As the year winds down, we at Playbill are taking stock of the moments, markers, and milestones for which we’re grateful. This year, there were historic wins, as well as a greater appreciation for theatre and theatrical talent in the mainstream—a trend we hope continues. Here are the top theatre things for which we give thanks in 2019.
1. We Marked 50 Years of PRIDE
This past June marked the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots and, with it, 50 years of Pride. On June 28, 1969, members of the gay community fought back against a police raid of the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village. During a typical raid, police line up patrons and female officers took customers dressed as women to the bathrooms to verify their sex. Any men dressed as women would be arrested. But that night, they refused. A crowd gathered and as police were pushing detainees into paddy wagons and the scene gained momentum until bricks flew through the window of the Stonewall. The theatre community celebrated along with the rest of the world when N.Y.C. hosted World Pride. and Michael Urie and Doug Nevin produced the first annual Pride Plays festival to showcase works about and by the queer community. In honor of the 50th anniversary and in support of LGBTQIA+ rights, Playbill redesigned its annual rainbow PRIDE logo to a rainbow brick wall.
2. Rachel Chavkin Became the 10th Woman to Win a Best Direction Tony Award
June also marked milestones at the 73rd Annual Tony Awards. Chavkin won her first Tony Award for her work on Hadestown. This was her second nomination, after her nod for Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812. Chavkin pushed the number of women who have won a Best Direction honor to double digits (this includes Best Direction of a Play and Best Direction of a Musical), and she is the first woman to win while pregnant. In her acceptance speech she said, “I wish I wasn’t the only women directing a musical on Broadway this season. There are so many women who are ready to go and so many people of color who are ready to go. This is not a pipeline issue. It is a failure of imagination by a field whose job it is to imagine the way the world could be.” While far too few women have won the award, the only way to make progress is one win at a time.
3. Ali Stroker Became the First Actor in a Wheelchair to Win a Tony Award
In 2015, Stroker made history as the first actor in a wheelchair ever to perform on Broadway as part of the cast of the Deaf West revival of Spring Awakening. (The Brooks Atkinson Theatre made backstage accessibility accommodations for the first time.) Stroker made her Broadway principal debut as Ado Annie in the 2019 revival of Oklahoma! from director Daniel Fish, and once again made history by winning the Tony for Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Musical. As she said from the stage at Radio City that night, "This award is for every kid who is watching tonight who has a disability, who has a limitation or a challenge, who has been waiting to see themselves represented in this arena — you are.''
4. Billy Porter Won an Emmy
The world has finally recognized the talent that is Mr. Porter. It all started at the Golden Globes, where he hit the carpet as a nominee for his performance as Pray Tell in FX’s Pose in the cape that swept the globe. Since then, Porter has been serving Internet-breaking looks—from the Siriano Oscars tuxedo gown to his unbeatable entrance as an Egyptian royal/deity at the Met Gala to his Tony Awards vagina-inspired look upcycled from the Kinky Boots show curtain. This year alone he has been honored by the National Association of Broadcasters; the Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles; named one of People’s Greatest Stars on Earth; and will receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. With his Emmy win, Porter made history as the first openly gay, black man to win in his category. Porter won a Tony Award for his performance as Lola in Broadway’s Kinky Boots in 2013 and starred in the 2016 Shuffle Along…., priding himself on authenticity long before it became a buzz word. He’s made no secret of the fact that he struggled earlier in his career and nearly left show business. But the world has wisened up!
5. Theatre Talent Writ Large Continued to Take Over All Corners of Entertainment
There seems to be more crossover between artistic mediums than ever before, and not just film and television stars hitting the stage. Theatre talent was recognized in the “mainstream” this past year. Mary Poppins Returns was nominated for four Golden Globes, including Best Picture Musical or Comedy and for star Lin-Manuel Miranda; the musical movie was also nominated for two Oscars. Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who got her start in theatre as an actor and playwright with solo show Fleabag saw her TV adaptation of the solo show win big at the Emmys shortly after she brought it to N.Y.C. And The Band’s Visit Tony winner Tony Shalhoub won an Emmy for his work on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel; Cherry Jones won for The Handmaid’s Tale; Crazy Ex-Girlfriend had Emmy wins for Choreography of a Scripted Series and Outstanding Original Music and Lyrics; Rent on Fox won in the Creative Arts categories; and Springsteen on Broadway, the Netflix special capturing the unique Broadway experience, beat out Beyoncé’s Homecoming for Outstanding Direction for a Variety Special.
