As part of my work with Teachers College Columbia University’s Media & Social Change Lab, we were asked to tackle the topic of Unique New York for the Spring 2023 Semester. In this episode, I discuss the relationship between New York City and the Broadway Musical (a long-lived passion of mine) and reflect on issues of accessibility and more.
Click “Read More” for the full transcript! You can also stream this episode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and wherever you get your podcasts!Read more: I Made a Podcast! Listen to “A Brief History of the Broadway Musical”
MascLab Podcast Season 5, Episode 6: New York, New York: A Brief History of the Broadway Musical
Kate Orgera (Narration)
One minute, you’re standing on a noisy, crowded street of Manhattan, waiting on line to get your ticket checked. Then you hear that sweet mimics ticket check sound.
street sounds fade out
And you step into this beautiful theater, with its lights and velvet curtains and high ceilings.
Theater crowd noises
The ushers hand you your free Playbill as you find your seat, surrounded by other theater goers who are just as excited for the show to start as you are.
Orchestra warm up sounds
You flip through your Playbill. And then, the lights flicker. The orchestra warms up below. The “turn off your cell phone” announcement comes over the speaker.
And as the lights go down, the audience cheers –
– and you settle in, knowing you are about to be swept into a world of color and movement, created by these incredibly talented actors and artists.
Intro music fades in (0:55)
This… is the Broadway musical experience. And you can only find it here, in New York City.
MASCLab Intro voices start (1:06)
MASCLab is a hub for multimodal and digital scholarship that explores the relationship between media and our changing society.
We support, curate and create media intended to spark dialogue and social change
and the development of pedagogy that uses media to foster civic engagement.
MASCLab is located in the Communication, Media, and Learning Technology Design program at Teachers College, Columbia University.
Music fades out 1:35
Kate Orgera (1:40)
My name is Kate Elizabeth Orgera, and I am a first year Masters Student in the Instructional Technology and Media program. And I am a musical theater dork. Or a theater kid. Whatever you want to call it.
Tambourine and piano music starts (1:55)
When I came to TC, I wasn’t expecting to talk so much about Broadway. But as fellow students who hadn’t been in New York before expressed interest in seeing Broadway shows, I sort of became the local expert.
See, I grew up less than 30 miles away from teachers college in Nassau County, Long Island. And for the past 20 years, about 2/3rds of my life, I have been going to see Broadway shows whenever I had the chance. Not counting a handful of repeat viewings, I’ve seen over 40 productions. I’ve also collected books about Broadway, watched Youtube videos about Broadway, acted in school and local productions of Broadway shows, and attempted to write my own musical. Once.
So yes, I’m a bit obsessed.
While other cities have their own live theater districts, like London’s West End, New York’s Broadway theater district has a world-renowned reputation as the center of the American theater world, particularly musical theater. After all, musical theater was invented here. And Broadway musicals from Oklahoma! to Hamilton have shaped American media and popular culture for over 150 years. So, when asked to discuss something unique about New York, why wouldn’t I go with Broadway? Right?
Music fades out (3:10)
What is Broadway, anyway?
Violin music swells (3:18)
“… is a very special place, filled with very special people. People who can sing and dance. Often at the same time!”
Music abruptly stops, Kate clears throat. (3:28)
I’m just kidding, um, that’s actually a monologue from the musical Spamalot. Um, okay, let’s-let’s… let’s get real here.
Energetic jazz music fades in (3:37)
Broadway is a place. But it’s also a designation, a distinction, if you will.
So, you have Broadway the street, which spans the length of Manhattan, including our own Columbia and TC campus.
Then you have the Broadway Theater District, which runs vertically from 40th to 54th street, and horizontally from Eighth Avenue to Sixth Avenue, with Broadway the street cutting diagonally through the center.
Within this district, there are 40 designated Broadway theaters. These are live entertainment venues that must have at least 500 seats to be considered a Broadway theater. The only theater outside of this district that counts as a Broadway theater is the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center. Thus, a Broadway musical, technically speaking, is any musical theater work that has been produced at a Broadway theater.
So, why here? Well, according to the Theater District website, “The Broadway Theater District originated in the early 1900s as theaters began to move from Union Square further uptown to the Times Square area because of its cheaper real estate.” Which, y’know, that kind of about sums it up.
Now, not all musicals are Broadway musicals. And not all Broadway shows are musicals – famous dramas like A Raisin in the Sun and The Crucible were also produced in Broadway theaters before becoming part of American high school English classes. But musical theater itself would not exist without Broadway, or without New York.
Jazz music abruptly stops. (5:08) Pause. “Gypsy Blues” fades in (5:10)
Like many things that were created in New York, the musical theater artform is a bit of a melting pot of older influences. Mostly Western ones. These include spoken comedy and drama, operas and operettas (particularly those by Gilbert & Sullivan) British pantomime, American vaudeville, and various styles of dance. Plus, of course, some razzle dazzle.
