New York theater in 2015 has been a year of hope and fear; of Spring Awakening and Misery; a year with three different new plays about British royalty on Broadway, and the year when a musical about an American revolutionary — an American original — reigned over all.
2015 was the usual star-studded affair, with Broadway debuts of Jennifer Hudson, Keira Knightley, Marlee Matlin, Clive Owen, George Takei, Bruce Willis. But New York stages also seemed unusually inclusive, of characters and performers who’ve been pushed to the margins of society — so many shows involving transgender characters, for example (some portrayed by transgender performers) that it felt like a trend.
— George Takei (@GeorgeTakei) December 8, 2015
Attention was paid to the work of Arthur Miller on the centennial of his birth, and to the plays of A.R. Gurney on his 85th year, but there were many we’d never heard from before. And of course, for better and for worse, much New York theater news happens nowhere near a stage.
Below are some of the top New York theater news stories of 2015, and some of the weirdest theater stories of 2015. Sometimes it’s hard to distinguish between the two. There are also some of the people that the theater community lost this year. The stories are offered chronologically by month, and paired with some articles that I wrote each month.
Some 265 performers over 60 hours starting New Year’s Day helped the Metropolitan Room to break the Guinness World Record for the longest variety show ever.
It was the last public appearance of long-time talk show host and theater district fixture Joe Franklin, who served as MC. He died three weeks later at age 88.
Masked terrorists killed 12 people in the offices of the satirical French newspaper Charlie Hebdo, prompting a worldwide artistic response. The year began and ended in terror.
The “Blizzard” of 2015
The forecast of a “crippling and potentially historic” snow storm turned out to be inaccurate, at least for New York City. But public officials had put so many restrictions on travel – the governor shutting down the entire subway because of the threat of snow for the first time in its 110-year history – that all Broadway performances were canceled for Monday, January 26.
Hamilton opens Off-Broadway at the Public Theater on February 17. A hit praised by both Sondheim and Lloyd Webber, President Obama and former Vice President Dick Cheney, it will not only be the most celebrated musical of the year, but one of the cultural phenomena of 2015.
Broadway Girl unmasks herself
Not the last of the popular anonymous theater Tweeters to go un-anonymous this year. Laura Heywood certainly made up for lost time:
Lincoln Center announced that it would rename Avery Fisher Hall after the entertainment mogul David Geffen, because he agreed to give $100 million to renovate it.
Oprah Winfrey changed her mind about appearing in Marsha Norman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play ‘night, Mother because “I’d like something with a happier ending.”
— E Vincentelli (@EVincentelli) March 3, 2015
In honor of π day/ pi day (3.141592653589793238462643383279502884197169399 etc.) on March 14th, the Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time offered a lottery for tickets costing $3.14
RIP Gene Saks, actor and director of 33 Broadway shows, best-known as Neil Simon’s director, at age 93.
Between Riverside and Crazy written by Stephen Adly Guirguis won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The production that starred Stephen McKinley Henderson, one of the foremost interpreters of August Wilaon’s plays, was unusual in that it transferred from one Off-Broadway theater to another.
Second Stage at long last closed the deal to buy the Helen Hayes Theatre for $24.7 million, making it the fourth nonprofit to own a Broadway house.
Hand To God, one of the 14 (!) shows opening on Broadway during the month, had as its initial marketing campaign “No movie stars, no London transfer, no film adaptation, pray for us.”
Theater artists and disabled activists debated whether an autistic actor should have been considered to portray Christopher in the Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
RIP Judith Malina, co-founder of the Living Theater, age 88.
RIP Julie Wilson, a seven-time Broadway veteran (Pajama Game, Kismet) who went on to a stellar career in cabaret.
Many of the theater awards presented this month showed great love for Hamilton; it got a record-breaking ten Lucille Lortel Awards honoring Off-Broadway shows, for example. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical was not nominated for any Tonys, however, because the producers decided not to transfer it to Broadway until the summer, after the Tony eligibility cut-off date.
