Yes, it's that time of year again. When otherwise intelligent writers take time out of their busy schedules to create arbitrary, specious, and otherwise suspect lists of the best and worst of the year. I hate lists. But I also love lists.
Why the ambivalence? Well, I'm as much a sucker for lists as anyone else: it gives me a chance to reflect on what I loved and loathed over the course of the year. To be honest, lists drive traffic, but they also spark debate. But I also find them as artificial and unfair as, say, the Tony Awards. Why must everything be a contest? Why must we continually pit people and product against each other in the relentless pursuit of good, better, and best?
My personal hesitations notwithstanding, I nonetheless present the following as my decidedly personal, skewed, biased, and irreverent take on the best musicals - and one play with tons of music - of the year. To read my reviews, click on the title links. Sometime next week I"ll be posting my list of the worst. (And it ain't gonna be pretty, m'kay?)
1. The Scottsboro Boys - Hands down, the most powerful, tuneful, and paradoxically entertaining show of the year. How fitting that The Scottsboro Boys would cap the Broadway career of two of the most daring and innovative creators in Broadway history: John Kander and Fred Ebb. There's been a lot of moaning about The Scottsboro Boys with regard to its supposedly premature closing on Broadway. Yes, it's too bad the show couldn't find a wider audience. But here's a show that, in an ideal world, would have been better off finding a berth Off-Broadway. Unfortunately, there really isn't room for The Scottsboro Boys Off-Broadway either. Because of its challenging subject matter, it's really a show that can probably only play non-profit theaters, and there's talk of touring the show around to regional non-profits. The producers are also promising to bring the show back to Broadway in time for the Tony Awards in the spring. They're asking fans of the show to put their money where their emails are, and pledge to buy a ticket if the show reopens. Despite my reservations, I signed the pledge. Will you?
2. Anyone Can Whistle - What can you do with a show that has a fantastic score but a mess of a book? Well, you cut the book down to a bare minimum, you cast Donna Murphy, Sutton Foster, and Raúl Esparza in the leads, and you get Casey Nicholaw to stage it. The result was the exhilarating Encores production of Anyone Can Whistle, a perennial favorite among Stephen Sondheim's many ardent followers. Foster and Esparza had terrific chemistry, but it was Donna Murphy's virtuoso turn as Cora that really carried the day. Murphy is one of the best performers we currently have on Broadway, and she dug into the part of Cora with gusto and relish. It was truly one of those performances that you carry with you throughout your theater-going career. Nicholaw's direction and staging were nearly as indelible. Anyone Can Whistle is a show that depends upon a strong directorial hand, and Nicholaw brought the entire cast onto the same page with an arch but never clownish tone. Nicholaw's work on Elf was somewhat less inspired, but he has clearly proven himself a director and choreographer of tremendous promise.
3. La Cage aux Folles - Whoever said it was too soon to bring back La Cage clearly underestimated both the strength of the show itself and Terry Johnson's honest and empathic direction. I actually sort of enjoyed the 2004 revival of La Cage, but it wasn't until I saw the current revival that I truly understood the emotional impact of the piece. This production would probably never have happened without Kelsey Grammer, but the real star of the show was Douglas Hodge, who managed to be both mannered and moving at the same time. I'll be very interested to see how the show changes under the ministrations of its upcoming replacement cast: Jeffrey Tambor and Harvey Fierstein as Georges and Albin, respectively. As we saw this season with A Little Night Music (see below), replacement casts can have a huge impact on the effectiveness of the show. Yes, Fierstein wrote the durn thing, and has a lot of drag experience. But can he bring Zaza to convincing life? I can't wait to find out.
4. A Little Night Music - I want to be very clear here: I'm specifically referring to the Broadway production of A Little Night Music *after* Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch joined up. I had very little praise for the show under the helm of Catherine Zeta-Jones (read my review). But once Bernadette and Elaine came on board, suddenly the production transformed itself into a genuinely moving and heartfelt show. Sure, Bernadette chewed a bit of David Farley's unappealing scenery. And Elaine forgot her lines to a distracting extent. (At the performance I attended, she looked at young Fredericka at one point and bellowed, "What the hell was I going to say to you?") But the sheer presence, professionalism, and warmth that these two wonderful performers exuded permeated the rest of the cast, bringing what was a ragtag bunch of admittedly talented but unfocused performers into a unified troupe. It was one of the most drastic theatrical transformations I've ever witnessed, and for that we have Catherine Zeta-Jones to thank: the show would never have come to Broadway without her, and then we wouldn't have had the chance to see a far superior performer take her place.