This all came together in what is tentatively considered by historians to be the first prototype of modern musical theater: The Black Crook. Opening on Broadway in September 1866, its New York-based producers combined a melodramatic script with massive sets, a Parisian ballet troupe in scandalous costumes, and of course songs. While many critics hated it – including, weirdly, Charles Dickens – its spectacle made it a smash hit, and inspired other producers to follow suit. Like I said: razzle dazzle is an important part of this equation. Because Broadway isn’t just art – it’s business.
Due to this, according to Larry Stempel, author of Showtime: A History of the Broadway Musical Theater, producers sought to monopolize theater in New York City, making it the centerpoint of the industry. And with the advent of electric light in the early 20th century, theaters using the new white lights to show off their marquees earned Broadway the nickname of the Great White Way.
”Gypsy Blues” fades out (6:33). Irving Berlin I Love a Piano instrumental fades in (6:35)
These early musicals, while they were scripted to an extent, were not exactly plot-driven affairs. Still, they kept audiences entertained and soon became a force of popular culture across the country.
Composers like Irving Berlin, The Gershwin Brothers, and Cole Porter, all wrote Broadway musicals and revues out of their offices on 28th Street, or Tin Pan Alley, with breakout songs that became popular classics. Even Langston Hughes wrote a couple of musicals.
Speaking of Hughes, though, through the Harlem Renaissance, new American music genres like Ragtime and Jazz would shape the Broadway sound during the early 20th century.
- I Love a Piano fades out (7:15)*
But two productions would bring a new gravitas to Broadway, bringing about what would set the standard for musicals forever: The book musical.
- Rousing orchestra tunes (7:26) *
While Show Boat in 1927, based on a 1926 novel, was the first musical to marry spectacle and seriousness (as well as to racially integrate its cast), the shift didn’t quite stick until 16 years later when, in the midst of a country at war, Oklahoma! opened in New York 1943, after middling tryouts in New Haven and Boston under its working title, “Away We Go”.
Skillfully weaving story, music, and dance into a cohesive, all-American whole, the show was a smash and kicked off the 20-year Golden Age of Broadway, which would bleed over into Hollywood and beyond. And giving the actual state of Oklahoma its official song.
When we think of musical theater today, it’s the Broadway book musical, as created by Oklahoma!, that we look to.
It should be noted, by the way, that both of these genre-defining musicals featured lyrics by Columbia graduate Oscar Hammerstein II.
*Music abruptly stops. (8:25) 70s rock piano fades in (8:27) *
Throughout the rest of the 20th Century and into the 21st, musical theater and New York remained intertwined, one constantly influencing the other.
Broadway composers continued to create breakout American standards through the late 60s. If you’ve ever heard songs like “Anything Goes”, “Luck Be a Lady”, “Hello Dolly”, or “We Need a Little Christmas”, those songs were on Broadway first.
Soon after this, Broadway and popular culture started to diverge in the midst of the social upheaval of the Civil Rights Movement and Anti-War Movement.
But Broadway kept going, slowly adapting to and influencing the new cultural landscape:
The hippies and bohemians that took over Central Park in the late 60s inspired Hair, the first ever rock musical, which would make way for future rock musicals, from Andrew Lloyd Weber to Moulin Rouge.
When AIDS swept through New York’s gay community in the 80s and early 90s, many of whom worked on Broadway themselves, Jonathan Larson’s Rent would rise to give voice to the MTV generation and those who had suffered. This and musicals like La Cage Aux Folles and Falsettos would put gay characters centerstage far ahead of what Hollywood was doing.
In addition, it took Disney’s leap to Broadway in the early 90s to clean up Times Square, transforming 42nd Street from a block lined with triple-X rated theaters to the major tourist hub it is today.
And after September 11, 2001 left New York in shocked silence, the Broadway community rallied together for a widely-broadcast tv commercial that would reassure New Yorkers and theater lovers around the world that the show – and the city — must go on. What did they sing? “New York, New York”, of course.
- Piano fades out.(10:09) *
Today, Broadway, particularly the Broadway musical, is one of the major economic drivers for the city of New York.
Bass fades in (10:18)
Prior to the pandemic, attendance for these shows topped that of every major New York sports team. Combined.
It is also responsible for 100,000 jobs, plus providing business to surrounding restaurants, stores, hotels, tourist destinations, and modes of transportation. People come from all over the country and the world for a chance to see a live Broadway musical.
And of the major theater awards worldwide, the Tony Awards, the awards that go exclusively to Broadway shows, are the ones considered the theater equivalent to the Oscars. If you want an EGOT, you have to be willing to work in New York
But this begs the question: Why? Why is New York still considered the center of the theater universe after all this time? And should it be?
