PLAYBILL PICKS: The Top Theatre Stories of 2014; Audra McDonald and Norm Lewis Make History, #Dim4Joan and "Into the Woods" Bows on Screen | Playbill

News PLAYBILL PICKS: The Top Theatre Stories of 2014; Audra McDonald and Norm Lewis Make History, #Dim4Joan and "Into the Woods" Bows on Screen It was a year of hit plays and flop musicals; of movie musicals and television musicals; of star-packed productions; a year when Audra made history and Cafe Edison became history. The staff of puts their heads together and decided on the top theatre news stories of 2014. Here they are.

Anna Kendrick
Anna Kendrick Photo by Disney

BROADWAY GETS A NEW NONPROFIT: Second Stage, the longstanding Off-Broadway company, began the final phase of its long-aborning plan to take possession of the Helen Hayes Theatre—a plan announced back in 2008. Joining the Broadway Non-Profit Club (which so far includes the Roundabout Theatre Company, Manhattan Theatre Club and Lincoln Center Theater) comes at a stiff price, though. The theatre is in the process of raising a whopping $58 million, which will be used to both acquire the Hayes and transform it into a modern theatre facility.

SCREEN MUSICALS, BIG AND SMALL: Even for Americans who chose not to enter a theatre auditorium all year, it would have been hard to ignore the musical theatre form. Two of the biggest, year-end film releases were movie versions of the musicals Into the Woods and Annie. Couch-potatoes, meanwhile, were treated to a live performance of Peter Pan on NBC (as well as an encore airing of last year’s hit The Sound of Music.) Next year: musical-based video games!

THE ONCE AND FUTURE CHAMPION: Broadway golden girl Audra McDonald made history in June by breaking the record for winning the most acting performance Tony Awards. She also became the first performer to win in all four performance categories. In 2012 McDonald joined five-time Tony Award-winning leading ladies Angela Lansbury and Julie Harris. (Harris actually won six Tonys as well, but the sixth was a non-competitive Tony for Lifetime Achievement.) It took 37 years for someone to knock Harris off the pedestal. Very likely, it will take far longer for someone to surpass McDonald.

AS MANY STARS AS THERE ARE IN THE SKY: In the old days, if a producer nabbed themselves a marquee name, they had a play with box-office moxie, one that could make a go of it if the reviews weren’t bad. These days, it seems, one star isn’t enough. Recent revivals have been crammed with boldface names. A Delicate Balance has not only Glenn Close, but John Lithgow and Martha Plimpton. It’s Only a Play featured the reunion of Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, but also Stockard Channing, Megan Mullally, F. Murray Abraham and Rupert Grint. The Real Thing corralled the talents of Ewan McGregor, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Cynthia Nixon. And The Realistic Joneses joined the forces of Toni Collette, Michael C. Hall, Tracy Letts and Marisa Tomei. Watch out, you journeymen supporting actors. Your days on Broadway may be numbered.

Idina Menzel in <i>If/Then</i>
Idina Menzel in If/Then Photo by Joan Marcus

ADELE DAZEEM, OVERNIGHT SENSATION: It was the flub that launched (or relaunched) a career. Introducing actress and singer Idina Menzel on the Oscar broadcast, the unrehearsed John Travolta mangled her name as “Adele Dazeem.” Menzel had a name and accomplished resume before that moment (Rent, Wicked, etc.) But, after that, her name (and the Travoltalized alternative) became news fodder, a household name and Internet meme. That, combined with the unexpected, worldwide success of the film “Frozen” and its central song “Let It Go” (which Menzel sings), and the actress’ returning to Broadway in If/Then, gave Menzel’s career an unexpected, hyperdriven second act. Thanks, John. HEDWIG TAKES A MILE: John Cameron Mitchell’s rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch had long ago been categorized as a success when Neil Patrick Harris decided to star in a Broadway production of the piece this year. Harris’ turn in the concert-set show introduced it to a new generation of theatregoers, and reminded older one how good it was. Three Tonys, one for the production, one for Harris and one for co-star Lena Hall, helped drive home that point.

SHIP, WHERE IS THY STING?: Lots of pop composers compose shows for Broadway, Elton John, Cyndi Lauper and Bono and The Edge of U2, to name a few. Few of them choose to star in their creations. But that’s the length to which Sting was willing to go to help out the box-office fortunes of his first musical The Last Ship, a semi-autobiographical work drawn on his childhood experiences growing up in an English port town. His debut as an actor in the piece in early December led to a rising tide for the production.

THE PLAY’S THE THING: In a switch of the usual Broadway Darwinism, straight plays, both old and new, thrived on Broadway while new musicals struggled for air. It’s Only a Play, The Elephant Man, The River, A Delicate Balance, A Raisin in the Sun, All the Way and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time were among the plays that did boffo box-office. Meanwhile, Bullets Over Broadway, Rocky, Bridges of Madison County, Holler If Ya Hear Me and Side Show couldn’t catch a break. Call it Bizarro Broadway.

Norm Lewis
Norm Lewis Photo by Matthew Murphy

CASTING FIRSTS: Notable strides were made in casting diversity when two famous shows cast their first African-American headliners. Norm Lewis, a seasoned Broadway actor, became the first black Phantom in the history of the Broadway production of The Phantom of the Opera, and Keke Palmer became Broadway’s first black Cinderella.

JOAN GETS THE LAST LAUGH: One of the most interesting chapters in the long life and career of comedienne Joan Rivers came after she died in early September. When the Broadway League decided not to honor Rivers by dimming the lights of Broadway marquees—an honor usually bestowed on important stage professionals when they pass—the Broadway community got up in arms, flooding Twitter with protests marked with the hashtag #Dim4Joan. Eventually, the League capitulated. Score: Digital Media Power, 1; Old Broadway Hierarchy, 0.

A BROADWAY HAUNT BECOMES A GHOST: In November, it was revealed that the Café Edison—a hangout for theatre types for more than 30 years, affectionately known to its habitués (who included August Wilson and Neil Simon) as the Polish Tea Room—was no longer welcome at the Hotel Edison. The owner of the hotel (the son of the father who had welcomed and nutured the owners of the café) wanted to replace the homey diner with a white-tablecloth place. A campaign to save Café Edison was launched, resulting in 10,000 petition signers, flash lunch mobs and the support of the likes of Ira Glass and Mayor DeBlasio. But it was all for naught. As is almost always the case in New York, real estate forces won out, and Times Square lost another piece of its soul. The diner closed Dec. 21, though the owning family pledged to open in another location.

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