My list of ten favorite shows on New York stages in 2015 tilt towards Broadway musicals – five out of “ten” – which is in great contrast to my top ten lists last year and the year before. But the musicals of 2015 feel almost…revolutionary (and not just because of “Hamilton.”) Even some of those I didn’t pick as my favorite reflect a more inclusive aesthetic and a willingness to break out of formula, while honoring tradition. Fifty years after the end of the golden age of the Broadway musical, we may not be entering a new golden age. Maybe it’s platinum.
(originally posted on Dec. 8, 2015 Jonathan Mandell’s blog NewYorkTheater.me)
10. Empire Travel Agency, The Way They Live, Theatre for One, Before Their Very Eyes
I lump these together (and yes I’m cheating) because these four shows represent the most exciting and ambitious experimental theater that happened in New York this year. Since they are experiments, it seems besides the point to scrutinize them using criteria that they may well render outmoded.
The Way They Live was the culminating show of the Civilians theater troupe’s year-long residence at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the first such theatrical residency, and I hope not the last. It used the art work from the museum’s American Wing and interviews with curators and regular museum-goers to address the question: What does it mean to be an American?
Empire Travel Agency took place at night in the streets of Manhattan, in an empty park, in a couple of speeding cars, and up and down too many staircases of an abandoned building. It was a fully scripted if convoluted thriller, with dozens of cast members …and just four audience members per performance. (And the tickets were free!) An impressive production of the Woodshed Collective, it made me feel as if I was in a Bourne thriller, sharing escapades with Matt Damon, before his car plunged off the bridge or burst into flames. This is the first play for which I’ve ever had to sign a waiver acknowledging that it “subjects me to the possibility of injury, illness and/or death.”
Theatre for One is the brainchild of Christine Jones, the award-winning set designer (American Idiot, Spring Awakening) and director (Queen of the Night), who’s been carting her custom-designed booth around to public spaces for years, overseeing free performances for the public, one by one. For each performance, there is one member of the cast, and one member of the audience. In the production this year, the booth was placed in the Winter Garden at Brookfield Place in the financial district, and involved (very) short plays written by seven well-established playwrights, including Pulitzer-winner Lynn Nottage.
In Before Your Very Eyes, created by the Gob Squad, we watched seven children, whose actual ages range from nine to 14, as they put on clothing, wigs and makeup in order to pretend to age decade by decade, until they each drop dead. It was a meditation on aging and the disappointments in life performed with the excessive, inherently hopeful energy of youth. This was a show that, while I was watching it, seemed occasionally spot-on; more often just odd. But, like the best of theater, long after the experience, it’s stayed with me.
9. The King and I– open run
From the very first moments of Lincoln Center’s ravishing The King and I, it feels like a privilege just to be sitting in the audience, thanks of course to the Rodgers and Hammerstein score, to a stellar cast including Kelli O’Hara and Ruthie Ann Miles, and an exquisite set.
8. The Nether
In this cleverly imagined, disturbing future — just a step or two ahead of our present — people lose themselves in a virtual world. The play is written by Jennifer Haley, whom I consider the first major playwright of the digital age, and was given a first-rate production by director Anne Kauffman.
7. An American in Paris – open-ended
Adding to the gorgeous Gershwin score, first-time Broadway director Christopher Wheeldon, a world-renowned ballet choreographer, has created a Broadway musical that, in addition to the usual razzmatazz song-and-dance routines, is unapologetically full of beautiful modern ballet. The creative team adds a realistic darkness to this show set in post World War II Paris.
This play by Robert O’Hara is an outrageous and sly comedy about a dysfunctional family conducting an intervention with one of its addicted members — at least that’s what we think it is, at first. It winds up something deeper than that — confronting audience members with their racial attitudes, while simultaneously making us laugh. It manages to roast its raw characters, while at the same time basting the audience in juicy observations about race and class, truth and ‘authenticity,’ and modern addictions, including to fame.
5. Fun Home – open-ended
This remarkable musical, based on Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir about her childhood with a father who was secretly gay, is a work of theater that is inventive, entertaining, in places exhilarating, and almost inexpressibly heartbreaking. Fun Home was my number one pick on my 2013 list when it was at the Public Theater, but I list it again because the production got even better when it moved to Broadway this year, adjusting in clever ways to the Circle of the Square’s in-the-round theater.
4. Hir – running through January 3, 2016
Taylor Mac, the gender-bending, formidably protean downtown theater artist, has written a play he considers Absurd Realism, defining this as “simply realistic characters in a realistic circumstance that is so extreme it is absurd.” But Hir is only simple on the surface — Mac’s bid to write a conventional family drama in an unconventional way. It’s rich in allusion, layered with meaning, aesthetically and politically sly, and pervasively weird. And its cast is impeccable, including the transgender performer Tom Phelan and the incomparable actress Kristine Nielsen.
3. Hand to God – running through January 3, 2015
Robert Askin’s funny, filthy, violent and sensitive play, featuring a Satanic sock puppet, is not for children. But it is a show for adults, with hints of psychological insights beneath the hysterical exterior. I didn’t see this play until it was on Broadway (although I tried.) Its triumph is also a victory for Off-Off Broadway, where the show began, and it retains a quirky, raw, uncompromising quality more characteristic of its origins than its destination — offering hope that more such shows can appeal to mainstream audiences.
2. Spring Awakening – running through January 24, 2016
The Deaf West production of Spring Awakening tangibly enhances an acclaimed musical about rebellious and repressed adolescents. By cleverly pairing deaf actors who are signing with hearing actors who are singing, Deaf West has made the show the most accessible on Broadway, but also forged it into something theatrically exceptional. While it has not been getting the same awed reaction as Hamilton, it too is breaking new ground.
1. Hamilton – open-ended
In my third review of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop opera about the life and times of the Founding Father whose face is on the ten dollar bill, I wondered as it was opening on Broadway whether it had already reached the point in the life of a Broadway hit when “any individual opinion no longer matters. It’s a hit because it’s a hit, and people go because it’s a hit; those who don’t like it are likely to blame themselves.”
Hamilton is unquestionably a phenomenon. It’s not just an impossible ticket to get; a culture has been built around it (e.g. #Ham4Ham, the short free show before each lottery drawing), and it’s the first Broadway show in a while to spread so widely into the larger culture. It promises to turn into one of those old-fashioned world-wide Broadway juggernauts, having just announced a second production in Chicago, as well as one planned for London, and a national tour.
But all this doesn’t change what I see as the ways that the show itself struck me as groundbreaking, and breathtaking.