Competing with Motion Pictures
1890 – 1900
Early 20th Century
1950 – 1970
Longest – Running Broadway Show
Countless songs have been written about it, movies have
centered on it, and even a few television shows have focused
on it…the dream of starring on Broadway. The name Broadway
has become a synonym for having achieved stardom. People
from all over the world arrive in New York City with the hope of
one day seeing their name in lights on “The Great White Way”.
In the late 1800’s, as transportation increased, poverty
decreased, and the invention of street lights provided safer
travel at night, attending a play or a vaudeville production
became more common. Eventually, attending the theatre
became increasingly more fashionable, with the result that,
today, the Theatre District in New York City is a major tourist
attraction that generates billions of dollars in ticket sales.
Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II were an influential,
innovative and successful American musical theatre writing
team, usually referred to as Rodgers and Hammerstein. They
created many popular Broadway shows in the 1940’s and
1950’s such as Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific, The King
and I and The Sound of Music, creating what is now called the
“golden age” of musical theatre. Their musical theatre writing
partnership has been called the greatest of the 20th century.
Their productions were known for closely following the literature
they were based on, including powerful themes, such as racism,
and love. Also, Bob Fosse was a renowned choreographer on
Broadway who contributed to the hugely successful “All That
Jazz”, “Cabaret”, and “Chicago”. His unique choreography has
been appreciated and copied for decades.
In the 1920’s, motion pictures became a source of competition
with the theatre. At first, films were silent and presented only
limited competition. By the end of the 1920s, however, films like
“ The Jazz Singer” had synchronized sound, and critics were
wondering if the cinema would eventually replace live theatre.
Musicals in the 1920’s tended to ignore plot in favour of
emphasizing actors, dance routines, and popular songs. They
often borrowed from vaudeville, and while the books they were
based on were usually forgettable, the musicals highlighted the
enduring talents of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, and Noel
Coward. There were several Broadway shows in this period of
time with extravagant sets and elaborate costumes, such as
“Oh, Kay!” and “Funny Face”. While critics were initially
concerned, ultimately, live theatre survived the invention of
During the late 1800’s, Charles Hoyt’s “A Trip to
Chinatown” (1891) became Broadway’s long-run
champion with 657 performances. In 1919, “Irene”
surpassed “A Trip to Chinatown” with 675 performances.
Although this was certainly not the longest running show
on Broadway, it was still quite exceptional in the 1900’s. A
“Trip to Coontown” (1898) was unique as the first musical
comedy entirely produced and performed by African
Americans in a Broadway theatre. Vaudville and “ragtime”
were the common thread of Broadway shows during this
Beginning with the operetta (which was a trend in musical
theatre at this time) “The Red Mill”, Broadway shows
installed electric signs outside the theatres. Since colored
bulbs burned out too quickly, white lights were used, and
Broadway was nicknamed "The Great White Way”. During
this time, the play “Lightnin’”, by Winchell Smith and Frank
Bacon, became the first Broadway show to reach 700
performances. From then, it would go on to become the
first show to reach 1,000 performances. “Lightnin’” was
the longest-running Broadway show until being overtaken
in performance totals by Abie's “Irish Rose” in 1925.
After a lack of theatre productions during the Great
Depression in the 1930’s, Broadway rebounded with the
creation of “Oklahoma” in 1943 with 2,212 performances!
While productions in the 1950’s provided the core of
modern day theatre, “The late 1960’s marked a time of
cultural upheaval”, according to writer John Kenrick, and it
seemed that Broadway musicals were sadly out of
fashion. This trend persisted somewhat in the 1970’s.
While in the twenties, there were 70 – 80 theaters,
unfortunately, by 1969, there were only 36 left.
In 1982, Joe Papp, a theatrical producer and director, led the
“Save the Theatres” campaign. It was a not-for-profit group to
save the theatre buildings in the neighborhood from demolition
by Manhattan development interests. Papp provided resources,
recruited a publicist and celebrated actors, and provided audio,
lighting, and technical crews for the effort. The “Save the
Theatres” campaign then turned their efforts instead to
supporting establishment of the Theater District as a registered
historic district. In December 1983, “Save the Theatres”
prepared "The Broadway Theater District, a Preservation
Development and Management Plan", and demanded that each
theater in the district receive landmark designation. Mayor Ed
Koch reacted by creating a Theater Advisory Council, which
included Joe Papp. The cultural legacy of the “The Great White
Way” would continue to prosper thanks to his perseverance.
As productions on Broadway have continued to evolve, one
of the most notable changes is the idea of casting famous
film actors on stage in an effort to draw a larger audience
and create more revenue. While many actors prefer to be
known as “stage actors”, or “film stars”, many are recognized
for their work in movies and “the boards”, such as the actor
Liev Schreiber, and the actress Scarlett Johannsen
Performances on Broadway are typically 8 weeks, including
matinees, with Monday being known as a “dark” day when
the theatres are closed. While Academy Awards are given to
acknowledge an exceptional performance in a film, a Tony
award is given to an outstanding performance on stage.
The longest – running Broadway show is “The Phantom of
the Opera”, with a record of 10,807 performances! The
opening date was January 26, 1988. This musical won
seven Tony awards and seven Drama Desk awards. The
second longest – running show is “Cats” with 7,485
performances, and the third is “Chicago” (7,133
performances). Here is a short clip of The Phantom of the
January 24, 2014.
August 4, 2009.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_the_longestrunning_Broadway_shows. Wikipedia, January 26, 2014.
http://www.newyork.com/resources/broadway-and-theaterhistory/. NewYork, September 2, 2013.
Theatre Seat Store, May 18, 2012.