Hey, you know what? The year 2013 was a pretty good one for musicals. And I'm not even talking about the crowd-pleasers that seemed to please everyone in the crowd except me (Kinky Boots, Here Lies Love, and Pippin, all of which are conspicuously -- and deliberately -- absent from this list). Nor am I discussing the critic- and reason-proof blockbuster that is Motown - the Musical.
No, I'm talking about musical shows of genuine craft and quality. I'm sure, as always, people will take issue with some of my selections. Far From Heaven? The Last Five Years? Hey, what can I say? I like what I like, and don't like what I don't like. I look for credible drama, rich characterizations, evocative music, well-crafted lyrics, solid performances, and that certain ineffable frisson that arises when the elements merge into a moment of transcendence. The following shows each produced those synergistic moments of theatrical magic.
Now someone might look at this list and be able to find a show that violates one of my previously espoused quality indicators. For instance, well crafted-lyrics should actually rhyme, should scan well with the music, and shouldn't require extra syllables to make a lyric fit. Matilda violates each of these criteria at various points throughout its score. But the reason I was able to overlook the lazy lyrics in Matilda -- and not in, say, Kinky Boots -- was that Matilda was giving me so much of the other criteria listed above that somehow the lyrical indiscretions faded into the background.
Click on the show titles below to read my reviews. And be on the lookout for my list of the Worst Musicals of 2013. (Gee, I wonder which award-winning show will feature prominently on that list...)
10. On the Town - I like to include at least one regional entry on my Best and Worst lists, and the Barrington Stage revival of On the Town was easily the best thing I saw outside of New York last year. The folks at Barrington opted to put on the show without the original Jerome Robbins choreography (or perhaps it wasn't available), but choreographer Joshua Bergasse proved more than up to the task of creating his own, albeit based on Robbins' blueprint. Also on hand was director John Rando, who kept the pacing at a fever pitch, which is just where it needs to be for that show. There was talk of the production moving to Broadway this season, but I haven't heard anything beyond the initial announcement. I've given up trying to predict if such moves are fiscally prudent, but I wouldn't mind another chance to see this production, hopefully with a large portion of the Barrington cast intact. (Particularly Tony Yazbeck, Jay Armstrong Johnson and Clyde Alves as the three central sailors.)
9. Violet - It's not often I get a chance to see those one-night-only events in New York City, but thankfully I was able to snag a ticket to see the redoubtable Sutton Foster in the concert staging of Violet as part of the new Encores! Off-Center summer program. I never had a chance to write up reviews of the three shows that inaugurated that series. (The other two were The Cradle Will Rock, which felt disappointingly rushed and slipshod, and I'm Getting My Act Together and Taking It on the Road, which was quite a revelation. What a remarkably moving, albeit dated, show.) But Violet was by far the strongest of the three productions. It reminded me of how strong a show Violet is, in particular Jeanine Tesori's glorious score. Sutton was, of course, glorious in the title role, with more-than-capable back-up from Joshua Henry as Flick. So, you can imagine how pleased I was to hear that the Roundabout Theatre would be hosting a limited run of the show on Broadway as part of its spring 2014 season. If you didn't have a chance to see the concert, I would highly recommend catching it on Broadway.
8. After Midnight - What a joy. I wasn't really expecting much from After Midnight, and perhaps my lack of expectations added to my enjoyment. But I like to think I would have been bowled over anyway by the sheer energy, jubilation, and professionalism on stage at the Brooks Atkinson. After Midnight is essentially a homage to The Cotton Club, that fabled Harlem night spot in the '20s and '30s. There's no book per se to After Midnight, it being a revue and all, but what holds the show together is a unified vision from director/choreographer Warren Carlyle, as well as a more than able cast of top-notch performers. As much as I enjoyed Fantasia Barrino in the star spot, I wouldn't mind going back when Barrino leaves and K.D. Lang takes her place in March. I'm not so sure that Toni Braxton and Babyface, who follow Lang in a rotating slate of headliners, will be my cup of hooch, but then I wasn't expecting much from Fantasia, and was quite pleasantly surprised. (One never knows, do one?)
7. Far From Heaven - When I saw Far From Heaven, I sat transfixed by the quiet beauty and subtle shades of the score, the book, and the performances. Far From Heaven is the latest show from composer Scott Frankel and lyricist Michael Korie, the gentlemen who brought us the lovely Grey Gardens, and for some reason Far From Heaven failed to enchant either the critics or the theatre cognoscenti. In fact, things got rather nasty. I'll never quite understand all the hate that developed for this show on the Interwebs. People seemed downright livid about Far From Heaven, as though it were a personal affront against their very humanity. I found the show haunting and the score exquisite, and I'm thrilled to have the chance to revisit the show continually on CD. Is the show slow? I prefer the phrase "deliberately paced." Is it to everyone's taste? Clearly not. But it's a well-crafted show, as was wonderfully performed by Kelli O'Hara, Steven Pasquale, and a passel of talented supporting cast members. I'm hoping to see Far From Heaven catch on with some of the more adventurous regional theaters.
