Top 10 Lists of Top 10 Theater in 2021. Best NYC stage plays and musicals

The Broadway debut of “Trouble in Mind” some three decades after playwright Alice Childress’ death is the most popular choice among critics whose lists of top 10 New York theater for 2021 are featured below. This play is followed close behind in critical popularity by the Broadway revival of the Tony Kushner/Jeanine Tesori musical “Caroline, or Change” and the new rock concert/musical “Six.”

Six critics picked “Trouble in Mind,” though none explicitly ranking it as number one (Terry Teachout called it “a triumphant production, with a captivating performance by LaChanze. It is a play of real stature, one that I expect will henceforth be recognized as an American classic.”) Five critics listed “Caroline, or Change” in their top ten, Helen Shaw the only one selecting it as her number one choice (“Rueful, honest, funny, and grave — the musical’s status alone would make this revival important, but the Roundabout production also includes a world-beating set of performances..”) Five also picked “Six.” (Jesse Green: “Sometimes, when things look bleak, you just want a blast…the ideal way for the commercial theater to welcome us back into its brand-building, money-grubbing, confetti-shooting arms.”) Four critics apiece chose “Clyde’s,” “Dana H.” and “Lackawanna Blues.”

The top 10 lists this year require caveats that are almost as large as the ones for last year’s list of lists, when most choices from most critics were digital theater.

This year, the lists did largely keep to in-person stage shows. But it may be telling that some of the critics and publications that usually do annual best theater lists are not doing them at all this year. Critic Jan Simpson hasn’t even been writing many reviews in the months since in-person theater returned: “I haven’t really enjoyed most of what I’ve seen and who wants to naysay theater at a time like this…”

And few who have put a list together did so straightforwardly. We have broadened the definition of theater, or avoid ranking the shows, or in other ways subvert the format (the Implicit understanding of these lists is that the shows opened sometime during the year, but I included shows that had reopened.) We added sidebars (mostly of noteworthy digital theater) or subcategories or caveats, or confess we feel foolish making a list at all 

“It feels so 2019,” Peter Marks writes in the Washington Post. 

 “A ranking of the best productions of 2021 makes little sense in light of what we’ve been through, but there were memories that cry out for commemoration,” writes Charles McNulty of the L.A. Times in the intro to his list.

Given how strange and difficult the year, it actually says something that there was any kind of consensus at all.

Jonathan Mandell, New York Theater

  1. Season of Sondheim (Company)
  2. Hamilton, Hadestown (in other words, the reopened shows)
  3. Clyde’s
  4. Kristina Wong, Sweatshop Overlord
  5. Twilight Los Angeles: 1972
  6. Caroline, or Change
  7. Intar’s Micro Teatro Festival
  8. Ratatouille the Tik Tok Musical
  9. NY Pops Up
  10. Enemy of the People/Six

Jesse Green, New York Times

Merry Wives
Pass Over
What Happened? The Michaels Abroad
Sanctuary City
Is This A Room
Dana H.
Caroline, or Change
Trouble in Mind

Helen Shaw, Vulture/New York Magazine

  1. Caroline or Change
  2. Only an Octave Apart
  3. The Long Goodbye
  4. Lackawanna Blues
  5. Trouble in Mind
  6. Taxilandia
  7. Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992
  8. Six
  9. Rich Kids: A History of Shopping Malls in Teheran
  10. The Mother

Adam Feldman, Time Out New York

1. Dana H
2. Twilight Los Angeles: 1992
3. Company
4. Kimberly Akimbo
5.Trouble in Mind
6. Caroline, or Change
7. while you were partying
8. Clyde’s
9. The Lehman Trilogy
10.The Grown-Ups

Eben Shapiro, Time Magazine

Only an Octave Apart
Enemy of the People
Dana H. and Is This a Room
Assassins and Company
Caroline, or Change and Kimberly Akimbo
Trouble in Mind

Candice Frederick and Erin E. Evans, The Huffington Post

Merry Wives
American Utopia
Pass Over
Trouble in Mind
Nollywood Dreams
Lackawanna Blues
Thoughts of a Colored Man

Dan Rubens, Slant Magazine

Girl from the North Country
Kimberly Akimbo
Lackawanna Blues
Merry Wives
Morning Sun
Pass Over
Sanctuary City
Trevor the Musical

Peter Marks, Washington Post

Come From Away on the National Mall
Etta and Ella
Is This A Room/Dana H.
Tick, Tick…Boom
The Lehman Trilogy
Detroit ‘67
Macbeth in London

Terry Teachout, The Wall Street Journal

As usual, Teachout doesn’t go for a traditional top 10 list (this year he divides his choices into individual Tony-like categories, like best director and best individual performance) but you can squeeze it into a top 10 format for our purposes.
Mrs. Warren’s Profession
Lackawanna Blues
The Lehman Trilogy
Trouble in Mind

Charles McNulty, L.A. Times
Consider this a bonus list, because none of his 10 are New York stage productions, which is a sharp departure for him from previous years.
1. The Band’s Visit
2. Fake Friends’ This American Wife
3. The Fountain Theatre
4. Hamilton
5. Head Over Heels
6. Jordan Hull in Poor Clare
7. Adrienne Kennedy (specifically the Roundhouse/McCarter streaming festival of her plays)
8. Lizastrata
9. Romeo and Juliet (National Theatre film)
10. Stephen Sondheim (“His music lent aesthetic dignity to our collective grief, nowhere more movingly than when the Broadway community gathered in Times Square on the Sunday after his death to sing “Sunday” from “Sunday in the Park With George.” It’s only fitting that, in a year exploding with movie musicals, Steven Spielberg’s new “West Side Story,” part of Sondheim’s priceless lyric-writing estate, has become 2021’s 11 o’clock number.”)

†I wrote a separate list of my favorite performances of 2021, which included both 10 individuals, and 10 ensembles — a couple of the ensemble shows picked by other critics here as best all-around.

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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