While theater is one of NYC’s biggest attractions, it didn’t have a huge presence until around 1750 when managers Walter Murray and Thomas Kean created a theater company at the Nassau Street Theatre. They performed Shakespeare plays and ballad operas, and for the next century, these genres were the most shown in NYC. The first show to be considered a ‘musical’ was The Black Crook, which premiered in 1866.
Theatre gradually moved uptown starting around 1850, and it finally made it to its current home around Times Square by 1900. By the 1920s and 1930s, a large amount of theaters had been constructed in the area, and over the years the neighborhood surrounding Times Square became known as the Theater District.
After the Great Depression, Broadway Theater in New York entered a golden age. Even still, the shows born in the 1950s and 1960s are the centerpieces of Broadway – shows like The Sound Of Music, West Side Story, Hair, and so, so many more. However, after this initial boom there seemed to be a sudden decline: though 94 shows opened in the 1950–1951 season, only 49 opened in the 1969–1970 season. By 1969 only 36 of the 70–80 theaters that were built in the 1920s and 1930s remained, so Joseph Papp started a movement to conserve the area: the 1982 ‘Save The Theatres‘ campaign.
Now, most shows with open-ended runs have performances on Tuesdays through Saturdays at 7pm or 8pm and matinees at 2pm or 3pm on Saturdays, Sundays, and Wednesdays. The theaters are said to be ‘dark’ on Mondays (since there are no performances), and the actors generally consider Sunday through Tuesday to be their weekend. Broadway shows can get expensive, but there are many ways to score discount tickets at the last minute. According to The Broadway League, a total of 13.32 million people attended Broadway performances in the 2015–2016 season.
Aside from Broadway, New York is full of other, smaller venues where you can still see incredible theater. Off-Broadway theaters, for example, are performance venues that hold 100–499 people, and their shows are often much more experimental than the traditional Broadway hits. Even smaller venues – those holding up to 100 people – are called Off-Off-Broadway theaters, and create an even more intimate experience for the viewers.
Although the names ‘Off-Broadway’ and ‘Off-Off-Broadway’ originally referred simply to their location as being away from Broadway and the Theater District, the terms now refer to this league of productions characterized by smaller audiences. The movement to create Off-Broadway shows began in the 1950s as a reaction against the perceived commercialization of Broadway. Some thought Broadway was catering to the masses and not allowing artists to fully express themselves, to this experimental genre was born. Off-Off-Broadway took this rejection of commercial theater even further, and the shows here range from small professional performances to amateur shows performed in cafes.
Now, the three genres are considered to be hugely different and yet they’re all respected for what they are. Broadway shows have massive production values and massive audiences, while Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway shows are small – with small casts, small audiences, and small production teams – and are considered more experimental.
So while seeing a famous Broadway musical in the Theater District of Manhattan would be a memorable experience, it’s no longer the only way to see great theater in NYC. There are theaters and other more experimental venues all over the city, and you’d be amazed at the variety of shows on offer.