Year in Review 2014

The New Year is almost here so in lieu of a Week in Review, please enjoy this Year in Review.

The Bridges of Madison County Score—Music is better than words, which is what made this show work and why I feel I can't fully express, with mere words, how good the score is. Head to Sh-K-Boom to purchase a copy. You'll thank me. I feel like crying when Kelli O'Hara starts singing "To Build a Home," the opening number. I ache when Whitney Bashor goes full Joni Mitchell in "Another Life." I absolutely swoon anytime Steven Pasquale sings, especially a love song, like "Falling into You." And if you don't completely melt from the one-two punch of the final two numbers, "It All Fades Away" and "Always Better," then you have no feeling. It's a magnificent, unabashedly emotional score from Tony winner Jason Robert Brown (The Last Five Years), a treasure of modern musical theatre.

Freestyle Love Supreme—The freestyle hip-hop group hit a landmark this year. They got a TV show. The self-titled Freestyle Love Supreme aired on Pivot (and is available on iTunes and Amazon); 10 episodes showed off the group's impressive ability to freestyle about...well, anything. Founded by Anthony "Two-Touch" Veneziale, the group also features Lin-Manuel "Lin-Man" Miranda (In the Heights, tick, tick...BOOM!); Arthur "Arthur the Geniuses" Lewis; Utkarsh "UTK the INC" Ambudkar (Modern Terrorism); Bill "King Sherman" Sherman; Christopher "C Jack" Jackson (Holler If Ya Hear Me); and Chris "Shockwave" Sullivan. (Tony winner James Monroe Iglehart (Aladdin) is also a member of the group, though he was not featured (except for one episode) on the show.) Completely unscripted, the show was a combination of live performance footage (I attended one of the tapings) and "on the street" vignettes. Hilarious, irreverent and celebratory, the group is not to be missed. Head to iTunes or Amazon to catch up on the first season, keep your fingers crossed for a second, and check them out the next time they're playing near you.

Justin Peck Has an Amazing Year—Let's see. In April, the documentary Ballet 422 debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival. It chronicles the making of Peck's Paz de La Jolla, New York City Ballet's 422nd ballet, and it's fascinating to see the NYCB soloist and rising choreographer throughout the creative process. (Ballet 422's theatrical release is set for February 6, 2015.) Then, May brought the premiere of Peck's Everywhere We Go, which, after just one performance, cemented itself as one of my top five favorite ballets of all time. It is absolutely exquisite, and one of the most life-affirming things I've ever seen. Shortly thereafter, Peck was named NYCB's resident choreographer, becoming only the second person to hold that title. (The first was Christopher Wheeldon.) Being resident choreographer means that Peck will be creating at least two new ballets for the Company each year. Peck then debuted, in September, Belles-Lettres, part of NYCB's fall gala, where fashion meets dance. He teamed with designer Mary Katrantzou, to much acclaim. And those are just the things he's done that I've seen. Peck also debuted works for the LA Dance Project, Miami City Ballet and other companies, and he shows no signs of stopping. He is working on a new ballet for NYCB, set to premiere in February. Congratulations to the young artist, and here's to seeing what greatness he achieves in 2015.

The Last Ship—I love this show. I've seen it three times so far (once a month since October, when it began previews), and each time I see it, I feel even more passionate about this original musical. With a layered, haunting score written by Sting (who is performing in the show through January 24, 2015), and a book by Brian Yorkey (If/Then) and John Logan (Red), this musical hits on something that is universal and utterly compelling. It's about finding your home and your community, about discovering who you actually are, no matter your own protestations. Joe Mantello (Casa Valentina) directs and Steven Hoggett (American Idiot) choreographs a beautiful production that feels authentic and appropriately gritty. With The Last Ship, Broadway welcomed Rachel Tucker, and welcomed back Aaron Lazar (A Little Night Music) and Michael Esper (American Idiot). Esper gives a performance that is touching and indelible, passionate and potent. Musical theatre scholars will recognize in The Last Ship touchstones and themes of some of the classic musicals (seriously, when I listen to some songs I think, "This is Fiddler), proving that great art is timeless. Get your tickets now, and then head to your favorite musical retailer to purchase your copy of the original Broadway cast recording.

Lupita Nyong'o Has a Breakout Year—Though 12 Years a Slave came out in 2013, 2014 was the year everyone took notice. Nyong'o kicked off the year by taking home the SAG Award, and quickly followed it up with an Academy Award win. Throughout the award season, Nyong'o was consistently among the best dressed (a feat I chronicled on Culturalist). She was then seen in an action thriller, and was cast in the new Star Wars flick. (Filming has since concluded.) All the while, Nyong'o was an outspoken women, advocating for various human rights and environmental causes. The talented lady finished the year by graciously saying "thank you" on Instagram. Class acts are hard to come by these days so let's all take a minute to appreciate the rising star.

