PLAYBILL PICKS: The Top Theatre Stories of 2013

By Robert Simonson
December 24, 2013

It was a year for seeing theatre in duplicate, for seeing theatre on all sides, for seeing theatre from Boston. It was a good year for Jason Robert Brown, Christopher Durang and The Public Theater, and a fantastic year for a guy named Bill Shakespeare. It was a year when the candlelit chandeliers went up and the big web came down. It was 2013. Playbill.com staffers put their heads together and looked back at the events of the last 12 months to choose significant events, people and trends that made headlines.



BIG BARD: More than any other season in recent memory, New York stages—on Broadway, Off-Broadway, in Brooklyn—were replete with titles by the Bard. And, not just productions—great productions, brimming with invention and expertise. The Public Theater furnished one of the more praised versions of The Comedy of Errors in many years, at the Delacorte; the Donmar Warehouse's all-female, prison-set Julius Caesar was presented by St. Ann's Warehouse; director Julie Taymor made a triumphant return to classical theatre with a visually stunning mounting of A Midsummer Night's Dream, which opened Theatre For a New Audience's new Brooklyn home; and the Shakespeare's Globe's all male, in-rep productions of Twelfth Night and Richard III, starring Mark Rylance as Richard III and Olivia (with all the actors in period-correct costuming, right down to their undergarments, and the musical accompaniment courtesy of medieval instruments, all under candlelit chandeliers) opened to raves on Broadway. Two productions each of the suddenly oft-produced Macbeth, at Lincoln Center Theater and on Broadway, and of Romeo and Juliet, on both Broadway and Off-Broadway, weren't as lucky with the critics. But for the Shakespeare lover, the year was one for the books.

Matthew James Thomas in Pippin.
photo by Joan Marcus

IT CAME FROM BOSTON: In her few short years at the helm of Boston's American Repertory Theatre, artistic director Diane Paulus has become the success story of the regional theatre, sending hit productions to Broadway at an alarming rate. Her controversial revamping of Porgy and Bess came first in 2012, followed this year by her acrobatic re-envisioning of the musical Pippin. Both did what shows are supposed to do on Broadway—win Tonys and recoup—in speedy fashion. Fall of 2013 saw the transfer of A.R.T.'s revival of The Glass Menagerie starring Cherry Jones (another critical hit). The LBJ play All the Way, with "Breaking Bad" star Bryan Cranston starring, arrives in spring 2014. The Boston Post Road hasn't gotten so much traffic since the stagecoach days.

IT'S BETTER IN REP: Repertory theatre, one of the oldest stage models in the books, became newly hot in 2013 courtesy of two British imports. Thanks to a raft of hosannahs from the critics, and double Tony winner Mark Rylance's pull with New York theatre audiences, the all-male, in-rep renditions of Twelfth Night and Richard III, from Shakespeare's Globe, have been beating them back at the box office. The double-bill of Beckett's Waiting for Godot and Pinter's No Man's Land, starring British stage royalty Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart, performed nearly as well with both critics and audiences. Both events illustrated that sometimes two shows are better than one. 

Original star Reeve Carney
Photo by Jacob Cohl

THE TANGLED WEB IS WOVEN NO MORE: It took three years, but those dire predictions Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark detractors made that the most beleaguered musical in theatre history would shutter at a great loss finally came true. In November, the multimillion-dollar musical, the most expensive in Broadway history, and a news magnet such as the theatre hasn't seen in a generation, announced it would close Jan. 4, 2014. Though the show was a good seller for a period of time—despite the hurricane of adverse press (actors injuries, set malfunctions, lawsuits, tell-all books, etc.) that swirled around it—tickets sales were less robust in recent months. The show was capitalized at $75 million. According to reports, it will have historic losses of up to $60 million when it closes. A Las Vegas mounting is planned for the future. Silver lining: Since the closing announcement, box-office sales at the Foxwoods Theatre have been brisk.

IT'S ALL AROUND YOU: Immersive theatre experiences—perhaps inspired by the ongoing success of the site-specific Macbeth spin, Sleep No More—enjoyed a banner year in 2013. Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812, Dave Malloy's critically acclaimed electropop opera based on a slice of the epic novel "War and Peace," moved from a summer run in the Meatpacking district to a supper club-style venue built especially for the production in the Times Square area. It has now been extended into 2014. Here Lies Love, the popular David Byrne-Fatboy Slim musical at the Public Theater, which took the political rise and fall of Filipino leaders Imelda and Ferdinand Marcos as its subject, encouraged audiences to wear a comfortable pair of shoes and dance during the performance, which was set within a dance-club atmosphere. And the Donmar Warehouse mounting of Julius Caesar ushered audiences en masse into a facility that resembled a prison. Each was Theatre with a capital "T."

BROWN COMES ROUND: Composer Jason Robert Brown's career, which has run hot and cold over the past 15 years, burned blazingly bright in 2013. His The Last Five Years was revived Off-Broadway by Second Stage. Honeymoon in Vegas, a new Brown-scored musical which has been knocking about for some years, received unexpectedly strong notices at its world premiere at the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey and is now aiming to play Broadway. Most significantly, The Bridges of Madison County, a new musical by Brown and Marsha Norman, set a Broadway opening of Jan. 17, 2014, at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre.

Shalita Grant and Kristine Nielsen in Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike.
Photo by T. Charles Erickson

DURANG GETS HIS DUE: Playwright Christopher Durang's career stretches back to the 1970s. He has received his share of critical and popular success, but the triumph of his comedy Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike in 2013 could nevertheless hardly be viewed as anything other than a well-deserved validation of the man's life's work. When the play opened at Lincoln Center's Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater in fall 2012, it got respectful reviews and enjoyed a healthy run. But when the play transferred to Broadway in March, however, something happened. Slowly and incrementally, it began to look like the play of the season. It won the Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding New Broadway Play, the New York Drama Critics Circle prize for Best Play, and, finally, the Tony Award for Best Play—the first such honor for Durang. As the icing on the cake, the Broadway production returned its investment.

BATTING 1000: It doesn't happen very often, but sometimes a theatre company hits a groove. The Public Theater did so this fall. Because the nonprofit produces so many productions every year, each Public season is almost by definition hit-and-miss. Not this time. Everything it threw on a stage— the Theatre for a New Audience co-production of Wallace Shawn's Grasses of a Thousand Colors; Elevator Repair Service's Arguendo; The Foundry Theatre's The Good Person of Szechwan; Mike Daisey's month-long series of monologues in Joe's Pub, All the Faces of the Moon; the new, world-premiere musical Fun Home; and the final edition of Richard Nelson's critically popular "Apple Family" plays—won the approval of the lion's share of critics. Sometimes, you just can't lose for winning.