The Divine Miss M and The Boss lived up to their names in 2017, breaking Broadway box offices (in part by commanding record-breaking ticket prices) and bringing audiences to their feet night after night. Yes, the inimitable Bette Midler put her indelible mark on one of musical theater’s greatest characters, Dolly Gallagher Levi in Hello, Dolly, earning a much-deserved Tony Award for wringing every laugh and tear from the landmark Jerry Herman-Michael Stewart musical. Meanwhile, the equally singular Bruce Springsteen needed nothing but a stool, guitar, his memories and his remarkable raspy voice to make Springsteen on Broadway the hottest show in town.
All in all, musical lovers were mighty pleased throughout 2017. Even most naysayers were surprised that the cartoon world of SpongeBob SquarePants could feel so vividly real (thanks in large part to Ethan Slater’s infectious performance in the title role and David Zinn’s fantabulous set). The quietly hypnotic The Band’s Visit drew us in minute by minute by exploring the unusual friendships formed overnight between the residents of a small Israeli town and the members of an Egyptian band. And the crowd-pleasing Come From Away showed us how the residents of a small Canadian town came to the rescue of thousands of stranded passengers during the tragedy of September 11.
Not every original musical fared as well as these shows at the box office, despite their considerable charms. Bandstand, a love story set during World War II, featured sublime choreography of Andy Blankenbuehler, along with the tremendous vocal talents of Corey Cott, Laura Osnes and Beth Leavel. And the legendary Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole earned deserved ovations for unleashing their unrivaled passion and vocal power as cosmetic titans Helena Rubinstein and Elizabeth Arden in War Paint.
More revue than revival, Prince of Broadway brought back dozens of memorable moments from some of the Great White Way’s greatest musicals. Meanwhile, ultra-talented newcomer Hailey Kilgore led a stunning cast in Michael Arden's brilliantly reimagined version of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty’s charming Once on This Island, while Eva Noblezada brought pathos and poignancy to the role of the wronged Kim in the tear-jerking Miss Saigon.
What about non-musicals? J.T. Rogers’ extraordinary three-hour political drama Oslo (which took home the Best Play Tony Award) was just one of the year’s stirring new dramas. Lucy Kirkwood’s chillingly brilliant The Children forced us to face our mortality in the aftermath of a nuclear disaster. Lynn Nottage’s Sweat powerfully examined the damages – societal and personal – caused by racism and poverty. And Lucas Hnath’s clever and thought-provoking A Doll’s House, Part 2 made us reconsider the role of women in the 20th century.
In addition, Paula Vogel and Rebecca Taichman’s heartbreaking Indecent not only posed pertinent questions about censorship, but also ensured that the horrors of the Holocaust would never be forgotten, while Ayad Akhtar’s 1980s-set Junk turned out to be a much-needed cautionary tale about the dangers of pride and greed in any decade.
Star power was back in evidence throughout the season, in new plays, revivals and politically charged solo shows such as Michael Moore’s provocative The Terms of My Surrender and John Leguizamo’s hilarious Latin History for Morons. Elsewhere, comedian Amy Schumer lit up the stage in Steve Martin’s often riotous Meteor Shower. Uma Thurman was glamour personified as a shrewd political wife in Beau Willimon’s twisty The Parisian Woman. And Mark Rylance made us marvel at his mastery as the unhappy monarch Philippe V in the dramedy Farinelli and the King.
Meanwhile, Downton Abbey star Elizabeth McGovern grounded the handsome revival of J.T. Priestley’s philosophical Time and the Conways. The handsome Clive Owen played impressively against type as a self-effacing diplomat caught in a complicated, clandestine love affair in Julie Taymor’s remounting of David Henry Hwang’s M Butterfly. The one and only Kevin Kline was egotism personified as the vain actor Garry Essendine in Noel Coward’s delicious Present Laughter. And Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon alternated in the roles of the scheming Regina and the meek Birdie with unparalleled skill in Daniel Sullivan’s sterling revival of Lillian Hellman’s scathing The Little Foxes.
Still, the year’s best revival needed no household names. The stirring mounting of August Wilson’s Jitney was a testament to not only the importance of a well-tuned ensemble, but the greatness of the words of late African American playwright. His truth goes marching on!