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A CurtainUp Feature
The Best (and Worst) of the Year 2009 On and Off Broadway

Overview | Ten Best of The Year | Honorable Mention| Dishonorable Mention| Ten Best Strictly Off-Broadway

Give the public what it wants and there seems to be almost no limit to what it will pay to see a hot show. Despite the lethargic economy, record grosses are expected for 2009 based on preliminary figures released by the League of American Theaters and Producers. Broadway revenue for the 2008-09 season (ending June 1) totaled $943 million up $5 million from the previous season. Tickets sales have remained steady for the past 4 years at around 12 million. The appearance of big stars from both TV and Hollywood in shows consigned to limited runs generally guaranteed huge business for a number of plays and musicals. A Steady Rain, a well-acted duologue about two embittered racist policemen had Daniel Craig and Hugh Jackman as bait. It had no trouble getting $375.00 a seat for prime locations and regularly grossed over $1 million a week over the course of its limited three-month run.

Two other new plays, one on Broadway, the other Off Broadway were much more exciting and extraordinary examples of dramatic literature at its best and both were presented under the auspices of non-profit theaters. Ruined by Lynn Nottage, about a shrewd brothel owner surviving in the Congo, went on to win, among many awards, the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It was far and away the most outstanding play of the year. A certain contender for a Tony this spring is Sarah Ruhl's In The Next Room, or The Vibrator Play. Lincoln Center Theater presented this audacious and very funny play about Victorian sexual attitudes and certain electronic devices.

Revivals, and there were many, needed the boost of a star or two to bolster interest. The breathtakingly beautiful and also talented Catherine Zeta-Jones and the incomparable Angela Lansbury are major factors in the good business being done by this seriously downsized staging of Stephen Sondheim's gloriously scored A Little Night Music. Samuel Beckett's classic absurdist comedy Waiting for Godot was a smash thanks to the astonishingly complimentary performances of Nathan Lane and Bill Irwin. Dolly Parton's name, however, as composer of the musical. 9 to 5 couldn't save this disappointing musical adaptation of the 1980 film comedy.

Five musical holdovers from previous seasons, Billy Elliot, Jersey Boys, The Lion King, and Wicked — continue to hover or surpass the $1 million figure weekly. Also in the $1 million plus club was the critical and box-office sensation God of Carnage. This one about squabbling parents boasted a starry cast — James Gandolfini, Marcia Gay Harden, Jeff Daniels, and Hope Davis who have now been replaced in the New Year by Jimmy Smits, Ken Stott, Christine Lahti, and Annie Potts. The only other play to compete in that golden circle was Hamlet, in which the highly praised Jude Law (a likely Tony contender), took his stab at the melancholy Dane and pulled in a cool $1 million in its final week of a limited three-month run. Teenaged girls, among others, could be seen waiting each night at the stage door for Law's autograph.

It is sad to report that producers can no longer count only on good reviews to sell a show. Neil LaBute's reasons to be pretty, might have had a chance at success had it not lost its bid last season to win the Tony Award for Best Play to God of Carnage (though neither of us thought Reza's witty little trifle rated top ten inclusion). The Lincoln Center Theater's haunting revival of perhaps August Wilson's greatest play, Joe Turner's Come and Gone, also failed to entice enough patrons except in its final weeks when it was announced that President and Mrs. Obama would attend a performance.

In recent years, revivals have been a mainstay on the main stem. The Manhattan Theater Club gave us a spirited production of the classic Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman comedy The Royal Family. The beloved 1960s hippy anthem Hair was another entry that proved to be a resounding success in Central Park, so much so that it was moved to Broadway where its message of peace and its now classic score resonate as much now as it did 40 years ago. West Side Story helmed by the musical's original author 92 year-old Arthur Laurents, divided the critics some of whom were not thrilled with having some of the lyrics sung in Puerto Rican dialect Spanish. The show has persevered, possibly because the bi-lingual concept has been abandoned. Musical revivals garnering major critical support have proved to have less sturdy legs: Finian's Rainbow is struggling to survive and Ragtime has given up the ghost and announced a January 3rd closing.

Of the new musicals that opened during the year, that included the rock music propelled Memphis and Rock of Ages, Next to Normal, about a family made dysfunctional by a mother's chronic bi-polar disease, is the standout, made especially so by the outstanding score by Tom Kitt (music) and Brian Yorkey (lyrics). Its star Alice Ripley deservedly was the winner of the Tony for Best Leading Actress in a Musical. Fela!, a musical about the politically active life and musical legacy of Nigerian-born musician-composer Fela Anikulapo Kuti has been given a rapid pulse by choreographer Bill T. Jones.

