When I was in eighth grade, our class produced a little mimeographed yearbook, of which I was the editor. The yearbook contained individual student profiles, essays about class trips, a class song, and a whole bunch of other yearbook-type items. Each student profile contained a line item for the student to announce his or her future career plans, and another line for a "class prediction" of what job the student would actually end up in. At the time, I thought I was going to become a doctor, specifically a psychiatrist. (Interpret that as you will.) But my classmates predicted that I would become a critic, "because Chris is never satisfied with anything." (Kinda harsh, huh? Well, eighth graders aren't known for their tact, now are they?)
Well, I've been thinking about that prediction lately, not just because it actually came true. I think a more positive spin on the notion that I'm supposedly "never satisfied" is that I have high standards. At the Boston Conservatory, where I teach, I'm known as a tough grader. And I suppose I'm pretty hard to please as a critic as well. I don't necessarily go into shows with my arms figuratively crossed, demanding nothing less than to be blown away. It's just that I've been developing a certain aesthetic regarding musical theater for many years, and I apply that aesthetic to every production that I see. Sometimes I genuinely am blown away, but most of the time I am not, but that's to be expected. As I say to my students all the time, quality is always the exception.
Anyway, all of this is by way of introduction to my annual list of the best musical productions that I've seen in a particular calendar year. It might come as a surprise to some people (my eighth-grade classmates in particular) that, yes, every once in a while, I do see productions that I appreciate, enjoy, and sometimes am even blown away by. And here's proof: ten productions from 2012 that could even please me, the guy who's "never satisfied." Of course, I'll be following up later with my list of the ten Worst Musicals of 2012, but I wanted to post this list first as a sort of preemptive strike. Click on the show names below to read my original reviews of the shows in question.
10. Murder Ballad. Here's a perfect example of a show that, while not perfect, had enough going for it that it tipped the scales for me in the positive direction, and I wound up enjoying myself immensely. Murder Ballad is a classic love triangle that (as it says on the tin) ends rather badly, but along the way we're treated to an entertaining mix of sentiment and snark. The show is by Julia Jordan and Juliana Nash, and I'm looking forward to seeing future work by this promising pair. Of course, much of the appeal of Murder Ballad, which played an extended engagement at the Manhattan Theatre Club's new Studio at Stage II this past fall, lay in its superlative cast: John Ellison Conlee, Rebecca Naomi Jones, Karen Olivo, and Will Swenson. But I get the sense that Murder Ballad is going to catch on on its own merit with regional theaters and colleges, particularly after the upcoming release of the show's cast recording.
9. Porgy and Bess. As you probably recall, Porgy and Bess had a rather bumpy road to Broadway last season. After Stephen Sondheim's excoriating letter to the New York Times, and Ben Brantley's less-than-stellar review of the show's pre-Broadway run at the A.R.T., it was looking as though the show might not make it to New York. At issue were the efforts of director Diane Paulus and adapter Suzan-Lori Parks to "streamline" and "modernize" the show. Purists balked, but I found the show a huge improvement over previous productions of the show. There were a few times when I found the trimming to be a bit too aggressive, but overall I found the production thrilling. Much of this came from the central performance by Audra McDonald, for which she deservedly won her fifth Tony Award. (Although I do have to say that, the first time I saw the new Forbidden Broadway, it included a number called "A Diva is a Sometime Thing," poking fun of Audra's numerous and extended absences from the show. It was one of the funniest things in the show, but the number wasn't there the second time I saw FB, and it isn't included on the new CD either. Could it be that Gerard Alessandrini is starting to pull punches in his latter years?)
