Big politics, big money, big stars, and big new media collided on Broadway during the year 2016, as live theatre took its place at the nation’s cultural grown-up’s table in a way it hadn’t in more than a half-century. While it was certainly a year filled with Hamilton, other trends and narratives dominated stage headlines. These are the 12 most impactful stories and buzzed about topics from the year 2016 as chosen by Playbill.com:
1. All Hamilton All the Time
Though the musical phenomenon Hamilton opened in 2015, it continued to spin off news stories, often several a day, for most of 2016. Among the biggest items:
The spring awards season began with Hamilton winning the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and the Grammy for Best Musical Theatre Album, and then came the Tony Awards. Hamilton received the most Tony nominations in Broadway history (16), but won only 11 (including Best Musical), leaving it in second place overall to The Producers, which had won 12 categories in 2001. The departure of author/star Lin-Manuel Miranda and much of the original cast on July 9 was big news when tickets for that final performance were sold for nearly $10,000 apiece. PBS’ documentary about the show’s creation, titled Hamilton’s America, became big news when it premiered in a cinema in Washington Heights, near Miranda’s home. The adjacent neighborhood of Hamilton Heights became big news when property values went through the roof for homes near Hamilton’s, which has been preserved as a museum. The Hamilton Mixtape, an album of Hamilton songs performed by pop stars, became big news when it shot to the top of the Billboard Top 200 chart the first week of its release. Miranda himself used his platform to appear in campaign fundraisers and urge America to vote. He continued to remain at the forefront of the media as her released videos, rapped on talk shows, and announced a new project, seemingly, every other day. His Disney musical Moana opened in the fall to big box office and it was announced that his upcoming projects include acting in sequel to the Disney classic Mary Poppins, as well as adapting Kingkiller Chronicles. Aside from its creator, the show entered national media and when cast member Brandon Victor Dixon delivered a statement from the company to Vice President-Elect Mike Pence at the November 17 performance he attended. (See “Broadway Gets Political” below) All of this and more was announced, followed, and debated on the Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat accounts of the show, its stars and its fans, ad infinitum, around the clock.
Some 4,000 theatre fans from across the country and around the world descended on the Hilton Hotel in New York City, adjacent to the Broadway theatre district, for the inaugural BroadwayCon. The three-day festival of stars, singalongs, performances, and panel discussions with some of the top people in show business. The whole project looked like it might get buried in a blizzard that shut down much of New York City, but the show went on and those who participated wound up with Woodstock-like legends of getting “stuck” in a luxury hotel, rubbing elbows with some of the biggest names on Broadway.
The trend toward embracing Broadway-style musicals on television accelerated this year. The CW hit big with an entirely musical series, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, while three full-scale made-for-TV Broadway musicals broadcast on network television. Following last year’s The Wiz Live!, NBC produced the live musical television event Hairspray Live! starring original Broadway Edna, Harvey Fierstein. Before that, Fox remade the 1975 film (based on the 1974 Broadway musical) The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do the Time Warp Again as a pre-taped endeavor. But the highlight of the year, as least as far as ratings were concerned, was the January production Grease: Live! produced by Marc Platt and directed by Thomas Kail, starring Julianne Hough, Aaron Tveit, Vanessa Hudgens, and Carlos PenaVega. The broadcast won five Primetime Emmy Awards including Outstanding Special Class Program, Production Design, Lighting Design, and Outstanding Directing. The soundtrack album rose to No. 37 on the Billboard 200 chart and topped the top Album Sales chart.
4. Four People of Color Sweep All Musical Acting Tony Awards
In the wake of the #OscarsSoWhite protest against the lack of diversity at the Academy Awards and in Hollywood films in general, four black actors won all four musical acting categories at the 2016 Tony Awards. The medallions went to Daveed Diggs of Hamilton (Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical), Renée Elise Goldsberry of Hamilton (Best Performance by a Featured Actress in a Musical), Leslie Odom, Jr. of Hamilton (Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical), and Cynthia Erivo of The Color Purple (Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical).
On the morning of June 12, while most of Broadway was getting ready to celebrate the biggest night of the year, the 2016 Tony Awards, word came through that a mass shooting had taken place at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, FL. It would be the worst mass shooting in U.S. history. The Tony Awards immediately sprang into action dedicating that evening’s ceremony to the victims, their families, and the entire Orlando community. Several of the evening’s winners mentioned the event during their acceptance speeches. Three days later, members of the community gathered once again, this time at Avatar Studios in Manhattan and in recording studios in Miami and Los Angeles. More than 60 stars raised their voices for “Broadway for Orlando,” a cover of Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “What the World Needs Now is Love.” It was made available for purchase with 100 percent of the proceeds from the digital download going to benefit the LGBT Center of Central Florida.
Master songwriter Andrew Lloyd Webber completed his Broadway comeback with the success of his new musical, School of Rock, which ran throughout the year and into 2017. Coupled with the long-running Phantom of the Opera (which celebrated its 12,000th performance November 28) and the midsummer revival of Cats, Lloyd Webber has three shows running on Broadway as 2016 comes to a close. He’s etting ready to add a fourth, a revival of Sunset Boulevard, in February 2017. But, it’s not the first time Lloyd Webber will have enjoyed this distinction. Phantom and the original production of Cats played simultaneously with Aspects of Love in the early 1990s and with Sunset Boulevard in the mid 1990s.
