For my final paper for my CORE III class, I decided to write a paper about why Broadway was an innovation, and how it fits in with excellence. It’s not like most things that exist today. Broadway and Musical Theatre has a pretty extensive background when you research it.
When most people think of excellence and innovation, various things come to mind: instant replay in sports, CGI in movies and the iPhone six in technology. What most people don’t realize is that there is another piece of excellence and innovation in society that wouldn’t even exist if someone didn’t think of it: Broadway. Musical Theatre has to be one of the most underrated things in modern-day culture, and it’s time that it got the recognition it deserves for helping America through the good times, and the bad.
Before modern-day Broadway even existed, it was just a street with regular business and apartment buildings. But, in 1811 city planners began a massive building plan which would later become the most well-known characteristic of Manhattan today. It would be set between 41st and 53rd street, and Sixth and Ninth Avenue. Nearly 40 plus theatres would be comprised in this stretch of road (Broadway and Theater History). Redesigning an entire city to accommodate over 40 theatres is was a big innovation in the 19th century because no one had ever imagined doing something that big before. How this relates to excellence is New York in the 19th century was kind of bland, the expansion and addition of over 40 theatres would add depth and dimension to the city that never sleeps.
The downside to this project, unfortunately, was the history of the theatre district. In the 1930s, Broadway and the theatre district had experienced a major setback. That setback was movies and the film industry. Live theatre back then couldn’t compete with films that had live sound because the cost of theatre was much more, and going to see a movie was cheaper (Broadway and Theater History). Families could afford the movies because the tickets cost much less than theatre tickets. That still is true today. It is much more affordable to take a whole family to see a movie and pay five dollars a ticket, than to take a whole family to see a live show for 34 dollars a ticket; that’s if you get the cheap seats.
From 1900-1918, the Broadway theatre district was just developing into the cultural center that it is today. It was charming and very simple. How this was innovative was because it was so simple, it attracted large crowds. The largest crowd surprisingly came from the middle class. Reason was that they were trying to find excitement, music and romance. And, if the ticket prices were as cheap like they were back then, there would be a lot more theatre goers; the best seats only cost $1.50 – $2.00 (The History of Theater on Broadway). Where the excellence factor comes in is with economy boost. The retail stores that lined the streets along with the theatres attracted a lot of wealthy patrons, and kept the economy alive (Broadway and Theater History).
A big negative was the distance between theatres. Not all of the theatres were located in Manhattan (Broadway and Theater History). Because everything was so closely situated together in close proximity, it wasn’t that far of a walk to get from one store to the other, or from one theatre to another. Not many productions had the amount of money they needed to fund their shows, so they had to rely on financial aid to help them (Broadway and Theater History). And, as if financial aid wasn’t bad enough, during the Great Depression and estimated 25,000 people in the theatre community lost their jobs. The majority of them were located in New York. It would take miracle to get these problems solved (History of Theatre in New York City).
The greatest innovation in Broadway theatre history would be made shortly after World War II ended: the Tony Awards. They were born in order to improve quality of the theatre performances, as well as introducing the element of competition. Apparently this competition would attract a broader and more varied audience (Broadway and Theater History). This fits in with excellence because President FDR created the Theatre Works Project.
What this was a fund that distributed $46 million dollars to the theatre industry, as well as financing more than 1,200 live performances. Another fund that was created for the Broadway community was The Stage Relief Fund. This helped working actors pay for living expenses. The Actor’s Dinner Club served meals to actors every night, and only charged those who could pay for the food (History of Theatre in New York City). Because of these funds, it has transformed Broadway into what it is today.
However, in the 1940’s Broadway had a huge short coming. Within a year, there were only 72 remaining theatres. The Republic Theatre that had been built by Oscar Hammerstein had been turned into a burlesque club. Time Square had been turned into an “adult activity” bazaar. Theatre also had to compete with the next greatest invention: Television. This provided people with free entertainment, which lead to an 80% unemployment rate for Broadway actors in 1948. The few theatres that were lucky stayed theatres; the remaining ones were either torn down, or turned into slums. Broadway had become less of an industry, and more of an assortment of individuals (The History of Theater on Broadway).
Despite the decline in theatre, during the war effort in World War II, the America Theatre Wing opened the Stage Door Canteen where starts provided food and free entertainment to members of the armed forces. They also traveled to the war reserve camps to perform follies to boost the spirits of soldiers and workers. This could be considered an innovation on the whole Vaudeville concept because normally Vaudeville consisted of burlesque dancing and comedy.
How Broadway expanded on this was not only did it improve the dancing, but it also added acting, and singing as well (History of Theatre in New York City). What makes this excellent is that this charity would pave the way of other great Broadway supported charities: Broadway Barks which supports animal rescue, Broadway Cares/ Equity Fights AIDS which helps fund HIV/AIDS research, and National Alliance for Musical Theatre which supports imagination, diversity and originality in the creation of new musicals.