8. Without You. I always like to include some shows that I didn't see in New York on this list, and one of the best things I saw last year was in my hometown. Anthony Rapp brought his one-man show Without You to Boston early last summer, in anticipation of runs in London and Edinburgh, and the show was intimate, disarming, and extremely moving. As you may know, Rapp originated the role of Mark in Rent, and Without You tells the parallel stories of Rapp being a part of that production and experiencing the premature death of Jonathan Larson, as well as Rapp's own struggles with the passing of his mother. Without You mixes songs from Rent with original material by Rapp and his collaborators. Under the direction of Steve Maler of Boston's own Commonwealth Shakespeare Company, Rapp takes what could have been a maudlin exercise in self-pity and turns it into a sweet remembrance of a powerful and formative time in his life. (If you didn't get a chance to catch the show live, PS Classics recently released a recording of the show.)
7. Closer Than Ever. The venerable York Theatre Company provided a welcome respite from the overblown spectacles of Broadway by reviving Closer Than Ever, the intimate and knowing Off-Broadway revue by songwriting team of Richard Maltby, Jr. and David Shire. The show featured some updated material, but the real reasons that the production was a must-see were the two female performers, Jenn Colella and Christiane Noll, as well as the brisk and sensitive direction from Mr. Maltby himself. I think I also responded to the show because the material seemed so much more meaningful to me in 2012 than when the show first came out. A lot of the songs are about adjusting to aging process, and, well, let's just say I'm a bit closer to the ages at which Maltby and Shire wrote this material than I was in 1989. Anyway, I'm certainly looking forward to the show's upcoming cast recording from Jay Records.
6. One Man, Two Guvnors. OK, yeah, this one wasn't technically a musical. But, hey, it did have more songs that many musicals do, and even produced a cast recording to prove it. Whatever it was, One Man, Two Guvnors was easily one of the most enjoyable productions I saw last year, play or musical, and for that reason alone I decided to include it on this list. In fact, I had such a grand old time, I went back twice again to revel in the sheer joy of this gleefully ridiculous production. (The third time, I brought my brother and niece. We had just been to the Carnegie Deli for dinner and had half of a brisket sandwich with us. If you've seen the play, you know where this is headed.) One Man, Two Guvnors is by Richard Bean, and is a modern reworking of Carlo Goldoni's classic Servant of Two Masters, but the real attraction here was the expert cast of British hams, led by Tony winner James Corden, ably abetted by Jemima Rooper, Oliver Chris, and Suzie Toase. Add in the expert direction from Nicholas Hytner, and you have one of the most ridiculously entertaining nights in the theater to hit Broadway in many a season.
5. Dogfight. Song-writing team Justin Paul and Benj Pasek made their Broadway debut this season with the holiday run of A Christmas Story. I was not among the many people who enjoyed that production. In fact, I would much rather have seen Pasek and Paul make their Broadway bow with Dogfight, which played Off-Broadway at the Second Stage Theatre last summer. Admittedly, Pasek and Paul had some wonderful moments in their score to A Christmas Story, including some warm and intimate character numbers for the mother. But they were able to sustain that intimacy and depth of characterization throughout most of the score to Dogfight, particularly for the female lead character, Rose, played with heart-breaking subtlety by the wonderful Lindsay Mendez. Director Joe Mantello re-affirmed here his grip on crafting solid ensemble work and nuanced individual performances, after floundering over the past few seasons on mindless musical comedies and farce. I'm hoping to see some future life for Dogfight, if only in the form aof a cast recording, which to this date has not been announced.
4. Anything Goes (starring Stephanie J. Block). Last year, I had the chance to revisit the two Broadway musical revivals from the previous season, and it was a genuine study in contrasts. Whereas How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying was coming apart at the seams with Nick Jonas at the helm (watch for my list of the Worst Musicals of 2012), over at the Stephen Sondheim Theater, Anything Goes was going full guns, despite the departure of Tony winner Sutton Foster. In fact, although I had certainly enjoyed Anything Goes the first time I saw, my second viewing was one of pure joy. Somehow the Roundabout Theatre Company's revival, featuring the strong direction and fluid choreography of the redoubtable Kathleen Marshall, seemed even more sure-footed and ebullient with Stephanie J. Block. as Reno Sweeney. Unfortunately, the show closed shortly thereafter, but I was gratified to have experienced first-hand a long-running production that had gotten even better with age.