5. Yank - Sheer joy, both in terms of the writing and the performances. Yank was a lovely surprise for me. I'm certainly sympathetic to the subject matter: the story of two gay soldiers finding love during World War II. But what made this show work was the delightful score by David Zellnik (book and lyrics) and Joseph Zellnik (music), and a bevy of smart and moving performances, led my the terrific Bobby Steggert and Ivan Hernandez. The pair brought such credibility and warmth to their scenes together, it was quite easy to get caught up in their passion. The show was one of a number of Off-Broadway shows that were announced for Broadway this season, but Yank was later postponed, even after director David Cromer signed on to further develop the show. I'm not sure Yank will meet a more promising fate than the other shows on this list that moved from Off-Broadway to On-, but I greatly look forward to seeing this show again, hopefully with the delightful Bobby Steggert in the starring role.
6. Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson - What a difference an audience made. The first time I saw Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson at The Public Theater, I was a bit nonplussed (read my review). The book and direction were sharp, but I found the the score to be one long undifferentiated drone. Plus, the audience just wasn't getting it, which made it hard to really appreciate the humor. Then I saw the show after it transferred to Broadway. I still had problems connecting with the score, but the preview audience was eating it up, and I went happily along for the ride. Some people have quibbled that the show plays fast and loose with history, taking Jackson's story and forcefully wringing out modern political resonance. To those people I reply, "Yeah, so?" Name one musical that's historically accurate. 1776? Ragtime? Name one musical that's faithful to its source. My Fair Lady? West Side Story? Gypsy? Sweeney Todd? Nope. Not one of 'em. I simply don't buy the notion that shows need to be documentaries and stick slavishly to history. I'm all for that which serves the author's vision of the piece, provided it's executed with genuine wit and passion, as it most certainly is in BBAJ.
7. The Kid - This one kind of came out of nowhere for me, played for a while, and then went away. I'm really hoping to see The Kid resurface at some point, because there was a lot worth recommending in the show. The story involves sex columnist Dan Savage and the efforts by him and his boyfriend to become parents. Along the way, they meet with various obstacles, challenges, and eventually success. The show is by a talented trio of newcomers, Michael Zam (book), Andy Monroe (music), and Jack Lechner, (lyrics), and featured a charming cast, led by the always remarkable Christopher Sieber. There have been hints of a cast recording as well as future versions of the show, and I for one look forward to both, as well as to future work by these promisingly talented gentlemen.
8. See Rock City - Another pleasant Off-Broadway surprise, and one that I might not even have noticed if my friend Andy Propst at Theatermania hadn't pointed it out to me. The show was a travelogue of sorts, taking the viewer on a tour of various tourist destinations across the United States. What could have been a fragmented mess instead coalesced into a humorous and moving collation of stories and songs from composer Brad Alexander and lyricist/librettist Adam Mathias. The show was performed by an appealing cast of New York regulars, including Stanley Bahorek, Donna Lynn Champlin, and Bryce Ryness. Combine all that with wonderfully environmental staging by director Jack Cummings III, and the result was an innovative and engaging evening, one that I sincerely hope has a future life.
9. Brief Encounter - "Oh, come on now, Chris. Brief Encounter is a play, not a musical." Yeah, I know. But Emma Rice's imaginative staging of Noël Coward's play and screenplay was also chockablock with some of Coward's best songs, including "Mad About the Boy" and "A Room With a View." The show was veritably suffused with music, dotted with dance, and rife with the sort of inspired theatricality that most Broadway musicals can only aspire to. The cast strolled the aisles of the Studio 54 in troubadour fashion, and even took literal flight above the stage. What's more, the spectacle didn't detract from the human element of the story, but rather enhanced it, creating one of the most sublime and unforgettable theatrical experiences in many a season. Simply enchanting.
10. Fanny - It tells you something about the artistic caliber of the musicals on Broadway this year that I needed to list two Encores productions to fill out my top ten. But, in truth, Fanny probably would have made the list anyway, mostly because it represented an opportunity to experience what programs like Encores are all about: a rediscovered, nearly forgotten little gem of a show with a delightful score (by the under-appreciated Harold Rome), a funny and moving book (S. N. Behrman and Joshua Logan), performed by a sturdy cast of performers, both old (Fred Applegate and George Hearn) and new (Elena Shaddow and James Snyder). Encores got off to a bit of a pedestrian start this season with Bells Are Ringing, but I'm genuinely intrigued by the season's remaining two productions: the obscure Where's Charley? and the heartrending Lost in the Stars. Watch this space for my take on both.