This play remains significant for its full dramatic capture of the false glamour of the prohibition era in New York. As Alexander Woollcott said: "Of all the scores of plays that shuffled in endless procession along Broadway in the year of grace 1926, the one which most perfectly caught the accent of the city's voice was this play named after the great Midway itself, this taut and telling and tingling cartoon. . . . The theatre is at its best when it is journalistic, when it makes its fable and its parable out of the life streaming down its own street, when the pageant on its stage is just a cartoon and a criticism of the land and the day lying across the sill of the stage door. So journalistic is Broadway that. . . its manuscript could scarcely have been delivered through the ordinary snail-paced channels. It must have come in over the ticker."
Philip Dunning, who wrote the play with George Abbott, and who peddled it for three years before Jed Harris produced it, said that he was "casting a challenge to the so-called silver screen. . . I set out then to write a play of continuous action occurring in a background that adhered to its prototype in real life with utter fidelity. As an indication of the pace at which the action moves, there is the fact that in the three acts of Broadway there are more than three hundred entrances and exits."
In its summer tryout at Atlantic City, the play was called The Roaring Forties (the New York night-club and theatre district stretches from Fortieth to Fifty-Second Street). It opened in New York at the Broadhurst Theatre on September 16, 1926, as Broadway, and caught on like wildfire. Never before did a drama gross a million dollars in thirty-seven weeks. (It cost but $9,000 to produce.) Broadway ran in New York for three years, while it was being played elsewhere by ten other companies, four of them abroad.
St. John Ervine called the English production "very crude, very direct, and very real." The London Mail said, "Much of it seems exceedingly vulgar; and no revue producer has dared undress his chorus to the extent of the girls supposed to represent the cabaret troupe." The English Lord Chamberlain, in truth, ordered some changes. He deleted about 30% of the profanity, changed "God!" to "Gee!", and subdued "Make your hands behave!" to "Stop!"
Two movements are intertwined in Broadway. There is the melodramatic rivalry of the gangsters, with Steve Crandall as big boss of the bootlegging racket; and there is the sentimental story of sweet Billie Moore, of the chorus at the Paradise Night Club, and her sweetheart, the hoofer Roy Lane. Steve, however, also has designs on Billie, and when the gangster shoots an uptown rival, somehow the police find Roy holding the murder gun. Things look bad for Billie and Roy; but when the uptown gangster's girl friend shoots Steve, the lovers are free to hope for happier days on Broadway.
Some critics were not sure of the play's appeal. Brooks Atkinson observed that it often has "the illusion of motion even when it is not progressing at all," but he felt that it was on the whole a "firmly packed melodrama." Alan Dale insisted that "this ingenious chatter of Broadway has nothing at all to interest anybody but the residents of near-FortySecond street." The New York Telegram concurred with Dale. However, the play's stage history, including wide production among college groups, and "little" and summer theatres, shows that the rest of the country thrilled to the picture of life on the Gay White Way.
The play was twice converted into a motion picture: in 1929, with Lee Tracy and Sylvia Field; in 1942, with Pat O'Brien, Janet Blair, and George Raft (who played the part of "George Raft, the hoofer").