New York Theater: On and Off-Broadway Analysis


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

New York City and professional theater in the United States are such natural associations that it takes an effort of the historical imagination to recall that, in the days before sound movies came along, virtually every city had a theater for visiting performances and larger cities had resident stock companies of their own. Early in the nineteenth century, however, New York City established its centrality in the nation’s theatrical activity, and with time came the preeminence of Broadway as a theater district and as an international entertainment icon. Even now, after many economic and artistic vicissitudes, Broadwayis to theater what Hollywood is to movies—the mainstream, the standard setter. If Broadway signifies mainstream, Off-Broadway (and its 1960’s sibling Off-Off-Broadway) means experiment, unorthodoxy, and quite often outrageous provocation.

Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Theater in New York City long predates the emergence of Times Square as its geographical and symbolic center. As it did everywhere in the United States, the theater had a slow and uncertain early development in New York. The historical record shows no true professional theatrical activity in the city before approximately 1750, when Englishmen Walter Murray and Thomas Kean presented William Shakespeare’s Richard III (pr. c. 1592-1593) in the Nassau Street Theatre, a venue used before only for amateur theatricals. Another British group, the Hallam Brothers’ London Company of Comedians (later renamed the American Company), successfully promoted the construction of three new theaters, the main one being at John Street in lower Manhattan. The repertory of these pioneer troupes was entirely British, including Richard III, Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice (pr. c. 1596-1597), and Joseph Addison’s Cato (pr. 1713).

The American Revolution (1776-1783) put a temporary end to professional theatrical activity in New York City, but when the theaters reopened there were American playwrights and American plays to join the previous repertoire of British imports. Royall Tyler ’s historically important The Contrast was presented at the John Street Theater in April, 1787, and 1789 saw the debut (also at the John Street Theater) of William Dunlap’sThe Father: Or, American Shandyism. Dunlap’s busy and...

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(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Between 1900 and 1928, approximately eighty theaters were built between Thirty-ninth and Fifty-fourth Streets within a block or two of Broadway. Many of these, having undergone much transformation and renovation, still function as theatrical venues today. New names emerged in the creative ranks of New York and Broadway theater. The popular musical theater, which had begun in various forms of revues on other nonnarrative formats, began to crystallize as a storytelling mode with the popularity in the United States of W. S. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan and the development of the homegrown operetta of Sigmund Romberg and Victor Herbert.

The modern drama of England and the European continent began to have its impact on New York playwrights and audiences, introducing uncharacteristically realistic content and style into this entertainment world. Melodramas gave way to the influence of Henrik Ibsen and George Bernard Shaw. The American playwrights who most exemplified the new realism include Clyde Fitch, Bronson Howard, James A. Herne, and William Vaughn Moody.

In the area of straight (nonmusical) drama, the 1920’s and early 1930’s might be called the Age of O’Neill. Eugene O’Neill,the introverted, serious son of flamboyant nineteenth century star of the stage melodrama James O’Neill, saw his first play produced on Cape Cod by the Provincetown Players. This group moved to New York and in 1916 launched O’Neill’s New York career with...

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1945 and After

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Despite all this creativity, the popularity of the live stage was slowly but steadily being undermined by the rising competition for audiences from sound movies. In the years after World War II, it would be the work of a new generation of strong playwrights, the reinvention of the Broadway musical, and the development of a lively and adventurous experimental theater Off-Broadway that would keep the theater alive in New York.

The first of the new generation of playwrights was Tennessee Williams His first Broadway success came in 1945, when The Glass Menagerie (first produced a year earlier) opened at the Playhouse Theatre on Broadway. The play’s lyricism and its sensitive exploration of family relationships, loneliness, and power of memory have had a lasting impact on the American theater. Williams’s next play, A Streetcar Named Desire (pr. 1947), dropped lyricism in favor of a tough, sexually charged naturalism, both in action and in speech. Elia Kazan directed Marlon Brando, Kim Stanley, Karl Malden, and Jessica Tandy in the first Broadway production. Other powerful plays of sexual passion and repression followed, the most notable including Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (pr. 1955), Sweet Bird of Youth (pr. 1959), and The Night of the Iguana (pr. 1961).

