Commentary: The Best and Worst Musicals of 2016
The year 2016 brought us a number of indelible musical productions. But it brought us some real doozies as well.
By Christopher Caggiano, Contributing Writer, December 30, 2016
It’s the end of the year, and we all know what that means: lists. Like many other critics, I like to take some time at year’s end and look back on all the theater that I’ve seen over the previous 12 months.
As usual, it’s been a sort of mixed bag. Some of it has been exquisite, some of it excruciating. That’s par for the course, of course. However, this year I’m happy to report that the good far outweighed the bad, if not in number, then in overall craft and sheer emotional impact.
(Oh, and before you start complaining about the absence of Hamilton, the show bowed on Broadway in 2015, and rest assured it placed prominently on my list for that year.)
The Best Musicals of 2016:
- The Golden Bride – Probably the most pleasant surprise of the season was The Golden Bride, a charming and energetic revival of a mostly forgotten 1923 Yiddish operetta presented at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Manhattan. (In the original Yiddish, yet, with English supertitles.) Dated, to be sure, but lovingly presented, and brimming with talented performers.
- Hadestown – An edgy, folk rock update on the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, this New York Theatre Workshop presentation transformed the NYTW’s East Village home into an immersive arena. Anaïs Mitchell’s rousing songs and Rachel Chavkin’s innovative staging were matched by a terrific ensemble of performers.
- God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater – As part of its summer Off-Center series, Encores! mounted a production of this quirky, moving, yet forgotten musical by the creators of Little Shop of Horrors. Santino Fontana was appealing and authentic as always as the title character, and the production is reportedly yielding the show’s first cast recording.
- The Band’s Visit – A quiet, simple delight of a show, presented by the Atlantic Theater Company, with powerful performances (particularly from breakout star Katrina Lenk) and an idiomatic score from David Yazbek. There’s talk of a Broadway transfer next season, in which case I would strongly suggest a visit of your own.
- Shuffle Along, or, The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed – No, it wasn’t perfect, particularly during its scattered second act. But, like the show whose origin it depicts, this Shuffle Along was infectious and tuneful, and Savion Glover’s choreography was both rousing and true to the times. Plus, the cast featured not only some of the greatest performers of our time (Audra McDonald, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Audra, Brandon Victor Dixon, Audra, Joshua Henry, Audra…) but also a breakout performance from the dynamic Adrienne Warren.
- Waitress – Somewhat lost amid the Hamilton juggernaut has been Waitress, an intensely moving show, with yet another sensational performance from the wondrous Jessie Mueller, plus a complex and appealing score from musical theater newbie Sara Bareilles. The piece is strong on its own, but you’d be well advised to catch the show before Mueller leaves at the end of March. Well advised.
- Falsettos – This revival of William Finn’s masterwork took a while to find its groove, but once it did, the show became quietly intimate and emotionally shattering. The cast of Broadway regulars — including Christian Borle, Andrew Rannells, and Stephanie J. Block — gave their richest and most satisfying performances to date. And the production yielded the show’s first complete cast recording, and a terrific recording it is, too.
- Dear Evan Hansen – It’s gratifying to see Broadway audiences embrace serious shows (Fun Home, Next to Normal), and Dear Evan Hansen is a welcome addition to this trend. The show represents genuine Broadway success for Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, and features one of the best ensemble casts in many a season, including Ben Platt and Laura Dreyfuss as the young folk at the center of this serious story of unintended deception, desperate loneliness, and ultimate acceptance.
- She Loves Me – A sparkling, lively revival of one of the best musicals ever written. The cast was near perfection, and Scott Ellis’ comic direction was almost without flaw. Plus, the production yielded a TV broadcast that effectively captured the spirit of the production, and will serve as a cherished record of this delightful show for years to come.
- Natasha, Pierre and The Great Comet of 1812 – I’ve become so obsessed with The Great Comet that I just recently finished reading War and Peace, upon which the show is based. It’s not the staging, which is admittedly innovative. It’s certainly not the presence of Josh Groban. Groban has a terrific voice (duh), but his acting is stiff and he shuffles nervously and distractingly. No, the great appeal of The Great Comet is Dave Malloy’s piece itself, rich in both character and melody, and Malloy’s judicious adaptation of Tolstoy. Simply stunning.
