The good, the bad and the ugly. We’ve seen it all over the past twelve months, from the groundbreaking musical Hamilton to the mega-flop Doctor Zhivago. 2015 was — shall we say — dramatic? Here’s our top ten list, reminding us that one never knows what to expect when the lights dim.
Hamilton Ushers In a New Era of Musical Theater
If you haven’t been able to score a ticket, everything you’ve heard is true… and then some. We’ve had our eye on this megahit since it premiered at The Public last spring:
“Not one performance sounds a false note, each player delivering their machine-gun patter with crystal clarity, singing with depth and feeling, and moving with dynamic precision. Miranda and Odom are perfectly counterbalanced in the leads, while each supporting player, including the members of the ensemble, establishes one or more indelible images. Production values, music, and script blend into a seamlessly integrated whole, all of it stylistically unified.”
“Will Broadway audiences be hungry for a nearly three-hour history lesson? I have no idea, but if musical theater is ever going to move to the next level, it couldn’t have a better teacher.” – Samuel L. Leiter
Fun Home: A Graphic Novel Takes to the Stage
Gasps of elation were heard last spring when Fun Home snagged the Tony Award for Best Musical. But Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron’s musical (based on the graphic novel by Alison Bechdel) has all of the elements of a hit: a terrific score, great story, and heart-wrenching performances that will have you in a puddle by the curtain call.
“Fun Home was a 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Drama finalist and it’s easy to see why. The musical, which so truthfully delves into the specifics of Bechdel’s life, also touches upon universal themes about creativity and truth. As her father falls deep into a life of deception as a means to cover up his repressed homosexuality, he inadvertently smothers her artistic expression in an unconscious attempt to control what cannot be controlled, both within him as well as others.” – Matthew Wexler
The Visit: Misery Loves Company
Don’t hate the hater, but Chita Rivera’s latest return to Broadway was a serious snooze fest. Some critics felt that Kander and Ebb’s haunting score had legs, but if so, they were broken.
“Directed with what has now become his signature stamp of ensemble shuffling, John Doyle maneuvers and manipulates the players with the help of choreographer Graciela Daniele. I’m not sure who decided that a coffin should be the one major prop, but after about 90 minutes of gloom and doom one wishes that the whole show could be sealed up and buried six feet under.” – Matthew Wexler
Ease on Down the Road with George Faison
It was the year of The Wiz. Central Park SummerStage presented a tribute to the original production, hosted by George Faison, who won the Tony Award for his choreography in 1975. The televised version introduced the show to a new generation and there’s talk of a Broadway production next year. This is what Faison had to say about why the show still resonates with audiences:
“It was 1939 when Judy Garland starred in the original The Wizard of Oz. We were a country at war then, as well as 1975, and in a lot of ways we’re at war now. We were all trying to achieve a fantasy—even if we were black. But that vernacular was just an overlay. Everybody wants to be Dorothy. It is a show filled with passion and compassion.”
“The brain, the heart, and the most important virtue—courage —are the embodiment of The Wiz.”
Doctor Zhivago: Dead on Arrival
Producers described the show as “an epic romance set during the final days of Czarist Russia, the First World War and the chaos of the Russian revolution.” With a meager total of 49 performances, critics and audiences disagreed.
“I’m pretty confident that McAnuff (two-time Tony winner for Jersey Boys and The Who’s Tommy) had a “Freaky Friday” experience with Mel Brooks, for there’s no other way to explain the over-the-top-shenanigans slathered across the stage. Actors are constantly running in and out of scenes as if the theater was on fire, shrieking and screaming the dialogue as if the audience was in Westchester.
There are nearly 40 producers listed above the title in the playbill and I have to wonder if any of them saw Doctor Zhivago before opening night—and if they did, what sort of theatrical medicine they hoped might resurrect the production. Unfortunately, this diagnosis is terminal.” Matthew Wexler
Kathleen Marshall: Tried and True
Along with her brother, Rob Marshall, Kathleen was honored at this year’s New York Pops Birthday Gala. The evening paid tribute to the pair’s cumulative body of work and we had a chance to ask the three-time Tony winner about her attraction toward “old school” musicals.
“I sometimes think I was born in the wrong era but I’m lucky that I get to reinvent them. It’s a combination of what you’re drawn to and projects that you’re offered. But what draws me in is the music and those wonderful scores. And I’m attracted to musical comedy. They have great plot, character and story telling. They’re serious comedies and not camp.”
Gene Saks: Play On
The theater world lost one of its most endearing directors when Gene Saks passed away March 28, 2015. The three-time Tony Award winner was also an American Theatre Hall of Fame inductee. Charlotte St. Martin, Executive Director of the Broadway League, said, “Gene Saks was a notable presence on Broadway for six decades as an acclaimed performer and celebrated director. His legendary collaboration with Neil Simon contributed unparalleled magic and laughter to Broadway, and he will be missed.”
Dames at Sea: Somebody Throw a Life Raft!
One of our favorite underdogs of the season unfortunately had sea legs and couldn’t find its footing. Director/choreographer Randy Skinner created a charming revival of a show that first appeared off-off-Broadway starring none other than Bernadette Peters. LAST CHANCE! Dames at Sea closes January 3. Click here for tickets.
“Dames At Sea proves that bigger (and newer) isn’t always better. This charming little show is a star bright enough to outshine some of its flashier neighbors on the Great White Way.” – Matthew Wexler
Michael Feinstein: Welcome Home
New York City welcomes the return of Michael Feinstein and the renaming of 54 Below to Feinstein’s/54 Below. Passport Magazine featured an exclusive interview with Feinstein and here’s what he had to say about his return to NYC:
“Every space has its own personality, it’s odd how all of these mysterious elements come together. Comedians never did well at the Regency! In San Francisco we offer programming that includes a balance of local and other talent. 54 Below is a gorgeous room, and I’m exited to bring entertainers that I’ve worked with like Cheyenne Jackson and Alan Cumming to the space. (Of course, I’m making a presumption that they’ll want to appear!)”
“We’ll continue to craft the formula that we used at Feinstein’s. A well-trained staff, the way you’re greeted, and the food (I’m vegan so I’m always careful to have a wonderful and eclectic menu)—all of these things contribute to the experience. As far as programming, it will be the best of what they’ve presented and what I can contribute to create a collaborative synergy. We both felt it’d be to our mutual advantage and joined forces. I’m very excited and I’m looking forward to playing twice a year.”
American Dance Machine for the 21st Century: Let Me Dance For You!
For musical theater fanatics there is no better guilty pleasure than the relaunch of American Dance Machine. Originally conceived by the late Lee Theodore in 1976 to create a “living archive” of musical theater dance, the company’s prolific work continued until shortly after her death in 1987. Nikki Feirt Atkins founded its current incarnation in 2012 and Wayne Cilento (seven-time Tony Award nominee including a win for Best Choreography for The Who’s Tommy) directs the company’s current residence at the Joyce Theater. We can’t wait to see what they have in store for 2016.
Matthew Wexler is the Broadway Blog’s editor. Follow him on social media at @roodeloo.