BY: JEFF DOBBINS
For over a century, Times Square has been home to New York’s Broadway District – its bright lights and bustling streets typify the glamor and excitement of Broadway. On this walking tour, you’ll explore the heart of this world-famous area, while tracing the history of Broadway theater.
Before you begin, let’s define what exactly is the Broadway District. The official district houses theaters between 41st and 54th Streets, and between Sixth and Eighth Avenues. As an FYI: The basic requirements for a “Broadway House” are the theater must be located within the district (though two theaters qualify even though they sit beyond these boundaries), have a minimum of 499 seats, and employ the theatrical unions. There are currently 41 Broadway theaters.
Starting point: Broadway and 41st Street
The theater has been an important part of New York’s culture since the city was a British colony. Throughout the 19th century, as the city expanded, theaters headed north along the boulevard called Broadway. Over the century, theatrical hubs also formed around Union Square, Madison Square, and Herald Square. In fact, Broadway’s unofficial anthem declares, “Give my regards to Broadway. Remember me to Herald Square.”
It was here, on the northwest corner of Broadway and 41st Street, that the Broadway theatre arrived… literally. In 1888 a playhouse named the Broadway Theater opened here. Soon other new theaters sprang up in the surrounding blocks. In fact, by 1910, there were 34 theaters located in Times Square.
[Walk west on 41st Street and cross Seventh Avenue.]
Stop #2: Seventh Avenue and Broadway
Here we see the Nederlander Theatre, the only Broadway theater south of 42nd Street. Since opening as the National Theatre in 1921, it has been home to classic dramas like Grand Hotel, Picnic, The Little Foxes, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? By the 1970s, the theater’s southern location made it less appealing for productions and as a result, it was frequently “dark” (i.e. empty). It was quite decrepit when the Nederlander family bought it in 1980. Fortunately, that made it an ideal home for the gritty Broadway production of Rent, which played the theater for 12 years. It now houses Pretty Woman.
[Continue up Seventh Avenue to 42nd Street. Walk west, stopping in front of the New Amsterdam Theatre.]
Stop #3: 42nd Street
This is perhaps New York’s most famous street. In the first three decades of the 20th century, this block was the glamorous heart of New York’s entertainment world. Perhaps the most elegant nightspot of all was the New Amsterdam Theatre, home to the Ziegfeld Follies. The musical revues featured lavish sets and costumes, a troupe of beautiful (often scantily clad) showgirls, and stars like Fanny Brice, Will Rogers, Josephine Baker and W.C. Fields. Beyond that, the entire block was once lined with sparkling theaters housing productions with Fred Astaire, Ethel Merman, Noel Coward and Bob Hope – but the Great Depression brought the party to an end.
Directly across the street, you’ll see the New Victory Theater. This theater exemplifies the history of 42nd Street and the district. In 1931, it became the first legitimate theater to offer Burlesque, and eventually porn. In fact, by the 1960s the block had become one of NYC’s most dangerous places (as captured in films like Midnight Cowboy and Taxi Driver). The sidewalks were teeming with hustlers, pushers, and prostitutes and the few surviving theaters were screening kung-fu movies and adult films. The turnaround came in the mid-1990s when the block was rezoned, the sleazy businesses evicted, and the Victory, New Amsterdam, Lyric (now home to Harry Potter and the Cursed Child), and American Airlines Theaters were restored and reopened.
This renaissance was led by the New 42nd Street, housed in the tower at 229 West 42nd Street. In addition to an off-Broadway theater, the building is home to state-of-the-art rehearsal studios where most Broadway shows rehearse. You may even catch a glimpse of a rehearsal through the wall of windows facing east. Fans of the TV show Smash will recognize the studios: The show’s rehearsal scenes were set in a replica of these studios.
[Walk back to Seventh Avenue and turn north, stopping on the island at 43rd Street between Broadway and Seventh Avenue.]
Stop #4: Times Square, 43rd Street and Broadway
We’re now in the heart of Times Square, the intersection of Broadway and Seventh Avenue. This is the “Crossroads of the World,” a famed gathering place since 1904. That was the year the New York Times built their new headquarters (the towering triangular building behind you) and the city’s first subway line arrived directly underneath. Look up to see the flagpole on top of the building. This is where the ball has dropped every New Year’s Eve since 1907. Each year, up to one million revelers crowd into the square to ring in the New Year.
At 124 West 43rd Street you’ll find one of Broadway’s newest venues, the Stephen Sondheim Theatre, where Beautiful now plays. It was originally the Henry Miller Theatre which premiered classic dramas including Our Town and Born Yesterday; then it spent a few decades as a porno theater and a disco; then it housed the revival of Cabaret – and then, in 2010, it reopened as the Sondheim after a thorough renovation. Actually, the only piece of the original theater left is the facade on 43rd Street.
[Walk north one block and stop in front of ABC Television Studios]
Stop #5: 44th Street & Broadway
There are only five Broadway theaters east of Times Square, two of which are on this block. At 141 West 44th Street is the Hudson Theatre, which is Broadway’s oldest and newest. It opened in 1903 (just seven days before the New Amsterdam) and, after six decades of alternate uses, it reopened as a Broadway theater in February 2017. Head Over Heels currently plays in this gorgeous space.
Down the block is the Belasco Theatre, whose sumptuous interior was recently restored. The Belasco is also one of Broadway’s most haunted theaters (yes, that’s a thing!). It’s said impresario David Belasco still holds court in the theater, partying in his abandoned attic apartment, and whispering notes to actors backstage.
[Cross Seventh Avenue and continue west on 44th Street to Sardi’s.]