Williams’s primary rival for greatness between the late 1940’s and the early 1960’s was Arthur Miller With All My Sons (pr. 1947) and Death of a Salesman (pr. 1949), Miller established himself as a powerful dramatist of the family, but also one with a strong political point of view. Not as lyrical as Williams, Miller used...

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Musical Theater

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

On the musical front, the popularity of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s Oklahoma! (pr. 1943) did for the musicaltheater what A Streetcar Named Desire and Death of a Salesman had done for the straight play. It set an example of inventiveness and energy that raised the bar for its successors and made “Broadway musical” a household word, not just for New Yorkers but for city visitors for whom a ticket to a popular Broadway musical became an inseparable part of a trip to New York City.

The 1940’s and 1950’s saw the team of Rodgers and Hammerstein succeed with Carousel (pr. 1949), South Pacific (pr. 1949), The King and I (pr. 1951), and The Sound of Music (pr. 1959), all of which went on to Hollywood film adaptations and, over the years, to road tours and revivals. Some other successful musicals during these years were The Pajama Game (pr. 1954), Damn Yankees (pr. 1955), My Fair Lady (pr. 1956), and West Side Story (pr. 1957).

In the 1960’s and 1970’s, musical theater became more aggressive in its selection of subject matter and, in particular, its expression of sexuality onstage. Hal Princersquo;s Cabaret (pr. 1966) led the way with its outrageous Kit-Kat Club girls and a slyly salacious performance by Joel Grey as the Emcee. In 1968, the rock musical Hair brought Age of Aquarius nudity to Broadway.


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Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The term “Broadway” became both a specific location along Broadway (the Times Square area) and a representative of commercialism in American theater. For good or ill, it became a high-stakes, high-pressure zone where (some felt) money talked more loudly than art.

The first Off-Broadway was a reaction to Broadway commercialism. Long before the term “Off-Broadway” was coined in the 1950’s, a number of small, independent theaters had been developed, mainly, but not exclusively, in lower Manhattan. These included the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre (began 1915) on the lower East Side, the Provincetown Players (begun in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, in 1916, later moving to New York City), and the Group...

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(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Eliot, Marc. Down Forty-second Street: Sex, Money, Culture, and Politics at the Crossroads of the World. New York: Warner Books, 2001. Chronicles the evolution of Forty-second Street from a hotbed of prostitution and other illicit activities in the early twentieth century to a commercialized, successful theater district. A fascinating social and political history of the rise of New York City’s most visible neighborhood.

Frommer, M. Katz, Myrna Frommer, and Harvey Frommer. It Happened on Broadway: An Oral History of the Great White Way. New York: Harcourt, 1998. Broadway insiders—playwrights, directors, actors, composers, choreographers, and many more—tell their stories, bringing to the public anecdotes and legends that elucidate the rise of Broadway theater.

Henderson, Mary C. Theater in America: Two Hundred Fifty Years of Plays, Players, and Productions. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1996. A wonderful topically and historically organized overview with the beautiful illustrations of a fine art book and an authoritative scholarly text.

Little, Stuart W. Off-Broadway: The Prophetic Theater. New York: Coward, McCann and Geoghegan, 1972. A lively and readable account of the personalities and events that brought Off- and Off-Off-Broadway into being. Plenty of insider details and interesting anecdotes.

Wilmeth, Don B., and Christopher Bigsby, eds. The Cambridge History of American Theater. 3 vols. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1998. An indispensable guide to American theater from its beginnings to the end of the twentieth century. Each volume has informative period and thematic articles, comprehensive bibliographies, and a helpful time line of theatrical activity in context.