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Learn Broadway fun facts from TEDxBroadway

TEDxBroadway is an annual event featuring talks from Broadway professionals about the industry.

Gillian Russo
Gillian Russo

There are TED Talks out there on all kinds of subjects. You've probably watched at least one on YouTube or perhaps live, learning more about innovations in all types of fields. But did you know that there are TED Talks about theatre, too? They've actually been around for the past 10 years as part of TEDxBroadway, an annual event featuring speakers from all across the theatre industry.

The 2022 TEDxBroadway event was presented in person and streamed live, so all types of people — from New York locals to worldwide audiences, casual fans to industry veterans — were able to tune in to hear people speak about Broadway's storied history and inclusive, equitable future. Lots of talks were aimed at theatre professionals, but they contained plenty of information for even the most casual audience member. Missed the event? While you wait for next year's to come around, learn fun facts about Broadway history with these tidbits from this year's talks.

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The first Broadway musical premiered in 1866.

The 1866 show The Black Crook is widely recognized as the first musical as we know it, with dialogue and contemporary songs (making it different from an opera) that tie into a singular plot (making it different from a revue or variety show). The Black Crook was written by Charles M. Barras and featured a score of existing music arranged by Thomas Baker, with a couple original songs. In this way, The Black Crook is sort of like Paradise Square or Mamma Mia!, which set existing songs to an original story.

Some people also call The Black Crook the first musical comedy because it's a fairytale-esque romance. An evil count wants to marry a beautiful village girl, but she's engaged, so he captures her fiancé and delivers him to a black magic practitioner (the titular crook) who will sell him to the devil. With a little supernatural help, though, he's freed and happily reunited with his love, and the count is defeated. 

The Black Crook later gave way to musicals called The Black Domino/Between You, Me and the Post (the first show to actually call itself a musical comedy), The White FawnLe Barbe Blue and Evangeline in the next 10 years, and the musical only flourished and grew more popular from there. One major way The Black Crook differs from its successors, though, is its length — the show was five and a half hours long, which is nearly unheard of now!

There are plenty of specialized jobs on Broadway you might not know about.

The speakers at TEDxBroadway were lots more than just actors and directors — there are so many other jobs in the theatre industry. Other well-known ones are designers; most shows have a designer or two each for sets, costumes, lighting, or sound. Sometimes, the same person will do two of these, like sets and costumes. But there are plenty of other types of designers — some shows might have a designated makeup designer who creates all the characters' makeup looks, or a hairstyle and wig designer. One of the speakers at TEDxBroadway was Jonathan Rockefeller, a puppet designer who has created puppets of all sizes and styles for stage adaptations of PaddingtonThe Very Hungry Caterpillar, and Winnie the Pooh.

There are also producers and theatre company owners, both of whom have similar jobs. Put simply, they decide which shows to invest in and help raise the money to put them on, either on Broadway or for a specific theatre organization they're in charge of. On Broadway, when a show wins Best Play, Best Musical, or Best Revival, it's the producers who actually get the trophy. Repeatedly successful ones can become theatre legends and rack up lots of awards — for example, producer Emanuel Azenberg, one of the 2022 speakers, has 10 Tony Awards to his name plus a Lifetime Achievement Tony Award.

There's also a wealth of theatre jobs far beyond the stage. People can work as theatre-specific public relations agents, advertisers, talent representatives, social media managers, photographers, historians, writers, creative consultants, and more, and some do several of these at once. TEDxBroadway speaker Justin Schuman is one example — he's a personal brand consultant for actors, a photographer, and an actor in Tina on Broadway. Another speaker, Margaret Hall, works as both a theatre historian and journalist.

There used to be nearly 100 Broadway theatres.

The Theatre District used to be centered further downtown around Union Square. But once it moved uptown to Times Square in the early 1900s because real estate was cheaper, tons of new theatres were built. In the early- to mid-1900s, there were 90 Broadway theatres, according to Azenberg, though other historical records estimate that, in peak years, about 70 were up and running at once.

It's still lots more than today. Many of those early-1900s theatres have since been destroyed or repurposed, and guidelines for what makes a venue a "Broadway theatre" got more rigid as more and more theatres began to crop up. Now, there are 41 Broadway theatres, all of which have 500 or more seats. All theatres with less than 500 seats are Off-Broadway theatres by definition, but it doesn't always work the other way around. To be a Broadway theatre, a venue has to have a specific kind of contract that puts it in the Broadway League, the organization that oversees all Broadway theatres. Certain theatres with more than 500 seats — like Radio City Music Hall or the Apollo Theatre — aren't Broadway theatres because they're managed separately.

There used to be more than 100 Broadway show openings per year, too.

Because there were more theatres, there were more shows premiering annually. In the early 1900s, there were nearly 200 show openings per year! That number started to dwindle gradually after the Great Depression in the 1930s. By the 1970s and 1980s, there were between 40 and 50 Broadway openings a year, and now there's usually between 35 and 40.

Each Broadway show is like its own startup company.

Ever wonder how exactly Broadway shows come to be? Theatre producer Sammy Lopez broke it down at TEDxBroadway, and used the metaphor of a startup company. Each show is actually a kind of company, as they all register as an LLC (limited liability company), a type of business. The lead producer of a show is like the CEO, who is in charge of raising the most money from investors. The co-producers are like their executive team, and each one is in charge of raising a fraction of the lead producer's share.

Once there's enough money raised to get the "startup" off the ground, all the rest of the employees are brought on to fill each "department" — actors, directors, designers, crew, and more — and together they all make the show run! The Broadway theatre the show is in is like their office; producers have to rent out theatres for their shows and put part of the budget toward that, like a company renting office space.

A famous Broadway musical had a surprising ticket price.

Azenberg shared a surprising anecdote from years past. He talked about A Chorus Line, which premiered on Broadway in 1975 and has since become a modern musical theatre classic. It is the seventh-longest-running Broadway show in history with 6,137 performances. It's won nine Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize. But before the show achieved all this success, A Chorus Line was a humble, unknown Broadway show with a top ticket price of $15!

Of course, this is almost never the case on Broadway today, as the value of money has changed. But there are still affordable theatre tickets out there, such as Broadway lottery and rush tickets that many shows offer.

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