Broadway is a street in New York, but it's also practically synonymous with musical theater. From some of the pre-theater history of The Great White Way (including when it first earned that nickname) to facts about Broadway in its infancy and some of its most recent box-office bonanzas, we're shining a spotlight on some fascinating facts about Broadway, adapted from an episode of The List Show on YouTube.
1. Olive Thomas’s ghost is said to haunt the New Amsterdam Theatre.
In the early 1920s, people started spotting a performer named Olive Thomas at Broadway’s New Amsterdam Theatre, where she had previously appeared in Florenz Ziegfeld Jr.’s show Midnight Frolic. The sightings were strange for two reasons: One, Thomas wasn’t scheduled to perform at the venue. Two, she was dead.
Thomas had passed away in 1920 after an overdose of mercury bichloride, and the circumstances of her death are shrouded in mystery. At the time, her husband, Jack, brother of Hollywood star Mary Pickford, had been taking mercury bichloride to treat syphilis. Some suspected that Jack poisoned his wife, while others thought she overdosed intentionally after discovering her husband had exposed her to the dreaded infection. Still others believed she had simply confused the blue bottle for one that contained a sleeping medication.
Whatever the case, Thomas’s death at just 25 years old shocked the Broadway community. And the glimpses of her ghost, little blue bottle in hand, were nearly as alarming. They died down when the theater wasn’t getting much business in the mid-20th century, but Thomas has apparently found new ways to make her presence known in the 21st.
Several years ago, some New Amsterdam Theatre employees were talking about the 2011 film The Artist when someone wondered aloud what Olive Thomas would have thought of it. Suddenly, more than a dozen DVDs on a nearby table zoomed across the room and crashed into the wall. As Dana Amendola, Disney Theatrical Group’s vice president of operations, told Playbill, “They all sat in stunned silence. That stack had been there for a long time, and there was no obvious way they could have fallen, let alone [fly] across the room.” Amendola was sure Thomas was behind it.
2. Broadway has gone by a number of names.
Long before Broadway became a hub for entertainers (and their ghosts) and larger-than-life advertisements, it was a Native American thoroughfare known as the Wickquasgeck trail. When Dutch settlers took over Manhattan in the 17th century, they renamed the path De Heeren Straat, meaning “the Gentlemen’s Street.” And since it was really wide, people sometimes just called it Brede Weg, or Broadway. That nickname stuck when the British gained control of the area.
3. New York’s early theater scene was centered downtown.
As anyone who’s seen Hamilton already knows, New York City was “the greatest city in the world” even in the 18th century, so it’s no surprise that theater actors picked it as a promising spot to set up shop. Head downtown to Nassau Street around 1750 and you could see Richard III performed by Walter Murray and Thomas Kean’s troupe. Companies weren’t exactly revolutionizing the theatrical canon—they mainly performed whatever was popular back in England, from Shakespeare’s plays to The Beggar’s Opera.
4. The Park Theatre marked a step forward for New York’s performance spaces.
The New York theater scene quieted down considerably while the colonies split from Britain, but things picked back up again in the 1790s. In January 1798, the Park Theatre (or “New Theatre”) opened downtown on Park Row with a performance of Shakespeare’s As You Like It, followed by a musical offering called The Purse, or American Tar. Though the theater was technically still unfinished on opening night, it still got a glowing review in New York’s Daily Advertiser, which said:
“We do not remember to have been in any Theatre where the view of the stage is so complete from all parts of the house, or where the actors are heard with such distinctness … The stage was everything that could be wished … The correctness of the designs, and the elegance of the painting, presented the most beautiful views which the imagination can conceive.”
The Park Theatre was also quite large for the time, seating some 2000 people. It ushered in a new era of bigger, better venues, and other theaters proliferated downtown in the following decades. They were far from what’s now the Theater District in Midtown, but some of them were on Broadway.
