Year in Review 2015

As we close out 2015, please enjoy this Year in Review.

An American in Paris—This gorgeous, lush production was everything I wanted it to be. Leading up to its Broadway bow, I kept saying, "It's Gershwin. It's Christopher Wheeldon. It's Robbie Fairchild." I was so excited, and I couldn't wait to see it (to wit: I was at the first preview). And it was fantastic. The Gershwin score, which includes well-known tunes, like the titular theme and "I've Got Rhythm," as well as lesser-known ditties, like "Liza," is enhanced by Christopher Austin, Don Sebesky, and Bill Elliot's Tony-winning orchestrations. The peerless Christopher Wheeldon's Tony-winning choreography thrilled, beautifully welcoming ballet back to Broadway. And Robert Fairchild's Tony-nominated performance established him as a true triple-threat. He dazzles as he shows Broadway audiences his signature Robbie Fairchild flair. But beyond what I was already excited about, I was blown away by Bob Crowley's production design; Max von Essen's performance; Leanne Cope's emotional dancing; and so much more. This musical is a throwback to what's considered the Golden Age of musical theatre, yet its freshness and vitality is undeniable. C'est manifique!

Broadway Takes a Chance—Broadway producers tend to play it safe. Understandable, understandable. Yes, it's perfectly understandable...but not all that interesting. Thank Thespis, this year producers got risky. I'm thinking in particular of the darkly comedic play Hand to God and the darkly weird Gothic romance musical The Visit. While both shows were terrific, and had some decent brags under their belts before hitting the Great White Way (Hand to God was critically acclaimed last year when it played off-Broadway; The Visit was written by the legendary duo of John Kander and Fred Ebb, and starred the legendary Chita Rivera and Roger Rees (in his final role)), neither was a sure-fire hit. In fact, The Visit concluded its Broadway run shortly after the Tonys (though it was preserved with a cast album), and Hand to God is concluding its run this winter (though it did well for a scrappy, original, American play that's now being exported to London). But they made it to Broadway. This means more people were exposed to and saw them. This means that licensing opportunities have grown. This means that there are producers willing to take a risk on more interesting, challenging material, instead of the bland, derivative fare that typically makes up a Broadway season.

Foo Fighters—2014 saw the release of Sonic Highways, both the album and the accompanying docuseries. In 2015, the band toured in support of the album, and it was a wild ride. Things started off predictably enough, but shortly before Foo Fighters were set to headline a raucous July 4 festival in Washington, DC, Foo leader Dave Grohl broke his leg after falling off the stage at an overseas concert. Ever the eager rocker, Grohl created a mobile throne on which he could sit while playing dates on the band's North American stadium tour. I was there two nights in a row when Dave, Nate Mendel, Chris Shiflett, Taylor Hawkins, and Pat Smear rocked New York City for three hours, and not being able to walk did not slow down Grohl one bit. Then, as a Thanksgiving surprise, the band released—for free—the Saint Cecilia EP, recorded in a hotel of the same name in Austin, TX. Haunting and evocative, the EP was accompanied by a letter from Grohl in which he recounted the band's history and expressed uncertainty (but not anxiety) about what's ahead. The EP is a beautiful cap to an incredible couple of years, and, no doubt, fans are eager to find out what's next. Oh, and Grohl closed out 2015 by having a drum-off with Animal. It was fabulous.

Hamilton—"How does the bastard, orphan, son of a whore" work his way into the hearts and minds of just about everyone? By having MacArthur Genius Grant winner Lin-Manuel Miranda tell his story. The ten dollar found father's brief but prolific life is compelling enough, and makes for much dramatic intrigue. It takes genius to align his struggles with that of hip hop greats, and quite a bit of chutzpah to put it all on a Broadway stage. But that's what Miranda (and his intrepid collaborators, both behind the scenes and on stage) did, and "the world will never be the same." Already we are seeing Hamilton enter into the mainstream conversation, with lyrics popping up all over the place. Not only does the hip hop-infused score make theatre and history more accessible for younger audiences; the show casts non-white actors in all the featured roles, which helps today's minorities feel ownership of our shared history. On top of that, it's just damn good. It's a well-crafted musical (in part due to the time it was given to develop). It features a top-notch cast, including Renee Elise Goldsberry, Leslie Odom, Jr., and Daveed Diggs. It's an instant classic. It's a game-changer. It will leave you satisfied.

