The Playbill editorial team kept busy in 2019, reporting the breaking, absurd, and heartbreaking stories from the heart of the theatre district. Take a look below at the news stories and trends that defined 2019:
Rent on Fox
With the new tradition of live, one-night-only television musical events, people have often wondered, “What if something goes wrong?” This year, we got an answer: The show must go on. With Fox's January 27 presentation of Rent, director Michael Greif and television director Alex Rudzinski proved that there are always contingency plans in place. When actor Brennin Hunt broke his foot during the Saturday dress rehearsal, the team sprang into action. The leads did not have understudies, but the broadcast did. The Saturday dress rehearsal was performed live and filmed in its entirety (live and without edits) in front of a studio audience. This uncut, unedited dress rehearsal is what Fox broadcast during the Sunday evening slot. Then, the final scene and “curtain call” performance of “Seasons of Love”—with original cast members Anthony Rapp, Idina Menzel, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Jesse L. Martin, Wilson Jermaine Heredia, Fredi Walker, and Taye Diggs—was broadcast live; audiences could see Hunt’s bandaged foot. Though the special was met with mixed reception, the special did rack up five Emmy nominations, including Best Variety Special (Live). Jason Sherwood’s production design for a variety special took home the trophy.
Casting Ushered in an Era of YouTube Stars and Jimmy Winners
When Rachel Zegler was announced to star in Steven Spielberg’s upcoming West Side Story movie, her name rang a bell, but not because she had been on Broadway. Zegler is a musical theatre YouTube star, belting Smash songs in a blonde wig, optioning up on “Shallow” in her bathroom, and channeling Christina Bianco. A fellow YouTube star, Mariah Rose Faith landed the role of Regina George in the national tour of Mean Girls, having already garnered a following as a Starkid and for her frequent covers. The Broadway production of Mean Girls will welcome YouTube star Cameron Dallas as the new Aaron Samuels. And less than a year after the Jimmy Awards crowned 2018 winners Andrew Barth Feldman and Reneé Rapp, both performers made their Broadway debuts in starring roles (Dear Evan Hansen and Mean Girls, respectively). These young performers all boast extreme talent, but the platforms present a new outlet for exposure and a proven following.
Netflix Announced Multiple Theatre-Related Titles
The 2010s opened the film and TV worlds to the power of streaming, and entertainment mogul Ryan Murphy assured theatre fans they won’t be left out. As part of his massive deal with Netflix, the producer announced film adaptations of The Boys in the Band and The Prom, as well as a limited series based on A Chorus Line. On top of that, he kicked off his Netflix roster with The Politician, starring Tony winner Ben Platt and his Dear Evan Hansen co-star Laura Dreyfus, and has Patti LuPone, Joe Mantello, Darren Criss, and more on deck for Hollywood. Also on the streaming service's docket: Ma Rainey's Black Bottom and 13.
50 Years Since Stonewall
2019 marked the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising, and the New York theatre scene paid tribute to the LGBTQ+ rights catalyst in various ways. At the Tony Awards, which took place just a few weeks before the anniversary, the red carpet was decorated with a backdrop of flowers in the pattern of a rainbow flag. That night, Terrence McNally accepted the Lifetime Achievement in the Theatre honor, noting, “I love it when I remember the artists who try to help us understand the devastation of AIDS, even when they were stricken with it themselves. I love it when I remember theatre changes hearts.” Later that evening, Mart Crowley accepted a Tony Award for his 1968 The Boys in the Band as a new staging of the seminal gay-themed piece won Best Revival of a Play. While such accolades honored the rich history of gay theatre artists, a new generation of works adeptly explored the spectrum of queer identity present today, including the world premieres of Michael R. Jackson’s A Strange Loop, Donja R. Love’s one in two, and Jeremy O. Harris’ Slave Play, plus New York bows of Matthew Lopez’s The Inheritance and Madeleine George’s Hurricane Diane.