5. The Black Crook has been called the first “Broadway musical.”
Niblo’s Garden, for example, was a theater on Prince Street and Broadway that played host to what’s often considered the first real Broadway musical. After a fire destroyed the Academy of Music in 1866, producers Harry Palmer and Henry Jarrett were left with nowhere for their ballet company to perform. They convinced the manager of Niblo’s Garden, William Wheatley, to let them combine their dance show with his upcoming play about a sorcerer who trades souls to the devil in return for eternal life. The result was a sensual, six-hour-long extravaganza of song, dance, and drama called The Black Crook. It was a smashing success, lasting for around 480 performances—hundreds more than a standard run.
6. Oscar Hammerstein I played a key role in bringing theater to Midtown.
At the point that The Black Crook was taking its bows, Midtown was still in its startup stage. Mayor Cornelius Van Wyck Lawrence had cut the figurative ribbon on 42nd Street in 1836, telling city dwellers to “move up town and enjoy the pure, clean air.”
Broadway’s next big break went by the name of Oscar Hammerstein I, the grandfather of the famed lyricist who eventually teamed up with Richard Rodgers. Around the turn of the 20th century, Hammerstein pretty much led the charge to transform Times Square into the musical theater mecca we know today. Though at that point, it was still called Longacre Square—the name only changed after The New York Times moved there in 1904. Hammerstein built multiple theaters in the area, including the Olympia Theater in 1895 and the Victoria Theater in 1899.
7. Broadway theaters proliferated in the early 20th century.
In the early years of the 20th century, a whole slew of other theaters started popping up. There were, to name a few, the aforementioned New Amsterdam Theatre, dutifully haunted by Olive Thomas; The Belasco Theatre, which is also supposedly haunted (by its namesake, David Belasco); and the Lyceum Theatre, now the oldest continually running Broadway theater in existence.
8. Electric lighting (and the subway) ushered in a new age on Broadway.
It wasn’t just Hammerstein’s influence that made Midtown the place to be. Two huge industrial advancements helped, too. One was electricity. Stuffy, gas-lit theaters weren’t just uncomfortable—they were a fire hazard. Electric light bulbs made theater-going a safer, more pleasant experience. They also gave advertisers a chance to dazzle pedestrians with flashy street displays. Broadway was quick to adopt the bright new bulbs, earning it a new nickname: “The Great White Way.” Fun fact: The first known use of the phrase in reference to Broadway was actually in response to a big snowstorm in the area. It’s hard to imagine the name would have stuck on the basis of meteorology alone, though.
The other big development around that time was the first subway line, which opened in 1904. Suddenly, Times Square didn’t seem so inaccessible to downtowners.
9. The Ziegfeld Follies bridged vaudeville with what Broadway would become.
Over the next few decades, Broadway saw many French-inspired vaudeville productions, and, of course, Florenz Ziegfeld Jr.’s famed Ziegfeld Follies. With all the beautiful women clad in scanty costumes, Follies shows were an opportunity for people to see something slightly risqué but still socially acceptable.
10. Mae West was arrested for her play Sex.
But the moral standard was far from “anything goes!” In February 1927, Mae West and about 20 other actors were arrested while performing a play called Sex, written by West herself. The story follows sex workers in Montreal’s red-light district, and the court described it as an “obscene, indecent, immoral, and impure drama” that would lead to “the corruption of the morals of youth.”
Though the charges would have been dropped had West agreed to shut down Sex for good, she refused. As they say, there’s no such thing as bad publicity. She served her eight days and then founded a prison library with the thousand dollars she earned from a magazine interview.
One noteworthy theory about this particular bit of censorship is that it wasn’t really about the play Sex at all. Multiple sources consider the raid more of a warning shot directed towards an upcoming West production called The Drag. That play would have featured gay men in gay roles. In the words of historian George Chauncey, West had “moved the sort of gay act that had become a part of Times Square’s roof garden revues … and transposed it to the legitimate stage.” If The Drag was the censors’ true target, they succeeded—the New York production of the play was scuttled.
