For better or worse, 2015 has been the year of Hamilton … and everything else (so what’s not to like about that?). Yet it’s been a remarkable time — for immigrant stories freshly minted and revisited on Broadway, for adventurous new plays, thoughtful revivals and, in at least one case, a rediscovered gem (In White America) from 1963 that fit perfectly with this roiling political and social moment. In keeping with all that, and being generally suspicious of rankings, here’s my Top 2 list of the Best of 2015:
1. HAMILTON (Richard Rodgers Theatre) Is there anything left to be said about the best show of the year? Maybe just this: Lin-Manuel Miranda’s insanely entertaining account of the United States’ origin tale is the patriotic, America-infatuated love child of the Statue of Liberty and the Washington Monument. And here’s a secret: It’s better uptown.
2. (3-way tie) THE KING AND I; THE COLOR PURPLE; SPRING AWAKENING (Vivian Beaumont, Bernard Jacobs and Brooks Atkinson theaters, respectively) Three musicals from three very different creative teams. Bartlett Sher’s deeply sensitive production of the Rodgers & Hammerstein classic is lavish to look at as well as to hear. Deaf West Theatre’s Spring Awakening revival adds the visual poetry of American Sign Language to Duncan Sheik’s powerful score. And the latest addition, John Doyle’s Spartan staging of Purple, makes the best case for a very good show — and a star of Cynthia Erivo.
2. THE HUMANS (Roundabout Theatre Company; moving to Broadway’s Helen Hayes Theatre in January) What is it about Thanksgiving that makes playwrights and filmmakers (Bart Freundlich’s The Myth Of Fingerprints, for example) want to exorcise their family demons when they gather together? Stephen Karam’s drama with a lot of comedy is set in a slightly grungy bi-level basement apartment in Chinatown, where three generations of a clan have come to celebrate but end up, appropriately, beating the stuffing out of each other. The seamless ensemble includes Reed Birney, Jayne Houdyshell and Sarah Steele.
2. JOHN (Signature Theatre; closed) Pulitzer-winner Annie Baker followed up The Flick with this mesmerizing story of a young couple’s unraveling during a weekend stay at a Gettysburg, Pennsylvania bed-and-breakfast run by Georgia Engel, in the performance of her career, abetted by Lois Smith, whose every performance is the performance of her career. And speaking of indelible performances, a tip of the hat here also to the inexhaustible and irresistible Kristine Nielsen, playing the I’m-mad-as-hell-and-I’m-not-going-to-take-this-anymore star of Taylor Mac’s HIR, still running at Playwrights Horizons.
2. (tie) JOSEPHINE AND I; GROUNDED (Public Theater, both closed) The Public not only sent Hamilton and Fun Home to Broadway over the past year, but also presented these two intoxicating one-woman shows. In Josephine & I, British import (and now Good Wife regular) Cush Jumbo song-and-danced her C.V. as a bi-racial British actress, interwoven with the story of her childhood hero and muse, Josephine Baker. In Grounded, Anne Hathaway made the life of an ace fighter pilot demoted to directing drones as vivid and chilling as any narrative coming out of today’s wars, in a quietly stunning production helmed by Julie Taymor.
2. KING CHARLES III (Music Box) You have only till the end of January to catch Tim Pigott-Smith’s masterful performance in Mike Bartlett’s rumination on the time when the Prince finally inherits his crown and makes his own declaration of independence by opposing the government on a bill to handcuff the press. Written in blank verse and executed under Rupert Goold’s direction without a smirk in sight, this comedy proves to be unexpectedly moving.
2. IN WHITE AMERICA (Castillo Theatre, closed) It breaks my heart that so few people got to see this exquisite revival of Martin Duberman’s 1963 play, in a co-production of the New Federal Theatre and Castillo Theatre. The brutal first-person narratives of the African-American experience — from slavery through the present (Duberman updated his text from the 1963 original, which ended in Little Rock, Arkansas in the 1950s) — this haunting, intimate portrait of endurance, suffering and, rarely, triumph, was given an outstanding production by Charles Maryan on a bare stage with six extraordinary actors playing everyone from abused slaves to Thomas Jefferson. For me, this served as memorable, if very dark, coda to Hamilton.
2. WHORL INSIDE A LOOP (Second Stage, closed) Broadway triple-threat Sherie Rene Scott, who is female, blonde and white, spent some time with black and Latino male inmates at a maximum security prison, running a workshop in getting in touch with their personal narratives. The results were not what she (or we) we expected, as Scott’s own narrative intermingled with the stories and it all gets tangled up in a tale of ambition. Another of the season’s great surprises.
2. SOMETHING ROTTEN! (St. James Theatre) A soothsayer tells Shakespeare’s desperate sibling rivals that the future of the theater is musicals, and off they go, on a whirlwind gambol through hoary jokes, slapstick busy-ness, pastiche songs and more inside jokes than Spamalot and The Producers combined. Featuring the blissful pairing of Brian d’Arcy James and Christian Borle, the show won its greatest compliment from Hal Prince, who told me he loved it when he realized “it’s a George Abbott show!” You could look it up.
2. LAZARUS (New York Theatre Workshop) David Bowie took the story of The Man Who Fell To Earth and, in collaboration with playwright Enda Walsh, moved his alien hero 30 years into the future. Staged by of-the-moment director Ivo van Hove and starring a brilliant Michael C Hall in the role Bowie originated in Nicolas Roeg’s film, the show ran a thread of melancholy through a warped tale of NYC anomie and booze-addled nihilism. All of it backed by a ferocious ensemble playing songs from the Bowie catalogue, including new work.
2. SKYLIGHT (John Golden Theatre, closed) David Hare’s great 1996 play about a two lovers’ reunion years after their affair has ended paired Carey Mulligan and Bill Nighy in Stephen Daldry’s exquisitely calibrated production, which went on to win the Tony Award for best revival. Smartly departing from the indelible work of Lia Williams and Michael Gambon in the original, Daldry let these two stars feel their own way through a futile love story about crossing lines defined by age, by economics and by social consciousness.
2. FIRST DAUGHTERS SUITE (Public Theater, closed) Yet another season highlight courtesy of the Public. Composer/lyricist Michael John LaChiusa’s four-scene cycle of mini-musicals about First Ladies Pat Nixon, Rosalyn Carter, Nancy Reagan and Barbara Bush and their recalcitrant (or, in one case, ghostly) female offspring. LaChiusa, whose gifts run from populist to obscurantist, here created complex scenes with, as I wrote, the concision of short stories and the gorgeously variegated musical textures of oratorio,” with “musical lines have the swelling intensity of Schubert lieder while the words can attack like cherry bombs.” The variegated staging by Kirsten Sanderson and Chase Brock was as inventive and rich as the work itself.