Plays Outbuzzed Musicals
While musicals traditionally dominate the lists of highest-grossing shows, two plays sparked the hottest discourses on stage and off. Heidi Schreck’s What the Constitution Means to Me made its Broadway premiere this year, ending each performance with a debate between the playwright-performer and a New York City high-schooler over whether or not the Constitution should be abolished. The show, which began as an experiment at Clubbed Thumb, opened at New York Theatre Workshop Off-Broadway, moved to another Off-Broadway venue by popular demand, and then transferred to Broadway in an extended run that recouped its investment. The show is preparing for a national tour. Also making the move from NYTW to Broadway this year was Jeremy O. Harris’ Slave Play, which ignited takes from audience members—including a notorious talkback—and skeptics who had yet to see it. Harris and the production team have encountered all types of conversation while maintaining their accessibility-driven objective of getting those whose interest has been piqued in the door.
Beetlejuice Brings Broadway to TikTok
The newest social media platform to catch fire has been a boon for the Broadway musical adaptation of the Tim Burton film. Multiple outlets refer to Beetlejuice as the show that broke TikTok; the show’s cast recording has exploded on the lip-syncing-friendly social media app. #BeetlejuiceMusical has been used over 43.6 million times in TikTok videos, featuring users singing songs like “Say My Name,” “Girl Scout,” and “Day-O” in full cosplay. And that young (and new) audience seems to translate to ticket sales. According to the most recent data, 54.95 percent of audience members had never bought tickets on Telecharge before, and 70.79 percent are between the ages of 19 and 54. The show is set to close at the Winter Garden Theatre June 6, 2020; the production has not yet announced if it will re-open at a different Broadway house, but a national tour is expected to launch in 2021.
The Cats Movie
Since the first Cats movie trailer dropped July 18, theatre fans have been enthralled. (Even the Playbill edit team huddled around a monitor to watch it all together.) Digital Fur Technology (as coined by director Tom Hooper) broke the Internet instantly, and it only got more surreal from there. The movie, starring Dame Judi Dench, Idris Elba, Jennifer Hudson, Taylor Swift, and Ian McKellen, finally hit the big screen December 20, giving us beautiful ghosts, nightmares about cockroach-people hybrids, and the sweet promise of a new, post-Cats life. And now, after the reviews have come out, Universal will re-release the film with still more improvements to the visual effects.
More Musicals Will Become Movies
Cats marked the first release in a new, long line of film adaptations of musicals. Steven Spielberg wrapped filming on his new West Side Story, choreographed by Tony winner Justin Peck (Carousel) and starring numerous Broadway favorites like Mike Faist, Ariana Debose, Brian d’Arcy James, Corey Stoll, Andréa Burns, and the original film’s Oscar-winning Anita, Rita Moreno—not to mention ensemble favorites like Paloma Garcia Lee, Jess Leprotto, David Guzman, Jonalyn Saxer, and Ricky Ubeda. This year, we also got the first trailer of the In The Heights movie starring Anthony Ramos as Usnavi. Directed by Jon M. Chu, the movie also boasts a Broadway roster with Corey Hawkins, Daphne Rubin-Vega, original Abuela Claudia Olga Merediz reprising her role, and Lin-Manuel Miranda himself as the Piragua Guy. As if that weren’t enough excitement for Broadway buffs, we also got news of casting for the tick...tick...BOOM! film (directed by Miranda and starring Andrew Garfield), Universal and Marc Platt nabbed film rights for Dear Evan Hansen, and Boyhood director Richard Linklater, will helm a “real” Merrily We Roll Along, filming the story of a 20-year-long friendship over the course of 20 actual years, and starring Tony winner Ben Platt, Beanie Feldstein, and Blake Jenner.
Broadway Lost Multiple Icons
The lights of Broadway dimmed for the theatre luminaries we lost this year, including beloved performers (Carol Channing, Diahann Carroll), authors of lasting favorites (Jerry Herman, Martin Charnin, William F. Brown), and industry figures whose humanitarian contributions extended far beyond the proscenium (Phyllis Newman, Hugh Southern). On July 31, director-producer Harold Prince, the most Tony-winning individual in Broadway history, died at 91. Reactions and memories poured in from all facets of the community, and earlier this month, several of his peers, collaborators, and devotees—including Stephen Sondheim, Andrew Lloyd Webber, and Bernadette Peters—gathered at the Majestic Theatre, the longtime home of his staging of The Phantom of the Opera, to commemorate the Prince of Broadway.