Most people equate a night at a show with experiencing the bright lights of Broadway, but there’s much more to the New York City theater scene. Fifty or so venues, many of them in downtown Manhattan, play host to Off-Broadway productions that tend to celebrate the daring, odd and occasionally avant-garde—and that sometimes chart a course for bigger stages. Read on for a look at Off-Broadway essentials.
What Is Off-Broadway?
The term “Off-Broadway” emerged in the late 1940s for the shows that were produced on streets near Broadway, though experimental theater had existed in various parts the City—especially Greenwich Village—for decades before. By 1956, the scene was so well established that The Village Voice created the Obie Awards to recognize the groundbreaking works. Today Off-Broadway refers mainly to the size of the theater where a production plays—with space for between 100 and 499 audience members—and the use of a specific trade union. In fact, a few Off-Broadway theaters are, geographically speaking, on Broadway. Got it?
Some of the City’s most famous shows got their start (or are still playing) Off-Broadway. Many of these broke new ground, proving that hip-hop, rock, puppetry and taboo themes could spin their way into box-office gold. Among them: Hamilton, Rent, Avenue Q, Stomp, Little Shop of Horrors, Fun Home, Once and The Fantasticks. For a full list of current shows, click here.
Where to Buy Tickets
There is no central hub where you can buy Off-Broadway tickets. You can purchase online from the shows’ websites, go to a theater box office or visit TKTS in Times Square for discounts on same-day tickets. Look into rush tickets and student discounts for shows; many offer lower rates on a block of tickets that becomes available a couple of hours before curtain time.
During this annual, weeklong event, nycgo.com (your favorite website) sells 2-for-1 tickets to Off-Broadway shows. Check the Off-Broadway Week page for updates about which shows are participating and when tickets go on sale.
Off-Broadway Hot Spots
While Off-Broadway includes a wide range of venues and shows, a handful of institutional theaters regularly produce exciting work. One of the best known is Playwrights Horizons, west of Times Square on 42nd Street, with a mission to produce new work by American playwrights. Farther down the Deuce is Signature Theater, known for its focus on playwrights’ full bodies of work. Across town is 59E59—its address doubling as its name—which encompasses three spaces that present everything from intimate one-person shows to full-on musicals.
Chelsea’s Atlantic Theater Company, founded by David Mamet and William H. Macy, features of mix of daring new work from both domestic and international playwrights. Over in the East Village, check out The Public Theater which has become an incubator for boundary-breaking, Broadway-bound works like Fun Home and Hamilton and unusual dramas as well. New York Theatre Workshop, located on an artsy East Village block that’s also home to the famed La Mama Theater, is known for more experimental work, showcasing the latest plays (frequently with marquee stars) imported from the UK.
Five Major Dates in Off-Broadway History
1924: Greenwich Village’s Cherry Lane Playhouse, now the Cherry Lane Theatre, becomes an epicenter for quirky theater. Saturday Night, by Richard Fresnell, is the first production.
1956: The Threepenny Opera wins the first Obie for best musical. It also wins the only Tonys in history for an Off-Broadway production, receiving a supporting actress award for Lotte Lenya as well as a special award.
1960: The Fantasticks opens at Sullivan Street Playhouse and proceeds to run for 42 years, making it the longest-running show in US theater history.
2002: Suzan Lori-Parks becomes the first African-American woman to receive the Pulitzer for Best Drama for her Off-Broadway play Topdog/Underdog.
2015: Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton debuts at the Public Theater. History is celebrated—and made.