Remember that time Donald Trump was the blood-spurting bulls-eye of thrusting daggers and wounding imprecations in Central Park? It was only a few months ago, and, well it was in all the papers. With its Donald and Melania avatars, director Oskar Eustis’ staging of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar prompted three major supporters of the Public Theater’s free Shakespeare in the Park to harrumphingly pull their support and gave Breitbart and Fox News palpitations for weeks. Not for the first time did it take Shakespeare to remind us that art has consequences.
The only other controversy that approached the Julius Caesar conniption was Sam Gold’s revival of The Glass Menagerie, in which Laura was played by Madison Ferris, an actress whose muscular dystrophy made the character’s physical struggles impossible to romanticize. Many people, including many critics, loathed the production, which I (and even a few colleagues) found revelatory.
Kevin Spacey also figured in a controversy, though not the one you’re doubtless thinking of: Over the summer, he booked a tennis stadium – center court at the Billie Jean King Tennis Center, no less – for his solo Clarence Darrow show. Only later in the year would we learn that chutzpah may be the least of his problems in light of growing accounts from people claiming to have been victimized by him.
End-of-year wrap-ups don’t come naturally to theater critics in New York, where the season is defined by the Tony Awards calendar that runs from May through April. Moreover, many critics compile their Best Of lists in late November or early December which, for several of my fellow scriveners, meant leaving out three of the best shows of 2017.
And if that’s not enough to complicate matters, there’s the issue of real estate: Forty-one theaters comprise the exclusive fiefdom that is Broadway. Only shows presented in them are eligible for Tony Awards. Many of this year’s best Broadway shows were first seen off-Broadway and already appeared on last year’s Best Of lists – including The Band’s Visit (the best musical of 2016 and the best Broadway musical of 2017), Oslo, Indecent, Sunday in the Park With George and Dear Evan Hansen. Note also that two shows on my list below were presented at the Park Avenue Armory, which has become an essential performance space for visionary productions on a grand scale.
The Best of 2017 (* indicates still running):
*Farinelli and the King (Belasco Theatre)
*A Room In India (Park Avenue Armory; closes Wednesday)
If I Forget (Roundabout Theatre Company)
*Junk (Lincoln Center Theater)
A Doll’s House, Part 2 (Golden Theatre)
The Glass Menagerie (Belasco Theatre)
Mary Jane (New York Theatre Workshop)
Jesus Hopped The A Train (Signature Theatre)
*Once on This Island (Circle In The Square)
The Hairy Ape (Park Avenue Armory)
*SpongeBob SquarePants (Palace Theatre)
The Little Foxes (Manhattan Theatre Club)
Of Human Bondage/Spoon River/Kim’s Convenience (Soulpepper Theatre at the Signature)
Singular Sensations of 2017:
(I made this category up, to spotlight outstanding performances)
*Bruce Springsteen (Springsteen on Broadway)
*Bette Midler (Hello, Dolly!)
*John Leguizamo (Latin History for Morons)
Cate Blanchett (The Present)
Danny DeVito (The Price)
*Billy Crudup (Harry Clarke; closes this week)
Harvey Fierstein (Gently Down The Stream)
*Zainab Jah (Venus, School Girls or The African Mean Girls Play)
Best Stocking Stuffers of 2017
(Another made-up category, because there are theater-related CDs and books deserving of mention in any year-end list.)
CDs: The Broadway cast album of The Band’s Visit has just come out, and it’s gorgeous, a showcase not only for star Katrina Lenk (“Omar Sharif” will be this year’s “You Will Be Found”) but for composer/lyricist David Yazbek… Another recent and beautifully executed album is Anaïs Mitchell’s Hadestown, which started out at New York Theatre Workshop and we hope will come to Broadway after a shake-out run in Canada…Composer/lyricist
Louis Rosen is releasing several CDs, including his latest wry song collection, Dust To Blues. But the album that has me enchanted is Act One: Piano Music from the Theater, which includes his incidental music from James Lapine’s adaptation of the Moss Hart autobiography and other works. Exquisitely played by several different pianists and intimately recorded, these works taken together have the fleeting, transportive power of études by Chopin or Debussy; I find myself listening to them again and again…
Books: I’ve enjoyed returning to Up In The Cheap Seats: A Historical Memoir of Broadway, Ron Fassler’s engaging account of a lifetime of theatergoing, including choice tidbits from his encounters with many of the biggest names in the trade – a terrific fan’s baedeker of Broadway…You’ll need a bigger stocking for Howard Pollack’s The Ballad of John Latouche: An American Lyricist’s Life and Work, but it’s worth it for this 500+-page deep dive into the story one of Broadway’s least-known masters, whose oeuvre includes The Golden Apple, Candide and Cabin in the Sky and include at least two songbook standards, “Lazy Afternoon” and “Taking a Chance on Love”…And, last, Shakespeare for Freedom: Why The Plays Matter, by Ewan Fernie, is a kind of academic, slightly heavy-going update on Jan Kott’s classic Shakespeare Our Contemporary. My favorite part is in the chapter titled “Against Shakespearean Freedom.” The next time some dolt walks out of the theater grumbling, “Well, that was no Shakespeare,” remind that person what Tolstoy had to say on the subject: “Shakespeare cannot be recognized as a great genius or even as an average author,” sniffed the Count, charging Billy Big Boy with the crime of turning the theater, “this important weapon of progress,” into “an empty and immoral amusement.” To which we can only append, “thank goodness.”