A few aficionados may quibble on London’s West End, but ask most people in the know and you’ll quickly discover that New York City is the world center for theater. Stand in Times Square on any Friday night and there are literally hundreds of performances taking place on stages in every direction.
That’s why no trip to the city is complete without attending at least one show.
Even the most casual observers are familiar with Broadway, the glitzy home of “Wicked,” “The Lion King” and “The Book of Mormon.” (And, indeed, I wrote a post last week about how to score cheap seats to Broadway shows.) But some of the best shows take place in smaller theaters — where tickets are a fraction of the cost and, sometimes, the stars are shining just as bright.
Theater in New York City falls into three categories: Broadway, Off Broadway and Off-Off Broadway. And while it’s true that the flashy mega-musicals like “The Lion King” and “Wicked” are all playing on Broadway, the distinction has nothing to do with show’s content or quality. It’s all about the theater.
Broadway shows are performances taking place in one of 39 venues officially designated as Broadway theaters and ranging in size from about 600 to 1,900 seats. Most, but not all of them, stand around Times Square.
But ask someone about the term “Off Broadway” and you’re likely to get a blank stare or even concern about seedy theaters in dangerous parts of town — which couldn’t be further from the truth. It simply refers to smaller theaters all around the city, each with roughly 100 to 500 seats.
Then, there’s a third designation, “Off-Off Broadway.” The nonprofit Theatre Development Fund describes them as “more adventurous” offerings in “small or unorthodox” theaters seating fewer than 100 people.
Mega-shows perform on Broadway because they need the larger stage to accommodate larger casts. Not to mention larger audiences paying larger prices to cover larger production costs. But it doesn’t mean they’re better shows.
Some of the best in New York City — actually, some of the best in the world — perform Off Broadway with smaller casts and smaller budgets in smaller theaters. One good result is smaller ticket prices as well. But another is a wider variety of shows. When you don’t need to attract so many people paying top dollar, you can afford to produce whimsical comedies, risqué dramas or philosophical pieces with more of an edge.
Don’t focus only on Broadway! You can have a great evening of theater Off Broadway. And you may still catch some notable stars or even see the next big Broadway hit.
Not long ago, I sat just off the stage in an intimate, eight-row theater for the final Off-Broadway performance of “Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.” For more than two hours, I laughed relentlessly through one of those whimsical comedies as stars David Hyde Pierce, Kristine Nielsen and Sigourney Weaver led a phenomenal cast through racy routines, philosophical rants and some of the finest acting you’ll ever see. Laughing just as hard, a couple of sections over, was the legendary Meryl Streep. A few months later, the show moved to Broadway, where audiences paid far more to sit in a theater over twice the size. The show eventually won the 2013 Tony Award for Best Play.
For business reasons, most Off-Broadway shows will never make the trip to a larger, Broadway theater. But many are just as good artistically — if not better. Some may disagree, but for my money, Off Broadway is where the real action is.