“What's the buzz?,” the apostles ask in Jesus Christ Superstar, and the theatre buzz just didn't stop during the 2015-2016 season. Here is the top stories of the year, as determined by our news staff:
One of the gaudiest onstage/offstage media carnivals in a generation has surrounded Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical Hamilton, which reimagined the American Founding Fathers as multi-ethnic rappers. It was not just the top story of the year but could constitute a Top-10 of Hamilton-related news stories all on its own. The subject matter seemed endlessly fascinating to audiences, critics, politicians (of all stripes) and the media in general. First, there was the fact that tickets sold out almost instantly and became Holy Grails, even as the prices rose, both in the legitimate market and among scalpers. Then there was the story of the cast album, one of the best selling in years, the first Broadway cast album to top the rap charts. And then there was the seemingly endless cascade of awards (Pulitzer, Grammy etc.), the appearances on talk shows, the celebrities in the audience, the #Ham4Ham concerts, the presidential visits, the precedent-setting agreement to share the profits with the cast, the inspiring story of the alternate surviving cancer, the internet parodies of the opening number, the publication of the libretto, the planning of an all-star mixtape, the saving of the design of the $10 bill simply because Alexander Hamilton’s picture was on it and the record 16 Tony Award nominations. And throughout it all, there was the sight of Miranda rapping seemingly everywhere, being told by everyone what a Genius he was, and getting offer after offer of work, including two Disney projects. Heck, as of June 1, even the show’s softball team was undefeated in the Central Park Broadway League. Yes, there was a Hamilton sports story. There came a day when Playbill.com’s news schedule had six breaking Hamilton stories on it. Six.
Cellphone Madness/Audience Misbehavior
But there was one week in August when Miranda was not the biggest star on Broadway. The biggest star was Nick Silvestri, a college student from Seaford, Long Island who took it into his head to climb onto the stage of the Booth Theatre and plug his cell phone charger into a socket on the set of Hand to God. Not to be upstaged by an amateur, Broadway diva assoluta Patti LuPone made headlines days later by snatching a cell out of the hands of an audience member at her Off-Broadway play Shows for Days. The fourth wall was Swiss cheese as far as audiences were concerned this season. Misbehavior continued with people bullying a disabled child at The King and I, shouting proposals and flinging a bouquet onto the stage during a performance of Thérèse Raquin, and endlessly taking extended talky phone calls at quiet moments in shows across town. One tipsy patron who needed to use the ladies’ room decided the best way to do it was to cross the stage during a performance and use the one backstage. Finally, even Miranda himself got into the act, tweeting out his disapproval of people who had fought to get into Hamilton, but then spent the show on their cell phones.
Broadway Is Cool Again
After decades on the outskirts of American culture, Broadway roared back in again in a big way. Broadway songs, shows, quotes and personalities seemed to be everywhere this season. Part of the phenomenon was the embrace of theatre by the mass media. Audiences got to see The Wiz Live! and Grease: Live TV specials, met stars on every talk show, heard show tunes on Top 40 radio, watched politicians quoting shows…. And seemingly everyone from 9 to 90 was playing that Hamilton cast album.
Biggest Season Ever
It should therefore come as no surprise that Broadway had its biggest season in history at the box office. It sold the most tickets (13,317,980) and earned the most money ($1.373 billion) in history. The only numbers that were down were the average price of tickets (yes, they actually went down this year for the first time in recorded history, to $103.11, from $104.18), Hamilton notwithstanding. Though the number of Broadway productions was slightly down—39 shows opened, versus 40 or more in recent seasons—Broadway attendance bested those of ten professional New York and New Jersey sports teams combined. The top grossing show of the season? No, not Hamilton. It earned only $74 million, in fifth place. The season’s box office champ was the 18-year-old The Lion King, with $102.7 million.
Broadway got to feel a little bit smug during the #OscarsSoWhite protest campaign over the lack of diversity in this year’s Oscar nominations. While Broadway, like most of American culture, still has a long way to go, Broadway was celebrating its most diverse season in years. Allegiance told a compelling story about Asian-Americans during World War II, a largely Latino cast told a story of coming to America in On Your Feet!, black actors were employed and black stories were told in Eclipsed, The Color Purple, The Gin Game, Hughie and Shuffle Along; multicultural actors were showcased in Hamilton; Deaf and hard-of-hearing actors transformed Spring Awakening. Diversity came backstage, as well, with an all-female creative team assembling Waitress, and designers including Anita Yavich, Clint Ramos, Suttirat Anne Larlarb, Emilio Sosa and Toni-Leslie James among those making headway in the design departments.
The Birth of the Digital Lottery
Rent started it all 20 years ago when it began offering front-row tickets at a deep discount, primarily with students in mind, available only through a lottery conducted in front of the theatre each afternoon. Soon, the daily lottery gatherings became social events in front of theatres across Broadway. But, after this year, those gatherings may become history. Starting with Hamilton, many shows are now conducting their lotteries online. You type in your name on a website in the morning, and by afternoon you get an email letter you know if you are a lucky winner—or if you have to buy a ticket another way. Thanks to the wonder of the web, apps quickly sprang up that would apply for you automatically. Hamilton still runs an in-person lottery on Wednesdays, but those gatherings are slipping into history.
