Top 10 Broadway shows of 2016
The 2015 musical "Hamilton" continued to suck up a lot of the Broadway oxygen in 2016 — first during the spring award season and then during the political fallout of the late fall. But theater artists created other, mostly quieter shows that were striking in the depth of their exploration of modern life. "Dear Evan Hansen" took on social media. "The Humans" explored the legacy of Sept. 11, 2001, which lurks in the American psyche. And "Shuffle Along" reminded us that racism is not in our past but alive in the American present.
Here are the 10 most interesting and innovative shows I saw on Broadway during the past year.
"Dear Evan Hansen": The impact of social media — and its capacity to amplify a lie — is not easy to explore on stage. It's boring to watch characters stand on a stage and bury themselves in their phones. But this astonishing and intensely beautiful new musical not only understands with great profundity what it means to be 17 years old today. It observes with singular honesty how warped our understanding of community has become. Unafraid of complexity and ambiguity in a polarized America, "Dear Evan Hansen" features a spectacularly rich book from Steven Levenson and a score by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul that keeps bringing tears to our eyes. If you believe that the form of a great musical must always be a perfect match for its subject, "Dear Evan Hansen" is your show. And if you just remember what it's like to be a teenager in trouble, it's your show, too. It's the best Broadway show of 2016.
"Shuffle Along, or The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed": Had "Shuffle Along" not shared a season with "Hamilton," George C. Wolfe's brilliant but short-lived combination of thrilling entertainment and culture history lesson would have cleaned up at the 2016 Tony Awards. But timing trumps deserving and "Shuffle Along" disappeared before the summer waned, leaving behind some spectacular memories of old-school hoofing and a reminder of how, for some, the business of live entertainment has always meant an encounter with a stacked deck. The innovations of this highly unusual, even wonkish, piece were many, including a moving desire to educate as well as entertain. Savion Glover's choreography operated on numerous cultural levels and the piece unspooled an unstinting commitment to depicting the truth that money was, is, and looks set to be, the biggest asset of the racist status quo. There was no more important show all year.
"The Humans": Stephen Karam's exquisite, Pulitzer Prize-winning drama about a lower-middle-class family from Pennsylvania and New York is, fundamentally a drama about anxiety — not the kind that envelops us when something very terrible occurs, but the persistent sort, the anxiety that underpins our daily life, especially when economics are uncertain, death and decline is in the room, and the memories of trauma never are far from our minds. The play is a tense mystery and a slice of comforting balm, a reminder that many stomachs churn on a daily basis. Free of stars and stacked with honesty, Joe Mantello's production, which has just a few more weeks to run, is an exquisite display of Broadway craft at its most distinguished.
"The Crucible": Director Ivo van Hove's smoldering — at times, fetishistic — revival of the great, ever-timely Arthur Miller play about the dangers of theocracy and stifled dissent, threw out every prior conception of this familiar play, focusing instead on pre-apocalyptic modernity. The production was a reminder, it seems, that the wolves never are far from our door. Van Hove sensualized the work, and in so doing, reminded us how much of life still is about sex, power and control. Along with a fleet of extraordinary performances from a true ensemble cast, the show even featured an actual lupine-looking canine — standing center stage, as if we need a reminder of the real teeth of the monsters that lurk within and without.
"Waitress": With the guileless, vulnerable, warm-centered star Jessie Mueller in the heart of the kitchen, and Diane Paulus and Broadway's first all-female creative team building the menu, this charming musical boils up a populist entertainment that red and blue America could enjoy together, pie being a great unifier in moments of stress. This is not a night of formative innovation, but a kind, warm, wise show that seems to understand small-town America and just how intense the struggles to survive there can be. Romantic, generous and intimate, the gifted composer Sara Bareilles revealed how much she understands Broadway, and ordinary women, trying to get through the day and the night.
"The Front Page": There has been no funnier 20 minutes in Broadway history than Nathan Lane's comedic rant as Walter Burns, the famously crusty editor of a Chicago newspaper (are there any other kind?) in Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur's classic Broadway comedy, "The Front Page," here lovingly revived by Jack O'Brien and a band of all-star veterans, ranging from the sublime Robert Morse to Jefferson Mays, catching all the pomposity of employees of the Chicago Daily Tribune, to Lane himself, the singular comedic player of this age. The play takes a while to set up all of the comedic antics that follow. But once the presses started to roll, it was 1928 and journalism was fun, all over again.
"Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812": Plenty of theater artists claim to be revolutionizing the old-school Broadway experience, but rarely do they actually deliver on their radical intent. Thanks to one of the most enveloping sets in Broadway history, "Great Comet" is the exception. Never has a theater been transformed in the manner of the Imperial Theatre or such attention paid to involving an entire room. The material has its weaknesses, and the production is sometimes invulnerable, but from an experiential standpoint, there was no better show all year than Dave Malloy's smart, funny, esoteric, wholly original slice of "War and Peace," as rendered for our endlessly self-aware moment.
"Falsettos": Whatever the flaws of the James Lapine revival — and not every moment probed deeply enough — it still was an enormous pleasure to again experience William Finn and Lapine's masterful snapshot of the era when AIDS ripped families apart, even as we were desperately trying to redefine ourselves. There is no more compassionate nor loving musical than this domestic tuner, a song suite for the confused, the well-meaning, the kind and the trying-their-best-to-get-through-a-really-tough-time. Musicals traffic in empathy, and feeling is everywhere at the Walter Kerr Theater. So is the artistry of one of the contemporary era's greatest and most generous composers, richly rendered here by people who care.
"Blackbird": The production was not flawless, for the dynamic is difficult to survive, but Michelle Williams and Jeff Daniels threw themselves into David Harrower's bleak play with such desperate vulnerability that it was impossible not to admire their mutually dependent endeavors, especially since their director, Joe Mantello, offered no safety nets. This is a work about the force of memory, the scars of experience and, of course, the timeless horror of grievous error, especially in the manifestation of desire. "Blackbird" took the most courage to perform of any of the year's Broadway shows.
"Bright Star": Although this first production deviated too much from truth, "Bright Star" still felt like a major and rather lovely contribution to the Broadway canon, a reminder, if one was needed, of the multifarious talents of Steve Martin and folk-rocker Edie Brickell. This was a highly original musical about people far from the isle of Manhattan, scored with fresh vivacity for fiddle, banjo, accordion and percussion. "Bright Star" was a show that took risks. And, in the warm and generous work of Carmen Cusack, it was lucky enough to feature one of the best performances seen on Broadway in 2016.