For Christmas, I treated myself to the Stephen Sondheim's Hat Box, which comprises both volumes of his collected lyrics: Finishing the Hat and Look, I Made a Hat. I'm in the active process of devouring the latter, and was struck by one of Sondheim's sidebars, this one about "Awards and Their Uselessness." Sondheim very cogently and soberly dissects the theater-awards process, a process that he himself is no stranger to, both in terms of being recognized and passed over. Sondheim concludes that the only real uses that artists have for awards are building confidence and, for the prizes that come with a cash sum, livelihood.
As I sat down to put together my annual lists of the best and worst musicals of the year, Sondheim's essay kept coming to mind. Lists are much like awards, in that they artificially create competition among the incomparable. And yet, like awards, we can't seem to get enough of lists. I know that the primary traffic drivers to my site are the numerous lists that I've compiled of The 100 Best Musicals of All Time, The Most Overrated Musicals, The Most Influential People in Musical-Theater History, etc. So forgive me, dear reader, while I pander to our baser instincts and engage in the arbitrary, subjective, and all around unfair process of ranking the best and the worst in musical theater (at least that I had a chance to see) in 2011.
(To read my full reviews, click on the initial mention of the title of each show.)
10. Ten Cents a Dance - A lot of people seem to be over director John Doyle and his actor/musician approach to musical theater. (Some would call it a gimmick. I think of it more as another potential way to approach a show. The charming new musical Once uses actor/musicians, and I haven't heard anyone griping about that. At least not yet.) With Ten Cents a Dance, Doyle found what was perhaps the best use yet of actor/musicians in this revue of songs of Rodgers and Hart, which played this summer at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. Doyle centered the story around a musician (Malcolm Gets) and five women in his life (including Donna McKechnie and Lauren Molina), and the actor/musician device proved an apt and compelling device for illuminating the relationships and creating a strong sense of collaboration, conflict, and catharsis. The show also played at the McCarter Theatre earlier this fall, and I haven't heard about any additional engagements, but I'm hoping to see maybe the Roundabout pick it up for a limited New York run.
9. Show Boat - Even though Show Boat is a universally recognized classic, opportunities to see the show live are relatively few. This is partly because of the imagined set requirements for a show of such sweeping chronological scope, but the good folks at the Goodspeed Opera House found a simple but ingenious way around this - they used the theater auditorium as a proxy for the audience section on the boat itself. This had the double benefit of creating a festive theatrical atmosphere for the show, but also bringing the audience members closer to the action. This allowed for the full emotional sweep of Oscar Hammerstein's compelling book and lyrics and Jerome Kern's glorious score to come to the fore. I had some quibbles with some of the casting and with the director Rob Ruggiero's at times breakneck pacing, but on the whole, this production became a welcome blueprint for more theaters to take on the seemingly onerous task of putting up one of the most important and glorious shows in the musical-theater canon.
8. Company - I wanted to include at least one of the "cinecasts" from the past year, simply because I want to encourage producers to keep them coming. My favorite this year was the filmed version of Stephen Sondheim's Company, which an all-star (or mostly-star) cast performed in a very limited run with the New York Philharmonic. Some thought that, with the ready availability of the DVD from the recent Broadway revival, this broadcast was a tad de trop. But given the opportunity to see Neil Patrick Harris as Bobby, and Patti LuPone as Joanne, I mean come on, folks. In some ways this version of Company surpassed all others that I've seen: Bobby has never been more sympathetic or lively than in the hands of Mr. Harris. And the supporting cast - which included Martha Plimpton, Craig Bierko, Katie Finneran, Jill Paice, Jennifer Laura Thompson, and Aaron Lazar - was simply outstanding. Word on the street has it that we probably won't see a DVD release of this production, but perhaps it might show up on PBS. (Please?)
7. How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying - All the revival love this past awards season seemed to go to Anything Goes, but for my money How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying was the best of the last season. (Well, "better." There were only two.) The supposed star of the show was, of course, Daniel Radcliffe, but for me the star was director/choreographer Rob Ashford in a satisfying return to form after the previous season's desultory Promises, Promises. Ashford's ample and athletic choreography really gave the production a central motor, and there were numerous smart directorial touches along the way. Plus, I'll take any opportunity I can get to witness that smart and funny book by Abe Burrows, Jack Weinstock, and Willie Gilbert, and to revel in those richly textured Frank Loesser songs. (OK, so maybe not "any opportunity." I still haven't decided if I'm going to take in the show again with either Darren Criss or Nick Jonas. Perhaps if I have an extra show slot during one of my upcoming NYC trips.)
6. Follies - A lot of people were incredulous that I didn't fly down to DC to see this production of Follies at the Kennedy Center. (Anyone who would like to fund any proposed theater trips around the country is welcome to contact me through Paypal or some other money-transfer mechanism.) I think I knew deep down that I would get to see the production on Broadway, and I did. Quite happily. And twice. Follies has one of the best scores ever written (Thank you, Mr. Sondheim), although it is saddled with a book by James Goldman that possesses a few too many overripe passages than I care to enumerate. Nonetheless, the show is a wonderful showcase for a bevy of seasoned performers, and this production has a rich and varied complement of same. Bernadette Peters was the ostensible star here, but for me the production belonged to Jan Maxwell and Danny Burstein, who proved in spades why they're two of the most reliable and frequently cast performers of the past ten years. Follies runs until January 22nd. If you haven't already seen it, I order you to do so. Twice.
