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The advent of electric lighting led to elaborate theatre productions, and in the 1880s New York City theaters on Broadway and along 42nd Street began to showcase a new stage form that came to be known as the Broadway musical. Strongly influenced by the feelings of immigrants to the city, these productions used song in narratives that often reflected themes of hope and ambition.
Many musicals in New York City became seminal national cultural events, like the controversial 1937 staging of Marc Blitzstein's labor union opera The Cradle Will Rock, directed by Orson Welles and produced by John Houseman. Orginially to open at the Maxine Elliott Theatre with elaborate sets and a full orchestra, the production was shut down on opening night, and Welles, Housman, and Blitzstein scrambled to rent the Venice Theatre twenty blocks north. The crowds gathered to see the production walked up 7th Avenue, and by nine o'clock the Venice Theatre's 1,742 seats were sold out. Blitzstein began performing the musical solo, but after beginning the first number he was joined by cast members, who were forbidden by the Actor's Union to perform the piece "onstage", from their seats in the audience. Blitzstein and the cast performed the entire musical from the house. Many who attended the performance, including poet laureate Archibald MacLeish, thought it to be one of the most moving theatrical experiences of their lives. Performances of the musical to this day rarely use elaborate sets or an orchestra in homage to this event. Houseman and Wells went on to found the Mercury Theatre and do radio drama, in which they performed one of the most notable radio broadcasts of all time, The War of the Worlds.
Many New York playwrights, including Elia Kazan and Arthur Miller, became icons in American theater.
Professional Yiddish theatre in New York, a major cultural influence in the city, began in 1882 with a troupe founded by Boris Thomashefsky, an immigrant from Ukraine. The plays in the late 19th century were realistic, while in the beginning of the 20th century, they became more political and artistic in orientation. Some performers were well-respected enough to move back and forth between the Yiddish theatre and Broadway, including Bertha Kalich and Jacob Adler. Some of the major composers included Abraham Goldfaden, Joseph Rumshinsky and Sholom Secunda, while playwrights included David Pinski, Solomon Libin, Jacob Gordin and Leon Kobrin.
Concurrently with Yiddish theatre was the development of Vaudeville (a term thought to be a corruption of the of the old French word vaudevire, meaning an occasional or topical light popular song), a style of multi-act theatre which flourished from the 1880s through to the 1920s. An evening's schedule of performances (or "bill") could run the gamut from acrobats to mathematicians, from song-and-dance duos and Shakespeare to animal acts and opera. The usual date given for the "birth" of vaudeville is October 24, 1881, the night during which variety performer and theatre owner Tony Pastor, in his effort to lure women into the male-dominated variety hall, famously staged the first bill of self-proclaimed "clean" vaudeville in New York City. African American audiences had their own vaudevill circuits, as did speakers of Italian and Yiddish. The Palace Theatre on Broadway, described by its owner, Martin Beck, as "the Valhalla of vaudeville" opened with vaudeville shows from the Keith Circuit and lured the best and brightest in vaudeville. Its shift to to a full bill of movies on November 16, 1932 is generally regarded as the death of vaudeville.
Today the 39 largest theatres (with more than 500 seats) in New York are collectively known as "Broadway" after the major thoroughfare through the theatre district, and are mostly located in the Times Square vicinity. Many Broadway shows are world famous, such as the musicals Cats and The Phantom of the Opera. Along with those of London's West End, theaters in New York's Broadway district are often considered to be the most professional in the English language.
Smaller theatres, termed off-Broadway and off-off-Broadway depending on their size, have the flexibility to produce more innovative shows for smaller audiences. An important center of the American theatre avant-garde, New York has been host to such seminal experimental theatre groups as The Wooster Group and Richard Foreman's Ontological-Hysteric Theater.
The subways of New York are also occasional venues for beauty pageants and guerrilla theater. The MTA's annual Miss Subways contest ran from 1941 to 1976 and again in 2004 (under the revised name "Ms Subways"). Past Ms Subways winners include Eleanor Nash, an FBI clerk described by her poster that hung in subway cars in 1960 as "young, beautiful and expert with a rifle." The 2004 Ms Subways winner, Caroline Sanchez-Bernat, was an actress who played a role in Sunday Brunch 4. The 35-minute piece of performance art was a full enactment of a Sunday brunch - including crisp white tablecloth, spinach salad appetizer and attentive waiter in black tuxedo - performed aboard a southbound A train in 2000. With subway riders looking on, the actors chatted amiably about Christmas, exchanged gifts and signed for a package delivered by a United Parcel Service delivery man who entered the scene at the West 34th Street stop.
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