2009 was an extremely eclectic year for New York theater, filled with hits, misses, stars, classics, surprises, disappointments, all-day play marathons and one-person gems.
The Public Theater had the most mixed record of success of all. Its acclaimed revival of "Hair" successfully transferred to Broadway, and "Twelfth Night" in Central Park with Anne Hathaway was the summer's hottest ticket. But its avant-garde reinterpretations of "The Bacchae" and "Othello" were dismal embarassments.
"Next to Normal," an edgy rock musical about a manic-depressive mother (played with stunning clarity by Alice Ripley), was the only truly great new musical. Still, "Memphis," a passionate look at race relations during the birth of rock and roll, and "Rock of Ages," a silly, heavy metal jukebox tuner, are pretty entertaining. "Fela!," which offers Afrobeat spectacle instead of narrative, is highly overrated. The dance spectacle "Burn the Floor" is mindless and tasteless.
The best new plays were all written by women, including "Ruined," Lynn Nottage's Pulitzer-winning drama exposing the plight of women in the Congo; "Circle Mirror Transformation," Annie Baker's engaging look at how an adult drama class changes the lives of its participants; and "In the Next Room (or the vibrator play)," Sarah Ruhl's farcical yet lyrical examination of the birth of the electric sexual aid in the 1880s.
The best play revival was David Cromer's stripped-down "Our Town," which removed the musty sentimentality now associated with the drama. Runners up include the excellent Broadway revivals of "Joe Turner's Come and Gone" and "Waiting for Godot." The worst play revival was probably "The Philanthropist," a dull academic comedy starring Matthew Broderick.
There were many Broadway musical revivals, all wishing to emulate the success of "South Pacific" at Lincoln Center. In spite of initial concerns that there would be less interest in seeing an angry hippie musical following the election of Obama, "Hair" continued to thrive both artistically and financially after its Shakespeare in the Park run. "Bye Bye Birdie" and "Guys and Dolls" managed to turn musical comedy classics into miscast catastrophes. "Finian's Rainbow" and "Ragtime" are truly wonderful, but will soon shutter if their box office grosses fail to improve.
Play marathons became the new hot fad. "The Norman Conquests," Alan Ayckbourn's comic trilogy depicting six characters over the course of a single weekend in different parts of an English country house, received a masterful production. "The Orphans' Home Cycle," which combines nine Horton Foote plays about the author's father in three parts, is drawing unanimous raves and rumors of a Broadway transfer.
Angela Lansbury, who returned to Broadway in both "Blithe Spirit" and "A Little Night Music," wins the title of performer of the year. Other standouts include Will Swenson in "Hair," Alice Ripley and Aaron Tveit in "Next to Normal," John Douglas Thompson in "The Emperor Jones," Simon Russell Beale in "The Winter's Tale," Geoffrey Rush in "Exit the King," Thomas Sadoski in "reasons to be pretty" and Cate Blanchett in "A Streetcar Named Desire."
In terms of movie stars, Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig wowed the crowds in the decent but forgettable cop drama "A Steady Rain," Jude Law proved to be the most energetic Hamlet in recent memory, and the original cast of "God of Carnage" (James Gandolfini, Jeff Daniels, Marcia Gay Harden and Hope Davis) was pure dynamite. Don't ask about "Impressionism" with Jeremy Irons and Joan Allen, which shuttered quickly after being panned.
The best solo shows included Will Ferrell in "You're Welcome America: A Final Evening with George W. Bush," Coleman Domingo in "A Boy and His Soul," Jim Brochu in "Zero Hour" and Carrie Fisher in "Wishful Drinking."
At the opera, New York City Opera made an impressive comeback and the Metropolitan Opera's stark new "Tosca" drew boos on opening night. At the cabaret, Michael Feinstein drew raves teaming up with Cheyenne Jackson, Christine Ebersole and David Hyde Pierce. His next partner will be Dame Edna - but on Broadway.
So what's ahead in 2010? How will Christopher Walken, Denzel Washington and Scarlett Johansson fare on Broadway? Will Julie Taymor's $50 million "Spiderman" musical actually open? Will "The Addams Family" be a hit or a miss? Stay tuned.
