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A history of theatre in New York

Gillian Russo
Gillian Russo

Between New York's city's 41 Broadway theatres and hundreds of Off- and Off-Off-Broadway venues, not to mention the parks and parking lots and hotels (oh my!) that lend themselves to pop-up performances, there's theatre everywhere you turn. This isn't new, of course — New York has been synonymous with theatre for centuries. The city has a rich and storied theatrical history, and the history of Broadway in particular is still displayed in the playhouses that dot Midtown and the productions they house.

Brush up on your New York theatre history before seeing your next show in New York below, and find even more fast facts with our theatre by the numbers infographic.

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1866: The first Broadway musical opens.

The Black Crook premiered in New York at Niblo's Garden, a now-defunct 3,200-seat venue. (That's bigger than all current Broadway theatres!) The Black Crook is widely considered the first musical, featuring adaptations of contemporary songs of the time and some original music to tell the story. It also enjoyed two Broadway revivals and a West End production, all within seven years after its premiere. In addition, another show that premiered in 1866, The Black Domino/Between You, Me and the Post, was the first show to call itself a musical comedy.

1903: The Hudson Theatre, the oldest operating Broadway theatre, is built.

The Hudson Theatre is simultaneously the oldest and newest of currently operating Broadway theatres: It opened on October 19, slightly earlier in 1903 than the other two theatres built that year, the Lyceum and the New Amsterdam. The first show to premiere there was Cousin Kate starring Ethel Barrymore. During the 20th century, however, the Hudson was used as a nightclub, movie house, radio station, and more before it got a facelift and was reopened as a Broadway theatre in 2017. The first production to open post-renovation was a revival of Sunday in the Park With GeorgePlaza Suite starring Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker will open at the theatre in 2022.

1943-1959: The Golden Age of Broadway musicals

Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma! is largely credited with kicking off this prosperous era, when peak public interest in theatre combined with a thriving economy that let people see it often. This boom drove the success of many now-classic musicals like Gypsy, My Fair Lady, Annie Get Your Gun, South Pacific, The King and I, The Music Man, The Sound of Music, and many more.

1947: The first Tony Awards ceremony is held.

The first Tony Awards ceremony took place at the Waldorf Astoria hotel's Grand Ballroom. The award, officially titled the Antoinette Perry Award for Excellence in Theatre, was named for the co-founder of the American Theatre Wing who died in 1946. The ceremony was a relatively simple dinner affair, with a black tie-optional dress code and a $7 admission fee. A total of 19 awards were presented: 11 regular Tonys and 8 special awards. 

1988: The Phantom of the Opera opens on Broadway.

The Phantom of the Opera, the longest-running Broadway show in history, opened at the Majestic Theatre. The musical became the longest-running musical as of 2006, overtaking Cats, which played 7,485 performances between 1982 and 2000. As of September 2021, The Phantom of the Opera has played 13,370 performances on Broadway. That's a lot of fallen chandeliers!

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1996: Chicago is revived on Broadway.

After debuting on Broadway in 1975, the first revival of Chicago opened in 1996. It has become the longest-running American musical, the longest-running revival, and the longest-running musical that premiered on Broadway. (The Phantom of the Opera premiered in London before heading to Broadway.) The original run of Chicago played 936 performances between 1975 and 1977. As of September 2021, the revival is 25 years old and has played more than 9,700 performances, putting it second only to Phantom.

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1998: The Lyric Theatre, the newest Broadway house, is built.

The Lyric Theatre is the most recently constructed Broadway theatre. Two other theatres called the Apollo and (coincidentally) the Lyric were demolished a few years prior, and the current Lyric was built in its place. It was called the Ford Center for Performing Arts at the time and opened with Ragtime starring Audra McDonald and Brian Stokes Mitchell. The theatre underwent another name change in 2010, when it was renamed the Foxwoods Theatre and housed Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. It got its current name in 2014 and a total renovation to match in 2017, and the only production to play there since is the current run of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.

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2020: Broadway shuts down.

Well, we all know, but for the history books: the only year without a Tony Awards since their founding and the year an 18-month shutdown of Broadway began, the longest in the industry's history. Let's move on.

2021: Broadway reopens!

Luckily, the world's longest intermission is now over. It's 2021 now, and theatre is back and brighter than ever. Broadway has closed and reopened after a few days here and there in its history, but this year's return is different. It includes the resurgence not just of Broadway, but of all New York theatre that went on pause. It is historic after such a long time away, and it is a sign of the resilience of theatre professionals and the joy their art brings. Here's to many more chapters in New York theatre history.

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Photo credit: The Apollo Theatre (left), on which the current Lyric Theatre was built. It sits next to the Times Square Theater (right), another former Broadway theatre.

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