Praise be to FX for greenlighting one of the most superb limited series in recent memory and one about two theatre titans. With theatre brains like Steven Levenson, Thomas Kail, and Lin-Manuel Miranda behind the wheel, the full team delivered an exceptional portrait of a marriage and creative partnership. Stellar performances by Michelle Williams, Sam Rockwell, Norbert Leo Butz, and a smorgasboard of Broadway names playing even the tiniest of roles made this series a theatrelover’s dream. And yet, even for those with no knowledge of Bob Fosse or Gwen Verdon, the series succeeded in captivating audiences and the attention of Emmy nominators. Fosse/Verdon garnered 18 nominations and four wins, including for Williams and musical director Alex Lacamoire. But the true triumph is in bringing the story of peak creativity to a wider audience and to giving credit to Verdon as a crucial half of the pair that changed theatre.
7. Off-Broadway’s Boundary-Pushing New Musicals
Off-Broadway has long been an arena for breaking new ground. This year, many of these daring new productions were new musicals. Dave Malloy’s Octet, an intimate a cappella musical (more choral than college), completed a sold-out run at Signature Theatre Center, exploring the pressing issue of addiction from a fresh perspective. Michael R. Jackson’s A Strange Loop musicalized the experience of a young black queer man writing an original musical about a young black queer man writing an original musical. Soft Power bowed at the Public and introduced a musical within a play. A daring political and culture satire, the musical also featured a 32-piece orchestra. And at LCT3, Grace McLean made her professional writing debut with In the Green, a genre-defining new musical about the early life of one of Medieval history's most powerful and creative women: Hildegard von Bingen.
8. And first revivals of old seminal works
Off-Broadway has also been a ground for important renewals. Ntozake Shange’s choreopoem for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf plays The Public Theatre—and recently announced its fourth extension through December 15—for the first time since it premiered there in 1976. The play subsequently debuted on Broadway that year, but has not played professionally in New York since. Similarly, María Irene Fornés’ critically hailed play Fefu and Her Friends opened November 24 at Theatre for a New Audience, the first and only New York professional production since 1977. Both shows feature casts of women owning their space in a way that still feels urgent.
9. Constitution Nation
Speaking of women owning their space, Heidi Schreck’s What the Constitution Means to Me took the theatre world by storm. After debuting at Clubbed Thumb’s Summerworks Festival, the play debuted Off-Broadway at New York Theatre Workshop before making a surprising commercial transfer to Broadway. But Schreck, as a writer and performer, and producers were onto something—as the box office proved. Constitution, with a cast of four and no “big names” attached, recouped its investment and is set for a national tour starring Maria Dizzia.
10. We Keep Re-Defining Broadway
What makes a Broadway show? Theatremakers have been pushing the bounds of the definition in the first half of the current season. David Byrne’s narrative concert experience American Utopia took over the Hudson Theatre. Derren Brown: Secret toys with questions of human behavior through mentalism and the art of reading people, rather than a dramatic storyline. The brainchild of Anthony Veneziale, Thomas Kail, and Lin-Manuel Miranda, Freestyle Love Supreme puts hip-hop improv at the Booth Theatre—proving that Broadway encompasses all genres of music and comedy. Not to mention, the rotating cast and potential surprise guests render Freestyle’s engagement more of a residency than a production. Then there’s the return of Slava’s Snowshow, reviving the art of clowning and spectacle on Broadway. The wider variety of entertainment speaks to the core of Broadway, meant to appeal to the broadest of audiences and offer something for everyone.
11. The Community Looked Ahead While Honoring the Past
We’re grateful that theatre has provided opportunities to remember where we came from while inciting progress. With this season’s two-parter The Inheritance, Matthew Lopez bridges the gap between the generation that lived through the AIDS crisis, the generation immediately following, and the generation coming-of-age now. The play swaddles us all as one community. Likewise, Sammi Cannold’s production of Evita for City Center was the first major production helmed by a woman—offering an entirely fresh and front-footed perspective while honoring the material of the 1978 production and the woman herself.