The Top 10 Best Shows:
1. Hair (The Public Theater/Broadway)
2. Next to Normal (Second Stage/Broadway)
3. Our Town (Barrow Street Theatre)
4. Twelfth Night (The Public Theater)
5. The Norman Conquests (Broadway)
6. The Orphans' Home Cycle (Signature Theatre Company)
7. Finian's Rainbow (City Center Encores/Broadway)
8. Ragtime (Broadway)
9. Circle Mirror Transformation (Playwrights Horizons)
10. In the Next Room, or the vibrator play (Lincoln Center Theater)
The Top 10 Worst Shows:
1. Othello (The Public Theater)
2. Guys and Dolls (Broadway)
3. The Philanthropist (Roundabout Theatre Company)
4. The Bacchae (The Public Theater)
5. Bye Bye Birdie (Roundabout Theatre Company)
6. Mourning Becomes Electra (The New Group)
7. Hedda Gabler (Roundabout Theatre Company)
8. Impressionism (Broadway)
9. Soul of Shaolin (Broadway)
10. Burn the Floor (Broadway)
Best One-Person Shows:
1. Wishful Drinking (Roundabout Theatre Company)
2. You're Welcome America: A Final Evening with George W. Bush (Broadway)
3. A Boy and His Soul (Vineyard Theatre)
4. Humor Abuse (Manhattan Theatre Club)
5. Zero Hour (Theater at St. Clement's)
Best Multi-Play Marathons:
1. The Norman Conquests (Broadway)
2. The Orphans' Home Cycle (Signature Theatre Company)
3. Les Ephemeres (Lincoln Center Festival)
4. Lipsynch (Brooklyn Academy of Music)
5. The Lily's Revenge (HERE Arts Center)
1. Fela! (Broadway)
2. This (Playwrights Horizons)
3. The Starry Messenger (The New Group)
4. Let Me Down Easy (Second Stage)
5. Idiot Savant (Public Theater)
1. Oohrah! (Atlantic Theater Company)
2. The Royal Family (Manhattan Theatre Club)
3. Things to Ruin (Second Stage)
4. The Bereaved (The Wild Project)
5. Ordinary Days (Roundabout Theatre Company)
Best Encores! show: Finian's Rainbow
Worst Encores! show: The Wiz
Honorable Mention (i.e. other really good productions):
Joe Turner's Come and Gone (Lincoln Center Theater), Ruined (Manhattan Theatre Club), The Winter's Tale (Brooklyn Academy of Music), Waiting for Godot (Roundabout Theatre Company), The Emperor Jones (Irish Repertory Theatre), My Wonderful Day (59E59), Love, Loss and What I Wore (Westside Theatre), Rock of Ages (Broadway), God of Carnage (Broadway), Memphis (Broadway), A Little Night Music (Broadway), Brief Encounter (St. Ann's Warehouse), The Full Monty (Paper Mill Playhouse), Hamlet (Broadway), Paint Your Wagon (Musicals Tonight!), The Grand Tour (York Theatre Company), Broadway's Rising Stars (Town Hall)
Dishonorable Mention (i.e. all other really bad productions):
The Retributionists (Playwrights Horizons), Accent on Youth (Manhattan Theatre Club), 9 to 5 (Broadway), Irena's Vow (Broadway), The Age of Iron (Classic Stage), La Sonnambula (The Metropolitan Opera), West Side Story (Broadway), Wildflower (Second Stage), Vanities (Second Stage), A Lifetime Burning (Primary Stages), Two Unrelated Plays (Atlantic Theatre Company), Offices (Atlantic Theatre Company), The Tin Pan Alley Rag (Roundabout Theatre Company)
-Jeffry Denman for directing and choreographing almost the entire Broadway by the Year season at Town Hall
-Jeffrey Richards for preventing the Broadway transfer of "Hair" from falling apart financially, preventing "Speed-the-Plow" from falling apart after Jeremy Piven jumped ship, and for having the guts to produce almost whatever he wants
-Ciaran O'Reilly for accepting "The Emperor Jones" on its own terms and staging it brilliantly
-Lincoln Center Theater for producing "In the Next Room" on Broadway instead of Off-Broadway
-New York City Opera for mounting a strong comeback
-Joe Iconis for his humorous, energetic concerts overflowing with talented young performers
-Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig for literally selling the shirts off their backs to benefit Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS
-The producers of "Avenue Q" for manging to keep their show alive - even after it closed
-The producers of "Ragtime" and "Finian's Rainbow" for fighting to keep their show
-Charlotte St. Martin, Howard Sherman, and all others involved in the abhorrable, inexplicable, just plain idiotic decision to remove the press as Tony voters, thereby making the Tony Awards into a total sham where producers just vote for their own shows. They needed the press as voters to insert some credibility and objectivity into the voting pool. And believe me, the full weight of their action hasn't been seen yet. Wait till June.