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What Are Broadway Musicals?

By Lumara Lee
Updated May 23, 2024
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A Broadway musical is a form of musical theater that holds performances in the theater district in New York City. Musical theater is a style of performing arts that combines music, singing, dancing, and spoken word. Broadway musicals are considered to be the highest form of musical theater.

The Broadway theater district is composed of 40 large theaters that seat 500 people or more. These theaters are located in Manhattan between 40th Street and 54th Street, and across Sixth Avenue to Eighth Avenue. The theater district includes Times Square, and nearby Lincoln Center also hosts Broadway musicals.

Broadway was the main street in New York City during the 1800s, which made it the ideal location for investors to build theaters and other entertainment establishments. Burlesque shows that were performed in theaters on Broadway were the forerunners of the style that later became known as Broadway musicals. In 1866, a show called The Black Crook combined all of the elements of music, song, dance, and speech, and is considered to be the first Broadway musical. William Wheatley, the manager of Niblo's Garden where The Black Crook was first performed, is known as the originator of Broadway musicals.

In the latter part of the 19th century, Gilbert and Sullivan found success with H.M.S. Pinafore and other comic operas. Flo Ziegfield brought the Ziegfield Follies to Broadway in 1907. The Follies entertained Broadway theater aficionados for many years.

By the early 1900s, Broadway musicals had developed into the style that is still popular today. Top composers wrote the music and lyrics for these plays. Many of the songs from these Broadway productions became hits.

Rodgers and Hammerstein, a prolific composing duo, gained popularity in the 20th century. Hammerstein wrote most of the lyrics for the Broadway productions that they developed, and Rodgers wrote the musical scores. The first show that they collaborated on was Oklahoma, which became an overnight success. They subsequently created other popular productions, including Carousel, The King and I, South Pacific, and The Sound of Music.

Irving Berlin is considered one of the top American composers. After writing hit songs that included There’s No Business Like Show Business and God Bless America, he turned his talents to Broadway musicals and wrote the successful Broadway productions White Christmas and Annie Get Your Gun. One of his contemporaries named Jerome Kern stated, "Irving Berlin has no place in American music -- he is American music."

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Discussion Comments

By Phaedrus — On Dec 28, 2014

Where do I even start when it comes to Broadway musicals? I was fortunate enough to get a role in a high school production of "Godspell" when I was a teen, and I fell in love with musical theater. I even studied it for a while in college, but switched my major to English when I realized I was in way over my head. A few of my classmates actually made it to Broadway after they graduated, but only one is still in show business.

I have a bucket list of Broadway musicals I want to see live before I die. At the top of the list is "Phantom of the Opera", followed by "Cats" and "Hedwig and the Angry Inch". My area doesn't exactly get much attention from the touring companies, but I'm willing to travel just about anywhere to see any show on my list. I can always rent the movie version, but there's just something about being twenty feet away from a stage filled with live actors who know exactly what they're doing.

By AnswerMan — On Dec 27, 2014

I'd probably see more shows if tickets for Broadway musicals weren't so expensive. A friend of mine finally had a chance to visit New York City last month and he tried to get Broadway musical tickets at the discount TKTS outlet. Even at a matinee discount, most of the current Broadway musicals were out of his price range. He ended up going to an older show that was playing off-Broadway and enjoyed every minute of it.

I love famous Broadway musicals myself, but I usually wait until a touring production comes through my area if I want to see any of them live. I saw "Annie Get Your Gun" and "Smokey Joe's Cafe" that way. Both were great. If the show isn't on tour, I'll either buy a DVD or record it from a PBS broadcast. I first saw "Cats" as a PBS special, along with "42nd Street".

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