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Leonard Bernstein

Arts Days: August 25, 1918: Bernstein’s Bold Baton
You might find it odd that Leonard Bernstein was the first American-born and trained music director of the New York Philharmonic. But historically speaking, he was also the first American classical music conductor to earn worldwide acclaim.

Bernstein, who was awarded Kennedy Center Honors in 1980, was applauded for his ability to convey all the facets of a composer’s music and its meaning when he was conducting—or when he was teaching at his Young People’s Concerts. He also wrote orchestral pieces, ballet scores, choral and chamber music, the score for the film On the Waterfront; and of course, the music for Broadway’s Candide and West Side Story.

Held in extremely high regard by musical colleagues, Bernstein’s passion and intensity for conducting, writing, and playing music never ebbed over his lengthy career.
America, Composers, Broadway, Music, Music Legends, Musicals, Orchestra

Marlon Brando, Kim Hunter, and Jessica Tandy in A Streetcard Named Desire

Arts Days: December 03, 1947: Passion Play
The great American playwright and 1979 Kennedy Center Honoree Tennessee Williams took home the Pulitzer Prize for this Southern Gothic play. Elia Kazan directed the young newcomer Marlon Brando and the veteran Jessica Tandy in the iconic roles of Stanley Kowalski and his sister-in-law Blanche DuBois, whose violence-laced attraction to one another drives much of the action.

Blanche, a frail, helpless relic of the Old South, has come to New Orleans to seek refuge in her sister’s home, only to face psychological and sexual clashes with Stanley. As the play unfolds, the audience witnesses Blanche’s slow descent into insanity. After completing the show's run on Broadway, both Tandy and Brando enjoyed illustrious acting careers; Kazan not only went on to direct the 1951 movie version of Streetcar, but was also named a Kennedy Center Honoree in 1983.
Broadway, Playwrights & Plays, Theater, Controversial

Lillian Russell

Arts Days: November 22, 1880: Broadway’s Beauty
In the late 1870s, 18-year-old Helen Louise Leonard arrived in New York City in the hopes of becoming an opera star. After a bit role in a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, the beautiful blonde singer was discovered by theatre owner Tony Pastor. He changed her name and introduced her on opening night as “Lillian Russell, the English Ballad Singer.”

Russell’s gorgeous soprano and voluptuous figure earned her the nickname “America’s Beauty,” and she kept the press busy with her penchant for living life to the fullest. Russell starred in more than 24 musical comedies, many of which were written expressly for her. While none of her musicals are performed today, Lillian Russell is still remembered as one of the early 20th century’s most important Broadway stars.
Broadway, Theater, America, Musicals, Opera, Music Legends, Music

Performers dancing to Berkeley’s choreography

Arts Days: November 29, 1895: Busby's Babes
Back in the 1930s, one young man's dream job was to choreograph the most attractive, scantily-clad chorus girls on Broadway and in Hollywood. Born William Berkeley Enos, this innovative dance director created visually-stunning spectacles for his audience, arranging dancers in elaborate geometric shapes, and taking inspiration from multi-pronged kaleidoscopes or snowflakes.

Sometimes, he’d position dancers to look like the spokes of a wheel, or a human waterfall. And then, he would film these spectacular routines with a mobile camera. Berkeley also shot close-ups of each pretty girl, making what he called a “parade of faces.” The Berkeley touch is clearly obvious in movies like 42nd Street and Broadway Serenade. And believe it or not, the man never took a single dance lesson in his entire life.
Broadway, Choreographers, Innovators & Pioneers, Dance Legends, Dance, Movies & Movie Stars

Playbill

Arts Days: July 06, 1934: Get With the Program
Go to any theater on Broadway, in Miami, or even St. Louis, and you’ll probably be handed a copy of Playbill. Part program description of the play you are about to see, part theater magazine, Playbill was first called the Strauss Magazine Theater Program, after its creator Frank Vance Strauss.

In 1884, Strauss started a company that created programs tailored to shows. It featured restaurant ads, feature articles on famous directors, and other related material. These days you can subscribe to the magazine, as well as have one customized for any given show. It lists the actors, the parts they play and their work in other shows, as well as the sequence of events that will take place on the stage.
Backstage, Broadway, Playwrights & Plays, Theater

Neil Simon

Arts Days: July 04, 1927: Simon Says, “Laugh”
Playwright Neil Simon is perhaps the person most responsible for celebrating the comic craziness of New York City with his entertaining stories of human trials, tribulations, and, of course, neuroses. In plays such as Brighton Beach Memoirs, The Odd Couple, Biloxi Blues, and more, Simon invented characters you simply can’t forget—whether they’re caught in hilarious situations or heartbreaking ones.

His valentine to New York aside, Simon is also the writer who has done the most to capture on the page and on the stage what it’s like to be a 20th century Jewish American, like himself. A nominee for 17 Tony Awards® and the recipient of three, Simon was also a Kennedy Center Honoree in 1995.

Oh, and one more thing. In 1966, Simon is the only playwright to have four productions on Broadway running simultaneously.
Theater, Playwrights & Plays, Broadway, Comedy

George Cohan

Arts Days: July 03, 1878: Yankee Doodle Cohan
Though documents tell us otherwise, George Cohan insisted all his life that he was actually born on the Fourth of July—better to tie into the spirited patriotic songs he wrote like “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” “Over There,” and “You’re a Grand Old Flag.”

No matter what day he was really born, Cohan’s singing and dancing legacy began at a young age when he and his family cavorted around the nation on the vaudeville circuit. In his teens, he was churning out musical comedies in which music and dance advanced the plot in some way—a new way of writing a play and a source of many of his Tin Pan Alley hits.

Few performers on the Broadway stage made a greater mark than Cohan on the history of musical comedy.
Composers, Musicals, America, Broadway, Music, Music Legends

Arthur Laurents

Arts Days: July 14, 1918: From Brooklyn to Broadway
Arthur Laurents, the playwright and lyricist who wrote the book for West Side Story, one of the world’s most beloved musicals, had another source in mind when he conceived of the tragic tale of Maria and Tony. He was thinking of Shakespeare and his play, Romeo and Juliet, and this pair of lovers whose family conflicts stand in the way of their feelings for one another.

Though the theme wasn’t new, Laurents set his characters’ love affair in an urban setting, with rival gangs standing in for the families Shakespeare had put at odds. Laurents worked closely with composer Leonard Bernstein and lyricist Stephen Sondheim to create the Broadway version of West Side Story.
Broadway, Playwrights & Plays, Musicals, Theater, Shakespeare

Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Stephen Sondheim

Arts Days: March 22, 1930 and 1948: Two of a Kind
If you displayed the pages of music written by these two legendary Broadway composers who share a birthday, it would stretch around the block many times over—sort of like the crowds standing in line at their shows. Sondheim’s brought us Sweeney Todd, A Little Night Music, and Sunday in the Park with George, among others. He also wrote the breakthrough lyrics for West Side Story, which premiered in 1957 and marked his big break.

For his part, Lloyd Webber has no less musical theater credentials. In Cats and Phantom of the Opera, his songs “Memory” and “The Music of the Night,”  plus “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” from Jesus Christ Superstar, showcase Webber’s standard composing style, which melds together elements of rock, jazz, pop, and classical music.
Broadway, Musicals, Playwrights & Plays, Composers, Theater

John Kander

Arts Days: March 18, 1927: Razzmatazz On Broadway
Along with lyricist Fred Ebb, the composer John Kander created some of the most memorable tunes you’ll ever hum. Like “New York, New York”—Kander came up with that unforgettable melody and Ebb added the words. The men also collaborated on the musicals Chicago, Cabaret, Kiss of the Spider Woman, and others. Together they understood the conventions of musical theater better than just about anyone.

But it wasn’t always that way. Kander wrote the music for a show called A Family Affair in 1962. Kander clicked with the show’s producer Harold Prince, who thought he was a terrific musician and hired him and Ebb to write the music and lyrics for Flora, the Red Menace. In 1966, their work on Cabaret led to the Tony Award® for Best Musical. For nearly five decades, Kander and Ebb were the longest running musical/lyricist partnership in Broadway history.
Backstage, Broadway, Composers, Music, Musicals, Music Legends, Theater

The King and I

Arts Days: March 29, 1951: Culture Clash
Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II had collaborated on five other musicals, including The Sound of Music, by the time they turned out the words and music for The King and I. The musical starred Gertrude Lawrence as Anna, an Englishwoman hired by the King of Siam (today we call it Thailand), to teach reading, writing, and speaking English—to his children.

King Mongkut was played by Yul Brynner, a Russian actor who shaved his head for the stage role. Tackling a range of complex issues, from cultural clashes to gender roles, The King and I included the well-known “Getting to Know You,” a touching song about making new friends. The show ultimately went on to win the Tony Award® for Best Musical.
Broadway, Musicals, Theater, Popular Culture

Our Town

Arts Days: February 04, 1938: Our Town Hits the Big City
So you’re sitting in a darkened theater watching actors play their parts on stage, talking to one another, while paying absolutely no attention to the spectators. Suddenly, one of them turns and speaks directly to you, the audience. A bit startling, isn’t it?

This technique is called “breaking the fourth wall,” and it was used to great effect by the Stage Manager character in Our Town, a play Thornton Wilder wrote that explored life in a small New England town. The Stage Manager comments to the audience on the words and actions of other characters like Emily Webb and George Gibbs.

When rave reviews poured in, Wilder was delighted that his play, which turned many theatrical conventions on their heads, was a success. His bittersweet message that the beauty of even the mundane details of life is all too fleeting has been heard all the way to the balcony and beyond.
Broadway, Playwrights & Plays, Theater

Death of a Salesman

Arts Days: February 10, 1949: The Death of a Dream
When the curtain rose at the Morasco Theater this night, Broadway audiences were introduced to Willy Loman, a middle-aged traveling salesman, on the verge of a breakdown.

All too aware that he is at the end of his career, Loman takes stock of the work he’s done, the money he’s made, the relationships he’s formed—and finds that much of it leaves him feeling defeated and disappointed. With actor Lee J. Cobb starring as Loman, and Elia Kazan directing the play, viewers sadly watched as Willy is forced to recognize himself as a failure.

In its review, The New York Times noted that Miller “has looked with compassion into the hearts of some ordinary Americans and quietly transferred their hope and anguish to the theater.” Today, Miller’s play is studied in schools across the country.
Broadway, Playwrights & Plays, Controversial, Theater, Tragedy

James Earl Jones

Arts Days: January 17, 1931: The Man with the Velvet Voice
It's hard to believe but actor James Earl Jones--known for his smooth, deep basso voice--once suffered from a severe stutter.

At college, where he planned to study medicine, Jones enrolled in acting lessons to conquer his speech impediment. A stunning improvement gave Jones an appetite for further theatrical experiences and he switched his focus to theater. After graduation, he moved to New York City to pursue acting, supporting himself with behind-the-scenes manual labor jobs.

In 1957, Jones made his Broadway debut, which caught the attentions of both stage and film directors and launched him to star status. In 1969, he won a Tony Award for The Great White Hope, and garnered an Oscar nomination for the film adaptation. He won a second Tony Award in 1987 for his work in Fences, and was also a 2002 Kennedy Center Honoree.
Broadway, Movies & Movie Stars, Theater

Harold Prince

Arts Days: January 30, 1928: Theater Royalty is Born
Harold Prince, American theater producer and director, is associated with many of the best known Broadway musicals of the 20th century.

Born on this day in New York, NY, Prince landed his first job out of college in the office of legendary theater mogul George Abbott. Under Abbott's guidance, he learned the craft of creating original musical theater productions.

Prince co-produced a number of popular musicals in the 1950s and 60s including The Pajama Game, Damn Yankees, West Side Story, Fiddler on the Roof, and Cabaret. In the 1970s, he met composer Stephen Sondheim and almost exclusively produced all of Sondheim's musicals.

In 1976, Prince directed his first of many operas for the New York City Opera. Since then he has directed two of Andrew Lloyd Webber's musicals, Evita and The Phantom of the Opera. Prince has received 21 Tony Awards, more than any other individual, for his work as both a producer and director.
Broadway, Innovators & Pioneers, Musicals, Theater

Evita

Arts Days: January 10, 1996: Evita Hits the Big Screen
Casting catastrophe and celebrity coup? The film adaptation of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber's 1978 Broadway musical Evita stars pop music singer Madonna and Spanish actor and singer Antonio Banderas. The story traces the life of Eva Perón, beloved Argentinean first lady and spiritual leader.

Prior to the film’s release, critics were skeptical of the casting, unsure if Madonna was best suited for the lead role. Evita, however, was warmly received and won several awards, including the Academy Award for Best Music, Original Song, and the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture.
Broadway, Controversial, Movies & Movie Stars, Musicals, Latin America, Popular Culture

Chicago

Arts Days: June 23, 1927: Razzle Dazzle Man
From the hip roll to the finger snap to the perfectly angled hat—these are just some of the signature moves of the unmistakable “Fosse look.”

Jazz choreographer Bob Fosse invented so many moves that are now essential in modern dance that the casual observer may not even be aware of how widespread his influence continues to be. He broke new ground with dances that were demanding, entertaining, and provocative—often by creating one sharp, simple isolated movement. He honed his style in musicals like The Pajama Game, Damn Yankees, Sweet Charity, and Pippin and saw his creativity peak in the musical Chicago and the autobiographical film All That Jazz.

The second film Bob Fosse directed, 1972’s Cabaret, won eight Academy Awards® including Best Director.
Broadway, Choreographers, Controversial, Dance, Dance Legends, Innovators & Pioneers, Jazz

Mel Brooks

Arts Days: June 28, 1926: Blazing Laughter
He acts. He directs. He writes movies and songs. And he makes us laugh!

Mel Brooks is one of the funniest, most versatile fellows ever to grace a movie screen or write a tune. The shows he’s created, like The Producers and TV’s Get Smart series parodies everything from Adolf Hitler—yes, Hitler—to TV detective shows to scary movies. Brooks’s longtime creative partnership with actor Gene Wilder paved the way for some of his most popular comedies including Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein.

Most importantly, Brooks used satire to push comedy a little bit further than anybody had before, sometimes leaving audiences a little bit shocked—but always laughing.
Broadway, Comedy, Musicals, Movies & Movie Stars

Oliver

Arts Days: June 30, 1960: The Boy Who Asked for More
Drawing on themes and characters Charles Dickens created in his 1838 novel Oliver Twist, composer Lionel Bart wrote the words and music to a stage version of the story, which he called Oliver!

Dickens’s book was about Oliver, a lonely orphan boy, the adults who abused him with too much work and too little compassion, and a few kind people he meets along the way. Despite the serious subject matter, the infectious melodies of songs like Food, Glorious Food and Consider Yourself became lodged in listeners’ memories. In fact, Oliver’s modest request for more porridge—“Please sir, I want some more”—became one of the best-known lines to go straight from Dickens’s pen to Bart’s libretto.

Ultimately, Oliver’s happy escape from a cruel life to a happy one with his long-lost grandfather, delighted audiences.
Broadway, Musicals, Theater, Literature

The Musical Grease!

Arts Days: June 07, 1972: Grease is the Word
Nobody thought that a musical about a bunch of working-class 1950s high school kids known as “greasers”—obsessed with fast cars, rock and roll, and each other—would go on to shatter Broadway records for the longest-running show. But it did and 3,388 performances later, Grease was still the word on everyone’s lips. Audiences followed the antics of a cute couple named Danny and Sandy and their pals as they sang and danced through summer-fling memories, teenage disappointments, and promises of eternal friendship.

The play, written by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey, was loosely based on their own high school experiences and touched on some hard-hitting themes like gang rivalry and teenage pregnancy. But it was the music that had audiences dancing in the aisles and lining up to buy tickets year after year.
Broadway, Musicals, Popular Culture, Rock & Roll, Theater

Shuffle Along

May 23: May 23, 1921: Breaking Broadway’s Barriers
The early 20th century ragtime and jazz musicians Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle had a major hit on their hands when they co-wrote Shuffle Along, the first major Broadway musical by, for, and about African Americans. All told, the show ran for more than 500 performances. It played in Washington, D.C. and other locales before lighting up Broadway, where police were assigned on show nights to help ease traffic congestion.

Shuffle Along also made stars of dancers like Josephine Baker and singers like Paul Robeson. Many songs became popular hits. But by today’s standards, some aspects of Shuffle Along are offensive. For example, though the actors were all African American, they applied makeup to their faces to darken them further, and borrowed stock characters from minstrel shows. As the show’s popularity spread by word of mouth, the audiences were filled with black and white theater patrons alike.
Broadway, Innovators & Pioneers, Musicals, Jazz, Controversial, Theater

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