6. Murder for Two - Another pleasant little surprise of a show. Murder for Two is a two-hander in which the two actors not only portray all of the characters (actually, one actor portrays all of the characters bar one) but also provide the piano accompaniment for each other, sometimes simultaneously. The novelty of the virtuoso character changes and self-accompaniment might be enough to make the show a winner, but the show also has a tuneful and clever score (from newcomers Joe Kinosian and Kellen Blair), plus crack comic direction from Scott Schwartz. I caught the show at the Second Stage's uptown theater, as well as when it moved to a commercial run at the New World Stages. Even knowing whodunit ahead of time didn't spoil my enjoyment of the show the second time around. Actually, truth be told, the denouement is the least satisfying part of the show, but the journey more than makes up for the somewhat disappointing destination.
5. The Last Five Years - After I published my review of The Last Five Years at the Second Stage, a couple readers contacted me to say that they were disappointed that I liked the show. "I was looking forward to you tearing it apart," one said. "I usually can count on you to tell the truth," said another. Well, I was telling the truth. I genuinely like L5Y, and I particularly enjoyed this production of the show. I respectfully submit to these readers that their desire to see me trash L5Y likely says more about them than it does about me. Why would I devote so much of my life to musical theater if I didn't like at least some of it? I think Jason Robert Brown is one of the most talented composer/lyricists we currently have working, and his direction for the Second Stage production was spot-on. He kept the staging and production elements to a minimum and let the complex characterizations carry the day. Adam Kantor and Betsy Wolfe brought warmth, humor, and just the right amount of neurosis to their performances. Will the upcoming movie with Jeremy Jordan and Anna Kendrick do the show justice? You know I'll be among the first to weigh in.
4. A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder - An utter delight. As an inveterate Anglophile, I was predisposed to love this show. It's sort of a mixture of Monty Python and Gosford Park, with a little Gilbert & Sullivan thrown in for good measure. Gentleman's Guide is easily the best musical to open this season on Broadway, at least so far. Much like Murder for Two, Gentleman's Guide is the product of a fresh new writing team (librettist/lyricist Robert L. Freedman and composer/lyricist Steven Lutvak), and has a resolution that's slightly inscrutable, and yet there's so much pleasure to be had along the journey, it hardly seems to matter. The sterling cast includes Bryce Pinkham, Jefferson Mays, Lisa O'Hare and Lauren Worsham, all pitch-perfect in their roles. There was some concern among cast-album aficionados that no recording had yet been announced, but earlier this week we heard that Ghostlight Records would indeed be recording the show. (And all is well with the world.)
3. Matilda - Kinky Boots? Best Musical? I think not. I'm not sure what crawled up the collective ass of the theater community during awards season, but to so honor Kinky Boots, a middling show at best, over Matilda, an admittedly flawed but nonetheless delightful show, is simply ludicrous. I mean, it's not even a close contest. Matilda more than makes up for any flaws with rich characterizations, honest emotion, and songs that a far more specific to their context than those of Kinky Boots. Thankfully, Matilda is selling extremely well, which doesn't always happen with shows that lose the Best Musical Tony. Matilda seems to be around for the long haul, which will give the ticket-buying public a chance to decide for themselves. I've already seen Matilda twice an I eagerly anticipate seeing it again and again. I can't imagine ever wanting to see Kinky Boots again. (And have to sit through that preachy second act and those painfully generic songs again? I shudder at the very thought.)
2. Natasha Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 - An unusual title, an unusual show. But Natasha Pierre was one of the most captivating and moving shows to come to New York in many a season. Who would have thought that a musical based on War and Peace of all things would make for such a lively and compelling piece of musical theater? In my defense, I'm no stranger to the 19th-century Russian novel, having taken an in-depth seminar in same my junior year of college. So I guess I shouldn't be all that surprised that the tremendous passion and drama of that distinctive genre would yield such a rich theatrical result. I say it all the time: There's no such thing as a bad idea for a musical, only poor execution. Natasha Pierre is executed with great passion and care by its sole author, Dave Malloy. I'll be very interested to see if the show catches on regionally. It certainly lends itself to a variety of staging possibilities, beyond the immersive, cabaret-style presentation the show enjoyed Off-Broadway.
1. Fun Home - Oh. My. God. What a show. What an experience. Fun Home comes from an even more unlikely source than Natasha Pierre does: a graphic novel about a lesbian cartoonist who grows up in a funeral home with a closeted gay father. It's a tribute to composer Jeanine Tesori (making her second appearance on this list) and librettist/lyricist Lisa Kron that they've taken on such a challenging topic and created something genuinely sublime. Fun Home is extraordinarily powerful, bringing out the quiet dignity and desperation of its characters, while also providing strong dose of tongue-in-cheek entertainment as well. The performances were staggering, particularly those of Michael Cerveris and Judy Kuhn as the father and mother, respectively. Kron and Tesori also make the risky but ultimately successful choice of splitting the daughter character among three different actresses. I say "risky" because it could have been confusing, or precious, or pretentious. But it works, and splendidly so. Fun Home ends with a series of shattering solos for each of the three main characters, and the one-two-three punch is almost too much to bear, and yet somehow exhilarating at the same time. Fun Home easily ranks as one of my favorite musicals, not just of this year, but of all time. It's really that good.