9 Moments That Made Broadway History

nycgo.com staff

On Broadway, anything can happen—and frequently does. Productions mounted on the Great White Way are designed to be spectacles; sometimes the action offstage is as memorable as what takes place on it. To help theatergoers get psyched, we’ve put together this list of nine amazing moments in Broadway history. Check them out, then get your tickets to current performances at nycgo.com/broadway.

Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. Photo: Jacob Cohl

1. Spider-Man Goes Big, Goes Home

First preview: November 28, 2010
In 2010, some of the most famous names in entertainment—U2’s Bono and the Edge, theater director Julie Taymor and the Spider-Man franchise among them—came together to create a Broadway show unlike any other made before. Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark cost more ($75 million) than any other Broadway production, had the longest preview period (183 shows) and earned attention for elaborate stunts that, unfortunately, caused a few injuries among the cast. The show also earned a then-record sales week for a Broadway show—bringing in $2.9 million over nine performances—impressed some critics with its technical achievement and scope and scored two Tony nominations before shuttering in 2014. For better or worse, few who witnessed Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark will ever forget it.

2. Bronx Bombers Bag the Babe; Broadway Beckons Boston Boss

Trade date: December 26, 1919
The legend goes like this: the Boston Red Sox’ owners sent Babe Ruth to the hated New York Yankees in an effort to finance the Broadway musical No, No, Nanette. Thus began “The Curse of the Bambino,” which doomed Boston to decades of failure. The real details of this “curse” are a bit murkier. There were many reasons the Sox sold Ruth’s contract in late 1919 (the Yankees announced the trade in early 1920), and My Lady Friends—from which No, No, Nanette was adapted—was a more immediate production that team owner Harry Frazee put up after the deal. Still, it’s undeniable that Frazee took money for Ruth and produced stage shows, that the Babe led the Yankees to seven World Series titles (while becoming perhaps the greatest player in the history of baseball) and that Boston waited 86 years between championships (1918 to 2004).

Cats. Photo: Matthew Murphy

3. Rent Signs a Lease

Broadway premiere date: April 29, 1996
Some locals believe Broadway is only for tourists: a world made up of nothing but adaptations and revivals (and, hey, there’s nothing wrong with those). But some popular productions have been more adventurous. Cats is a musical about anthropomorphized singing felines. Today’s biggest hit, Hamilton, is a Revolutionary War–era American history lesson set to a hip-hop soundtrack. And, back in 1996, Rent—a rock musical about young East Villagers struggling with AIDS and poverty—became a breakthrough success; it ran until September 2008. Give Broadway and its audiences a little credit: just as often as they’re recycling successful ideas, they’re on the cutting edge.

Photo: Matthew Murphy

4. Phantom Haunts Broadway Forever*

Record-breaking night: January 9, 2006, when it bested Cats with its 7,486th performance
The longest-running show in Broadway history is The Phantom of the Opera, based on the popular French novel. The Andrew Lloyd Webber musical has run continuously since 1988, for more than 12,400 performances as of press time. Want to see what the fuss has been all about and why the curtain rises on Phantom every night? Do yourself a favor and get tickets.


Shows for Days. Photo: Joan Marcus.

5. Lupone vs. Phones

Confrontation with photo-taker during Gypsy: Around January 2009
Without rules, there is chaos. At Broadway theaters, these are two of the most important rules: unwrap your candy before the show starts and, for the love of the theater deities, turn off your mobile phone. That goes double if you’re watching Patti Lupone. During a 2009 performance of Gypsy, the Broadway showstopper stopped the show to call out an unruly audience member for snapping flash photos from the audience, and in 2015 she snatched the phone from a texting audience member during Shows for Days (at Lincoln Center—near, but not on, Broadway). The lesson: be polite, or a Tony winner will set you right.

Hamilton. Photo: Joan Marcus

6. Hamilton Meets Pence

The speech: November 18, 2016
Shortly after the contentious 2016 US presidential election, Mike Pence—soon to be the Vice President of the United States—went to see Hamilton. The crowd greeted him with a mix of applause and jeers. But the real action came after the show, when Brandon Victor Dixon, who played Vice President Aaron Burr, delivered a pointed message from the cast to Pence. It began: “We, sir, are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us.” While the then President-elect strongly objected to the Hamilton cast petitioning a government official for a redress of grievances, Pence himself called the boos “what freedom sounds like” and said he was not offended by the cast’s message.

7. Barbra Meets Broadway

Babs’ first performance: March 22, 1962
You never know when you might see a star being born. In 1962, crowds at I Can Get It For You Wholesale saw the Broadway debut of a 19-year-old Barbra Streisand—who earned her first Tony nomination for the role. Until then, Streisand’s biggest credits had been for performances in nightclubs, where she sang and joked with the audience. Which future household name will you see on Broadway this year? Keeping a close eye on your favorite performances and making your best guess is part of the fun.


8. Bert Williams Integrates the Ziegfeld Follies

In 1910, Bert Williams—who’d become popular by performing in all-black productions including Broadway hit In Dahomey—became the first black performer to receive equal Broadway billing with his white counterparts, starring in a production of The Ziegfeld Follies. As monumental a moment as it was, Broadway had a long way to go; for example, Williams always performed in blackface and couldn’t go to many southern cities on the production’s tour—but his role was an important step toward equality.

9. The Knickerbocker Theatre Electrifies the Great White Way

Back in 1906, the Knickerbocker (demolished in 1930) became the first Broadway theater to display a moving electric sign; as best we can tell, it was a windmill to advertise The Red Mill. The Theatre District’s omnipresent illumination persists to this day.