Broadway is first and foremost an avenue seeped in superlatives; not only the longest, oldest and most well-trodden street in Manhattan, it is also the only route to diagonally dissect the regimented grid of New York’s streets and avenues. But more importantly, Broadway is a district confined North and South between 54th and 40th Streets, and East and West between 8th and 6th Avenues, with Times Square as its centrepiece. This is the Broadway revered around the globe as the world capital of musical theatre and all-round entertainment. A legend much loved by America, with its impressive pioneers, its highs, its lows, dizzying rags to riches tales and tragic falls from grace.
Long before the first theatrical entrepreneurs debated its fate, Broadway had very humble beginnings. A former Indian trail, back in the 1820s it was still little more than a country road. It would take more than half a century for the avenue to meet its providential saviour “in a certain Oscar Hammerstein I, an entrepreneur with a passion for theatre, and operas in particular”, explains Patrick Niedo, musical theatre historian and author of Hello, Broadway! (see beside). “This was the man who, having built Harlem Opera House, decided in 1895 to erect a theatre in Longacre Square (now Times Square), which he named The Olympia”.
In its wake, other theatres began to take shape in the vicinity and several years later, the opening of the 42nd Street subway station proved a catalyst for further development.“In 1927, the first, modern musical saw the light of day” continued Patrick Niedo. “It was called Show Boat and its lyrics were co-written by none other than Oscar Hammerstein II, grandson of the former. But the area’s real golden age began in the midst of the Second World War with Oklahoma!, which was to have a huge impact on the American public.”
There then followed two crazy decades with unrivalled shows such as My Fair Lady, West Side Story, Hello Dolly! and Fiddler on the Roof.
The golden age came to an end in 1964 and in the 70s, when Broadway plunged into troubled waters, unable to resurface from the weight of drugs, prostitution and X-rated movie theatres. At that time not a single tourist would even contemplate strolling around Times Square. These dark days were fortunately short-lived thanks to a particularly robust municipal plan to clean up and regenerate the area. Today, Broadway has rekindled all its former verve and glory. “The theatre industry is booming like never before, with 13.8 million tickets sold during the 2017-18 season alone”, insists Patrick Niedo. “Broadway has become the city’s major artery through which the economy pulses, second only to Wall Street.”An economic artery with a party atmosphere, elegance and joie de vivre.