5. Porgy and Bess - As if we didn't already have enough to thank Stephen Sondheim for, we can also tip our hats to the master for bringing much-needed and -deserved attention to the upcoming Porgy and Bess revival. Of course, that wasn't his intention. He was really just fulminating about proposed ("proposed," mind you) changes to the now-classic show by director Diane Paulus and adaptor Suzan-Lori Parks during its tryout run at the American Repertory Theatre. For a while there, it was looking as though Sondheim's letter to the New York Times was going to scuttle any chances of Porgy and Bess reaching New York, but thankfully cooler heads have prevailed, and the show is now in previews at the Richard Rodgers Theater. Which means a much wider audience will have the opportunity to luxuriate in the glorious music of George Gershwin, the rich and resonant voices of Audra McDonald and Norm Lewis in the title roles, and a much more dramatically efficient and compelling version of this heartbreaking story than any I've seen.
4. Candide - Here's another terrific production that, like Ten Cents a Dance, needs to find its way to New York. Of course, director Mary Zimmerman's fresh new take on Candide, which I saw at the Huntington Theatre in Boston, has already been seen in Chicago and Washington, DC. But it's the first version of Candide (and there have been many) that has truly done justice to both Voltaire's scathing book and Leonard Bernstein's sweeping score, and thus merits a sit-down stay in Manhattan, preferably on Broadway. Zimmerman has not only crafted a lively new libretto that takes full advantage of Bernstein's music, she has also put together an innovative production that brings more life, humor, and theatricality to the Candide story than any production I've encountered. Reliable rumor has it that we may indeed see this Candide, and some time very soon.
3. The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World - When I saw The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World at Playwrights Horizons, I genuinely thought it would garner a raft of glowing reviews. It did not. The critical reaction was all over the map, with many of my critical colleagues finding the show grim and depressing. I found it haunting and moving, and the production and the performances have stayed with me, like the persistent throb of a particularly disquieting dream. Writer Joy Gregory, composer/lyricist Gunnar Madsen, and director John Langs took the story of the unsuccessful singing group The Shaggs, an their notoriously awful but somehow mesmerizing recording, Philosophy of the World, and crafted a compelling story of unrealized ambition and quiet desperation. The Shaggs, as far as I know, did not receive a cast recording, which usually means that a show is dead in the water. It's really a shame, since this show would probably play extremely well at some of the more adventurous regional theaters around the country.
2. A Minister's Wife - This might come as a surprise to some of my regular readers. In my initial review of A Minister's Wife, a musical version of George Bernard Shaw's Candida, I expressed disappointment at not being able to enjoy this ambitious and challenging show more than I did. Even when I decided to return and revisit the show, I was still more in admiration of the show than in love with it. But then came the glorious cast recording from our friends at PS Classics which gave me a chance to revel in the richness of Joshua Schmidt's score, and in the intelligence and poetry of Jan Levy Tranen's lyrics. It seems I just can't get enough of A Minster's Wife on my iPod, in particular the thrilling final quintet, "Into the Night." It certainly doesn't hurt that the three central performances (from Mark Kudisch, Bobby Steggert, and newcomer Kate Fry) are so strong and layered. Both A Minster's Wife and the brilliant Adding Machine have solidified Schmidt's position as the most promising new composer that we have. I eagerly await the announcement of his next project. (The MP3 download for Adding Machine is currently available on Amazon for only $4.99. Do yourself a favor and grab it. It's quite challenging, but ultimately rewarding.)
1. The Book of Mormon - Predictable, I know. But deserved. The Book of Mormon is the biggest hit that Broadway has seen in years, perhaps decades. As of this writing, the soonest you could score a pair of seats at regular prices would be August 2012. I'm told that folks camp out overnight for rush tickets. Premium seats go for as high as $477.00, and who knows what you'll pay for tickets from a scalper or a ticket broker. Well, I'm not going to tell you what you should pay to see The Book of Mormon. I'm only going to say that the show deserves the hype. It's one of the most laugh-out-loud evenings I've ever had in the theater. The songs are strong, albeit littered with slant rhyme and mistressed words. And the book is actually smart in addition to being hysterically funny. Here's one of those perfect storms we only occasionally see in musicals, a fortuitous marriage of sensibility and stagecraft. Those zany "South Park" guys Trey Parker and Matt Stone no doubt deserve a good deal of the credit, but there's little question that Broadway veterans Robert Lopez and Casey Nicholaw were crucial in refining that satirical sensibility with a solid sense of practical theatricality. It seems clear that The Book of Mormon will be around for many years to come, even after the two terrific central performers Andrew Rannells and Josh Gad have moved on to other projects.
Coming Next: The Worst Musicals of 2011.