Allegiance and George Takei
Takei, the stoic onetime Mr. Sulu of the Star Trek franchise, revealed a new side of himself in recent years, coming out as a gay, starting a witty political blog that repeatedly attacked presidential candidate Donald Trump and telling the world the terrible story of how he and his Japanese-American family were forced into American internment camps during World War II. He doubled down on the surprise when he announced his desire to see his family’s story on stage, and as a musical. Co-starring Lea Salonga and Telly Leung, Allegiance opened in the fall.
Big-Star Shows Got Panned
Movie stars in limited runs of stage classics is usually a recipe for big business, glowing reviews and piles of Tony Awards. But not this season. Hollywood heavyweights Al Pacino (China Doll), Bruce Willis (Misery) and Forest Whitaker (Hughie) attracted attention mainly from gossip columnists, and all three were greeted by varying degrees of critical hostility. In the case of Hughie, the production had to cut short its already planned limited run. However, fans of Pacino didn’t care what the critics had to say, and turned out in such numbers that the production ended in the black, one of only a handful of shows to do so by the end of the season.
Le Bataclan Shooting
The world recoiled November 13, 2015 when terrorists seized this Paris Theatre, opened fire on the crowd and indiscriminately massacred concertgoers as part of a systematic attack on the city. It left 129 people dead and more than 300 injured. Life gradually returned to normal and performances resumed in the weeks afterward, though with new security measures in place. Security was heightened in Times Square and Broadway theatres, as well. The sight of armed soldier guards and extra police mingling with the costumed Elmos and Mickey Mouses (Mickey Mice?) became the new normal. Which brings us to...
The number of costumed characters and ”desnudas” (women wearing only body paint on their upper halves) thronging the pedestrian plaza of Times Square became overwhelming. They sometimes became overly aggressive when competing for “tips” in return for photographs with tourists, and in late spring the New York City Council voted to create regulations about where, when and how they can operate. Those regulations are being formulated and are expected to be put in place during the coming season.
In partnership with Playbill, Mischeif Management hosted a three-day festival of cosplay, seminars, Broadway celebrities and frenzied showtune singalongs, received as the experience of a lifetime for fans from across the country. It also welded the 6,000 attendees into a wackyweekend family thanks to an untimely blizzard that marooned everyone in a midtown Manhattan hotel with no one but the likes of Adam Pascal, Faith Prince, Michael Cerveris, Bartlett Sher and the cast of Hamilton to keep them company.
Grim Reaper Works Overtime
The last few weeks of 2015 and the first few weeks of 2016 took an unusually heavy toll on theatre folk. In short order we lost Elizabeth Swados, David Bowie, Beth Howland, Brian Bedford, Patti Duke, Ken Howard, Omar Sharif, Herb Braha, Ezio Petersen, Myra Carter, Robert Stigwood, Patricia Elliot, Edmund Lyndeck, Robert Horton, Robert Dahdah, Warren Manzi, James Noble, Shawn Elliott, David Margulies, George Gaynes, Wayne Rogers, Martha Wright, Richard Libertini and Abe Vigoda (for real, this time). Theatre folk met their ends in strange ways all season long. Kyle Jean-Baptiste of Les Les Misérables fell off a fire escape, Japanese actor Daigo Kashino was killed by prop samurai sword and Italian actor Raphael Schumacher died on stage during a botched hanging scene.
Steve Martin’s Broadway Debut
The wild and crazy guy with the prop arrow through his head in the 1970s morphed into a movie star and playwright in the 1990s and 2000s. In 2016 he transformed again, this time into a Broadway composer and librettist. Working with Edie Brickell, he wrote the Tony-nominated score for the musical Bright Star, drawing on the friendly country sound of the banjo (and other stringed instruments) that had been part of his act since the early days. Martin also earned a Tony nod for his Bright Star book.
Ambassador Group Expands Beachhead
The London-based Ambassador Theatre Group showed its determination to become a player in the highly exclusive club of New York theatre-owners, first by buying the Foxwoods Theatre on West 42nd Street and restoring its original nam:, the Lyric. It then announced that it was acquiring the old Hudson Theatre on West 43rd Street, used for many years as a hotel meeting facility, with promises to restore it as a legitimate house. It was also reported to have its eye on the last unrestored old playhouse on 42nd Street, the Times Square Theatre.
Musical Chairs at the Top of Regional Theatres
Dozens of regional theatres across North American had something in common this season: new faces in the artistic director’s office. Signature Theatre Company, LCT3, Actors Theatre of Louisville, the Guthrie Theatre, Pasadena Playhouse, Geva, Bailiwick Theatre, Syracuse Stage, Arkansas Rep, Victory Gardens Theatre, Lookingglass, and even the august Theatre Communications Group all saw changes at the top this season.
Broadway Theatre on the Rise
Literally, as it turned out. The skyrocketing value of real estate in once-raffish Times Square prompted the Nederlander Organization to announce plans, not to raze the landmark Palace Theatre, but to raise it—by 29 feet to make room for retail space below it. The jacking-up project will have to wait until current tenant, An American in Paris, closes later this season. But the project has gotten most of the official permissions it sought and appears definitely to be moving ahead. Also planned for a major renovation, Broadway’s smallest theatre, the Helen Hayes on West 44th Street, which was purchased by the Off-Broadway Second Stage Theatre as a Broadway foothold, much as Manhattan Theatre Club did with the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, and Roundabout has done with the American Airlines, Studio 54 and Sondheim Theatres.
Many of these news stories will continue to generate headlines into the new season and beyond.