There is an argument to be made, after all, that Broadway is very exclusive. In an age where we have so much media at our fingertips from around the world, Broadway is still stubbornly something you can only really experience in New York City.
I mean, sure, there are Original Broadway Cast recordings you can listen to – in fact, a lot of people get into musicals through listening to these. And of course there are local productions of licensed Broadway shows, and you might find a clip or two online. But other than that, you can’t really experience a Broadway show unless you’re in New York.
And even if you are in New York, it’s going to cost you a lot of money to go to a Broadway show. Orchestra seats for some of the biggest shows can be hundreds of dollars. Of course, there are discount programs, there are lottery tickets, there are rush tickets. There’s the Broadway Bridges program, that gives New York City public high school student the chance to see a Broadway show before graduation. But still, if you love musicals, it’s going to cost a pretty penny to actually see these shows.
The cost of these tickets is partly justified by the fact there’s a lot of money being spent behind the scenes on these shows too. I mean, think about it: You have to pay all of the actors, and all of the musicians, and all of the crew members. Not to mention the cost of upkeep of the sets, and the costumes – all of this added together, you need to be making a certain amount of money every single night to justify your show going on. If not, the show closes.
Movies, TV shows, these are all just one and done. But Broadway shows, they get recreated every night, over and over, eight shows a week for… pretty much the whole year. It’s a lot. A lot of shows never actually recoup their investment, so anything that a producer is going to invest in, it’s a big risk.
Unfortunately, this means that producers tend to go with safe bets when picking shows to produce on Broadway. This means, you known, your movie adaptations, your jukebox musicals, your stunt casting attempts. These aren’t bad things, a lot of great musicals are adaptations, even Oklahoma! was an adaptation of a play. But it does mean that some of the more risky stuff, or things that tap into certain niche audiences, is less likely to come to Broadway.
There’s also the unfortunate question of who gets to Broadway. In spite of the popular claim that Broadway is a welcoming community that promotes empathy – and I really believe that it is – the community has been in a bit of an existential crisis for a few years now about whether what audiences see on stage reflects the real New York and wider world outside of the theater district. There has been more of a push to cast and produce shows with more racial, gender, physical, and neurodiversity in mind, but those conversations are still in progress and there’s a long way to go.
Bass fades out. (14:25)
Still, in spite of its flaws, I think there’s something special about Broadway.
Hopeful, bittersweet jazz music fades in (14:33)
It’s more than just a place. And it’s more than just a business. It’s a history. It’s a labor of love. It is a people dedicated to their craft and to their dreams. To me, it’s a bit like magic.
Which is why, when Broadway shut down on March 12, 2020, for what was originally meant to be a month and turned into a year and a half, the heart of the city kind of shut down too. All the restaurants and stores lost business. Hotels remained vacant. And the streets were all too quiet.
And when it came back in Fall 2021, even with masking and vaccine requirements, the mood was… god, it was electric. There are at least a dozen videos of emotional Broadway reopenings that you can find on Youtube, but I can tell you from experience: I went to see Six within a month of its reopening. And everyone, on stage and in the seats, was just so thrilled to be there, in person, seeing a show in New York City.
So whatever the future may hold for Broadway, it still has a hold over our culture and our hearts. Its combination of song, story, and movement speaks to our emotions in ways no other artform can, and will leave you carrying a tune long after you leave the theater.
Jazz fades out. Pause (16:04)
In the interest of expanding accessibility, I thought I might share some ways you too can enjoy this incredible New York pastime, for a little less than you might normally have to.
Rousing piano starts (16:16)
All shows have some form of same-day discount tickets available. These may include:
Digital and in-person lotteries, where you can submit your contact info the night before in hopes of getting a ticket at random for the next day’s shows, rush ticket lines, where you go in person to the theater before the box office opens to snag one of a limited number of discounted tickets,
cancellation lines, where you can claim tickets for someone else’s cancelled seats, and standing room only tickets, which are only available if the show completely sells out.
The TKTS booths also offer same-day deals for a limited number of shows. The closest one to TC is at Lincoln Center, with the most famous one in Times Square.
You can also check out NYC Broadway Week, in February and September, which offers 2 for 1 tickets to over a dozen Broadway shows.
And don’t forget to check out off-broadway shows, or off-off broadway shows! These musicals happen in smaller theaters for slightly cheaper prices, and a number of off-broadway musicals, like Hamilton, end up transferring to Broadway. So you can say you saw it before it was cool. Hope you enjoy the show!
Piano fades out (17:24)
MascLab theme fades in (17:26)
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This episode was produced and edited by me, Kate Orgera, a student member of MASCLab at Teachers College, Columbia University. Our theme music is Grandma’s Impala by Sara Illstrumentalist, available on YouTube’s no copyright music channel. Additional music and effects used in this episode were sourced from Pixabay and Garageband.
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