Theater is “ephemeral,” says Maggie Smith – “every performance is like a ghost; it’s there and then it’s gone” – but a theater lover is for life. This helps explain my fourth annual Broadway gift guide, with information on theater tickets, theater subscriptions, play scripts, cast recordings and new and cherished books about the theater, as well as souvenirs and knick-knacks intended as tangible reminders of an evanescent experience.
Gift cards: Telecharge gift cards and TKTS gift certificates allow the theatergoers on your holiday list to pick their own show to go to (or several shows – depending on how much money you put on the card.)
If you know what specific show your theater lover would love, you can buy tickets for them yourself directly from the show’s website or from the box office.
Some popular Broadway favorites, most of which I also list on my post, Broadway’s longest-running shows and biggest hits;
THE BOOK OF MORMON
The Eugene O’Neill Theater
Opened: March 24, 2011
Director: Jason Moore and Trey Parker
Twitter feed: @BookofMormonBWY
This musical by Trey Parker and Matt Stone (book), the creators of South Park, and Robert Lopez, one of the composer-lyricists for “Avenue Q” (music and lyrics) is about both the founder of the Church of Latter-Day Saints and modern disciples. It is outrageous, irreverent in one way, but also deeply reverent to (even while parodying) the best traditions of the Broadway musical.
My review of The Book of Mormon: Ridiculing Religion, Worshiping The Great White Way
August Wilson Theater (245 West 52nd Street)
Opened: November 6, 2006
The story of the 1950′s-60′s singing group Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, whose hits include “December 1963 [Oh, What A Night]” (my favorite) as well as “Sherry,” “Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You,” etc.
Although the music is better known than the musicians, and yes there are almost three dozen songs in the show, the story of the group is better than most of those ‘Behind The Music’ documentaries.
THE LION KING
Minskoff Theater (200 West 45th Street)
Opened: November 13, 1997
Based on the 1994 Disney animated film about the coming-of-age of a young lion in the African jungle, this musical offers African-inflected music by Elton John, lyrics by Tim Rice and the visual magic of Julie Taymor. Taymor is the director, a composer and lyricist for some of the songs. But above all, she is the designer of the costumes, masks, and puppets — and it is these visuals that make this show a good first theatrical experience.
Shubert Theater, 225 West 44th Street,
Opened: April 11, 2013
The quirky musical, about a neglected little girl with extraordinary powers, is based on a cartoonishly dark, oddball 1988 novel aimed at children by Roald Dahl. There is much to like in what was unquestionably one of the best new musicals of the 2012-2013 season on Broadway (although it was neglected at Tony time.) “Matilda” offers dazzling stagecraft overseen by director Matthew Warchus, a faithful and intelligent book by David Kelly, and Tim Minchin’s clever lyrics. The production also, however, sometimes feels in need of a translator.
THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA
Majestic Theater (247 West 44th Street)
Opened: January 26, 1988
The Phantom of the Opera, based on a 1911 French novel by Gaston Leroux, is about a disfigured genius named Erik who lives in the catacombs of the Paris Opera House and falls in love with Christine, an aspiring singer whom he helps…until an old flame of Christine’s named Raoul steps back into the picture.
However, the story in the musical, written and composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber — with more than its share of 1980′s heavy power ballads — is starting to take second place to the story of the musical, which is the longest-running Broadway musical of all time.
Gershwin Theater (222 West 51st Street)
Opened: October 30, 2003
The musical tells the story of “The Wizard of Oz” from the witches’ perspective, more specifically from the Wicked Witch of the West, who was not, as a child, wicked at all, but just green-tinted, taunted, and misunderstood. There is so much to like about this musical, the clever twists on the familiar tale, the spectacular set, and music that is a lot more appealing in context (such as the song “Defying Gravity”) that I will forgive the contortions necessary to tack on a happy ending.
Ethel Barrymore Theater
Opened: Oct 05, 2014
Like the unusual character at its center, ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog In The Night-Time,’ a stage adaptation of a beloved book, overcomes a couple of daunting challenges to become…extraordinary…Marianne Elliott, the British director who last brought to Broadway the spectacular National Theatre production of ‘War Horse,’ works her magic again.
Here are some shows I’ve especially enjoyed that have opened on Broadway in 2015:
When Hamilton opened Off-Broadway in February, I called it groundbreaking and breathtaking – and I was trying not to gush…Analyzing the importance of ‘Hamilton’ misses the main takeaway from the musical: It’s thrilling to watch. It seems always in motion, thanks to a creative team including director Thomas Kail, and especially choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, who keeps the sexy ensemble very busy. They help enhance what are some terrific performances.