11. Antoinette Perry’s contributions to theater are commemorated in the Tony Awards.
Around that same time, a Colorado-born actress was preparing to pivot from acting to directing. Her name was Antoinette Perry, or Tony for short. With her production partner (and later lover) Brock Pemberton, Perry staged an impressive 17 shows from the late 1920s to early 1940s. She also pushed for a national acting school and helped found the Theatre Wing of Allied Relief, now known as the American Theatre Wing. After her death in 1946, the industry honored her by founding the Antoinette Perry Award for Excellence in Theatre. When Pemberton presented one at the first ceremony in 1947, he referred to it as a Tony.
12. Seven Tonys have Tonys.
Nobody named Antoinette has ever won a Tony before, but seven Tonys have (not including people who were billed as Anthony). The latest was in 2018, when Tony Shalhoub took home the Best Leading Actor in a Musical award for his performance in The Band’s Visit.
13. Mary and Richard Rodgers went head-to-head for Tony glory.
In 1960, Once Upon a Mattress, composed by Mary Rodgers, nabbed a nomination for Best Musical. She went up against her father, Richard Rodgers of “Rodgers and Hammerstein” fame, who had composed The Sound of Music. In this case, dad bested daughter—The Sound of Music tied with Fiorello! for the win. During a 1996 interview, Mary said she was happy just to have been nominated. In her words, “I don't think either my father or I thought I'd ever be nominated for anything.”
14. The definition of “on Broadway” might not be what you think.
In order to be eligible for Tony Awards in the first place, a production has to be on Broadway—as opposed to off-Broadway, or even off-off-Broadway. The difference mainly has to do with theater size, rather than location. Broadway theaters seat 500 or more patrons; off-Broadway capacity ranges from 100 to 499; and only 99 people or fewer can fit in an off-off-Broadway venue, by definition.
Broadway theaters are also usually in or right near the actual Theater District, which stretches from West 41st to West 54th Streets in Manhattan, between Sixth and Eighth Avenues. But there are definitely exceptions to those rules, and the official designation actually comes down to production contracts. Of the 40 or so Broadway theaters considered “on Broadway” these days, only a few are literally on Broadway: the Palace Theater, the Winter Garden, and the Broadway Theatre. A couple other contenders could be considered on Broadway, as well, but their official addresses list them on other streets.
15. Rent influenced other shows to start ticket lotteries.
Broadway tickets are also generally quite a bit more expensive than their off-Broadway counterparts. With a little dedication and a lot of luck, though, you can score deeply discounted tickets to many shows through a lottery system. For that, we have Rent to thank.
Jonathan Larson’s ‘90s rock musical, inspired by the 19th-century opera La Bohème, follows a group of modern-day Manhattan bohemians against the backdrop of the AIDS epidemic. To make sure real-life bohemians could actually afford to see the show, producers sold two rows’ worth of $20 tickets a couple hours before each performance. The offering was so popular that it became a safety issue, since young people had started spending the night in line outside the theater.
The producers replaced the first-come-first-served policy with a lottery: Everyone enters their name in person, and the winners get dibs on the $20 tix. The new system was so successful that many other theaters with popular shows adopted it, too. These days, a lot of these lotteries happen online.
16. The Phantom of the Opera is the longest-running show in Broadway history.
As of March 2020, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera had been performed on the Great White Way 13,370 times, making it the longest-running show in Broadway history.
Some of the orchestra members have been there since the beginning. On an episode of This American Life from October 2020, Jay Caspian Kang interviewed some of them to find out what it’s like to play the same songs eight times a week for decades. They all have their own coping mechanisms.
The French horn players, for example, are the class clowns. One has even been known to write on the bottoms of audience members’ shoes with white-out. Oboist Melanie Feld told Kang that while she is putting her all into the work, it’s not for the audience, per se, but to ensure the French horn players don’t laugh at her.