Jake Gyllenhaal Has a Great Year—We all already liked Jake Gyllenhaal, and he had a pretty decent 2014 (see Nightcrawler). 2015 turned out to be a banner year, as well. He began by making his Broadway debut opposite the wonderful Ruth Wilson in Nick Payne's Constellations, a fantastic meditation on fate and free will. He went on to release two flicks, Southpaw and Everest; there was much buzz surrounding both because of Gyllenhaal's physical transformation (especially for Southpaw, in which he played a middle-weight boxer). And then in July he thrilled Gyllenhaal and theatre fans alike when he made his musical stage debut in the Encores! two-night-only concert of Little Shop of Horrors. As Seymour, he was a lovely partner for Ellen Greene, reprising the role of Audrey, and he showed off what a great singing voice he has. He can act. He can sing. And after watching him in Southpaw, you know he can move. Ladies and gentlemen, Jake Gyllenhaal is our next legit triple threat. 

Jon Stewart Signs Off—I've had breakfast with Jon Stewart for years. I relished the opportunity to wake up and learn what's happening in the world, as told through this smart, articulate, passionate man's point of view. (Also his writers' POV, to be fair.) When he announced he was leaving The Daily Show, we collectively mourned the loss of his voice. It was, truly, the end of an era. I imagine the way I felt about The Daily Show with Jon Stewart coming to an end was the way my parents might have felt when Johnny Carson stepped down from The Tonight Show. Stewart built The Daily Show into the force that it was, earning praise from many, including Vice President Al Gore, who said Stewart was so successful because, like in ancient times, the court jester can get away with making fun of the king, and while doing so, is able to uncover something true. That's what Jon Stewart did. That's the brand of comedic news shows he pioneered. He helped develop "spin offs," like The Colbert Report, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, and the upcoming Full Frontal, hosted by Daily Show alumna, Samantha Bee. Stewart also helped to finely tune the machine so that when Trevor Noah took to the anchor desk in September, he didn't miss a beat. Sure, some miss Stewart's presence, but let's not forget that he honed that aura and earned his authority over the course of 16 years. I think Trevor's doing fine, and I look forward to Stewart's partnership with HBO.

Not Your First Rodeo—Agnes de Mille's breakthrough work, set to Aaron Copland's iconic Americana score, written in 1942, was given new life in Justin Peck's thrilling Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes, which debuted in February. New York City Ballet's resident choreographer and soloist dancer created a ballet that soars. It's athletic (see the first movement), graceful (see the gorgeous pas de deux), pioneering (see the male-male partnering), and spirited (see the whole thing). It's essentially plotless, but there are definitely themes running through it. You think you've heard the music, but you'll be blown away by the beauty Peck finds with his dance. It's also worth mentioning that Peck followed that with the fall debut of New Blood, a contrast to Rodeo. Whereas Rodeo is soft and romantic, New Blood is aggressive, with a fierce and technically intricate style of dancing. In an instance of serendipity, genius recognized genius when Peck gushed over Hamilton. He schemed with Miranda to create a wonderful #Ham4Ham show that saw Peck, Robbie Fairchild, and Tiler Peck dancing an excerpt from Peck's Year of the Rabbit in sneakers on the street outside of the Richard Rodgers Theatre. And Peck shows no signs of slowing down. He's fast at work on his February 2016 work, The Most Incredible Thing. An adaptation of the Hans Christen Anderson story, this will be Peck's first narrative ballet. Don't be surprised to see him on this list next year.

Off-Broadway—I don't remember this many incredible shows off-Broadway in a single year. In fact, over the summer, many of these were playing simultaneously, offering up amazing theatrical experiences in between Broadway seasons. First, in the winter, was Melissa James Gibson's Placebo. This not only brought Tony nominee Carrie Coon back to the NY stage, but it also asked us to examine the bets we make when entering into a relationship. But what about when you're not in a relationship? That's what Bad Jews playwright Joshua Harmon so delightfully and devastatingly explored in Significant Other. His play said the things about being single that single people aren't supposed to say. I was howling with laughter one minute, and then feeling gutted by the raw emotion the next. There was no gutting in Guards at the Taj, but there was plenty of pathos and gruesomeness to go around. Rajiv Joseph so wonderfully explored the concept of beauty, and Omar Metwally and Arian Moayed were superb in the two-hander. Toward the end of the summer, we got to see John, the latest from Pulitzer Prize winner Annie Baker. Using her trademark naturalistic dialogue, and once again effectively collaborating with director Sam Gold, Baker invited us to ponder our ghosts and how to forgive. As we entered fall, Robert O'Hara brought us the fantastic Barbecue, about which I can't say much without ruining the theatrical twists but suffice it say that O'Hara continues to push the boundaries in his glorious plays. Capping off the great year in off-Broadway was Marjorie Prime, a fascinating supposition about the role of AI in our future from playwright Jordan Harrison. (Honorable mentions: The Qualms; Preludes; Whorl Inside a Loop; The Humans, which is transferring to Broadway in 2016; and Before Your Very Eyes.)