Fun Home’ is, yes, a musical about a lesbian cartoonist whose closeted father killed himself, but it is also about how we try to figure out the puzzle of our parents; about how we reassemble our childhood; about memory itself. It remains the inventive, entertaining, in places exhilarating, and almost inexpressibly heartbreaking show I saw Off-Broadway at the Public Theater a couple of years ago. And it is now one of those rare Off-Broadway musicals that actually improves when it transfers
“Robert Askin’s funny, filthy, violent and sensitive play is not a play for children. But it is a show for adults, with hints of psychological insights beneath the hysterical exterior…The triumph of “Hand to God” on Broadway is also a victory for Off-Off Broadway, where the show began, and it retains a quirky, raw, uncompromising quality more characteristic of its origins than its destination Please note two things; Bob Saget is now in the cast. The last Broadway performance is January 3, 2016.
By cleverly pairing deaf actors who are signing with hearing actors who are singing, Deaf West has made the show the most accessible on Broadway, but also forged it into something theatrically exceptional…That such a show should be so joyful and so beautiful — from the evocative lighting to the hand ballet of sign language by the entire cast — is itself a sign: Deaf West has done it right. This show is scheduled to run only through January 24, 2016.
Why does “An American in Paris” feel so fresh? First-time Broadway director Christopher Wheeldon has turned it into a modern ballet…it’s mesmerizing, unlike anything I’ve witnessed on Broadway before…While this is what makes An American in Paris special, it’s not the whole show. There are also traditional razzmatazz song-and-dance routines. There are scenes full of dialogue. There’s a plot. Some of playwright Craig Lucas’s choices are intriguing (some aren’t.)
From the very first moments of Lincoln Center’s ravishing ‘The King and I,’ it feels like a privilege just to be sitting in the audience. Each scene flows seamlessly, and splendidly, into the next, allowing for the breathtaking spectacle this musical deserves…
There are many superior shows Off-Broadway, although their generally shorter runs can be problematic when looking for a gift. Don’t forget the shows that have not yet opened, although let’s hope that your theater lover is adventurous enough to avoid blaming you for any disappointment.
The best thing about tickets is that this is a gift that gives pleasure twice – at the time you give it, and then when the theater lover actually goes to the show, which can be many months in the future.
Many theaters – the non-profit ones — offer subscriptions or memberships, which can be a wonderful gift that lasts an entire season…or a terrible burden for the increasing number of theatergoers who are commitment-phobic. (I’ve written a whole article about the waning popularity of theater subscriptions.)
Still, this can be the perfect gift for the right recipient if you pick the right theater, some of whom offer more flexible alternatives to subscriptions, such as flex passes and memberships.
My favorite is Playwrights Horizons
Here are others listed alphabetically. (I’ve had a membership/subscription to each one of these at one time or another. ) One of the problems you will see when you click on the links is that the subscriptions to some of these theaters this season are already sold out. (You might be able to purchase memberships for next season.)
The Brooklyn Academy of Music, which makes it easy to buy a purchase of gift membership.
PLAYS, SCRIPTS, BOOKS
There are some wonderful evergreen, expensive gift ideas. My favorite:
August Wilson’s complete 10-play Century Cycle, which includes such gems as “The Piano Lesson,” “Fences,” “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” – one play for each decade of the twentieth century, which together offer a compelling look at African-American life through the eye and ear of one of the nation’s greatest dramatists.
Stephen Sondheim’s two-volume collection of his lyrics, Finishing The Hat and Look, I Made A Hat, a collection of lyrics , anecdotes, fascinating scholarly notes, and strong opinions from the composer and/or lyricist of such seminal musical theater as “West Side Story,” “Gypsy,” “Company,” “Sweeney Todd,” “A Little Night Music,” “Assassins.”
The downside, besides the expense, is that anybody who would die to get these as gifts probably already owns them.
A less expensive alternative are such perennial reference books as “Broadway Musicals Show by Show” by Stanley Green, now in its eighth edition, and a new, slim guide to Sondheim by Ethan Mordden:
Some of the big theater books this year:
The three-volume set of Arthur Miller’s plays — 42 in all — from the Library of America, especially appropriate because this year marks the centennial of his birth.
This beautiful book offers many of the movie and theater illustrations by the best-known Al Hirschfeld, who lived to 99 and whose name is up in lights on Broadway (a Broadway theater is named after him.)
Bryan Doerries’s well-written book chronicles his work with his company Outside The Wire presenting plays, primarily those by Sophocles, Euripides, and Aeschylus, to help specific audiences grapple with trauma, much of it related to violence— —soldiers, prison guards, survivors of domestic violence, and of torture.
