The Hamilton Juggernaut: In 2014, a culturally aware American would be forgiven for not knowing that much about Alexander Hamilton. The nation’s first Secretary of the Treasury was never the best known of America’s Founding Fathers. By the end of 2015, that same culture vulture would decidedly not get a pass at cocktail parties for not having a few Alex facts at his or her fingertips. That shift was entirely owing to Hamilton, the smash sensation rap musical about "the ten-dollar founding father without a father" by Lin-Manuel Miranda. The show, soon after opening in February to rave reviews at the Public Theater, graduated from mere hit to societal phenomenon. Plans for a Broadway transfer quickly materialized; the transfer to the Richard Rodgers Theatre happened in August, becoming the hardest ticket to land in town, with performances sold out from the get-go. Hamilton broke the mold for what "successful" meant for a Broadway show. The show didn’t just land a recording deal; no, it netted "The Tonight Show"’s Questlove and Black Thought to produce the original cast album. The album, when released, posted the highest debut on the Billboard charts for a cast recording since 1963; it climbed the rap music charts as well — at number three! Hamilton didn’t just see celebrities in its audience, but also admiring rap stars and political bigwigs — including Vice President Joe Biden, President and First Lady Barack and Michelle Obama. Miranda was invited by J.J. Abrams to contribute music to the new "Star Wars" movie — the other cultural juggernaut of the year. At the end of the year, Twitter — which Miranda had mastered prior to the show’s debut—announced that Hamilton had inspired more than one million tweets during 2015. It was just the kind of headline that only Hamilton could have inspired. Put simply, Man, the man is non-stop.
Patti LuPone, 1; Cell Phones, 0: The use of cell phones in theatres, and the noise they make, has been a scourge of quiet-seeking casts and audiences for more than a decade now. Most actors grin and bear the intrusions. Some pause until the interruption passed. But others make more of a point of their irritation. Under the latter category of player you can include the fearsome diva Patti LuPone, who this past July starred in Douglas Carter Beane’s new comedy Shows for Days. During the July 8 performance, the heedless, never-ending texting of a young lady in one of the front rows interfered with LuPone's work. Having had enough of this behavior, LuPone, just before an exit, snatched the phone out of the stunned theatregoer’s mitts and disappeared. LuPone’s actions — and overall stance on atheatre decorum — made national headlines, from the New York Times to People magazine to ABC News. Twitter gave her a standing ovation. The next day, she issued a statement that read, in part, "We work hard on stage to create a world that is being totally destroyed by a few, rude, self-absorbed and inconsiderate audience members who are controlled by their phones… I am so defeated by this issue that I seriously question whether I want to work on stage anymore."
Shocking Death of a Young Star: Kyle Jean-Baptiste began his Broadway career with a big name. The graduate of Baldwin Wallace University had been cast as the understudy for the leading role of Jean Valjean in the current Broadway version of the musical Les Misérables. Jean-Baptiste was the first African-American actor to play the famous part. It was further remarkable in that, at 21, Jean-Baptiste was also the youngest performer to play the role. On Aug. 29, an unthinkable tragedy struck. Following an evening performance, he tumbled from a Brooklyn fire escape and died. The cast of Les Miz, and Broadway in general, reacted with shock and disbelief. The Mackintosh Foundation — the philanthropic organization created by Cameron Mackintosh to promote and develop theatrical, musical and dramatic arts — made a substantial gift to the actor’s alma mater. The exact sum was not revealed; however, the scholarship fund at Baldwin Wallace surpassed $130,000 in September according to a release from the school.
The Wiz Was a Wiz at Ratings: In what has become annual national tradition, NBC, presented a live production of the musical The Wiz on Dec. 3. The production starred such name performers as Queen Latifah, Mary J. Blige, David Alan Grier, Ne-Yo and original The Wiz star Stephanie Mills. As usual, the enterprise was produced by the team Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, who brought live musical theatre back to the small screen two years ago with the airing of The Sound of Music. For this turn, Kenny Leon directed and Harvey Fierstein adapted the book for television. The show did well with viewers. Led by newcomer Shanice Williams in the role of Dorothy, the broadcast was seen by 11.5 million viewers, averaging a 3.4 rating among adults 18-49. In comparison, last year's Peter Pan Live! scored a 2.3 rating. Next up for 2016’s holiday season is Fox's Grease: Live.