Among Miranda’s personal honors was his selection as Commencement speaker at his alma mater
Robert DeNiro was also invited to be a Commencement speaker, at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. “Tisch graduates, you made it,” he began “And you’re f—ed.”
In what was described as “virtually unprecedented in the history” of Actors Equity Association, an incumbent president was defeated in May. Kate Shindle, the new Equity president, is a Broadway veteran as both a performer and producer, a licensed real estate agent, and the former Miss America.
RIP Anne Meara, 85. Best known as one half the comedy duo of Stiller and Meara and as Ben Stiller’s mother, she also performed in the original Off-Broadway production of the John Guare play The House of Blue Leaves; starred in her own television series; performed in five Broadway productions, including Eugene O’Neill’s Anne Christie and Brecht’s The Good Women of Setzuan; guest-starred or was a regular on dozens of television series; became an award-winning playwright
Fun Home won five of the 12 Tony Awards for which it was nominated, including Best Musical. Curious Incident won five of the six Tonys for which they were nominated, including Best Play.
Much criticism of the broadcast. Each Best Musical nominee got more time to perform on the 2015 Tony Awards broadcast than all the Best Play nominees combined. Playwright Lisa Kron’s Tony acceptance speech for Fun Home was not even televised
The Dramatists Guild wrote a protest letter to CBS about major Tony Awards for writing being presented off-camera.
The Supreme Court decision allowing same-sex marriage in all 50 states was greeted with euphoria by many in the New York theater community (but not all.)
Audra McDonald: “I feel like any second we are gonna see Justice Ginsburg come out of the building on a rainbow clad motorcycle and ride into the sunset.”
Lea DeLaria: “Now I too can get drunk in Las Vegas and marry a hooker in the Elvis chapel.”
Larry Kramer: “There is too much work yet to be done to be able to look back and congratulate anyone.”
Gloria, a play depicting a mass shooting opened Off-Broadway the same day in June that there was a mass shooting at a church in Charleston, S.C. At a eulogy for the slain minister, President Barack Obama sang Amazing Grace, the song that was the inspiration for the musical of the same name that opened (and closed) this year on Broadway.
“Bombshell,” the fictional musical about Marilyn Monroe that was at the center of the backstage TV series “Smash,” actually made it to Broadway in June, as a one-night only concert at the Minskoff Theater reuniting the principal cast.
RIP Dick Van Patten, age 86, Best-known for his TV role as father in Eight is Enough, which ran on ABC from 1977 to 1981,
he made his Broadway debut at age eight in a musical by Kurt Weill; at 13, he was in the cast of Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth, along with Tallulah Bankhead, Frederic March and Montgomery Cliff; at 17, he performed on Broadway as the teenage son of characters portrayed by Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne; he performed in “Mister Roberts,” starring Henry Fonda. By 1974, he had performed in 20 Broadway productions.
Hamilton began its performances in Broadway’s Richard Rodgers on July 13th, with a lottery – ten dollars for front-row seats at every performance. more than 700 people entered the lottery. The lottery acquired a name #Ham4Ham (translation: a Hamilton – ten dollars – for Hamilton.) #Ham4Ham soon grew into its own innovation, because Miranda organized short and varied performances before each drawing. #Ham4Ham has been called the best entertainment on Broadway this year.
Getting a charge out of Hand to God: 19-year-old theatergoer Nick Silvestri attempted to charge his cell phone in the fake electrical outlet on the set of Hand to God. This garnered international attention. Set designer Beowulf Boritt’s reaction to Charge-Gate: “It’ll keep me from ever putting a toilet on stage.”
Silvestri offered an awkward apology in front of a bank of microphones outside the Booth Theater at a well-attended press conference.
Later in the month, during a performance of Shows for Days , Patti LuPone snatched the cell phone out of a theatergoer’s hands. “I am so defeated by this issue that I seriously question whether I want to work onstage anymore,” she said in a statement released to the press.
