The Year When Bette Stormed Broadway, and Trump ‘Died’ in Central Park: NYC Theater in 2017
The best NYC theater of 2017 spanned Bette Midler in ‘Hello Dolly,’ Jake Gyllenhaal in Sondheim, and Tony Kushner telling The Daily Beast he was planning a play about Donald Trump.
It is rare for theater to make the news.
CBS may give one Sunday a year over to the Tony Awards (and here is what won what this year), but these celebrate the best of Broadway; theater made as safe and glittery as possible. Any edge is left to the winners’ speeches and hosts’ japing.
2017’s year in New York City theater was not notable for a fairly mild Tonys ceremony (and Kevin Spacey’s now especially lame and grotesque joking about coming out of the closet), but rather for the controversy that raged over The Public Theater’s Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar.
The play featured a Trump-like version of Julius Caesar, played by Gregg Henry, being assassinated. A few years previously, a Barack Obama-like Caesar had been killed. But oh, the fury that rained down on the Public in 2017. Future performances featured right-wing picketers, who would stand up to disturb the performances. Theater companies with “Shakespeare” in their titles faced death threats.
The fulminating conservative critics had missed the point of the production: The death of the Trump-like figure happened midway through the production and was hardly celebrated. Caesar’s death opens the door to social chaos throughout the kingdom and more bloodshed. The death of Caesar is the death of democracy in the play; the death itself is far from cheered by characters or audience.
Then there were the media reports of fainting and other horrified audience responses to the graphic violence in 1984, a stark adaptation of Orwell by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan that came with its own inevitable Trumpian overtones. That’s if you could get past the unsparing torture scenes.
To lighten the mood, in feathers, extravagant outfits, and a crowd screaming every time she merely nodded, the glorious Bette Midler fully deserved the Tony she won playing the title role in Hello, Dolly! The production, directed with full-bodied exuberance by Jerry Zaks, was a beautifully performed blast of joy—a joy only a smidge tainted by Midler not performing at the Tonys.
Besides Dolly and Sunset Boulevard (the production was a little off; Glenn Close was amazing; it missed out on Tony love) there were some other impressive marvelous revivals too. Jitney was a moving and full-throttle reimagining of August Wilson’s play; The Little Foxes featured Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon swap lead roles in different performances. Critics were divided over Sam Gold’s hauntingly distinctive The Glass Menagerie (I loved it).
But the best... well, Jake Gyllenhaal and Annaleigh Ashford reopened the beautifully recast Hudson Theatre with Sunday in the Park With George, finding the perfect way to navigate through Sondheim’s complicated lexicon of love, loss, and artistic fulfillment.
There was more divine Sondheim at the Barrow Street Theatre—re-outfitted for a delirious and tasty production (it’s true, you can order your own pies) of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street by London’s Tooting Arts Club. Sit amid the action, and if you have a beard, prepare for the attentions of the terrifying barber himself.
A more innocently joyous musical surprised the critics who went to see Spongebob Squarepants on Broadway and were utterly won over by the brightly surreal sets, fantastic singing and choreography, and utterly charming acting.
However, the most charming musicals were the ones that surprised you also with their brave and inventive takes on thorny topics or epic Russian works of fiction. Come From Away, which landed on Broadway in time for Tonys consideration (its main rival was Dear Evan Hansen—this is how it turned out), is a rollicking show about the many foreigners who suddenly landed in Gander, Newfoundland, when planes were forced out of the sky.
The Band’s Visit, my favorite new Broadway musical, follows what happens when a Egyptian band ends up in an Israeli town for an enforced stay. It is a joy to watch and beautifully written, and beautifully performed, particularly its two leads, Katrina Lenk and Tony Shalhoub.
Way away from Broadway was Town Bloody Hall, the Wooster Group’s characteristically oblique and arresting interpretation of what happened when Norman Mailer and a group of feminists including Germaine Greer held a fiery debate in New York in 1971—or an interpretation of the famous documentary that recorded it.
Of every piece of music heard on Broadway this last year, everything paled before Bruce Springsteen. His Broadway residency was one of the most stunning shows of the year. Do all you can do to see it; Springsteen takes the audience through the story of his life, and he does it with speech and song, with him playing piano and guitar. It is spell-binding.
Of the plays of the year on and off Broadway, Oslo—an intelligent and nail-biting examination of a peace process—was a deserving Tony Award winner. Sarah DeLappe’s The Wolves also arrived at Lincoln Center, a fizzing drama about a teenage girls’ football team.
The excellent playwright Annie Baker returned with her most challenging play to date. The Antipodes was set in a modern office, with all kinds of threats, real and existential, baked into the relationships. The meeting around the table was unlike any other meeting, apart from its sense of endlessness.
In Zoe Kazan’s After the Blast, a cute robot became the balm and bane of a young couple’s lives. The farcical and madcap Play That Goes Wrong features collapsing sets, actors on hyperdrive, and will make you laugh even when you’re not sure why you are laughing so hard.
What didn’t work? Well, celebrities don’t guarantee critical love, and so it is with Steve Martin’s comedy Meteor Shower, which despite solid performances from Amy Schumer and Keegan-Michael Key never quite rises to the tone it wants to revel in.
Junk wasn’t quite the new blockbuster about Wall Street it wanted to be, and Prince of Broadway didn’t celebrate its subject, the producer Harold Prince, enough. Groundhog Day, hit by an early injury to its leading man, Andy Karl, was warmly rather than ecstatically received. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Amelie were far bigger duds. Miss Saigon also left a bitter, racism-tainted taste in the mouth.
Just as Trump had been the source of the slew of headlines around the Public’s Caesar, so it was that the president found himself to be the inspiration for the next play by one of America’s great living playwrights.
Tony Kushner, most famous for Angels in America (the British National Theatre production arrives in New York next year), revealed exclusively to The Daily Beast that his next play would focus on Trump.
The play, Kushner told me, will not focus on the Trump presidency itself but will be set two years before the election. Kushner says he will try to write Trump as a direct character, rather than anything oblique or symbolic.
“He’s the kind of person, as a writer, I tend to avoid, as I think he is borderline psychotic,” Kushner says. “I definitely think that incoherence lends itself well to drama, but he really is very boring. It’s terrifying because he has all the power but without the mental faculties he ought to have. I think he is seriously mentally ill, and the fact that he is in the White House is very frightening.
“He may do things that do not surprise us. We can imagine the worst he can do—mishandle things so much that we end up in a nuclear war. We know that he will never reveal a depth of humanity, because he’s been around for decades and there has never been a sign of it.”
The playwright also took the opportunity to make clear that he is not in any way related to Jared Kushner.
“Of course, that is something of a misery,” he says of sharing the surname of Trump’s son-in-law. “‘Kushner’ is the equivalent of ‘Smith’ and ‘Jones’ in Eastern Europe.” There are many “Kushners” to be proud of, Kushner says, like the novelist Rachel Kushner. “The New Jersey branch of the family are nothing to brag about.”
Whenever Kushner sees a headline, he says, “like ‘Kushner Scandal Growing,’ I do have a moment of ‘Oh my god, they caught me.’ I have to remember it’s not me, but that putz.”