Many of the same stories that were writ large across America also came home to roost on stages and backstages of American theatre. While it was certainly a year people still craved news about Hamilton and newcomer Dear Evan Hansen, other trends and narratives took their places in stage headlines. These are the eight most impactful stories and buzzed-about topics in theatre from the year 2017:
WOMEN MAKE HISTORIC MARKS
Women artists made important strides on Broadway this year; not just as actors, but by pulling the levers of power as producers, directors, and writers as well.
Lynn Nottage became the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for a second time. She won for her play Sweat, about the testing of friendships among a group of blue-collar workers when their company begins layoffs. Nottage had won the prestigious accolade in 2009 for her play Ruined, about women trying to survive amid the chaos of civil war in Africa’s Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Several benchmarks were set by Paul Vogel’s and Rebecca Taichman’s Indecent, which told the story of an ahead-of-its-time 1923 play about lesbian love. Indecent was the first Broadway production for Vogel, who had previously won the Pulitzer Prize for the Off-Broadway How I Learned to Drive. In June, Taichman became only the sixth woman to win the Tony Award as Best Director of a Play, for her work on Indecent. The show had been scheduled to close in June after a disappointingly brief stay on Broadway, but it was rescued and prolonged by female producer Daryl Roth, who added six weeks to the run and oversaw its filming by BroadwayHD for broadcast on PBS November 16.
And Bette Midler seemed to own Broadway with her revival of Hello, Dolly!, which won four Tony Awards including Best Revival of a Musical and Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Musical (Midler). The show regularly sold more than $2.4 million worth of tickets weekly for much of 2017—second only to the grosses for Hamilton.
Casting controversies whirled around the U.S. this year. The highest-profile controversy in theatre surrounded the replacement casting of the role of Pierre in the Broadway musical Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812. Grammy nominee Josh Groban opened the show in the role of Pierre, which continually helped buoy the show’s box office. After earning a Tony nomination, Groban departed the cast July 2 and, following an interim stint from the show’s writer Dave Malloy, Hamilton alum Okieriete “Oak” Onaodowan, who is black, assumed the role for a limited run. Originally scheduled to take over the role July 3, he stepped in July 11.
But despite 12 Tony nominations (the most for any show in 2017) and two wins, the show’s box office plunged after the departures of Groban and another pop singer, Ingrid Michaelson, who had joined the cast as Sonya from July 3–August 15. In an attempt to keep the show running, producers arranged for Tony winner Mandy Patinkin to step into the role of Pierre for a three-week run. Onaodowan was asked to step aside—though producers hoped he would return after Patinkin’s appearance. (Onaodowan later said he would not return to the production.) Here’s where things got problematic.
Theatregoers and members of the Broadway community turned to social media to express outrage that a black actor was being asked to surrender a role to a white actor. This turn of events was frustrating for the show’s creators, who had earlier won the 2017 Extraordinary Excellence in Diversity on Broadway Award from Actors Equity for the show’s multi-ethnic casting. Not wanting to take the role from Onaodawan, Patinkin withdrew.
“My understanding of the show’s request that I step into the show is not as it has been portrayed and I would never accept a role knowing it would harm another actor,” Patinkin wrote. “I hear what members of the community have said and I agree with them. I am a huge fan of Oak and I will, therefore, not be appearing in the show.” With no sufficiently prominent actor apparently willing to step into the fray, and Onaodowan declining to return, the Broadway run at the Imperial Theatre ended September 3 after 32 previews and 336 regular performances.
POLITICS IN THEATRE
The Washington, D.C., administration of onetime Broadway producer and now U.S. President Donald J. Trump, was as controversial on Broadway as it was elsewhere. Perhaps nowhere moreso than when liberal activist and filmmaker Michael Moore used his one-man Broadway show, The Terms of My Surrender, as a more or less nonstop assault on Trump and his political allies. After the August 15 performance of the show, Moore invited members of that day’s audience to join him in a march on Trump Tower, Trump’s skyscraper and private home located several blocks east of the Theatre District. The president apparently noticed. After the show ended its scheduled limited run on October 22, Trump tweeted “While not at all presidential, I must point out that the Sloppy Michael Moore Show on Broadway was a TOTAL BOMB and was forced to close. Sad!”
On the opposite side of the political spectrum, Hillary Clinton became a frequent theatregoer, attending performances of Sunset Boulevard in February (where she received a standing ovation), In Transit, and Dear Evan Hansen among others. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also visited Broadway, taking in, with Ivanka Trump, the March 15 performance of Come From Away—set in his country’s Newfoundland. The Prime Minister gave a pre-show speech to mark the occasion.
THREATS TO THE NEA
Among the Trump administration's most controversial steps—at least in the world of the theatre—was the announced intention to de-fund the National Endowment for the Arts, on which many not-for-profits, especially regional theatres, depend to close gaps in their operating budgets. The announcement brought a quick appeal from 12 theatre unions including Actors' Equity, and protests from Broadway actors, aimed at saving the NEA. After several weeks of back-and-forth, the House of Representatives Appropriations Committee proposed a $5 million cut to the NEA budget, but preserved the existence of the endowment itself.
