“I just want you to pick the shows for me,” an out-of-town friend, planning a visit to New York, said to me recently, exasperated that I was trying to determine his taste in theater before making some recommendations.
This is the time of year when people turn their attention to Broadway, for two reasons — it’s the summer, a good time to visit New York; and their interest is piqued thanks to the annual three-hour TV commercial for Broadway known as the Tony Awards broadcast.
Below are some suggestions, listed alphabetically under several categories, starting with long-time hits. They are recommendations based largely on my taste.
FOUR LONG-TIME HIT MUSICALS
These musicals have proven to be audience favorites, but a caveat: The original casts have long since moved on.
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” and “Frozen” (music and lyrics) is about the founder of the Church of Latter-Day Saints and his 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
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.
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, and the most profitable. I find this show too loud and overwrought for my taste, but it is the one exception I’m making to the list of recommendations based on my personal taste, because it’s a tourist favorite, and admittedly visually stunning – people still ooh at the falling chandelier.
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.
FOUR GREAT NEW PLAYS
Broadway is full of “straight” (non-musical) plays, which don’t tend to have long runs and aren’t publicized as much, but can be more substantive, stimulating and satisfying (and less expensive.)
A DOLL’S HOUSE PART 2
John Golden Theater (252 West 45th Street)
Opened: April 27, 2017
The main pleasures in A Doll’s House, Part 2, are rooted in the chance to watch four accomplished performers in this compelling, and surprisingly humorous sequel to Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, written 138 years after that first play by Lucas Hnath, making his Broadway playwriting debut. Laurie Metcalf is magnificent as Nora, returning home 15 years after she left her husband and children, with an urgent ulterior motive, and encountering Chris Cooper as Nora’s husband Torvald, Jayne Houdyshell as her former nanny Anne Marie, and Condola Rashad as her daughter
Cort Theatre (138 West 48th Street)
Opened: April 18, 2017
There are many reasons to find deep satisfaction in Indecent, a fascinating backstage tale strikingly staged about a century-old Jewish drama entitled “God of Vengeance,” which featured a scandalizing kiss between two women that caused its Broadway cast to be prosecuted for obscenity. It marks the long-delayed Broadway debut of Paula Vogel, who at 65 is one of the theatre community’s most admired playwrights and playwriting teachers.
It is proof that a play can explore a range of frighteningly relevant issues and be simultaneously enlightening, moving and entertaining. There is so much delightful music in the show that it often feels like a musical.
Vivian Beaumont Theatre
150 West 65th Street
Opened: April 13, 2017
“Oslo” explores the little-known story of how a Norwegian couple instigated and pushed along the secret negotiations that led to the famous moment when Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat shook hands at the White House in 1993. The play offers a lucid refresher course on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, provides entertainment that is both surprisingly funny and suspenseful. It also leaves us with a sense that maybe even the world’s most unsettling situations can someday be settled.
Studio 54 Theatre (254 West 54th Street)
Opened: March 26, 2017
Playwright Lynn Nottage won this year’s Pulitzer Prize in Drama for this play about a group of friends and family members who hang out in a bar in Reading, Pennsylvania, which was identified in 2010 as the poorest city in America. Like Grapes of Wrath, it offers a devastating look at social and economic breakdown, told not with rants or statistics, but through a riveting tale about good people in a bad situation.
TWO BELOVED NEW MUSICALS
DEAR EVAN HANSEN
Music Box Theatre
239 West 45th Stree
Opened: December 04, 2016
Ben Platt gives an extraordinary performance as Evan Hansen, an anxious high school student with no real friends who becomes the center of attention when a classmate he barely knew commits suicide and, through a misunderstanding, people think that Evan was his best friend. Evan turns that misunderstanding into a lie, and the lie gets out of hand. The musical offers insights into an array of issues, from adolescent insecurity to the downside of social media, while keeping us emotionally engaged with the characters. The songs by Pasek and Paul are tuneful and deeply felt.
NATASHA, PIERRE AND THE GREAT COMET OF 1812
Imperial Theatre (249 West 45th Street)
Opened: November 14, 2016
They’ve made a party out of what looks on paper like unlikely material — a sing-through musical with an unwieldy title based on 70 pages of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. But Dave Malloy’s eclectic score is tuneful, the performances are terrific, and the stagecraft is groundbreaking. Director Rachel Chavkin and set designer Mimi Lien in particular deserve kudos for re-creating on Broadway something very close to the kind of immersive theater that’s lately been intriguing theatergoers all over the world. (Josh Groban as Pierre leaves in July.)
WHAT ABOUT GREAT CHOREOGRAPHY?
WHAT ABOUT HAMILTON?
I loved Hamilton, Off-Broadway , on Broadway and now with the new cast , finding it ground-breaking and breathtaking. You have to decide whether it’s worth spending the kind of money that it would take to get a ticket this summer — and not just from the resellers, but from the show itself, where top ticket prices are $849. My feeling is you shouldn’t need to choose between seeing a show and taking a trip to Europe.
There IS a daily lottery online where you can try your luck at snagging one of the tickets for only $10 (because Hamilton’s face is on the ten-dollar bill.)
WHAT ABOUT HELLO, DOLLY! AND COME FROM AWAY?
This is my taste, remember?
ON A LIMITED BUDGET?
There ARE ways to get affordable tickets to Broadway shows, especially if you are willing to 1. Wait until the day of the performance, and 2. Live with uncertainty. Getting tickets to a hit Broadway show for as little as $10 (and no more than $80) takes time, luck, knowledge and/or ingenuity. Most shows now have digital lotteries and “rush” tickets. For a show-by-show breakdown on the discounts available, check out Broadway for Broke People
DON’T FORGET OFF-BROADWAY
Some of the best shows on Broadway began Off-Broadway. Off-Broadway shows tend to be more adventurous and less expensive. But they also tend to have more limited runs, and be less publicized. Off-Broadway shows don’t get the attention they deserve. A willingness to hunt a little will pay off in a satisfying discovery, and bragging rights possibly for years to come.
To pick one current example of a terrific show Off-Broadway: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Sweeney Todd, Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s glorious murderous musical, began in 2014 in Harrington’s, one of London’s oldest working pie shops. An impressively detailed replica of Harrington’s has now set up shop Off-Broadway at the Barrow Street Theater, including the pies
More on Sweeney Todd (The show now has an All-American cast, led by Norm Lewis and Carolee Carmello.)
LOOK OUT FOR THE NEXT HIT
Check out my latest monthly calendar of openings to what’s newly available on Broadway, Off-Broadway and Off-Off Broadway.