London's first playhouse was built at Shoreditch in 1576 and had the appropriate name of The Theatre. Prior to this, plays had been performed in ad hoc venues such as courtyards, inn-yards or spacious private homes. When the lease on The Theatre ran out in 1597, its industrious owner Richard Burbage transported its timber across the Thames and used it to build the first (of three) Globe theatre on the South Bank. The Globe opened in 1599 with a company led by Burbage, who established himself as the first of London's great actor/impresarios. Burbage was the first man to play Hamlet, King Lear and Othello.
The first West End venue opened in 1663 when the first of several theatres was opened on Drury Lane. This venue played host to the earliest West End stars such Nell Gwyn and Charles Hart until it was destroyed by fire in 1672. A new theatre, called the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane was designed by Christoper Wren and opened on the same site in 1674. This second theatre survived for the next 120 years during which time several other theatres, such as the Theatre Royal Haymarket and the Theatre Royal Covent Garden (now the Royal Opera House) were built and the notion of West End theatre evolved.
Today's West End began taking shape in the 19th Century when many of the imposing and beautiful theatre buildings still standing today were erected and theatregoing became highly fashionable among the middle and upper classes. The backbone of the West End was finally put in place towards the end of the century when Shaftesbury Avenue was created and theatres were soon built along it.
Today, the prominent theatre streets include Drury Lane, Shaftesbury Avenue, and The Strand where there are about forty large theatres and the area is often referred to as Theatreland. The works staged are predominantly musicals, classics and comedy performances.
Most of the theatres in "Theatreland" were built in the late Victorian or Edwardian periods, have lots of character, while the largest ones are especially impressive, with their grand neo-classical, romanesque, or Victorian facades and luxurious, detailed interior design and decoration. West End shows run for a varying number of weeks, depending on ticket sales. Musicals tend to have longer runs than dramas. The longest running musical in West End history is Les Misérables. It overtook Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cats, which closed in 2002 after running for 8,949 performances and 21 years, as the longest running West End musical of all time on 8 October 2006.
Other long-runners include Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera and Willy Russell's Blood Brothers. However the non-musical Agatha Christie play The Mousetrap is the longest running show in the world, and has been showing since 1952.
Some of the other longest running plays are:
- The Mousetrap (55 years)
- Les Misérables (24 years)
- The Phantom of the Opera (23 years)
- Blood Brothers (22 years)
- Cats (21 years)
- The Woman in Black (21 years)
- Starlight Express (17 years)
- No Sex Please, We're British (16 years)
- Buddy - The Buddy Holly Story (15 years)
- Chicago (12 years)
- The Black and White Minstrel Show (10 years)
- Miss Saigon (10 years)
- Mamma Mia! (11 years)