Two Broadway musicals penetrated mainstream culture in the 2010s on a level seldom seen in recent decades. One was the $75 million debacle of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, with its Icarus-like backstory of artistic hubris culminating in the brutal dismissal of director and co-creator Julie Taymor. The other was Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, an instant sensation that altered perceptions about the kind of stories musicals could tell and the language and form they could adopt to tell them.
That show saw critical and commercial success collide to a rare degree, raking in $610 million in its first four years on Broadway alone, not factoring in touring and international productions.
The past 10 years also have been distinguished by the emergence of a bold new generation of distinctive American playwrights.
Along with Annie Baker, Stephen Karam and Sarah DeLappe, represented in the top 10 list below, those include Amy Herzog with 4000 Miles and Mary Jane; Kristoffer Diaz with The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity; Ayad Akhtar with Disgraced; Bess Wohl with Small Mouth Sounds; Aleshea Harris with Is God Is; Samuel D. Hunter with The Whale and Lewiston/Clarkston; Lucas Hnath with Red Speedo and A Doll’s House, Part 2; and Jackie Sibblies Drury with Fairview.
Established playwrights who fortified their reputations include Stephen Adly Guirgis with his crafty urban tragicomedy about real estate and race, Between Riverside and Crazy, while Richard Nelson can lay claim to being the American Chekhov with his Rhinebeck Panorama, an ongoing series so far containing eight dramas that weigh the political and personal questions of the age through the kitchen confidentials of a handful of left-leaning families in upstate New York.
Gifted new directors also made their mark. In addition to Sam Gold and Lila Neugebauer, who figure in the top 10, that includes David Cromer, who made good on the earlier success of his definitive rendering of Our Town with stage work of startling intimacy, from dramas like Tribes and The Sound Inside to the hypnotic musical The Band’s Visit. And Brit director Marianne Elliott showed her mastery at blending kinetic spectacle with emotional acuity in shows like War Horse, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and her superlative revival of Angels in America.
Over and over again this past decade, fearless directors and brilliant casts gave canonical works the vitality of eye-opening newness, led by Ivo van Hove’s blistering back-to-back reappraisals of Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge and The Crucible.
Pam MacKinnon’s Steppenwolf production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? deftly recalibrated the balance between George and Martha in Edward Albee’s masterwork of marital combat, aided by scorching performances from Tracy Letts and Amy Morton. Bartlett Sher found thrumming humanity in Clifford Odets’ Golden Boy and delicacy in the uncomfortable racial optics of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I.
In one of his final Broadway productions, Mike Nichols highlighted the eternal relevance of Miller’s Death of a Salesman, with its corrosive take on the hollowness of the American Dream, in a revival led with lacerating sorrow by another since-departed giant, Philip Seymour Hoffman. Critics were mixed on Porgy and Bess in the rethink from director Diane Paulus and libretto adapter Suzan-Lori Parks, but hearing Audra McDonald and Norm Lewis sing the 1935 Gershwin folk opera was simply glorious. And Macbeth has perhaps rarely packed the visceral charge or the muscular spectacle brought to it by co-directors Kenneth Branagh and Rob Ashford in an exciting traverse staging at the Park Avenue Armory that starred Branagh in the title role.
Finally, way back in 2010, director Michael Wilson paid elegiac tribute to the great Horton Foote a year after the Texan dramatist’s death with The Orphans’ Home Cycle, an epic three-part synthesis of nine plays full of novelistic detail and capacious emotional depth.
In alphabetical order, here are the 10 best shows I saw on New York stages over the decade.