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Buh Bye, 2011: The Best and Worst Theater Things of the Year

OK, kids. This is the whole enchilada. The good, the bad and the ugly of 2011. From Baby It’s You to The Book of Mormon, relive it one last time before it goes.

And then 2011 can GTFO for real because we are sick of it. Or at least sick of writing about it.


Rory O’Malley Cries at the Tonys
The Book of Mormon won a truckload of Tony Awards—and deservedly so. But the most memorable moment at this year’s ceremony wasn’t an acceptance speech by the show’s producers. It was Rory O’Malley, who didn’t even win in his own category, with tears in his eyes as castmate Nikki M. James accepted her award. We swooned at the cuteness—and that’s to say nothing of Rory’s actual performance in Mormon. As the stranded, closeted, tap-dancing Elder McKinley, he gave one of our favorite performances of the year. And dude, you know you’re doing something right when Jon Stewart is singing your song on the air.

Benjamin Walker Is Famous
So he wasn’t nominated for a Tony Award for last year’s Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, but we doubt he’s giving much of a fuck right now. Even while Bloody Bloody was on Broadway, Benjamin Walker’s career was on the verge of exploding into rainbow-colored piles of awesomeness. And then it actually did. In 2011, he was cast in not one, but two crazy-huge Hollywood movies—Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter and Paradise Lost. The latter is on hold, but the Honest Abe movie is slated for a June release. Oh and P.S. He also married Meryl Streep’s daughter this year. Think we’ll have Ben back on Broadway anytime soon? We’re thinking no, but at the very least, we hope he’ll occasionally turn up downtown at his wonderful live comedy show, Find the Funny.

Saint Steve Jobs? Yeah, No. Well, Maybe.
Some were quick to canonize Steve Jobs following his death in October, but performer Mike Daisey told a different story. In his incredible solo piece, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, Daisey examined both the rise of Steve Jobs at Apple, and the lives of the Chinese assembly line workers who build iPhones and iPads. Staged with nothing but a table, a chair, and a glass of water, it was both a love letter to Jobs and a damning indictment of Apple’s overseas labor practices. Theater in 2011 never got more relevant, or more riveting, than this show.

Nina Arianda Owns Everything
You want to know what a star looks like? Behold Nina Arianda, star of Venus in Fur, who held court so soundly through the show’s off-Broadway and Manhattan Theatre Club runs that she’ll do it again at the Lyceum in a few weeks. And we will eat our damn hats if she doesn’t win the Tony in the spring. Her performance as both a scatterbrained actress and a commanding dominatrix (sort of…) in David Ives’s play is easily the best of the year.

Newsies Wrecks Our Heads With Its Unlikely Awesomeness
Why was Newsies at the Paper Mill Playhouse so good? It wasn’t supposed to be good. After all, it was based on a nostalgically-sweet-but-hugely-problematic film. It contained almost no notable stars, and it required a train ride to New Jersey. This is not a typical setup for a good night of theater. Except that it was totally great. Re-written nearly top-to-bottom by Harvey Fierstein, Alan Menken and Jack Feldman, it boasted smarter lyrics, a love interest who’s more than just window dressing, and a social conscience that feels totally relevant. Throw Jeremy Jordan singing “Santa Fe” on top and you have yourself a delightful show—and one that’s now slated for a Broadway run.

And Now Performing His Heartfelt Rendition of “I’m Still Here,” Spider-Man…
Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark had a turbulent year. Cast members broke their entire selves. The director was fired. They shut the whole thing down for ages to reboot and still got bad reviews. Then the drama quieted and life at Spider-Man became… well, business as usual. But despite everything, a full year later, Spider-Man is still swinging, and doing some pretty damn good business, too, pulling down over a million smackeroos each week. Whether or not Spidey is our kind of theater, we have to admit, its soldier-on survival is pretty impressive.

Mark Rylance Gives a Master Class
There’s acting, and then there’s what Mark Rylance was doing on stage in the Music Box this spring. His work as Rooster Byron in Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem was more transformation than performance. Eight times a week Rylance transported audiences to the English countryside, as though the theater around him, and basic rules of physics, didn’t even exist. Everyone’s saying it, we know. But it would be completely blasphemous not to include Rylance’s masterful masterclass of a performance on this list.

Dustin Lance Black Writes a Play
Famous for his screenplays—like the Academy Award Winning Milk—Mr. Black took a break from the glitz and glam of Hollywood this year to bring his play about California’s Proposition 8 trials to Broadway for a star-studded, one-night-only reading. As a lightly dramatized presentation of verbatim trial transcripts, 8 may not have been the strongest play we’ve ever witnessed. But it was an amazing (and amazingly emotional) Broadway moment, and one that we hope is only the first of many to come.

Jeremy Jordan Is Here and Nothing Else Matters
He’s been kickin’ around the Great White Way for a while now, understudying Constantine Maroulis in Rock of Ages, alternating as Tony in West Side Story, and popping up in readings here and there. But 2011 was, unquestionably, the year of Jeremy Jordan. With rave reviews for his turn as Jack Kelly in Newsies at the Paper Mill Playhouse and a starring role in Bonnie & Clyde—from which he appears to have escaped unscathed, despite the show’s critical takedown—Jeremy Jordan became the most talked about actor in New York City. And deservedly so. He’s ridiculously handsome, sings like a very belt-y angel, and deftly walks the tough/sensitive line that makes a true leading man so attractive. It’s been a decade since we’ve seen a Broadway star seem so utterly, immeasurably special—Patrick Wilson, anyone?—and now we’re terrified we’ll lose him forever. Because honestly, the world just isn’t as bright and beautiful without possibility of seeing Mr. Jordan’s beautiful mug on stage somewhere in New York at least six nights a week.


Spider-Man Happened… and It Sucked
God, how we wanted Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark to be great. We wanted it to be fun, and loud, and chock-full of breathtaking stunts. We wanted Julie Taymor to give the finger to all of the nay-sayers, because she’s a smart, talented woman with vision for miles. We trusted her. And she kind of fucked us over. In its original incarnation—before it closed and was radically sanitized/revised—Spider-Man was a crazy, hellish mess of a show. Clocking in at more than three hours long and filled with all flavors of mythological and self-referential zaniness, it just came off like a big, stupid wank. A big, stupid wank starring a pissed-off lady spider who sang atonal songs about all eight of her shoes. It’s a huge hit now, so no one cares. But we will never erase that trainwreck from our memories.

Spider-Man Bonus Track: Julie Taymor (Quietly and Subtly) Prepares to Take You Down
It took her a while to do it. But right after the Tony Awards nominating committee declared that she’d be eligible at this year’s awards—despite being stripped of credit for Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark—she decided to do what everyone knew she would do: She filed a huge-ass lawsuit. How huge-ass? She wants royalties, sure. But she also wants signoff on every single future production of the show, and she wants the current Broadway production to stop using its current book—which she says she wrote. Holy shit. If we can’t see your work onstage in 2012, Julie, we’re super interested in watching it in court.

Get Over Yourself, Woody Allen
Remember that time that Woody Allen tried to justify his unsavory life choices by writing a totally hackneyed one-act play about a young bride who runs off with her icky father-in-law on her wedding day? We unfortunately do. Honeymoon Motel was the anchor play in Relatively Speaking, and we’re still resentful about the brain cells we lost while sitting through it. While we wait for everyone to figure out how poorly Woody Allen’s work fits into this millennium, we invite you instead to enjoy that other amazing play in Relatively Speaking. Oh, wait…

Bernadette Peters Actually Sucks at Something
How could it happen? That the woman who gave one of the most splendid, regal performances of 2010, as Desiree in A Little Night Music, is suddenly so very bad in Follies? Sally is a no-win ninny to begin with. But Bernadette plays her like a mentally challenged nine-year-old. Left to do her own thing, with as many penetrating dramatic pauses as she’d like, she’s lost in Follies. Even more disconcerting: On the night we went, she struggled mightily with some of her high notes. Needless to say, we don’t want to think of our beloved Bernadette this way—or see her so badly taken care of in such a high-profile gig.

War Horse Proves the Best Play Tony Totally Fails at Rewarding Good Plays
In a year chock-full of wonderful plays—Pulitzer Prize nominees, epic British imports and brand-new American dramas among them—the Tony went to… a really beautifully staged production of a children’s book. No one will argue that War Horse looked beautiful up on that stage. But what about the quality of the material itself? Isn’t that what we’re supposed to be awarding? The War Horse win proved that the Tony for Best Play is less about the actual play itself, and more about what it looks like on stage. Perhaps the plays could benefit from the same treatment as musicals, with Authors having a separate category from the overall productions. It seems a shame for such quality writing to go so often unrewarded.

All These Musicals Freaking Suck (Okay, Except That One About Mormons)
This year saw the rebirth of the blockbuster musical with The Book of Mormon and the touching, funny, joyful musical was worthy of all the praise it received. Things seemed pretty exciting for the Broadway Musical for a hot minute. But Mormon is such a hot ticket mere mortals can scarcely get through the doors, and basically all our other choices… well… sucked. Catch Me If You Can was boring, Wonderland was atrocious, Priscilla was a quasi-fun, sparkly mess, and don’t even get us started on Baby It’s You. It took until Lysistrata Jones in December for us to even enjoy another musical. Frankly, it was depressing. 2012 better bring us something better.

Stephen Sondheim Loses His Goddamn Mind
We understand that he’s getting older—who could forget all those 80th birthday celebrations—and that may be making him a bit more crotchety, or something. But at what point did it suddenly seem like a good idea for Mr. Sondheim to publicly attack one of his peers in the pages of the New York Times, over work on a show that a) he had never seen and b) had not even played a single performance? Lots of people praised Mr. Sondheim’s attack on the cast and creative team behind The Gershwin’s Porgy & Bess, but it just made us really sad. He chose a piss-poor way to express his feelings—was a personal call or note to Ms. Paulus out of the question?—and ultimately, was incredibly unfair to a hard-working team who, by all accounts, were just endeavoring to do what the Gershwin and Heyward estates were asking of them and bring Porgy & Bess to a new audience.

The Producers of Bonnie & Clyde are Unintentionally Hilarious
Much has been said about the quality—or lack thereof, depending—of Frank Wildhorn’s Bonnie & Clyde but one of the most fascinating/upsetting parts of the whole spectacle was watching the producers completely mishandle the PR for their floundering show. First they stopped selling tickets beyond 12/30 and starting refunding people who had purchased tickets in advance for shows after that date. Then, when Telecharge sent an email saying the show was closing some producers claimed that was, like, totes untrue, and that they were just drumming up sales and enthusiasm for the show. Because typically, you stop selling tickets when you want to sell more tickets, right? We’re not sure if they just didn’t know what they were doing, or if they thought the suspense of imminent show-closure really would get clueless, Broadway-uneducated tourists in the door. Either way, it was entertaining to watch. Or maybe it would have been, you know, if we hadn’t felt so much sympathy for the poor cast as their jobs and immediate futures hung in the balance.

Baby Its You Poo
I know, guys, let’s write a jukebox musical about the creator/creation of the Shirelles, and then totally make all the musicians nameless and faceless. That should be fun, right? And then, let’s just throw together a whole bunch of songs and let the cast wander on and off the stage aimlessly in the middle of numbers. And leave everyone in the audience wondering why exactly things are even happening on stage, and if there is any rhyme or reason to the scenes. This is the best idea we’ve ever had. …Or the recipe for a critical drubbing and early closure. I mean. You just never know, right?

{ 2 comments… add one }

  • adam807 January 1, 2012, 12:12 pm

    I’ve never understood why the play Tonys aren’t split up the way the musical categories are – into Best Play (for the producers) and Best Script of a Play (for the writers). Especially since Best Play frequently awards the production but then is accepted by the writer.

  • Mel January 2, 2012, 12:08 pm

    I’m pretty sure this is the best year-end list I’ve read. I agree so much with pretty much everything for the shows I saw. It’s so refreshing to see someone, finally, talk about how overrated War Horse is and how much Peters sucks in Follies. I was so looking forward to that show and I was so disappointed. (Though HOLY CRAP Jan Maxwell, in the best way possible.)

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