The Shubert organization has renamed The Little Shubert Theater, its only Off-Broadway house, which it built in 2002, Stage 42
RIP Theodore Bikel, 91. Folk singer and character actor, he originated the role of Captain von Trapp in “The Sound of Music” on Broadway and starred in “Fiddler on the Roof” onstage in thousands of performance. “I prefer to make common cause with those whose weapons are guitars, banjos, fiddles and words.”
E.L. Doctorow, 84. Author of a dozen novels, he’s best known for Ragtime, made into a musical
RIP Roger Rees, age 71. A familiar face on television — he was the snobbish Robin Colcord on “Cheers” and the eccentric British ambassador, Lord John Marbury, in “The West Wing,” — Rees made his mark as a theater artist of great energy and inventiveness. He wowed New York audiences in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s marathon adaptation of Charles Dickens’ novel “The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby,” for which he won the 1982 Tony for best actor in a play. He was last on Broadway this year in The Visit with Chita Rivera.
Changing My Major from Fun Home goes on network television, albeit late night
Hamilton opens on Broadway to even bigger raves than Off-Broadway. It literally sets off fireworks – the producers paid for a fireworks display over the Hudson.
Although there is more nudity on Broadway stages than on Broadway, the mayor and the police commissioner, goaded by several days of front-page headlines in the Daily News, are determined to do something about the dozen or so women who call themselves #Desnudas and parade around in the Times Square plazas wearing little more than body paint.
“I’d prefer to dig the whole damn thing up and put it back the way it was”-NYPD Commissioner Bratton on Times Square pedestrian plazas
The announced forthcoming season at MTC provoked protest for its lack of female authors and people of color. “These are really respected artists,”Zakiyyah Alexander, a member of the Kilroys, was quoted as saying. “It’s not their fault that they have been put in the position to only be surrounded by white male playwrights.
RIP Kyle Jean-Baptiste, 21. Hired recently as an understudy, he became the youngest and first black actor to play Valjean in Les Miserables on Broadway. He died on August 29 after falling from a fourth-story fire escape in Bedford-Stuyvesant.
— Lin-Manuel Miranda (@Lin_Manuel) August 29, 2015
Four theater artists, including Lin-Manuel Miranda, receive the 2015 MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Award, which gives each $625,000 over the next five years to do with as they wish.
Mamma Mia had its, um, Waterloo, after 14 years and 5,765 performances. Reasons why even fans need not feel sad about this:
Still playing in UK
Worldwide gross: $2 billion
Seen by 54 million in 400 cities
The Catholic Archdiocese of New York’s Sheen Center for Thought and Culture had its official grand opening,, followed by weeks of inaugural events
Hedwig and the Angry Inch on Broadway, closed after 22 previews,506 regular performances, and six Hedwiges
Denzel Washington said he will direct and produce all 10 of August Wilson’s American Century Cycle plays (also known as the Pittsburgh Cycle) for HBO, one per year, over the next decade. He will also star in one of them, Fences, with Viola Davis, reprising the role both played on Broadway in a 2010 production directed by Kenny Leon.
Campaign begun by Leah Nanako Winkler against New York Gilbert and Sullivan Society’s Mikado “in yellowface” at the Skirball Center resulted in the society cancelling the production, and replacing it with the Pirates of Penzance.
Show-Score, a new review aggregation site, debuted My review page
— New York Theater (@NewYorkTheater) September 15, 2015
The Signature Theatre (of Arlington) retaliates, promoting their production in December of West Side Story: “Don’t let the Jets get in the way of the Jets!”
RIP Dean Jones, Bobby in the original production of Sondheim’s Company, 84.
The Rockefeller Foundation announced it would subsidize 20,000 11th graders from New York City schools to see “Hamilton” on Broadway for $10, supplemented by a curriculum created around the show.
Theater composer Andrew Lloyd Webber pledged $150,000 for musical instruments in 20 NYC public middle schools
The Broadway League announced BwayZone.com, a new interactive website designed to attract children aged 8-13.