BEN PLATT’S RISING STAR
Most people who start out in show business wouldn’t dream of winning the Tony Award as Best Actor in a Leading Role in a Musical before they’re 25. Ben Platt, who earned that accolade before he turned 24 on September 24, lived the dream this year as star of the virtually custom-written musical Dear Evan Hansen, which also won the Tony as Best Musical of 2017. Platt had already made his Broadway debut in 2011 as one of Josh Gad’s replacements in the lead role of Elder Cunningham in The Book of Mormon.
Platt, who played Benji Applebaum in the Pitch Perfect films, grabbed plenty of gold rings this year on top of his Tony, including the Drama League’s Distinguished Performance Award (the youngest performer ever to do so), an Obie Award, and a Lucille Lortel Award, as well as earning the title of People magazine’s Sexiest Broadway Performer, and landing on the lists of Time 100’s Most Influential People and Entertainment Weekly’s Entertainers of the Year. On September 7 he also announced that he’s signed a contract with Atlantic Records.
As 2017 comes to a close you have to wonder: What's next?
PASEK & PAUL’S JUBILEE YEAR
Also living the dream this year: songwriting team Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. As mentioned above, their Dear Evan Hansen won Tonys for Best Musical and Best Original Score. Their 2016 movie musical La La Land won them the Golden Glove and the Oscar for Best Score with Justin Hurwitz—they were also nominated for the song “Audition” in the same category. Their 2012 Broadway musical A Christmas Story The Musical became the 2017 live television musical event of the holiday season, and their original film musical about P.T. Barnum, The Greatest Showman, opened in cinemas across the country December 20. They have already earned a Critics’ Choice Movie Award nomination and Golden Globe nomination for Best Song and Best Original Song, respectively, for Showman’s “This Is Me.”
CONTINUED PROLIFERATION OF LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA
The big story in 2016 was the non-stop news machine known as Hamilton. While the musical itself seems to have settled in for its long run, creator and original star Lin-Manuel Miranda continued to make headlines with a series of projects in 2017. He started the year with both the Hamilton cast album and the all-star spinoff Hamilton Mixtape on the charts, the latter at No. 1. The Hamilton cast album was certified triple-platinum (sales of three million copies) in March. Though he decided to drop plans for a Hamilton Mixtape 2, Miranda began releasing Hamilton singles. The first single, “Ben Franklin's Song” , was recorded by The Decemberists.
On the producing front, Miranda announced he would produce and write music for the television series adaptation of the Kingkiller Chronicles. In October, producers announced Showtime had picked up the series. There is also word that a feature film adaptation and a potential stage production could come down the line.
Miranda spent weeks in London filming Mary Poppins Returns, in which he plays the featured role of Jack the Lamplighter, then returned for Hamilton's U.K. premiere December 21. Back in the U.S., Miranda announced that he would return to the stage in December 2019 to star in the Puerto Rico production of Hamilton.
While Miranda spent the year investing in and working on future projects, the accolades continued to pour in. He earned an Emmy nomination for his guest spot hosting Saturday Night Live. His 2016 movie Moana earned him a 2017 Academy Award nomination and Golden Globe nomination for Best Original Song “How Far I’ll Go.” (He lost both to Pasek and Paul.) He earned a 2017 nomination for Outstanding Producer of a Non-Fiction Television special for the documentary Hamilton’s America by the Producers Guild of America. He won the Dorian Award for Wilde Artist of the Year, the Imagen President’s Award, the Latin Grammy President’s Merit Award, and the Anthony Quinn Foundation Award.
CONTINUED CROSSOVER OF MUSICAL THEATRE AND THE MAINSTREAM
Mainstream media continued its embrace of Broadway, especially musical theatre, with film adaptations of musicals of obscure Off-Broadway work Hello Again to full-scale original film musicals like The Greatest Showman. The 2016 movie musical La La Land was considered a strong contender for the Best Picture Oscar, but wound up losing that category to Moonlight, though it did win five including Best Actress to Emma Stone and Best Original Score to Justin Hurwitz, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. More theatrical productions saw cinematic release through National Theatre Live (Follies, Angels in America), Fathom Event showings (Newsies The Musical), Live from Lincoln Center’s Falsettos, and more.
But the big screen is one part of the renewed focus on theatre. TV talk shows and scripted TV series couldn’t get enough. Rachel Bloom’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend on The CW continued to include Broadway-style song parodies in virtually every episode. Many long-running series, like Supergirl and The Flash, varied viewers’ diet with musical episodes. BroadwayHD captured multiple Broadway and Off-Broadway productions, including Indecent, Present Laughter, and more for broadcast as part of PBS’ Great Performances series. The Late Late Show with James Corden lured viewers into the post-midnight watching hours with “Crosswalk The Musical,” in which he led abbreviated versions of multiple Broadway musicals in the middle of a busy Los Angeles street. And PBS’ Great Performances capped the year hosting four concerts with Broadway stars, including Leslie Odom, Jr., and Sutton Foster, for broadcast in 2018.
The Greatest Showman star Hugh Jackman talks about gaining more musical theatre fans from the mainstream: