An Off-Broadway theatre is a professional venue in New York City with a seating capacity between 100 and 499. These theatres are smaller than Broadway theatres, but generally larger than Off-Off-Broadway theatres, which seat less than 100.
An "Off-Broadway production" is a production of a play, musical or revue that appears in such a venue and adheres to related trade union and other contracts. Shows that premiere Off-Broadway are sometimes subsequently produced on Broadway.
Originally referring to the location of a venue and its productions on a street intersecting Broadway in Manhattan's Theater District, the hub of the theatre industry in New York, the term later became defined by the League of Off-Broadway Theatres and Producers as a professional venue in New York City with a seating capacity between 100 and 499, or a specific production that appears in such a venue, and which adheres to related trade union and other contracts.
Previously, regardless of the size of the venue, a theatre was not considered Off-Broadway if it was within the "Broadway Box" (extending from 40th to 54th Street, and from west of Sixth Avenue to east of Eighth Avenue, and including Times Square and 42nd Street). The contractual definition was changed to encompass theatres meeting the standard, which benefits these theatres because of the lower minimum required salary for Actors' Equity performers at Off-Broadway theatres as compared with the salary requirements of the union for Broadway theatres. The adoption of the 499-seat rule occurred after a one-day strike in January, 1974. Examples of Off-Broadway theatres within the Broadway Box are the Laura Pels Theatre and The Theater Center.
The Off-Broadway movement started in the 1950s, as a reaction to the perceived commercialism of Broadway and provided less expensive venues for shows that have employed hundreds of future Broadway artists. According to theatre historians Ken Bloom and Frank Vlastnik, Off-Broadway offered a new outlet for "poets, playwrights, actors, songwriters, and designers. ... The first great Off-Broadway musical was the 1954 revival" of The Threepenny Opera, which proved that Off-Broadway productions could be financially successful. Theatre Row, on West 42nd Street between 9th and 10th Avenues in Manhattan, is a series of Off-Broadway and Off-Off-Broadway theatres. It was developed in the mid-1970s and modernized in 2002.
Many Off-Broadway shows have had subsequent runs on Broadway, including such successful musicals as Hair, Godspell, Little Shop of Horrors, Sunday in the Park with George, Rent, Grey Gardens, Urinetown, Avenue Q, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Rock of Ages, In the Heights, Spring Awakening, Next to Normal, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Fun Home and Hamilton. In particular, two that became Broadway hits, Grease and A Chorus Line, encouraged other producers to premiere their shows Off-Broadway. Plays that have moved from off-Broadway houses to Broadway include Doubt, I Am My Own Wife, Bridge & Tunnel, The Normal Heart and Coastal Disturbances. Other productions, such as Stomp, Blue Man Group, Altar Boyz, Perfect Crime, Forbidden Broadway, Nunsense, Naked Boys Singing, Bat Boy: The Musical and I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change have had runs of many years Off-Broadway, never moving to Broadway. The Fantasticks, the longest-running musical in theatre history, spent its original 42-year run Off-Broadway and began another long off-Broadway run in 2006.
Off-Broadway shows, performers, and creative staff are eligible for the following awards: the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award, the Outer Critics Circle Award, the Drama Desk Award, the Obie Award (presented since 1956 by The Village Voice), the Lucille Lortel Award (created in 1985 by the League of Off-Broadway Theatres & Producers), and the Drama League Award. Although Off-Broadway shows are not eligible for Tony Awards, an exception was made in 1956 (before the rules were changed), when Lotte Lenya won for "Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical", for the Off-Broadway production of The Threepenny Opera.
- League of Off-Broadway Theatres and Producers Inc. and The Association of Theatrical Press Agents and Managers. "Off-Broadway Minimum Basic Agreement" (PDF). Retrieved December 14, 2007.
- "How To Tell Broadway from Off-Broadway from . . .". Playbill Inc. 4 January 1998. Retrieved 28 January 2017.
No matter what else you may have heard, the distinction is mainly one of contracts. There are so many theatres of so many different sizes served by so many different unions in New York that this three-tiered Broadway/Off-Broadway/Off-Off-Broadway system evolved to determine who would get paid what. [...] Most "Broadway" theatres are not on Broadway, the street. A few theatres on Broadway, the street, are considered "Off-Broadway."
- "Actors' Equity 1970's Timeline". Actors' Equity Association. Retrieved 27 January 2017.
- Bloom, Ken and Vlastnik, Frank. "Off Broadway, Part 1", Broadway Musicals: The 101 Greatest Shows of All Time, Black Dog Publishing, 2008, ISBN 1-57912-313-9, p. 94
- McKinley, Jesse. "Upscale March of Theatre Row; A Centerpiece of Redevelopment", The New York Times, November 21, 2002, accessed March 2, 2017
- "Off Broadway Theatre Information". offbroadway.com. League of Off-Broadway Theatres and Producers. Retrieved 27 January 2017.
- Lefkowitz, David. "The Fantasticks Bids Farewell, Jan. 13, After 42 Years on Sullivan Street", Playbill, January 13, 2002, accessed January 28, 2017; and Gordon, David. "After 56 Years, Tom Jones Isn't Finished With The Fantasticks", TheaterMania.com, September 9, 2016
- Threepenny Opera Off Broadway threepennyopera.org