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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

 
2015 YEAR IN REVIEW

THE YEAR OF HAMILTON
By DAVID COTE

  Daveed Diggs and company in Hamilton/ Ph: Joan Marcus

Normally, writing about the year in theater involves sifting through a large mass of data and opinion, weighing the high and low points, crafting a clean narrative from what is actually random and accidental. But these are not ordinary times. On Broadway and beyond, 2015 was the year of Hamilton. That may sound like presumptuous hyperbole for a musical that has yet to win a Tony Award or Pulitzer Prize (which it probably will), but Hamilton has already made its cultural mark.
 
Composer-lyricist-star Lin-Manuel Miranda’s breathtaking coup, with its hip-hop retelling of the life of American founding father Alexander Hamilton, with a phenomenal multiracial cast, is a work that could only happen in Obama’s America. The fact that it will be running long after Obama leaves office is immaterial. The piece speaks to the hopes and fears of a country still racked with irrational responses to immigration, diversity and the struggle between citizens and government. On top of that, Hamilton is art – which is more than you can say for even the best new cable series and Hollywood prestige films. Through music, drama and rigorous historical research, it reaches higher and digs deeper than most cultural production in any field.
 
It has delivered a jolt of electricity to Broadway. Not since The Producers has a new musical received such universal critical acclaim and media attention, attracting national attention. In fact, from the opening of The Producers in 2001 to Hamilton today, it has been an extremely fertile and successful period in Broadway history. The box office is booming, the mainstream is paying attention, and best of all, the work is groundbreaking. We may in fact be in a golden age of Broadway.
 
That being said, some things on the Great White Way never change. Plays always have a hard time, unless there’s a major celebrity name on the marquee. Thus 2015 brought Broadway debuts for Larry David (Fish in the Dark), Jake Gyllenhaal (Constellations), Clive Owen (Betrayal), Keira Knightley (Thérèse Raquin), Bruce Willis (Misery) and even opera superstar Renée Fleming (Living on Love). Returning to the boards were other big names, such as Sam Rockwell (Fool for Love), Helen Mirren (The Audience), Elisabeth Moss (The Heidi Chronicles), Matthew Broderick (Sylvia), James Earl Jones and Cicely Tyson (The Gin Game) and, in a new play by David Mamet, Al Pacino (China Doll). These star turns were, for the most part, engaging and successful, with Knightley making a strong impression and Gyllenhaal continuing to earn respect for his intensity and emotional transparency.
 
Any honest assessment of star casting would have to address its downside: film stars who are either too old or too lazy to learn their lines. By several reports, Willis and Pacino relied heavily on earpieces or video prompters in the wings to stay on top of their lines. Such dependence on electronic feeds showed in both performances, which were tentative, disjointed and wan. Mind you, neither Misery (William Goldman’s adaptation of his 1990 screenplay) nor China Doll was what anyone would call a good play, but those who paid for their tickets deserve a genuine live experience, not a mediated stunt.
 
On a more positive note, 2015 was a refreshingly diverse year for talent on both sides of the footlights. The aforementioned Hamilton was created by a first-generation Puerto Rican New Yorker and performed by a rainbow cast. The Cuban-American experience was represented by Gloria and Emilio Estefan’s musical On Your Feet! The shameful history of Japanese-American citizens interned during World War II was passionately explored in Allegiance. Producers of revivals tried new approaches, such as casting African-Americans actors in The Gin Game and hearing-impaired performers in a radically reconceived Spring Awakening. The new versions of The Color Purple and Fiddler on the Roof, meanwhile, were simply directed with tremendous intelligence and feeling by John Doyle and Bartlett Sher, respectively. And the 2015 winner of the Tony for Best New Musical, Fun Home, may be cast with mostly white folks, but it is groundbreaking in its bold and big-hearted portrayal of a lesbian protagonist. The season felt uncommonly inclusive.
 
Several of the shows just mentioned contributed to the evolving “sound” of Broadway, which has never been more varied. The year in musical styles was a dizzying tour around the dial: 80s-style bombast (Doctor Zhivago, Amazing Grace, Allegiance); post-Sondheim show tunes (Fun Home), hip-hop (Hamilton); Latin beat (On Your Feet!), and blues and gospel (The Color Purple). And then there was Andrew Lloyd Webber, a composer who had done as much as Sondheim to shape the sound of musicals for the past half century. Lloyd Webber hadn’t had a hit on Broadway for nearly 30 years, when The Phantom of the Opera opened in 1987. But he may just have broken that bad streak with School of Rock.
 
No one would have thought that the 67-year-old British peer, working with book writer Julian Fellowes of Downton Abbey fame, could make watchable adaptation of the 2003 Jack Black comedy (where was David Yazbek? Douglas Carter Beane?). And yet they did. School of Rock opened toward the end of the year with glowing reviews and huge box office. Its sound was unremarkable – generic rock and pop aimed at a general audience of tweens and their families – but it was catchy and fun and perhaps might turn younger audiences into lifelong theatergoers. If Lloyd Webber can still have a hit, there’s hope for all of us.

 


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