Broadway went to Paris this year. And to New Haven, north London, the Gulf Coast, Oklahoma, ancient Britain, ancient Rome, a southern plantation, the suburbs of southern California (twice), the Underworld (often). In some years, narratives emerge, about innovation or stagnation, retrenchment or inclusion, celebrity, politics, source material. But 2019 seemed especially all over the map. Shows were big and small, hopeful and cynical, wired and tired. If you believe in theater as relational to real life, then life in America right now is fractured, disordered, with occasional dance remixes. Which feels about right. You could throw up your hands or bop your head in time or make like Taylor Mac’s misbegotten Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus and choreograph a chorus line of reanimated penises.
Several Off-Broadway shows moved up to midtown. Heidi Schreck’s What the Constitution Means to Me, buoyant and devastating, paired personal history with a wrenching look at the laws that govern America and how and by whom and for whom they were made. Bravely, it dovetailed optimism with its anger, shouldering the weight of the past rather than bending beneath it. Slave Play, Jeremy O Harris’s provocative and achingly funny drama, also deals in inherited trauma. Three interracial couples sign on for what the play calls “antebellum sexual performance therapy,” a radical, unblushingly theatrical and likely unaccredited methodology designed to repair centuries of racialized violence and injustice through role play. The plot and characters of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Choir Boy didn’t always convince, but the musical numbers, choreographed by Camille A Brown, proved forceful and thrilling.
Daniel Fish’s revival of Oklahoma!, which unpacks the violence at the corn-fed heart of the Rogers and Hammerstein crowd-pleaser, rewriting myths of romance and American exceptionalism. Hadestown, Anais Mitchell’s folky, bluesy retelling of the Orpheus myth, which won the Tony for best new musical, had a particularly long trek, from a Vermont school bus to an Off-Broadway berth, then to Edmonton and London before arriving on Broadway with its horripilating harmonies and swinging lights.
Shows like Constitution, Slave Play and Choir Boy investigate what it means to be othered in America – and so, more subtly, do Oklahoma! and Hadestown, in part through casting. But plenty of plays and musicals in 2019 still center on the tribulations of white masculinity, like bumpy revivals of True West (Ethan Hawke vs. Paul Dano) and Burn This (Adam Driver vs. doorframes), smoother versions of All My Sons and To Kill a Mockingbird (which tried to give space to its black characters, but couldn’t shake its focus on Jeff Daniels’s Atticus), to new plays like Sea Wall/A Life and Linda Vista, to musicals like Be More Chill and Tootsie, in which white men try to solve their popularity issues by swallowing a nefarious supercomputer and putting on a red sequined dress, respectively.
Jack Thorne’s A Christmas Carol repurposed a political allegory as a story of one plutocrat’s psychological self-discovery. A Lightning Thief garnered sympathy for a demi-god, then threw toilet paper at the audience. The Betrayal revival showed that even men as worryingly attractive as Tom Hiddleston and Charlie Cox have problems, too.
Sometimes Broadway in 2019 just wanted to sing and dance, as in the flashy adaptation of Moulin Rouge!, which eventually gave up on its trite story in favor of an ecstatic, confetti-canon-embellished megamix, blissfully choreographed by Sonya Tayeh. Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations and Tina: The Tina Turner Musical, starring the indefatigable Adrienne Warren, made sure that fans heard every hit and a few deep cuts, too. Freestyle Love Supreme, the precocious brainchild of Lin-Manuel Miranda, Tomas Kail and colleagues, created new hip-hop songs overnight, sourced from audience suggestions: raisins, physics, Brexit. David Byrne’s beautiful American Utopia, a barefoot concert and New Wave be-in, brought the audience to its collective feet and, through songs like Once in a Lifetime and Road to Nowhere, tried incarnate the crowd as a community.
Off-Broadway wasn’t any more coherent, but it had its wonders, like Will Arbery’s Heroes of the Fourth Turning, a clear-eyed conversation among young conservatives, or Tina Satter’s Is This a Room, a verbatim staging of Reality Winner’s FBI interview, or Dave Malloy’s Octet, an intricate a cappella musical about the varieties of internet addiction, or Lileana Blain-Cruz’s revival of Maria Irene Fornes’s Fefu and Her Friends, an enigmatic and revolutionary work of immersive theater. The comedian Jacqueline Novak made a solo show about blow jobs and David Cale wrote a one-man musical about the murder of his mother by his father, and each, in diametric opposition, was absolutely exhilarating, as was Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s victory-lap tour of Fleabag, which spotlighted both her character’s pain and her own consummate artistry. In an age and a city where just about everything can be next-day delivered or streamed from the sofa, these were vitalizing reminders that live theater is still worth the trip.