brought New York’s theatres to the current area we now know as Broadway. Florodora was the first major hit show to play in the new theatre district. The musical comedy was a crowd favourite for its chorus lines and catchy music. During this time the theatres themselves became more eye-catching and vibrant, using bright lights and electric billboards.
1920s: Ziegfeld and other off-Broadway musical and dance performances became popular again during the Roaring Twenties. Instead of focusing on the story, audiences attended the theatre for a chance to see their favorite star being showcased. Many plays didn’t have a plot and were a flashy conglomeration of acts performed by stars like Marilyn Miller and Eddie Cantor.
1927: Although theatre attendance declined during the Great Depression, Show Boat was the first well received musical to bring drama back to the Broadway stage. It transitioned performances away from the light and comedic revues to shows that had thoughtful themes running from beginning to end. Some of today’s most successful shows still continue to follow this style of theatre.
One of the best ways to see what Broadway has become is to see for yourself. Our Broadway and the Arts student tour is a great way to learn more. And if you’re still craving some show tunes, we’ve got you covered! Check out this Best of Broadway playlist with highlights from popular performances over the years.