Undoubtedly encouraged by the success of Tracy Letts' August: Osage County, the producers hoped that his follow-up play Superior Donuts would have the same good fortune. Despite mostly positive reviews it is ending a disappointing three-month run. Prolific David Mamet saw a revival of Oleanna crash and burn despite having Bill Pullman and Julia Stiles headlining (maybe the meassage here is you don't just need stars but super stars like Craig and Jackman. The future of Mamet's new play, Race — again on a hot topic: race — also met with mixed reviews and faces an uncertain future.

Alan Ayckbourn's The Norman Conquests was a thoroughly delightful experience for audiences that could book either multiple evenings or commit to a full 8 hours in one day. The marathon experience carries on with Horton Foote's The Orphans' Home Cycle. Though there are only a few opportunities to make a marathon meal of all 9 of the short plays that comprise the complete drama about a Texas family over a span of 18 years during the early part of the 20th century, seeing them on separate occasions still adds up to an epic experience. Perhaps if the producers of the Ayckbourn plays had scheduled more marathon performances, it would have been even more successful and if the producers of Neil Simon's endearing memory play, Brighton Beach Memoirs, had worked out a way to launch it and its sequel Broadway Bound simultaneously, Brighton Beach Memoirs wouldn't have been vitually dead on arrival, with the curtain never going up on its repertory partner.

And as has been the case for a number of years, the majority of straight plays on Broadway are presented by the not-for-profit theaters such as the Manhattan Theater Club, Roundabout Theater Company, and Lincoln Center Theater, all of which now use Broadway theaters in addition to their off-Broadway theaters. Subscribers, who have to take the good with not-so-good can keep shows running at these venues often overcoming poor reviews. Faithful Roundabout-ers took it on the chin sitting through the disastrous Hedda Gabler and again with After Miss Julie.

Somewhat of a phenomenon is the Off-Broadway success of Thorton Wilder's Our Town, which opened early in 2009 and is continuing into its second year. All the more amazing is that this play has been one of the most popular and most frequently performed plays in America ever since it premiered in 1939 at the McCarter Theater in Princeton, N.J.
--overview written by Simon Saltzman, edited by Elyse Sommer

Ten Best of the Year (in alphabetical order and with link to Curtainup's review) * indicates still running (The list was compiled by Simon, the postscript is by Elyse)
1. Hair * review
2. In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play * review
3. Joe Turner's Come and Gone review
4. Next To Normal * review
5. Ragtime * review
6. reasons to be pretty review
7. Ruined review
8. Superior Donuts review
9. The Norman Conquests review
10. Twelfth Night review
Postscript: If I had to boil this down to a single pick, it would be Ruined. While I wouldn't want to throw any show off the list, the one I wish there'd been room for would have been Richard Greenberg's American Plan. (Review ). Everything except Twelfth Night which played in Central Park, is now on Broadway, I've added an all or strictly Off-Broadway 10 best list, which rings in another winning Ayckbourn play, My Wonderful Day, and the terrific revival of A Streetcar Named Desire starring Caite Blanchett and directed by Liv Ullman and David Cromer's Our Town.

Honorable Mention
(The list again compiled by Simon, and the postscript by Elyse)
1. Fela! review
2. Finian's Rainbow review
3. Let Me Down Easy review
4. The Royal Family review
5. Brighton Beach Memoirs review
Postscript: I would substitute Memphis (review) for Fela! and while neither of these shows is likely to rival Phantom or Wicked in terms of longevity, I'd give odds to Memphis for outliving Fela!. As someone who is not fond of solo plays, Let Me Down Easy is a prime example of this genre at its very best with, to use a favorite buzzword, top take-away value.

Dishonorable Mention
(The list again compiled by Simon, and the postscript by Elyse)
1. After Miss Julie review
2. Bye Bye Birdie review
3. Guys and Dolls review
4. Hedda Gabler review
5. Impressionism review
Postscript: I'm totally on the same page with Simon on theseshows which might also be tagged as the 5 Most Forgettable shows.

Ten Best Strictly Off-Broadway Shows of the Year (in alphabetical order)
Note: The list compiled by Elyse. Two companies sadly without shows to consider were the 29th Street Rep and Transport Company, though the latter has announced its revival of The Boys in the Band.
1. Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson
2. The Brother/Sister Plays review
3. The Emperor Jones review
4. The Late Christopher Bean review
5. My Wonderful Day review
6. Next Fall Next Fall (This is actually losing its strictly Off-Broadway status as it's coming to the Helen Hayes on Broadway)
7. The Orphans Cycle review, review, Off-Broadway review pending-- Though there's been talk of moving this to Broadway the economics and logistics and the very nature of the material make this more pipe dream than reality-- and though the third part doesn't open until late January, the first 6 plays are enough to warrant inclusion in this list.
8. Our Town Our Town
9, A Streetcar Named Desire review
10. This review

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