Women Get Their Due at the Tonys: Every few years, a woman theatre artist wins a Tony outside of the usual actress categories and it makes news. But nothing beat 2015 for female triumph. The trove of awards taken away by the musical Fun Home including a Best Book of Musical prize for Lisa Kron and a Best Original Score statue for Kron and Jeanine Tesori. Together, they represented the first all-female writing team to win for a musical's score in Tony history. Also, Marianne Elliott won for her direction of the play The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. In her acceptance speech, Elliott said, "When I was growing up, I didn’t know any female directors, I assumed you had to be a man." Though is was a cinch a woman would win for Leading Actress in a Musical, it was satisfying to see Kelli O’Hara finally victorious in her sixth nomination, for The King and I. Soon, it seems, women will win so often in all categories that stories like this will become unnecessary.
Marriage Equality: The Supreme Court’s landmark June 26 ruling that effectively made marriage equality the law of the land was, not surprisingly, enthusiastically welcomed by the theatre community, where equality among straight and gay members has long been a hallmark. It seemed, to many thespians, that the rest of the nation had finally caught up to the open-mindedness of the stage world. As performer Dale Soules put it to Playbill.com, "Way back in 1962, the theatre community and its acceptance of who and what I was really saved my life. I am so happy that this acceptance has now been extended in a legal way to everything in America by this historic decision." Twitter, of course, exploded with reactions from stage professionals, while comments complimented the wisdom of Justice Anthony Kennedy, who penned the majority decision. Other tweets crowing about the triumph of love over hate came from the likes of Harvey Fierstein, Paula Vogel, Neil Patrick Harris, Ian McKellen and Kristin Chenoweth. Emotional curtain speeches were given by stars of the shows It Shoulda Been You and Kinky Boots. The former offered a buy-one get-one-free ticket deal for couples, be they gay or straight, in honor of the decision.
Directors Guild Controversy Over Casting: A war of words erupted in November over the issues of race and casting in plays. The matter at hand was not the usual plea for color-blind casting, as it has often been in the past, but rather the flip side of the issue, of "casting a character outside his or her obvious race, gender or implicit characteristics," without the author’s permission, as the Dramatist’s Guild put it. The spat began when playwright Lloyd Suh discovered that Clarion University in Pennsylvania, which was producing his play Jesus in India, had cast white actors in roles written for actors of South Asian descent. Suh demanded the roles be recast. When the university protested that it was too far into rehearsals to recast, Suh withdrew his permission for the play to be mounted. "As a writer of color in a field where representation and visibility are ongoing struggles," Suh said, "I feel a responsibility to provide opportunities for artists of color to be seen." Suh's actions come in the wake of a Kent State University production of The Mountaintop that double-cast the lead role of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with both a black and a white actor. Katori Hall, the writer of that work, wrote an essay decrying the production. The Dramatists Guild stood behind its members. On Nov. 18, president Doug Wright issued a position paper that said, in part, "Play licenses clearly state that 'no changes to the play, including text, title and stage directions are permitted without the approval of the author' or words to that effect. Casting is an implicit part of the stage directions; to pretend otherwise is disingenuous… when a play is still under copyright, directors must seek permission if they are going to make changes to the play, including casting a character outside his or her obvious race, gender or implicit characteristics. To do so without meaningful consultation with the writer is both a moral and a legal breach." All in all, another chapter in a debate that is unlikely to disappear anytime soon.
Ivo van Hove Has a Moment: In 2014, Ivo van Hove was just an intriguing Belgian director who brought his unorthodox interpretations of classics by Ibsen, Williams and O’Neill to New York Theatre Workshop every few seasons. In 2015, he solidified his name as a headline-making, citywide contender for director of the year. This past September, he started out by directing Antigone at BAM. In October, van Hove had his Broadway debut, bringing his London vision of Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge to town, winning as much acclaim as he had in the U.K. He followed that up with his Off-Broadway staging of Lazarus, the sold-out, much-hyped new musical with text by Enda Walsh and music by David Bowie. His golden New York season doesn’t end there. In 2016, he returns to Broadway with another Miller play, The Crucible. Four shows in one season...Vivo, Ivo!
Season of the Anti-Star: Put a Hollywood marquee name in a play and you can just spend your days counting the cash. That has been the going logic along Broadway for some time. But it didn’t seem to apply this year. The rule still held for some productions, such as The Audience starring Helen Mirren and the recent revival of The Elephant Man with Bradley Cooper. But other star vehicles struggled to command a crowd, including the recent productions of Misery starring Bruce Willis and the new David Mamet play China Doll headlined by Al Pacino. Meanwhile, shows with just the star power of their titles and reputation — like Hamilton, The Book of Mormon and The School of Rock — performed healthily. Certainly, Broadway hasn’t seen its last movie star. But perhaps its found a renewed faith in trusting the value of the material alone.