Well, it's the end of the year, and you know what that means: lists, lists, lists. No doubt you've been seeing them crop up in magazines, newspapers, and in all those newfangled electronic media. Lists are fun, if fraught with peril. Just as people are likely to disagree with my show reviews, they are apt to carp at my choices for the best and worst of 2008. I think we tend to love lists when they reinforce our own views and preconceptions, and we tend to balk when they omit our personal favorites.
So, with major caveats blah blah blah, here's my list of the best musical productions (that I personally saw) of 2008. Click on the show titles for my original reviews. Later this week, look for my list of the worst musicals.
10. Rock of Ages. Yeah, I know. I'm as surprised as you are. I wasn't even planning on seeing Rock of Ages until I got an invite from its marketing agency. But I was very pleasantly surprised. Deep and meaningful? Hardly. But a heck of a lot of fun, and full of songs that you probably don't even remember you loved way back when. The Off-Broadway version features a very talented and engaging cast, and a libretto (by Chris D'Arienzo) that knows exactly how ridiculous it is, and doesn't take any of the proceedings very seriously, and nor should you. As I said in my review, it's nothing but a good time, and what's wrong with that? I'll be interested to see how the show fares when it transfers to the Brooks Atkinson in the spring. In response to the chilly economy, the producers are setting the top ticket price at a relatively reasonable (for Broadway, anyway) $99.
9. 13. A charming show, with a terrific score by Jason Robert Brown, and a funny and intelligent book by Dan Elish and Robert Horn. It's really a shame that the show didn't catch on; the Broadway production is closing at the end of the holiday season. But I get the sense that 13 will be like Seussical and catch on in the after-market. It's a natural for middle schools and community theaters across the country. Sure, there's some stuff in the show that doesn't quite work, but on the whole it's a pleasure to watch. If you're in New York between now and the new year, you might want to catch one of the show's remaining performances. The fresh-faced cast, tuneful score, and erudite book make the show more than worth the admission price.
8. Sunday in the Park With George. I have to admit, I was a lot more enamored of this production of Sunday in the Park With George when I saw it in London. Somehow the freshness wore off a bit when the Roundabout Theater brought the show to Broadway, despite the welcome presence of original stars Jenna Russell and Daniel Evans. Plus, reports that director Sam Buntrock was a bit out of his element, and required the assistance of Sunday librettist and original director James Lapine were troubling, to say the least. And, somehow, the Sunday revival got a bit lost in the furor over South Pacific and Gypsy. But this literally sparkling revival of Stephen Sondheim's masterful work was nonetheless a welcome reminder of the artistry and emotional power of this wonderful musical.
7. Passing Strange. Another pleasant surprise for me this season was this bold and fresh show from the minds of Stew, Heidi Rodewald, and director Annie Dorsen. Passing Strange was not without pretense, but it took a lot of chances and for the most part succeeded. The future of musical theater depends on new voices and perspectives, and although Passing Strange never crossed over to become a mainstream hit, it nonetheless broke new ground in terms of storytelling and presentation. Fortunately, Spike Lee filmed the show for commercial release, which will give the show the wider audience it deserves. Reportedly, Lee will screen the film at the upcoming Sundance Film Festival in January 2009. Hopefully, a national release will take place later in the year, with a DVD release to follow.
6. Hair. I had long been a fan of the score to Hair, as well as of Miloš Forman's underrated movie version of the show. But I had always regarded the stage version as fragmented, episodic, and unfocused. And I still think that's true. But, somehow, Diane Paulus' dynamic production turned those admitted liabilities into an asset. With the able assistance of choreographer Karole Armitage (cf. Passing Strange), Paulus created a whirlwind of a production that not only evoked the look and feel of the culture shock of the 1960s, it also put into brilliant relief the modern parallels of this powerful vessel of protest and celebration. I was fortunate to see this show in Central Park, but I plan to see it again when (if?) it opens up at the Al Hirschfeld in the spring. There have been reports that producer Elizabeth I. McCann has been having trouble raising the capitalization. And Jonathan Groff reportedly won't be returning because McCann is asking all the actors to work for scale. But I remain hopeful that the show will somehow still make it back to Broadway.
5. A Catered Affair. For me, A Catered Affair was the real heart-breaker of the year. It was such a lovely, heartfelt, quiet, and moving show, with a stirring score from John Bucchino, and a touching book by Harvey Fierstein. Plus, the performances were uniformly excellent, including those from Faith Prince and Tom Wopat. Prince was a model of (relative) restraint as the mother, and Wopat was a stunning revelation, bringing a remarkable slow burn to the part of the father. Another standout was the lovely Leslie Kritzer as the central daughter figure. Kritzer brought great modulation and nuance to a part that could easily have been shrill and whiny. It's a shame the show didn't run longer, and I have my doubts as to whether it will have a significant afterlife. But I have a feeling it will develop a following, much in the same way that quiet, intense shows like Violet and Floyd Collins have found their ardent adherents.
4. Gypsy. What more really needs to be said about Patti LuPone and Gypsy? This was the best revival of the season, IMHO, and far surpassed South Pacific in power and impact. With a little help from librettist and director Arthur Laurents, LuPone has redefined the role of Mama Rose, and claimed it as her own. It takes a hell of a performer to do that with a role that's so firmly associated with its creator, the admittedly incomparable Ethel Merman. LuPone and Laurents managed to make a show that everyone has seen again and again fresh and surprising. And Laura Benanti and Boyd Gaines brought dimension and pathos to two roles that in the wrong hands fade into the scenery. There were talks of filming this version of Gypsy for a TV broadcast, but now that the show is closing earlier than originally announced, it's not clear that's going to happen. I really hope that it does.
3. [title of show]. Everyone seemed to be rooting for [title of show]. Creators Hunter Bell and Jeff Bowen did a brilliant job generating buzz with their hilarious online installments of "The [title of show] Show." And the show itself was hysterical, and featured four terrific performances from Bowen, Bell, and their female cohorts, Heidi Blickenstaff and Susan Blackwell. But, in the end, the insular quality of the show's content and humor, which was one of its main attractions from my perspective, made it a tough sell to people outside the theater community. Hunter Bell told me that he hopes to bring the show back to Broadway in time for awards season, but the increasingly bleak economic landscape is making that prospect less and less likely. But I get the feeling that the show is going to thrive in local productions, and I greatly look forward to seeing what Bell and Bowen come up with next.
2. Xanadu. I loves me some Xanadu. I enjoyed it each of the three times I saw it, and I could see it again and again. And I find myself listening to the score quite frequently, which is something I don't really do with [title of show] or Passing Strange, although I enjoyed both immensely. With all due respect to the fabulous Kerry Butler and Cheyenne Jackson, the real star of Xanadu is librettist Douglas Carter Beane. It was quite a feat taking one of the worst movies of all time and making it into a fun-fest of intentional kitsch. Here's another show that should see a lot of play in regional productions. In fact, I can imagine that colleges and community theater's are already champing at the bit. They'll have to wait for the national tour to make the rounds, first, but I fully expect Xanadu to become as popular as Bat Boy, or even Little Shop of Horrors.
1. Adding Machine. It wasn't even close. Hands down, without qualification, or even significant competitor, the best musical of 2008 was the brilliantly subversive Adding Machine. Composer Joshua Schmidt and librettist Jason Loewith came seemingly out of nowhere with this dark and surprising musical, based on the Elmer Rice classic, The Adding Machine. Director David Cromer crafted an uncompromisingly grim, but nonetheless uplifting production, starring an exceptional trio of performers: Joel Hatch, Amy Warren, and Cyrilla Baer. Despite rapturous reviews, the show only managed to run for five months, although that was significantly longer than its originally planned limited run. If there's any justice, Adding Machine will go on to become an acknowledged classic. Composer Schmidt tells me that his next project will be a musical version of George Bernard Shaw's Candida, which he's working on with Austin Pendleton. Another brave choice, and I can't wait to see it.