3. Carousel (Goodspeed Opera House). I'm a big fan of the Goodspeed Opera House, and last year I was fortunate in starting to cover the Goodspeed for TheaterMania. The folks at the Goodspeed always put on top-drawer productions. (Even, as we will see in my Worst Musicals of 2012 list, the shows themselves aren't always of the highest caliber.) With Carousel, the Goodspeed took on the challenge of taking a classic Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein show that's often big on production values and making it work on the Goodspeed's admittedly diminutive stage. Just as they did last season with Show Boat, the Goodspeed found ingenious ways of making Carousel work in their space, and even made an asset out of that potential liability by bringing the action closer to the audience and rendering the grand sweep of the show on a compellingly intimate scale. The cast was also a huge part of the show's success, particularly James Snyder as Billy Bigelow and Teal Wicks as Julie Jordan.
2. Bring It On. Yeah, I'm surprised, too. First, for even having Bring It On on my Best Musicals of 2012 list, and second, for ranking it so high. Make no mistake: Bring It On is fluff, but but it's extremely well executed fluff, with a smart and funny book by Jeff Whitty (Avenue Q) and a variegated score by composer Tom Kitt (Next to Normal), composer/lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda (In the Heights) and lyricist Amanda Green. Bring It On is really nothing more than "Who's gonna win the big cheerleader competition?," but hey, what's wrong with that? Along the way, we meet some genuinely likable performers (led by the adorable Taylor Louderman), witness some heart-stopping cheerleader routines, and watch choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler (who also directed) back in his pop-and-lock element at last, after some unfortunate miss-fires. (See 9 to 5, featuring pale white men in three-piece suits grooving to the hip-hop beat. Oy.) I'm fully expecting to see Bring It On catch on with high-school and college theater groups, and I'm all for that. (Although it will be interesting to see how they handle the transgender teen.)
1. Once. There are so many wonderful reasons why Once makes the top of my list this year. First of all, it's a really good show, and probably would have topped the list no matter what else had occurred. But then it went on to sweep the Tony Awards, over the crowd-pleasing Newsies, And now, it's already made back its initial investment and continues to sell really strongly. And what makes it all so gratifying is that it's such a small show: cast of 12 people, no orchestra, unit set, simple costumes. It warms my heart to think that small show like this can become a Broadway hit. Maybe this will make producers think twice about the new overblown, overproduced movie adaptation. If the show is good, people will come no matter how elaborate the sets and costumes are. Much credit here goes to director John Tiffany and choreographer Steven Hoggett for creating a seamless flow between scenes and for letting the truth of the characters speak for itself. Then, of course, there's the haunting score by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová. And at the center, we have the nuanced and heart-wrenching performances from Steve Kazee and Cristin Milioti, all of which coalesce to make Once the most heart-warming smash-hit in more than a decade.
HONORABLE MENTION: Leap of Faith. OK, I couldn't very well end this list without making one last plug for a show that I genuinely think got a bad rap. Go ahead and think less me based on my affection for Leap of Faith, but when I saw the show I was disarmed by the level of genuine characterization, the meaningful integration of the score, and the strength with which the cast members seemed to believe in the story of these appealing, yet flawed, individuals. Unfortunately, Leap of Faith wound up being the biggest financial flop in a season replete with same. Lost in the rubble were an intelligent book by Janus Cercone and Warren Leight, a rousing set of songs from composer Alan Menken and lyricist Glenn Slater, and two genuinely strong yet layered performances from Raul Esparza and Jessica Phillips. All will of course land on their feet, and in the meantime we have the cast recording to remind those of us who enjoyed the show of how much genuinely solid work went into it, and to give those of us who didn't see the show a chance to experienced what they missed.