While Broadway theaters are colloquially considered to be “on Broadway”, only two active Broadway theaters are physically on Broadway (the Broadway Theatre and Winter Garden Theatre).[a] The Vivian Beaumont Theater, located in Lincoln Center, is the furthest north and west of the active theaters, while the Nederlander Theatre is the southernmost and the Belasco Theatre is the easternmost space. The oldest Broadway theaters still in use are the Hudson Theatre, Lyceum Theatre, and New Amsterdam Theatre, all opened in 1903, while the most recently constructed theater is the Lyric Theatre, built in 1998. The largest of the Broadway theaters is the 1,933-seat Gershwin Theatre, while the smallest is the 597-seat Hayes Theater.
The beginning of Broadway theater can be traced to the 19th-century influx of immigrants to New York City, particularly Yiddish, German and Italian, who brought with them indigenous and new forms of theater. The development of indoor gas lighting around this same time period allowed for the construction of permanent spaces for these novel theatrical forms. Early variety, burlesque, and minstrelsy halls were built along Broadway below Houston Street. As the city expanded north, new theaters were constructed along the thoroughfare with family-friendly vaudeville, developed by Tony Pastor, clustering around Union Square in the 1860s and 1870s, and larger opera houses, hippodromes, and theaters populating Broadway between Union Square and Times Square later in the century. Times Square became the epicenter for large scale theater productions between 1900 and the Great Depression.
There is no standard date that is considered the beginning of Broadway-style theatre. A few landmarks that are considered the beginning of the Broadway era include the 1866 opening of The Black Crook at Niblo’s Garden, considered the first piece of American style musical theater, the 1913 founding of the Actors’ Equity Association, the union for New York Theater performers, and the 1919 Actors’ Equity Association strike which gave actors and performers the recognition of a “fully legitimate professional trade”. Mary Henderson in her book The City and the Theatre breaks down theater on the street Broadway into three time periods. “Lower Broadway” from 1850 to 1870, “Union Square and Beyond” from 1870 to 1899, and “Times Square: the First Hundred Years” (1900–2000). The current official Broadway/Off-Broadway division began with the 1949 Actors’ Equity agreement.