Stop #6: 44th Street
The 1920s were the heyday of Broadway. There were as many over 80 theaters offering shows nightly. The shows featured scores by Berlin, Porter, the Gershwins, and Rodgers and Hart, and many of their songs became instant classics. Broadway was influencing fashion, slang, and introduced dance crazes like “The Charleston.” In 1927, 264 shows opened in the nine-month season.
Speaking of 1927, that’s the year Sardi’s Restaurant opened, and it has remained a theater institution ever since. In addition to the famous caricatures (Broadway’s version of a “Walk of Fame”), Sardi’s is a popular watering hole for Broadway’s power players and party location for opening nights. Across the street is the Shubert Theatre, which opened in 1913. This is where Katherine Hepburn revived her career starring in The Philadelphia Story and where 19-year-old Barbra Streisand made her Broadway debut.
A few doors west of Sardi’s you’ll find the Helen Hayes Theatre, which is Broadway’s most intimate playhouse. Across the street is the Broadhurst Theatre, a mid-sized theater that is well-suited to both plays and musicals (and is currently home to Anastasia). Hit plays that premiered at the Broadhurst include Auntie Mame and Amadeus. Musicals have included the original productions of Cabaret, Grease, Godspell and Fosse. As you continue west, you’ll pass the offices for Jujamcyn Theaters. Jujamcyn owns and operates six Broadway theaters, including the one next door – the St. James Theatre.
On the corner of 44th and Eighth Avenue, a street sign proclaims the block “Rodgers and Hammerstein Row.” It’s aptly named because for decades the duo owned this section of Broadway. It was here at the St. James that their first show, Oklahoma! premiered in 1943, kicking off the Golden Age of Broadway. Oklahoma! was such a smash that their next show, Carousel needed another theater: the Majestic Theatre across the street. Carousel was followed at the Majestic by South Pacific and The King and I opened at the St. James. In fact, all nine of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s shows opened on this block except their last: The Sound of Music.
[Continue to the corner of 44th and Eighth Avenue.]
Stop #7: Eighth Avenue
Eighth Avenue is the western boundary of the Broadway District. The neighborhood to the west is known as Hell’s Kitchen, a name it earned in the 19th and 20th centuries. It was long a poor immigrant neighborhood plagued by crime and gangs. In fact, it inspired one of Broadway’s greatest musicals: West Side Story. Today it is home to many theater professionals (and fabulous restaurants!).
[Continue north to the corner of 45th Street and turn east. Stop under the marquee of the Golden Theatre.]
Stop #8: 45th Street
This block holds the highest concentration of Broadway theaters: six in total. If you look west you’ll see the Al Hirschfeld Theatre (home to Kinky Boots) – the only Broadway house west of Eighth Avenue. If the large metal gray doors beside the John Golden Theatre are open, take a peek inside. This alleyway leads to the stage doors of four Broadway theaters.
The four theaters that line the south side of this block are some of Broadway’s most intimate, averaging 950 seats each. Their size makes them well-suited to plays, and some landmark dramas that have premiered in them include The Glass Menagerie, Waiting for Godot, and The Elephant Man. Since Avenue Q was a hit at the Golden in 2003, small-scale musicals have begun to play these theaters as well.
Across the street is one of the primo musical houses: the Imperial Theatre. Shows that premiered there include Annie, Get Your Gun, Oliver, Fiddler on the Roof, Pippin, and Dreamgirls. It was also home to the original production and the revival of Les Miserables. Next to the Imperial is the Music Box Theatre, built by Irving Berlin to house his Music Box Revues, which were competitors of the Ziegfeld Follies. Now it houses the hit Dear Evan Hansen.
[Walk east on 45th Street until you reach Shubert Alley.]
Stop #9: Shubert Alley
This open space between 44th and 45th Streets is Shubert Alley, which has long been the unofficial town square of the Broadway community. In the past, performers would gather in the alley to share tips about auditions and hope to catch the eye of a passing producer or director. Another tradition in the alley is the line of large show posters on the theater walls. Note there are only 24 frames. With 41 theaters, competition for these spaces is fierce.
Shubert Alley is also the site of several annual Broadway events, including the free Stars in the Alley concert, Broadway Barks and the Broadway Flea Market, a block party to raise money for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights Aids. These are just a few ways the tight-knit Broadway community come together to take care of their own and support worthy causes.
Across 45th Street you’ll see the concrete behemoth that is the Marriott Marquis hotel. To make space for this huge structure, five historic Broadway theaters were demolished. The theater community tried to save the theaters by picketing. Actors even chained themselves to the box office to stop the wrecking ball. We can see how things turned out. The hotel includes a 1612-seat theater named the Marquis, which has premiered Victor/Victoria, Thoroughly Modern Millie, On Your Feet and many musical revivals. The Illusionists are headed there for the holiday season and Tootsie opens in this space in 2019.
Look east and you’ll see the marquee of the Minskoff Theatre, another modern structure in a bland high-rise building. Like the Marriott Marquis, this office tower was an attempt to turn around Times Square, which had become a symbol of urban blight. From the 1960s to the 1990s the area was overrun with crime and pornography. The Theater District was decaying, dirty and often dangerous. The rezoning of 42nd Street was a success, and the tipping point came with the opening of the smash hit The Lion King at the newly-restored New Amsterdam Theatre. After nine years at the New Amsterdam, The Lion King moved to the Minskoff, where it continues to play to sold-out houses.
[Continue east into Times Square.]
Stop #10: 45th Street and Broadway
As you survey the bustle around you, it’s clear that this area has been revistalized. Today the square is spruced up and welcomes approximately 40 million visitors a year. This has been a boon to Broadway, which suffered greatly during the troubled decades. In fact, after years of dire predictions about the imminent death of Broadway, the Great White Way is doing better than ever… you can even buy artisanal empanadas and wine in Times Square.