Looking back on the theatrical year is usually a neutral process of noting shows gone by – the scorned, the mourned or the still running. But 2018 was no ordinary whirl around the sun. Yes, the 39 titles that opened on Broadway (dozens more Off Broadway) made up a familiar parade of dramas, comedies, revivals and musicals. But everything seemed to be tinged with a political aura, like a fog that never lifts. Trump entered his second year in power, and his antics seemed more grotesque by the week. On the positive side, the #MeToo movement was bringing down sexual predators from high perches in Hollywood, politics and business. #BlackLivesMatter still very much mattered. Americans were engaged in a passionate tug-of-war over what sort of country this should be, and that struggle was felt on our stages.
Blame Netflix binge-watching, but there were two two-part epics in the spring: Tony Kushner’s undisputed masterpiece Angels in America: Millennium Approaches and Perestroika, and the popular but more disputable Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts One and Two. Both began life in England – Angels was a much-buzzed National Theatre revival by the visionary director Marianne Elliott(The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time). She rendered Kushner’s seven-hour panorama of faith, disease, love and betrayal both painfully intimate and starkly cosmic. The Harry Potter double feature was catnip for the Hogwarts cultus, and critics praised the visual trickery (many low-tech feats of misdirection), but some deemed it bloated fan fiction. And yet it won the Tony for Best New Play, causing much chagrin.
How were these works politicized in the current climate? With Angels, it’s easy to see. Kushner’s progressive fantasia is a fight for the soul of America, against the backdrop of AIDS and the Reagan Revolution. Still, it’s shocking to think that closeted gay attorney Roy Cohn, the central villain, was Trump’s mentor in the 70s and 80s. Broadway was holding the mirror – cracked and warped – up to Washington. With Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, the boy wizard was all grown up, and now had trust issues with his school-age son. J.K. Rowling explored the less magical side of toxic masculinity and middle-age malaise.
Strong, complex women were well represented in the first half of 2018. Notable shows included a glittering revival of Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women, which drew ecstatic cheers for a still-fiery Glenda Jackson. Saint Joan, at the Roundabout Theatre Company, gave the luminous Condola Rashad a turn in the spotlight. Shaw’s play – dazzling though its rhetoric is – isn’t the most thrilling drama in the canon, but Rashad made a strong argument for heroism in these divided times. Handsomely designed and well-cast revivals of Carousel and My Fair Lady brought excellent performances from Jessie Mueller as abused wife Julie Jorden and a mellifluous Lauren Ambrose as flower-girl-turned-socialite Eliza Doolittle. For My Fair Lady, director Bartlett Sher tried to mitigate Lerner and Loewe’s problematic romantic ending, giving Eliza an emancipatory, Doll’s House-like exit.
In terms of new musicals, six of the ten that opened in 2018 are still running – not a bad percentage. Spring survivors included Disney’s Frozen and Tina Fey’s Mean Girls, two bouncy, pro-girl-power hits that spread a message of self-reliance. Then the summer brought Pretty Woman, a shallow and gaudy stage version of the hit 1990 Julia Roberts-Richard Gere rom-com. More than one critic eyeballed the all-male creative team with skepticism, and asked if a hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold pop musical is really the story we need right now. Despite a pile of critical pans, the show seems to be a hit with tourists.
In November, King Kong opened to even more scathing notices for everything but the astonishing, 20-foot-high gorilla puppet, but the deep-pocketed Australian producers stood behind their stage-hogging jungle beast. Next came The Prom, an über-campy but big-hearted musical comedy about Broadway troupers trying to grab the national spotlight by protesting Midwestern intolerance over a shy teenage lesbian. If one show crystalized Broadway’s take on our ideological muddle, it was this mix of social-justice and self-mocking satire. Finally, The Cher Show opened in December to mixed reviews, but based on box-office figures, might be the newest jukebox-musical hit.
Two specimens of that trend flopped: one with songs by Jimmy Buffett (Escape to Margaritaville), the other inspired by disco queen Donna Summer (Summer). A third had ardent fans and a legitimately gonzo book (based on a 17th-century allegorical novel!), but Head Over Heels, with a peppy set list from The Go-Go’s, could not flip LGBTQ+ quirkiness into long-term success.
The fall was dominated by new plays, play revivals or non-musical attractions, such as another seasonal visit from The Illusionists. Again, there was a political flavor to much of the fare: a victory lap for the groundbreaking gay play, The Boys in the Band, celebrating its 50th anniversary; playwright Young Jean Lee’s compassionate but sardonic study of privilege, Straight White Men; Theresa Rebeck’s feminist, backstage period piece, Bernhardt/Hamlet; and American Son, the only play on Broadway all year to address the murders of unarmed blacks at the hands of the police. Race and politics were much more visible Off Broadway, with provocative pieces such as Fairview, Pass Over, Eve’s Song and Slave Play, exploring how race is lived (or erased) in modern-day America.
Two of the splashiest play openings in the fall were, again, London imports: Jez Butterworth’s sprawling Irish domestic tragedy The Ferryman, and a multimedia stage version of Paddy Chayefsky’s 1976 film Network. The latter was directed by the iconoclastic Belgian director Ivo van Hove, with his penchant for video screens and deconstructive dramaturgy, grounded by a magnificently gonzo performance by Bryan Cranston as demented TV news anchor Howard Beale.
“I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” Beale famously bellows – a defiant cry you almost expected to hear from Atticus Finch in a new stage version of To Kill a Mockingbird. Since the classic novel was adapted by Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network), it makes sense. Sorkin is the Chayefsky of our time, lacerating our complacency and asking big questions about our national character. Mockingbird, while in some ways white-liberal comfort food, ended the year on a plaintive note. Can a conservative community recognize its moral rot, and evolve? Will people of color ever see justice in America? Can empathy, humanism and the rule of law – embodied by Finch (Jeff Daniels) – overcome bigotry? Theater can’t answer these historic problems, but it can keep asking the questions.
David Cote is a theater critic, playwright and opera librettist based in New York City.