Riveting Revivals—I always approach revivals with trepidation, especially if it's an oft-revived show or if the original is still fresh in my mind. I wonder, with the overflow of talented writers and artists, why we're reviving shows instead of producing new ones. This year made a great case for revivals. In the spring, we saw a lavish, breathtaking revival of The King and I, which went on to win a Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical, and also netted its leading ladies, Kelli O'Hara and Ruthie Ann Miles, Tonys. As fall approached, so did a Broadway revival of Spring Awakening, a show that concluded its original Broadway run less than ten years ago. But this wasn't just a revival, it was a re-imagining. By using actors who are deaf as well as hearing actors, and incorporating ASL into the show, this production deepened the crux of the show, which is exploring how young people struggle to communicate. And speaking of re-imagining, how about Ivo van Hove's stripped-bare interpretation of Arthur Miller's classic, A View from the Bridge? There was a celebrated revival of the play on Broadway only five years ago, but van Hove's production made this work feel vital and fresh. It doesn't hurt that Mark Strong and Michael Zegen are riveting. (Of note: I have not seen the revival of The Color Purple, but I have heard nothing but stellar reviews.)

The Year on TV—People have been saying, for a while, that this is the Golden Age of television. This is where writers and actors and directors come to create high-minded, complex fare, what with men in spandex and capes taking over the cineplexes. Those people are not wrong, and this year gave us plenty of examples to support their claim. We saw The Mindy Project stay afloat after being picked up by Hulu, and showrunner, creator, and star Mindy Kaling used this season to explore what happens when you get what you want. (It's a very second-act-of-Into-the-Woods approach.) I appreciated that Kaling showed the struggle of being a modern woman, of being expected to be so many (sometimes contradictory) things at once, and to be flawless at them all. Without losing a bit of humor, Kaling pumped up the pathos, and left this fan yearning for more. We also saw The Leftover be "reborn," as the new iteration of the Garvey clan relocated to Jarden, Texas, a town that had zero departures. Of course, anything that sounds too good to be true probably is. We met new characters, and saw favorites acting out in new, often spooky ways. This season played with tone and style, and made a great case for a third season (which there will be). This year also brought the second seasons of The Affair and You're the Worst, two shows that explore the complications of modern relationships. On The Affair, we saw more perspectives (though fewer instances of same scene, different perspectives) as the show explored the fallout of the titular event. Because an affair doesn't happen in a vacuum; it doesn't happen to just two people and it's not just the sex. It's so much more interesting and complicated. Plus, some utterly phenomenal guest stars, like Peter Friedman, Joanna Gleason, Omar Metwally, Richard Schiff, Jeremy Shamos, and Virginia Kull, showed up to lend a helping hand. (That's in addition to the returning cast ensemble, led by Ruth Wilson and Dominic West.) And then there was You're the Worst, which triumphed in its second season, building upon the unsentimental and unflinchingly honest world it created in the first. Most remarkable about this season was its depiction of a woman struggling with depression. It was a season-long story line, not just something that was discovered and dealt with in a single episode, like some hokey after-school special. (In fact, acknowledging that depression can be unceasing, by season's end, the depression arc had not been neatly wrapped up.) Furthermore, as many who have dealt with depression pointed out, that aspect of Gretchen's character did not dominate the season. Her friends and life moved on, much as life does when you're depressed. You're the Worst blazed a trail with its frankness, and that raw sensibility was unrelenting this season. All four of these shows will return next year. Tune in.  

Honorable Mentions
  • Annaleigh Ashford in Sylvia
  • I'm Gonna Pray for You So Hard, a new play from Halley Feiffer featuring the inimitable Reed Birney
  • Kristin Chenoweth's perfect performance in On the Twentieth Century
  • Lazarus, the abstract, weird and intoxicating musical from David Bowie and Enda Walsh, starring Michael C. Hall, Michael Esper, and Cristin Milioti
  • Marin Mazzie, as the Leader in Zorba, telling us what life is
  • The sexy production of Old Times
  • Sorkinese and great performances from Michael Fassbender and Seth Rogen in Steve Jobs
  • Spotlight, a testament to the power of the fourth estate