NEW YORK – Discerning theatergoers had plenty to chew on in 2011, even if the year’s biggest news event also turned out to be its biggest critical non-event.
Drawing more feverish media attention to Broadway than the Great White Way has seen in decades, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark was more compelling for its exhaustively chronicled production woes than for anything happening onstage. But audiences don’t seem to care, with weekly grosses of $1.3 million or more rendering all those withering reviews irrelevant.
Whether or not the musical superhero spectacle that dethroned original director and co-creator Julie Taymor has enough mileage in it to turn a profit remains to be seen. But in the meantime, it might be time to change that old showbiz mantra from “Make ‘em laugh” to “Make ‘em fly.”
Beyond the web-slinger’s domain, the year’s lineup of new musicals was patchy. But The Book of Mormon pulled off the uncommon feat of becoming an instant Broadway monster hit hatched out of entirely original material. And Once showed that screen-to-stage musical adaptations could be richly reimagined and not just cloned from their movie source material.
But more than musicals this year, the play was the thing.
One of the most heartening trends was the bounty of contemporary American playwriting. Not all the new works will go down as great drama, and a number of worthy efforts failed to find a substantial audience. But the sheer volume of new plays from both established and emerging names signaled a welcome shift away from the unadventurous commercial safety zone of starry revivals.
The plays by David Lindsay-Abaire, Rajiv Joseph, Stephen Karam and Jon Robin Baitz that made my Top 10 list below are just a fraction of the notable premieres seen both on Broadway and off.
Among other distinctive new works from American playwrights were Stephen Adly Guirgis’ The Motherf**ker With the Hat, Lynn Nottage’s By the Way, Meet Vera Stark and Tony Kushner’s The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures.
If there was no musical revival quite so breathtaking or revelatory as South Pacific a couple of seasons back, then Follies at least delivered the sumptuous staging that Broadway regulars had long craved of that hard-to-crack masterwork. Timeless Cole Porter songs and a tap-happy ensemble proved a useful antidote to economic blues in Anything Goes, and Daniel Radcliffe brought the Harry Potter faithful flocking to that mid-century nugget, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.
Finally, the Tony Awards might have dropped the Special Event category from its prize roster, but Hugh Jackman, Back on Broadway makes a muscular case for its reinstatement. How many action movie stars can seduce 1200 people a night with their old-fashioned song-and-dance skills?
The dynamic-pricing trend on Broadway for hard-to-get tickets like Jackman’s show and Mormon also helped pump up grosses, so despite a minor dip in attendances compared to the same point last year, box office is up by roughly 6%. While annual Broadway tallies are calculated according to the theater calendar -- which runs mid-year to mid-year, tethered to the Tony Awards -- this season is on track to hurdle the $1 billion mark for the third consecutive year.
The ten best shows on New York stages in 2011 – in my purely subjective view and in alphabetical order – were as follows:
Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo – David Hare dissected the political machinations that led to the Iraq War in Stuff Happens, but no playwright has sifted through the rubble of that conflict quite like Rajiv Joseph. Fusing bold imagination with haunting lyricism, this surreal and unsettling tragicomedy allowed Robin Williams to tame his inner clown, playing the feline ghost of the title as a beast by turns melancholy, philosophical and sardonic.
The Book of Mormon – The South Park bad boys Trey Parker and Matt Stone, and Robert Lopez, composer of the irreverent puppet musical Avenue Q, are a dream team. While Broadway was bracing for protests from religious groups, what it got instead was an uproarious show that scaled blissful heights of profanity while at the same time showing deep understanding of and unexpected veneration for traditional musical theater.
Follies – Stephen Sondheim and James Goldman’s 1971 musical about former cast members reuniting to mark the demolition of a storied Ziegfeld-style show palace remains a soul-stirring commentary on the shattering of the American Dream. One of the greatest scores of the past 50 years sounded glorious in this probing revival, as its cast explored the uneasy distance between past and present with stinging clarity.
Good People – The widening class divide in America informed a number of standout plays this year. But few characters encapsulated the blue-collar struggle with as much humor, humanity or bristling indignation as the South Boston desperado Margaret in David Lindsay-Abaire’s insightful drama, which gave Frances McDormand arguably her best role since Fargo.
Jerusalem – The year’s most invigorating hangover cure was Mark Rylance’s morning-after rave remedy in Jez Butterworth’s sprawling epic about the decline of mythic England. While busting moves to some crackly Champion Jack Dupree on the stereo, the actor did a semi-handstand in a water trough, mixed a fresh egg from the chicken coop with equal parts milk and vodka, then downed that concoction together with a sprinkle of speed and walked off toking on a discarded spliff to face the trials of a world peopled by lesser mortals.
The Normal Heart – A sterling ensemble – including Tony-winning work from Ellen Barkin and John Benjamin Hickey -- and eloquent bare-bones staging transformed Larry Kramer’s landmark 1985 drama about the birth of the AIDS epidemic from a historical document into an impassioned outcry that was as urgent and emotionally wrenching as this morning’s news.
Once – I have to confess that while I loved Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová’s songs, I found the 2007 Fox Searchlight indie hit that showcased them an unsatisfying sliver of emo-romance. But this gorgeous stage adaptation, which transfers to Broadway early next year, expands the material with intelligence, grace, and most of all, with a gentle spirit that is unlikely to leave hardcore fans of the movie feeling betrayed.
Other Desert Cities – Jon Robin Baitz served up the kind of lip-smacking square-meal entertainment that comes along all too rarely these days with this punchy comedy-drama about a well-heeled Palm Springs family. The play overflows with memorable lines, and the flawless ensemble, led by Stockard Channing, Stacy Keach and Rachel Griffiths, juggles the personal and the political with a riveting mix of circumspect composure and raw transparency.
Sons of the Prophet – Building on the promise he showed in Columbinus and Speech & Debate, Stephen Karam displayed startling maturity and emotional insight in this play about a young gay man dealing with unexplained chronic pain in the midst of a generally messy life. Santino Fontana’s sensitive characterization refused to allow self-pity to dull either his anger or his spiky sense of humor, while Joanna Gleason as his self-absorbed nut of a boss provided a counterpoint both hilarious and poignant.
War Horse – There are three or more puppeteers at a time operating the equine creations in Nick Stafford and Handspring Puppet Company’s smash theatrical adaptation of Michael Morpurgo’s children’s novel. But so bewitching is the magical stagecraft at work here that they become invisible, leaving only flesh-and-blood animals that nuzzle their way into our hearts. This is sentimental storytelling at its noblest and most inventive.