Other musicians stay completely disengaged—like Feld’s former nemesis, a trumpet player named Francis Bonny who’s no longer with the show. Bonny actually attached a little blinder to his glasses so he wouldn’t have to see anyone in the pit. Kurt Coble, who’s clocked in for more than 20 years, doesn’t call himself a violinist. He calls himself a violin operator.
Coble told Kang, “I've often compared it to working in a hospice. … We just keep the show alive as long as we can.” Nick Jemo, a trumpet player who joined the production more recently, compared the show to something slightly less bleak: the movie Groundhog Day.
17. Cats used 3247 pounds of yak hair over its 18 years.
The list of longest-running shows plays host to another Andrew Lloyd Webber original. Cats, which ran from 1981 to 2000 and had a brief revival from 2016 to 2017, is currently in fourth place. If there were a list of musicals that used the most yak hair, though, Cats would probably be in the top spot. Over the show’s 18-year tenure, the costume department went through 3247 pounds of yak hair for the performers’ wigs. That’s around the weight of two—two!—fully grown wild yaks.
18. The Lion King is the highest-grossing Broadway production of all time.
When it comes to ticket sales, though, Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer got lapped by some much bigger cats. And so did everyone else. The Lion King has raked in $1.68 billion since its debut in 1997, making it the highest-grossing Broadway show of all time.
19. The Carrie musical failed spectacularly.
Translating The Lion King from screen to stage turned out to be a fantastic idea. The same can’t be said for certain other adaptations—like Stephen King’s classic horror novel Carrie. The musical arrived on Broadway in the spring of 1988, and everyone was generally appalled at how, well, horrifying it was. One especially upbeat number called “Out for Blood,” for example, is all about slaughtering pigs. New York Times critic Frank Rich likened the show to the Hindenburg disaster. Carrie crashed and burned nearly as quickly as that ill-fated airship, closing after only five performances.
20. Sweeney Todd’s story traces to a Victorian penny dreadful.
But blood and guts aren’t always the recipe for a Broadway flop. Take Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. The story traces to a Victorian penny dreadful—a cheap form of popular serialized literature from the 19th century. Sweeney Todd centers on a vengeful barber conspiring with an accomplice to bake unsavory characters into savory human meat pies. It premiered on Broadway in March 1979 and went on to win eight Tonys, including Best Musical.
21. Chicago is based on real (accused) murderers.
Another big award-winner, Chicago, also has a hefty dose of homicide—and its Merry Murderesses were based on real people. The model for Roxie Hart was Beulah Annan, who shot her lover in 1924 and then claimed self-defense, explaining that they had “both reached for the gun” after he assaulted her. Much like Hart’s husband, Amos, sticks by his deceitful wife in the musical, Annan’s spouse emptied his bank account to pay for her defense. The public felt great sympathy for Annan, whom police described as “Chicago’s prettiest woman slayer,” and she was found not guilty.
Velma Kelly was inspired by Belva Gaertner, a cabaret performer who shot her married lover just weeks before Annan’s alleged crime. Though Gaertner was found with blood all over her, she couldn’t remember a thing—and pleaded not guilty. As she explained to the Chicago Tribune at the time, “No woman can love a man enough to kill him. They aren’t worth it, because there are always plenty more.” The jury apparently agreed with that sentiment enough to acquit her.
22. Many Broadway theaters skip Row I.
Whether you’re watching a show about crime, cats, or a chandelier-crashing angel of music, there’s a slim chance you’ll be in Row I. Many theaters don’t have one. Unlike buildings skipping the 13th floor, theaters going right from Row H to Row J has nothing to do with superstition. At a glance, the letter I can easily be mistaken for the number1, which can cause confusion both when box office attendants are selling tickets and when ushers are directing people to their seats in a dark theater. Some theaters omit Row Q and/or Row O, since those look so similar, too.