New Plays Rock—It was a great year for plays. The 2013-2014 season brought us James Lapine's Act One, a beautiful look at a life in theatre, and Harvey Fierstein's Casa Valentina, a beautiful look at a life lived in secret. Over the summer we had Sex with Strangers, Laura Eason's play that left us asking, "Who are you?" Then the 2014-2015 season kicked off off-Broadway with Robert O'Hara's Bootycandy. It pulls back the curtain on the creative process while being equal parts outrageous and poignant. And the toast of this Broadway season is The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Simon Stephens's adaptation of Mark Haddon's novel. It's yet another coming of age tale, but the production, directed by Marianne Elliott (who also brought us War Horse), is immersive and boundary-pushing, and it introduces us to star Alexander Sharp, who, only making his Broadway debut, will surely go on to have a storied career. As a bonus: Annie Baker won the Pulitzer Prize for last year's The Flick. Cheers to the playwrights!

Revivals Pack a Punch—It wasn't just the new plays having all the fun. 2014 also brought some glorious revivals. In April, there was the one-night-only concert of Guys and Dolls. I know one concert isn't truly a revival, but it was the first time I'd seen the musical on stage (I'd seen the movie and had been in it in high school), and watching that show and hearing that score reminded me what a fun musical it is, which is one of the great things revivals can do. Later in the month, the celebrated 1998 production of Cabaret returned to Broadway, making it a revival of a revival. Alan Cumming returned to his Tony-winning role, the Emcee, and Michelle Williams made her Broadway debut as Sally Bowles. Cabaret is an important, political musical, and this revival highlights its relevancy. Not nearly as serious but still seriously fun was the Shakespeare in the Park production of Much Ado about Nothing. I'm a Shakespeare fan so I'm inclined to like most Park productions, but in this case, it was more than the Bard. In particular, it was Lily Rabe and Hamish Linklater sparring on stage as Beatrice and Benedick, to the delight of audiences throughout the summer. And Encores! Off-Center program brought us Jonathan Larson's tick, tick...BOOM!. To finally see this show, a show I could only listen to for the last 13 years, was an extraordinary gift. To see Larson's creativity alongside his insecurities was astonishing, searing, even. As others have said, thank you, Jonathan Larson.

Sonic Highways—The Foo Fighters are my favorite band, so whenever they release a new album, I think it's cause for celebration. But this time was different. Wanting to do something special for the band's 20th anniversary, leader Dave Grohl set out to learn about the music of various American cities, inspired to learn about the sonic highways that connect us all. Picking up where he left off in his documentary Sound City, Grohl and his fellow band members, Taylor Hawkins, Nate Mendel, Chris Shiflett and Pat Smear, not only made an album by recording a track in each city visited but also documented, on film, the modern musical history of the cities. If you want to "get" the album quickly, listen to and watch the Nashville song/episode, "Congregation." That's what Sonic Highways—and music in general—is about. It's not about worshipping a particular deity; it's about coming together as a community and making a joyful noise. That's the beauty of music, of the sonic highways that bring us together. (Listen to and watch the whole album/series, though. It's spectacular.)

Storytelling in Musicals—Just when you think musical theatre as an art form is getting stale, some disrupters come in and remind you why you fell in love with musical theatre in the first place. Enough cannot be said about the incredible If/Then, written by Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey. This original musical is challenging and complex, two qualities you rarely see on their own on Broadway, let alone together. It asks audiences to pay attention (something we do too infrequently these days), as Elizabeth (Idina Menzel) takes off on diverging paths as Liz and Beth. If you pitched that concept to most Broadway producers, then you'd be laughed at, but Kitt, Yorkey and director Michael Greif make it work. Oh yeah, Menzel knocks it out of the park, too. Over the summer, off-Broadway brought two terrific, original musicals: The Lion and Fly by NightThe Lion is Benjamin Scheuer's personal coming of age tale, and he tells it with the help of several guitars but nothing else. He reminds us that we survive as a people by telling stories, no matter how tough it is to share our experience. (The Lion is coming back to New York this winter.) Fly by Night isn't necessarily ground breaking, but it is a beautiful, magical tale, and writers Kim Rosenstock, Will Connolly and Michael Mitnick effectively use a narrator to allow the story to unfold not in order but the way they want it to. Honorable mention in this category goes to genius Alex Timbers. While Rocky wasn't an original musical and while most of the storytelling is fairly traditional, director Timbers took the last 20 minutes and rewrote the rules of what can happen in a theatre. I can't wait to see what he does next.

Wendy Whelan Retires—Aaron Sorkin often has his characters say something along the lines of, "If you haven't seen X, then you haven't seen Shakespeare the way it was meant to be played." Watching Wendy Whelan dance is better than watching Shakespeare the way it was meant to be played. After 30 years with New York City Ballet, the preeminent American ballerina retired from the Company. (Fortunately for us, she hasn't retired from dance; she is looking forward to exploring other ways of dancing, getting into more modern dance in projects like Restless Creatures.) I've had the pleasure of watching Whelan dance over the last several years, and it was a privilege and an honor to attend her farewell performance. Whelan performed works by founding choreographers George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins, as well as pieces by her modern collaborators, Christopher Wheeldon and Alexei Ratmansky. To conclude the evening and her time at the State Theatre, Wheeldon and Ratmansky choreographed a brand new ballet for Whelan and her frequent partners, Tyler Angle and Craig Hall. Watching Wendy Whelan dance one last time, to get to be among the few people to be there for her farewell performance, is something I will cherish forever.

Honorable Mentions