It wasn’t until the mid to late 1940s that Broadway started to gain its momentum. In 1943, Rodger and Hammerstein combined elements of song, dancing, comedy and drama to create their first smash Oklahoma! In 1949, Rodger and Hammerstein’s South Pacific became their second smash hit, as well as a Pulitzer Prize-winning musical. Then, in 1957 Jerome Robbins’ hit musical West Side Story with music by the amazing Leonard Bernstein brought to light the racial issue between Caucasians and Puerto Ricans. The very first Tony Awards was held in 1947, and were named after Antoinette Perry to recognize excellence in all fields of theatre. And the 40s also paved the way for tons of Off-Broadway productions, which lead to the building of more theatres in the Greenwhich Village.
What most don’t know in the biggest parts of the city, the theatres that didn’t do so well were being converted to film houses. Movies were taking of the entertainment business. Because of this advancement in film technology, the theatre industry was becoming obsolete. The increasing prices for real-estate on the theatre building were uneconomical. Initially, theatres were a sign of wealth and vivaciousness. When World War II was over, they became unprofitable, and were dangerous after the Chicago Fire.
If you look back far enough in theatre history, it can be found that the history of Broadway dates back to the 1700s. The first musical can date back to 1750 in New York City. Two actors, Thomas Kean Walter Murray, established the first theatre company that housed 280 people. Unfortunately, on the brink of the Revolutionary War, all productions were halted and the theatre didn’t open until 1798. The notorious John Wilkes Booth’s brother, Edwin Booth was a Broadway actor. He got his start in Shakespearean plays. When the Civil War finally ended, more and more theatres started to pop up. But, it wasn’t until the 20s and 30s that Broadway consolidate all of the theatres (Broadway and Theater History).
During the 1970s and 1980s, Broadway continued its success, and continued to captures the headlines and hearts of America. Michael Bennett’s A Chorus Line dominated the Great White Way with a Pulitzer Prize and nine Tony Awards in 1975. In 1982, Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Cats opened at the Winter Garden Theatre and currently holds the record for the second longest-running musical in Broadway history. What holds the record for the longest-running musical is Weber’s other hit, The Phantom of the Opera (History of Theatre in New York City).
As time went on, Broadway has started creating shows based on actual events from US History. Why this is such an innovative aspect is because whoever created the shows added some light, satirical notes to lighten up the seriousness and sadness of whatever even had happened. This also fits into the excellence category because even though tragedies were happening almost every day, people could go to the theatre, forget about their troubles, and have a good time (Fredericks). Apparently US History and Biography proved to be a very popular selling point for drama and comedy.
The League of New York Theatres and Producers changed its name to the League of American Theatres and Producers in 1982. Today it is known strictly as The Broadway League. How it became innovative was in 1988, the majority of Broadway’s theatres were officially named historical sites by the New York Landmarks Preservation Commission (History of Theatre in New York City). How this fits in with excellence is that if one travels to New York wanting to see a show, there is no shortage of theatres surrounding them. Many of the theatres in Time Square are historical sites, and have housed more than one musical or play. The longer the history of the theatre, the more of a crowd it will draw in.
Tourism to Broadway theatres and Time Square was halted on September 11th, 2001. All theatres were opened two days later due to the tragedy. Some even sang “God Bless America” before the eight show performance week began. The entire theatre community got together to raise money for the families of the victims that were in the attacks, as well as encouraging their loyal theatre-going fans to continue to support Broadway. Charities like Broadway Cares/ Equity Fights AIDS still to this day support the Broadway community by raising funds and awareness about worthy causes and issues (History of Theatre in New York City).
Out of all the 40 theatres on Broadway – only four are actually on Broadway. $11.2 billion dollars is spent by the Broadway community, which helps fund the economy. Along with the economy boost, Broadway helps fund and support nearly 86,000 jobs. The indirect economic support comes from the tourists that visit New York and spend $12 million dollars on theatre tickets annually. To this day, the Broadway community still continues to captures the hearts of America with its breath-taking storylines, brilliant actors and ground-breaking performances. Broadway not only pleases the eyes and ears, but it also pleases that mind, body and soul of every human being (History of Theatre in New York City).
Broadway definitely fits in with the innovations of today because it’s not necessarily something that people need, but it’s one of those luxury items that people like to splurge on every now and again. It’s also innovative because it can add much needed comedy to every day moments through dancing, singing and acting. How Broadway fits into the excellence category is with every decade there was a new political problem, a new racial injustice or new tragedy; Broadway used their medium to bring light to these situations to make them easier to talk about. For some reason, issues were easier if they were mentioned in a musical or play.