The Worst Musicals of 2016:
- Beowulf – Since I’m such a big fan of The Great Comet, I’ve naturally sought out Dave Malloy’s other work. Unfortunately, everything else has been fairly disappointing, particularly Beowulf at Trinity Repertory Theater in Providence. What a mess. Now, Malloy only contributed the music here, but I found nothing of merit anywhere on that stage. This ham-fisted attempt at updating the Beowulf legend was poorly crafted and artistically bereft.
- Bright Star – Bright Star was everyone’s favorite 2016 flop. Everyone except me. The supposed charms of this southern gothic smarm-fest were totally lost on me. Not even Carmen Cusack’s admittedly impressive Broadway bow could lift this snoozer out of the doldrums. And the show featured what may be the single most horrifying act one tag in musical-theater history. Sure, the music sounded great, but the characters were thin, the dialogue was jokey, and the plot strained credulity to the breaking point.
- In Transit – In Transit is not so much bad as terminally bland. Once the novelty of the show being Broadway’s “first a cappella musical” wears off, we’re left with two-dimensional characters, an uninspired score, and a by-the-numbers story that goes nowhere fast.
- Ride the Cyclone – Ride the Cyclone starts with a painfully grim premise — a small group of high school students are killed in a theme-park accident, and are each then forced to make their case for being the one person to get a second chance at living. What follows is a dull slog through each character’s uninteresting backstory, accompanied by forgettable songs, and self-conscious, would-be comic dialogue that isn’t nearly as funny as the creators seem to think.
- Southern Comfort – This show certainly meant well, attempting to bring to life the struggles of a small group of transgender people in the south. But noble intensions mean nothing unless the show itself is well-crafted, which Southern Comfort decidedly wasn’t. The characters became mouthpieces spouting platitudes rather than real people. I thought it was the least distinguished musical I had ever seen at the Public Theater. That is, until I saw The Total Bent…
- The Total Bent – I’m a huge fan of Stew’s Passing Strange, a raw and personal exploration of Stew’s own coming of age. But Stew’s follow-up show, The Total Bent, was a major letdown. The Total Bent is another coming-of-age story, this one about a young gay man and his complicated relationship with his father, a famous blues artist. But the same convention-breaking, fourth wall-shattering techniques Stew used in Passing Strange here become enervating and irritating. The show reeks of self-satisfaction, and eventually becomes buried under the weight of its own pretensions.
- Tuck Everlasting – One of the fastest-closing Broadway flops of the year was Tuck Everlasting, a show that was clearly aimed at capturing the family market, but that represented a major misfire. The songs were bland and unmemorable, the book was plodding and twee, and the production bordered on saccharine. Tuck Everlasting was almost worth seeing for Casey Nicholaw’s final ballet, a deft condensation of the entire adult life of the central character, Winnie Foster. Too bad about the bland, unmemorable show leading up to it.
- American Psycho – This one could have been good. In the right hands, an American Psycho musical might have been a darkly funny exploration of the Reagan era and the mindless, empty people therein. Unfortunately, those hands were not songwriter Duncan Sheik and librettist Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa. Under their ministrations, the story of Patrick Bateman became jaw-droppingly tasteless and unremittingly grim.
- Himself and Nora – Speaking of grim, few musicals this season were as bleak and uninviting as Himself and Nora, a coarse and superficial exploration of the life and career of James Joyce. Composer and librettist Jonathan Brielle seems to have thought it was a good idea to portray one of the greatest minds of the 20th Century as a randy, vulgar schoolboy. It wasn’t.
- Paramour – Yeah, sure, the Cirque du Soleil circus acts are cool, but the show surrounding those acts is a disaster. The songs are generic and weak, the libretto is an embarrassment, and nobody seems to have given much thought to how to make all of the circus acts relevant to the story. Paramour may be taking in $1 million-plus a week, but the utter lack of craft in the show’s construction is appalling.
Cover: Josh Groban and the cast of ‘Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812;’ photo: Chad Batka.