Eighty playwrights signed a letter to the theater editor of the New York Times asking him to restore the names of the designers of a show in the newspaper’s reviews and listings. The paper eventually did so.
First School of Rock, then The Lion King, and then Google, have been experimenting with capturing live performance on 360 degree videos.
(Use the Chrome browser or it won’t work.)
The Hamilton album was released in stores, becoming Number 1 on the Broadway chart No. 3 on the rap chart and No. 9 on the top 200 chart — the best debut of a Broadway album since Camelot in 1961. Miranda distributed the lyrics for free, and assigned yet another Twitter hashtag, #Hamiltunes.
RIP Brian Friel, Irish playwright, 86. His plays ranged over four decades from “Philadelphia, Here I Come!,” about an Irish man about to emigrate to America to the Tony-winning “Dancing at Lughnasa,” about a family living in genteel poverty in the 1930s, which became a movie starring Meryl Streep.
The Broadway opening this month of Allegiance, about the Japanese-American internment camps during World War II, and On Your Feet, about the life and career of Cuban immigrant entertainers Emilio and Gloria Estefan, and the Off-Broadway opening of Hir, by Taylor Mac, the latest play to feature a transgender character, portrayed by a transgender actor, reflect what seems to be a growing inclusiveness on New York stages.
The second annual #LoveTheatreDay took place on November 18. It was no clearer what you’re supposed to do on this day than it is every World Theatre Day on March 27th, which has been around since 1961.
— Hillary Clinton (@HillaryClinton) November 11, 2015
A presidential candidate quoted a Broadway musical. (When’s the last time that happened?)
— New York Theater (@NewYorkTheater) November 1, 2015
Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda, in the time between performances on two-play days, wrote the music for the “cantina scene” in the new Star Wars, The Force Awakens – a fact that caused the Internet to explode, with Hamilton/Star Wars mashups using the hashtag #Force4Ham.
— New York Theater (@NewYorkTheater) December 1, 2015
Movie studio Broad Green announced plans for a movie of the life of Tennessee Williams, based on John Lahr’s biography
Disturbing (amusing) poll conducted by Public Policy Polling: 30 percent of Republican and 19 percent of Democratic voters supported bombing (Aladdin‘s fictional) Agrabah
Much hubbub over playwright Dominique Morisseau’s piece in American Theatre Magazine about encounter with a white woman audience member, who gave her spare tickets for free, but then asked her to quiet down during the performance. The essay drew 256 comments before the commentary section was closed. It’s entitled Why I Almost Slapped a Fellow Theatre Patron, and What That Says About Our Theatres, and subtitled “How a seemingly normal night at the theatre led to an altercation with a patron over microaggressions and white privilege.”
The Wiz Live, the third year in a row that NBC has broadcast a Broadway musical live. What’s different this time, however, is that director Ken Leon plans to bring the production to Broadway next year.
The Ambassador Theatre Group (ATG), the British-based live-theater company that bought (and renamed) the Lyric in 2014, announced it would turn The Hudson, built on 44th St. in 1903 as a Broadway theater but converted in 1994 for conferences, into the 41st Broadway theater.
A change in the tax code passed by Congress means that investors in Broadway and live theater productions will be given the same benefits that have long been afforded to TV and film productions.
Annoying Actor Friend
— New York Theater (@NewYorkTheater) December 9, 2015
An Associated Press article quoted Twitter as saying that the musical Hamilton had generated a million Tweets.”Twitter said the show reached a million tweets thanks to users using the groupings #HamiltonMusical, @HamiltonMusical, #Ham4Ham, #Hamiltunes and @Lin_Manuel.” General fan reaction: I did my part!.
— Jena Tesse Fox (@JenaTesse) December 22, 2015
525,600 retweets. How do you measure, measure a year…? HAMILTON: Double it.
— AnnoyingActorFriend (@Actor_Friend) December 23, 2015
“We keep writing plays because we hope our fondest hopes and darkest fears are universal, and can help bring us together”~ playwright Doug Wright