The most eagerly awaited Broadway production of the year was Shuffle Along, or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed, an exploration of the landmark 1921 musical Shuffle Along whose writers and stars were all African-Americans. With a creative team that included director George C. Wolfe and choreographer Savion Glover, plus a cast that top-lined Tonywinners Audra McDonald, Brian Stokes Mitchell, and Billy Porter, plus Tony nominees Brandon Victor Dixon and Joshua Henry, the modern-day production looked like it couldn’t miss. But the show struggled during previews and opened to mixed reviews. In announcing that the show would close after just 100 performances, producer Scott Rudin indicated that advance ticket sales softened with the news that McDonald would be out of the production owing to pregnancy. In the end, the promising show didn’t even record a cast album.
The Harry Potter saga of magical young witches and wizards (1997-2007) battling the forces of darkness seemed to conclude with publication the seventh novel in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. But author J.K. Rowling surprised and delighted fans when she pulled one more story out of her hat: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, a two-part stage play (co-written by Rowling, Jack Thorne and John Tiffany) that opened in London July 30, but not before the West End saw a frenzy of ticket-buying that reached Hamiltonian proportions, despite record-breaking ticket prices. The show is now being prepared for Broadway, but not before2018. The script, published in book form, became one of the top book sellers of 2016 in any category.
Broadway was scarcely immune to the storm of politics swirling around the 2016 presidential election. Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton’s team bought out a July performance of the megahit Hamilton as a fundraiser, then returned to the Main Stem in October for a full evening of star performances from Neil Patrick Harris, Andrea McArdle, Lin-Manuel Miranda and others as a Broadway concert fundraiser at the St. James Theatre, home of Something Rotten!
Tony winner Laura Benanti stopped Stephen Colbert’s talk show with a dead-on impression of President-Elect (then Republican candidate) Donald J. Trump’s wife, Melania.
Broadway grabbed center-stage in the election when the audience at Hamilton booed (and cheered) Vice President-Elect Mike Pence, upon his arrival in the audience that night. Brandon Victor Dixon, who plays Aaron Burr, addressed a statement to Pence during the curtain call, saying he spoke on behalf of “the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights, sir. But we truly hope that this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and work on behalf of all of us... this wonderful American story told by a diverse group of men, women, colors, creeds, and orientations.” Trump later tweeted that the speech had been inappropriate, because theatre “should be a safe place,” but Pence said he wasn’t bothered by the speech, and enjoyed the show. Dixon appeared on numerous morning talk shows to discuss the speech and politics.
10. Broadway Theatres Under Construction
The interior of Broadway’s grand old Imperial Theatre was drastically overhauled by designer Mimi Lien to suggest a multi-level Russian supper club for the immersive musicalNatasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812, which had previously played in a custom-designed tent Off-Broadway. The show is performed on various platforms and catwalks in what used to be the stage the pit, the orchestra section and even the mezzanine.
And it was not the only Broadway house feeling the tramp of construction crews. The Helen Hayes was closed the second half of the year while offices were demolished to make way for an expanded performing and audience space. The Hudson, which hasn’t been used as a Broadway house for two generations, was bought by the London-based Ambassador Theatre Group and was in the process of being restored for a spring 2017 re-opening.
Plans were announced for renovations to the Lyric (to accommodate the incoming Harry Potter and the Cursed Child), the Palace (to be raised in the air to make way for the street-level merchandise mart), and the long-closed Times Square Theatre. Lastly, as the massive Toys R Us toy store at Broadway and 44th Street was closed and gutted to be rebuilt as a clothing store, workers found the remains of the very first theatre built in Times Square, the Olympia, which was erected by Oscar Hammerstein I (grandfather of the lyricist) on that site in 1895.
11. Broadway on the Big and Small Screens
Broadway also made major inroads into the world of film this year. Companies like Fathom Events and BroadwayHD arranged with Broadway producers like Roundabout Theatre Company to make high-quality, multi-camera films of Broadway shows reaching the end of their runs, and screen them as special events in cinemas across the country. Among those screened this year were Broadway’s She Loves Me, Allegiance, Newsies, and, announced just before New Year, Holiday Inn will stream live on BroadwayHD andFalsettos will be captured in January 2017 for a future PBS broadcast. Some of the final performances of Hamilton with the original cast were also filmed, but no word so far on when or how they will surface.
Last year, everything that Hamilton author Lin-Manuel Miranda touched seemed to turn to gold. In late 2016, the focus shifted to the young songwriting team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. Their latest stage musical, Dear Evan Hansen, opened Off-Broadway in spring 2016 at Second Stage Theatre, where it quickly sold out and won accolades for its score and for the performance of its star, Ben Platt. Moving to Broadway’s Music Box Theatre in the fall, Dear Evan Hansen sold more than $10 million worth of tickets in its first week, and wound up on nearly every theatre critic’s Top 10 of 2016 lists. Then, week after week, headline after headline, their film musical La La Land and their stage musical Dear Evan Hansen seemed to race one another to the biggest accolades. Starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, La La Land was lauded as recalling the Golden Age of Hollywood musicals, and was named Best Film by New York Film Critics Circle, the Washington, D.C. Area Film Critics Association, and more, placing it in strong contention an Oscar nomination. Their other film project, songs for the animated film Trolls, also wound up on several Top 10 Movies lists. So what’s next for them? Another film musical, The Greatest Showman, starring Hugh Jackman, due in 2017.