I reviewed five books about Broadway earlier this year that you might want to take a look at. My two favorite were
AMERICAN MUSICALS: THE COMPLETE BOOKS AND LYRICS OF 16 BROADWAY CLASSICS, 1927-1969
BLACK BROADWAY: AFRICAN AMERICANS ON THE GREAT WHITE WAY
My suggestion if you wish to select as a gift a script or a theater or entertainment book is to check out The Drama Book Shop, at 250 West 40th Street, which has generally friendly, knowledgeable staff, and is one of my favorite hang-outs in the theater district (I should point out that I don’t drink.) Its hours are from Monday—Saturday,11:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m., Thursdays until 8:00 p.m. They also have a website from which you can order.
Another excellent place for scripts is Samuel French, the “definitive” publisher of plays and musicals in English – mostly in relatively inexpensive “acting editions.” Also now available are “e-plays” and cast recordings. You can visit at 45 West 25th Street, but it’s not a place to hang out. Their redesigned website has some cool features: Click on “Now Playing” and you will get to a map showing the location of current local productions of the plays it has published.
Applause Theatre and Cinema Books closed their bookstore on the Upper West Side, alas, but remains a publisher of quality theatrical books, which you can order online.
The online bookstore of Theatre Communications Group offers some wonderful plays it publishes.
For what it’s worth: the top ten best-selling TCG books for October 2015
Bookstores in Theaters: Some of my favorite theaters also have books for sale, mostly scripts of the plays they have produced. These include both Signature and Playwrights Horizons , as well as Soho Rep
Broadway Records offers the Broadway cast recording of Matilda, Side Show, and this year The Wiz Live (the NBC broadcast), as well as wonderful live performances of such Broadway stars as Patti LuPone, Aaron Tveit, Norbert Leo Butz and Laura Benanti at 54 Below.
(A night at 54 Below itself, “Broadway’s supper club,” would make a nice present.)
Sh-K-Boom/Ghostlight — Their releases run the gamut, Aladdin, Beautiful: The Carol King Musical, Bridges of Madison County, Daddy Long Legs, First Daughter Suite, Fortress of Solitude, Something Rotten, The Last Five Years (available as original cast album, 2013 Off-Broadway cast album, and movie soundtrack)
Masterworks Broadway, a division of Sony Classics, offer Kinky Boots, as well as The King and I with Yul Brynner, and the 1949 recording of Kiss Me Kate, and the original 1992 recording of Kander and Ebb’s Kiss of the Spider Woman, and lots of albums that don’t begin with the letter K, including the A-list album An American in Paris.
For an extravagant gift, they sell Broadway in a Box – The Essential Broadway Musicals Collection — 25 (!) CDs of original cast recordings, from Annie to West Side Story.
Atlantic Records, not normally in the original cast album business, is the company that put out the best-selling Hamilton album — and devotes a page to Hamilton allowing you to listen to the music on various formats, and download the lyrics.
— posters, CDs, t-shirts and knick-knacks (magnets, mugs, keychains, etc)
Each Broadway show offers a range of merchandise that you can buy at the theater itself and in gift shops in the theater district, and online at each show’s website, as well as on a variety of sites, for example at the Playbill.com store.
A good place to purchase some of these is Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, which has an online store using the logos and/or program covers from the best-known Broadway shows for everything from umbrellas and clocks to iPhone covers and shower curtains to Christmas ornaments. Proceeds from their products help the needy.
One gift that BC/EFA is offering for sale this year is a collection of 14-cd cast recordings from the 2014-2015 Broadway musical season, including An American in Paris, Doctor Zhivago, Finding Neverland, Fun Home, Gigi, Honeymoon in Vegas, It Shoulda Been You, The King and I, The Last Ship, On the Town, On the Twentieth Century, Side Show, Something Rotten! and The Visit.
I may actually spring for the Broadway 2016 calendar (I didn’t last year), even though only a third of the shows whose posters they feature are currently running, and most of the others are not what I consider classics.
But musicals aren’t only on Broadway. There’s a 2016 movie musical calendar:
And why limit to American musicals, screen or stage? The Royal Shakespeare Company is selling a cool-looking calendar this year
They also offer a set of “insult badges” taken directly from the works of William Shakespeare.
(This is exactly the sort of gewgaws you can find at the Drama Book Shop)
The full quote from King Lear is actually :Thou art a boil, a plague sore, an embossed carbuncle in my corrupted blood.” But I suppose that’s too long for a button.
Playbill binder, to put your programs in. Maybe one of these days I’ll actually get one of these.