Beneath the steel sky of downtown Manhattan, dwarfed by the glossy modern towers of the Financial District sits a comparatively minuscule brick office building on Nassau Street. Far away from the bevy of theaters in and near Times Square, this location has a surprisingly important role in the history of New York City theater. In fact, you could even say Nassau Street was the colonial era hot spot for theatrical performances and creativity.
In the colony’s early years, most theater performances were acted out in makeshift spaces by amateurs. The first formal theater on record is the New Theater, also commonly known as the Theater in Nassau Street. Rip Van Dam, then governor of the colony, owned the theater building at 64-66 Nassau, between Maiden Lane and John Street. As far as historians know, the Theater in Nassau Street opened its doors for the first time on December 6, 1732 for a performance of the George Farquhar comedy, The Recruiting Officer. News of the performance reached The New England and Boston Gazette: "On the 6th instant, the New Theatre, in the building of the Hon. Rip Van Dam Esq, was opened with the comedy of The Recruiting Officer, the part of Worthy acted by the ingenious Mr. Thomas Heady, barber and Peruque maker to his Honour." Interestingly, no further record of the play exists, but on December 3, 1750, the theater hosted The Beggar’s Opera, the first known performance of a musical in New York City. By then, Walter Murray and Thomas Kean had set up residence at the theater, organizing most of its performances, including a 1750 rendition of Shakespeare’s Richard III.
Unfortunately, much of the theater’s history is lost. Historians gather that the building may have been a two-story warehouse or a brewery and that the theater on the second floor held about 250 people. But by the mid-1750s, the theater was taken down and replaced by a church. The legacy remains, however, tucked away on the little parcel of land on Nassau Street.