2014 was quite a year for the NYC theater scene. There were many standout shows, which thankfully eclipsed a few not-so-standout shows.
The Off-Broadway shows outweigh the Broadway ones, because really, how many jukebox musicals can one sit through before becoming not impressed?
#10: ‘Academia Nuts’ (NYMF)
While only seen as part of the NY Musical Theater Festival, Academia Nuts made quite the impression (and walked away as the “Best of Fest” show). A musical about two high school teams competing in a trivia bowl, this is undoubtedly the geekiest show ever produced. Full of references to pretty much everything Hypable covers, it’s a show about embracing differences and letting your geek flag fly. This will surely have a proper off-Broadway run soon.
#9: ‘Clinton’ (NYMF)
Another NYMF show, one that is already having developmental readings. Clinton tells the story of Bill Clinton’s presidency in the most over-the-top way possible. There are two Bill Clintons – one that’s sensible and charming, another that’s a rascal – and both are kept in line by Hillary. History has never been cruder, sillier, or funnier than in this musical.
#8: Aladdin (Broadway)
No one does spectacle like Disney, and Aladdin is one of their best shows. It is a sheer joy to see the beloved story come to life on the stage, expanded to include the Howard Ashman songs that were cut from the film. The newer songs are not quite up to par, but the old favorites are worth the price of admission. And the ten-minute extravaganza of “Friend Like Me” rightfully won a Tony for the Genie.
#7: ‘Bedbugs!!!’ (Off-Broadway)
When Carly (Grace McLean), an overzealous exterminator with a tragic past, attempts a bedbug genocide, she accidentally creates giant mutant bedbugs that threaten to destroy NYC. To save the city, Carly has to work together with her brother and Dionne Salon (a parody of Celine Dion played by a man). The apocalyptic sci-fi musical was hysterically funny, with gorgeous costumes and sets made from garbage bags. And amid the hilarity lay a solid theme of female empowerment.
#6: ‘If/Then’ (Broadway)
A new and entirely original Broadway musical from the writers of Next to Normal, If/Then is about the what-ifs in life. Elizabeth, played by Idina Menzel belting to the rafters, is faced with a choice in the first scene. The musical shows how her life unfolds based on both possible choices she makes. This musical, reuniting Menzel and Anthony Rapp with the director of Rent, is a perfect look at the diversity and possibility of New York City.
#5: ‘The Lightning Thief’ (Off-Broadway)
One would not think that the first Percy Jackson book would make a good musical, least of all when done with six people and almost no budget. But the musical was written by dedicated fans of the books, and manages to be everything the movie wasn’t. Every important scene from the book is present (though heavily abridged), and the music was stuck in my head for days. The show is littered with easter eggs for hardcore fans. And my entire row started crying during Grover’s song about Thalia, “Tree on the Hill.” Now if only the writers would make Sea of Monsters the Musical…
#4: ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time’ (Broadway)
A straight play based on the best-selling novel, this is a recent import from Britain, and will likely sweep the Tonys come June. The protagonist is Christopher, a teenage boy on the autistic spectrum, who investigates the murder of his neighbor’s dog and begins to unravel his own family’s secrets. I saw the alternate for Christopher, Taylor Trensch, who gave a tour de force performance. The play takes place in Christopher’s mind; the set is astounding and the lighting makes each moment look like a work of art. It shows what it’s like to go through life autistic, as well as how a family can struggle with that. A rare occasion of a show living up to the hype.
#3: ‘Casa Valentina’ (Broadway)
The incomparable Harvey Fierstein wrote this straight play, which unfortunately closed in June. It’s about men in the 1950s who would go to a retreat in the Catskills to spend weekends dressed as women. The surprising part is that most of these men were heterosexual. The script is fiendishly clever, with the cross-dressing men having a very high level of sass. It showed the prejudices against the cross-dressers, as well as their own prejudices against homosexuals. The play simultaneously showed how far we’ve come since the 1950s, and how far we have yet to go – it was profoundly moving, and is probably my favorite straight play ever.
#2: ‘Atomic’ (off-Broadway)
When thinking of topics for a new musical, the Manhattan Project does not seem like it would lend itself to becoming one. However, someone did decide to make a musical about the making of the atomic bomb, with conflicted scientist Leo Szilard as the protagonist. Amid the superb rock score, the musical introduces a lot of moral dilemmas, and was really eye-opening for me. When thinking about the atomic bomb, I had never thought about the perspective of its inventors, and the emotional toll it must have taken on them. With surprising accuracy to both history and physics, this was a fiercely intelligent musical.
#1: ‘Heathers’ (off-Broadway)
A new musical based on the darkly comedic film from 1988, Heathers features one of the most perfect scores ever composed. This is Mean Girls with a deadly twist. A psychopathic new guy is bumping off the tyrannical popular kids, so his girlfriend and our protagonist, Veronica, has to stop him. The musical veers from fun high school comedy, to exceedingly dark comedy, to thriller. It’s immensely quotable, and became a cult hit, inspiring a rabid following of fans known as Corn Nuts. A movie version of the musical is allegedly in the works.