The best shows this theater season soared so prodigiously high that more standard plays evoked a shrugged meh. The game-changers like Hamilton left audiences inspired and emotionally charged.
They took creative chances and didn’t rely on famous names, while uninspired adaptations like Gigi landed flat and stars like Al Pacino were duds. Bliss came in unexpected places, such as the luminous An American in Paris—do go if you haven’t already. Here are the Top Ten of the season, which fall into three categories:
The Best of the Best
After getting kudos from the White House and just about every celebrity with a Twitter account who has visited New York, Hamilton has gone from Broadway hit to cultural icon. Creator and star Lin-Manuel Miranda has now rapped with Stephen Colbert and riffed with Jimmy Fallon.
Praising Hamilton seems like a tease, since even at $500 a ticket, it’s hard to find a seat in the next several months. But with its vision of the Founding Fathers as a group of eager immigrants, the musical has new resonance for an age of Republican xenophobia. It should be required viewing for Cruz and Trump.
2. KING CHARLES III
A play about the British royal family could be pop culture kitsch. William and Kate onstage! Harry partying with a commoner!
But the drama, set just after the current queen dies, owes more to Shakespeare than to OK! magazine. Tim Pigott-Smith gives one of the great performances of the year as Charles, trying to find meaning in the throne he is about to ascend.
The language is elegant (written in iambic pentameter), and the themes resound of Hamlet and King Lear with a hint of Richard II. The plot of Charles throwing the country into political chaos hasn’t happened yet—but watching, you’re convinced that it very well might.
3. A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE
If playwright Arthur Miller could watch this production of his 1956 play, he would probably say “So that’s what it’s about!”
Brilliant Belgian director Ivo van Hove—who also collaborated with David Bowie on Lazarus at New York Theatre Workshop--stripped the tale of illicit love and betrayal from its Brooklyn roots and made it as universal as Greek drama.
Playing Eddie, a dockworker over-involved with his teenage niece, actor Mark Strong has a classic strength and simmering sexuality that reaches everyone in the audience.
Van Hove finds a hint of homosexual yearning in Eddie that Miller (married at the time to Marilyn Monroe) may or may not have intended. It adds to the pounding tension that builds all night. Even if you know the ending, the shower of blood that ultimately rains on the huddled cast is both shocking and exactly right.
What They Did For Love
4. THE COLOR PURPLE
In this sleek, stylized production, Jennifer Hudson plays the sexy and glamorous Shug Avery, whose love saves the lead character Celie, played by the terrific Cynthia Erivo, from a life of incest and domestic abuse.
The savvy staging by director John Doyle relies on wooden chairs and a few yards of fabric for props—and the story needs nothing more. Celie’s transformation rings true, and the ringing, gospel-inflected songs trumpet the resurgence of hope, love, and self-esteem.
5. SPRING AWAKENING
When this show first came to Broadway (less than a decade ago), the music was loud, the sex edgy, and the story of teenage frustration and repression shocking. This revival from Deaf Theater West rounded some of the harsh edges, with both deaf and hearing actors taking the parts and sharing in the music.
The sign language becomes almost like a dance, and the passion feels softer and more innocent. But the confusion of teenage love is no less intense and the outcome still heartbreaking.
Carey Mulligan and Bill Nighy played former lovers (Kyra and Tom) in David Hare’s moving play of love, class, and politics.
A year after his wife dies, rich restaurateur Tom comes back to get the younger mistress he always loved. But ensconced in a small, squalid apartment, she wants to keep her moral superiority.
Mulligan, who shimmered in movies like The Great Gatsby, found strength in her character’s stillness, while Nighy was all action, movement, and power. Their chemistry was so palpable that even cooking together felt like high drama.
7. FUN HOME
This astonishing autobiographical musical is about—like the graphic novel that inspired it--lesbian cartoonist Alison Bechdel, and her growing up in a funeral home with a suicidal, closeted dad.
It is brave, brilliant, and was rightly laureled at the Tonys. The soaring music and touching book impress and move audiences of all ages, as the heroine (played by three actresses at different ages) grapples to understand love and family.
After her first sexual experience, “Alison” dances around her dorm bed with confusion, joy, and exhilaration singing “I’m changing my major to Joan.” We’ve all been there (or wish we were).
It was a significant moment indeed when young “Alison,” played by Sydney Lucas, sang ‘Ring of Keys,’ the show’s amazing song about fledgling lesbian awareness and longing, at the Tonys.
8. THE KING AND I
How do you bring back a show that many people know from their high school productions? Director Bartlett Sher had luminous actress Kelli O’Hara—who seems strong and confident even in a bustle—to make the old seem new again. When she asks the king, played by Ken Watanabe, “Shall we dance?” you can feel the monarch’s heart melt along with your own. The rancor of a cultural clash--and the king’s bafflement at the need for change—have a contemporary resonance too.
9. SOMETHING ROTTEN
Set in the 1590s (the opening number is called “Welcome to the Renaissance”), this endlessly clever send-up follows two hapless playwrights trying to create the first musical.
They are out to compete with hotter than hot Shakespeare—played as a sexy rock star by actor Christian Borle. (In one song he laments “It’s hard to be the Bard.”) The over-the-top parody is outrageously funny in Act One and eventually loses some steam—but it never fails in its goal of providing a good time.
10. FINDING NEVERLAND
Why did critics hate this one so much? The perfectly put together musical is charming and romantic with a dash of humor, a touch of magic, and a poignant ending guaranteed to bring a tear.
Glee star Matthew Morrison plays Peter Pan creator JM Barrie, and though he leaves in February, the show has the style—strong book, lovely music, many flourishes—that will thrive with any cast. As with Wicked, audiences love it—so trust them.