The sheer range of New York theater invariably makes compiling an annual best-of list a difficult task. That applies whether it's been a year of meager rewards, in which it's a struggle to reach the required number, or 12 months punctuated by the kind of audacious stagecraft that sets the heart pounding, erasing the grind of all those other nights when the curtain can't come down fast enough.
Any year that yielded Hamilton, a work of staggering confidence that redraws the boundaries of musical-theater storytelling, has to be rated an exceptional one. And the only simple choice in approaching this roundup is that Lin-Manuel Miranda's bio-musical juggernaut seizes the top spot with no contest. With its multicultural cast, the show also set the tone for a Broadway lineup with wider non-white representation than any season in memory.
But looking down the list, how do you even compare, let alone rank, the ravishing spectacle of a Rodgers and Hammerstein classic lushly revisited with a full-size orchestra and a cast of 50, alongside a brainy string-theory romance, in which two characters play out endless variables within the same scenario? Or a thoughtful snapshot of the creeping fears and anxious comforts of the American middle-class family next to a searing distillation of a naturalistic modern drama rebuilt from its roots in Greek tragedy?
This was a year with its share of duds like any other, perhaps none more squirm-inducing than David Mamet's China Doll, which provided the dispiriting spectacle of a great stage actor, Al Pacino, scrambling to get a grip on a slippery text with no substance. And the bombastic treacle of Finding Neverland made me want to travel back through time and Pan-fry J.M. Barrie, though both those productions have done decent business.
But 2015 was also a year of theatrical riches, which left me with a shortlist of memorable shows too numerous to be contained in just ten spots.
Some favorites get bumped from the list because they are transfers or return engagements from earlier years. Hence the absence of two Pulitzer winners: Annie Baker's The Flick, a clear-eyed contemplation of failure and missed opportunity in a culture with little time for its also-rans; and Stephen Adly Guirgis' Between Riverside and Crazy, a sly urban tragicomedy about real estate, race and corrosive self-interest. Also missing is Robert Askins' Hand to God, a riotously funny dig at the usefulness and limitations of faith that made an unlikely Broadway star (after two acclaimed off-Broadway runs) of a Satanic sock puppet named Tyrone.
What was most gratifying this year was the robust pack of adventurous young playwrights putting original slants on such potentially tired themes as dysfunctional families, romantic yearning, relationship fatigue or existential unease; and touching on big issues like mass killings or racial stereotyping in provocative new ways.
Most years tend to crawl to a halt, with producers often choosing to save their quality works for the spring to be closer to awards season. But 2015 is ending on an upbeat note, with a number of strong late entries that filled out my Top 20.
And there's still a major Broadway revival of Fiddler on the Roof to come this week, which combines top stage talent with enduring material that, sadly, remains thematically relevant in a world once again gripped by immigration crises.