Forget the Times Square Ball dropping on New Year’s Eve, the fabled block has never been more lit than it was for the reopening of Broadway’s longest-running musical, The Phantom of the Opera, October 22nd. The countdown began at 7:30pm with powerful speakers blasting the overture through its thunderous climax as the iconic chandelier was broadcast hurtling down the familiar hundreds of feet of LED screen. The after affair was a Broadway block party with the show’s landmark composer, Andrew Lloyd Webber (Baron Lloyd-Webber, thanks to the Queen) and DJ (Beats by Dre, and all) mixing everything from his own tunes to Lady Gaga to the Baha Men’s “Who Let the Dogs Out,” in a booth perched above 44th Street.
Slightly less exciting was the Tony Awards, which (to be fair) had a lot of business to get through between letting the world know Broadway has reopened post-COVID shutdown and paying at least some lip service to a dozen or so decades of Black subjugation and marginalization, not to mention a longer than usual “In Memoriam” segment, given the more than two years that have passed since the 2019 Tony Awards. One surprise was Jeremy O. Harris’s Slave Play (perhaps too racially and sexually provocative for the voters) losing the big prize to Matthew Lopez’s The Inheritance (acclaimed at the time but bloated and not as important in retrospect). Both plays had closed prior the shutdown, but the good news is Slave Play is back for a limited run (August Wilson Theatre, through January 23rd).
Another not-to-be-missed production shuttering in January is the acclaimed revival of the Tony Kushner-Jeanine Tesori musical Caroline, or Change (Studio 54, through January 9th). I was too young, shallow, and distracted to fully appreciate the original incarnation of the chamber opera in 2004, although I certainly fell hard for Tonya Pinkins’s watershed performance, which should have won the Tony over Idina Menzel in Wicked. Back then, the story of a Black maid working for a Jewish family in 1963 Louisiana as the Civil Rights movement was gaining momentum seemed remote and uninteresting to me. Maybe I was just drunk. This time, from the moment I walked into the theater and saw the Confederate statue center stage, I was transfixed. By the time Sharon D. Clarke delivered the showstopping 11 o’clock number “Lot’s Wife,” I was ugly crying under my mask.
For anyone concerned, Broadway theaters currently require both masks and proof of vaccination. Broadway box office grosses appear to be down for some shows. The Broadway League (a theatre trade association) has dispensed with its usual reporting of detailed sales data in favor of a weekly aggregate of all main stem shows, so it’s hard to say specifically, but a couple of recently opened acclaimed shows have posed early closing notices. Still, if you want to see hot tickets Hadestown, Hamilton, or Six, you better get on it. And all shows tend to get a boost over the tourist trod holiday season. Historically, producers have taken advantage of this with augmented holiday performance schedules, sometimes as many as 10 shows/week, although this strategy is under scrutiny right now due to a groundswell of support for actors’ labor rights.
The theater piece I’m talking about most these days is actually the Netflix film adaptation of Rent author Jonathan Larson’s Tick Tick Boom, directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda and starring Andrew Garfield, Alexandra Shipp, and Robin De Jesus. Its easily the best movie musical in years, although I still haven’t seen Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story remake (opening in cinemas December 10th) and should mention I also loved Jon Chu’s recent movie version of Miranda’s In The Heights.
The first new Broadway show to start performances in December, on the 6th, is MJ The Musical (Neil Simon Theatre, open ended). Yes, that MJ – Michael Jackson. This is the long- awaited jukebox musical of his songs, telling his life story, anchored in pre-production for his 1992 Dangerous Tour. Directed and choreographed by ballet master Christopher Wheeldon, who had a hit with Broadway’s An American in Paris, it could be good. I don’t know whether I am more curious about how I will feel about it, or about how it will be received.
Another powder keg of questions awaits the December 20th first preview of Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster in The Music Man (Winter Garden Theatre, open ended). The perennial favorite from Broadway’s Golden Age is often considered one of the musical theater’s finest examples of the form. Disgraced mega producer Scott Rudin has removed his name, but it remains to be seen if his taint lingers to damage the production. There are also concerns about the misogyny inherent to the piece. In that regard, my money’s on Sutton and hit maker director Jerry Zaks (Hello, Dolly!) to navigate the story in a way that will work for today’s audiences without diminishing what is good about the show. But we shall see!
The final Broadway show to begin this year, on December 21st, will be Skeleton Crew (Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, through February 20th) by Dominique Morisseau (Ain’t Too Proud), starring Phylicia Rashad and directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson. This relevant drama, exploring shifting class alignments in a Black Detroit family during the 2008 financial crisis, was well regarded in its 2016 Off-Broadway run and truly no performance by superhuman thespian Phylicia Rashad should ever be skipped.
Some Off-Broadway highlights of the moment include:
- Black No More (The New Group, January 11th through February 27th), Oscar winner John Ridley (12 Years A Slave) and Tariq Trotter (aka Black Thought from The Roots) have created this new musical, set in the Harlem Renaissance, and based in part on the Afrofuturist novel by George S. Schuyler. It features a first-rate cast including Brandon Victor Dixon (Judas in the John Legend Jesus Christ Superstar) and Tony-winning diva divine Lillias White.
- Long Day’s Journey Into Night (Minetta Lane Theatre, January 11th through February 20th), a fresh look on Eugene O’Neill’s classic starring stage stalwarts Elizabeth Marvel, Bill Camp and Ato Blankson-Wood, directed by the brilliant Robert O’Hara (Slave Play).
- Intimate Apparel (Mitzi Newhouse Theatre at Lincoln Center, January 13th through March 6th), Two-time Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Lynn Nottage musicalizes her popular play, in collaboration with opera and theater composer Ricky Ian Gordon and sought-after director Bartlett Sher.
Straddling the line between theater and cabaret (and straddling several other lines as well) counter-culture legends Justin Vivian Bond and Kenny Mellman recreate their star making demented duo of louche, lush, and loud lounge entertainment in Kiki & Herb SLEIGH at BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music Strong Harvey Theater, through December 4th). You only have a few chances to catch them, but it would be a mortal sin to miss the biggest holiday resurrection since Easter – and I mean the first one.
For more “alt cabaret,” the coolest venue in town, Joe’s Pub at the Public Theater, has reopened with some major talents to celebrate the season.
- Supernova Bridget Everett holds court on the stage where Amy Schumer, Sarah Jessica Parker, Abby, Ilana and all the other cool kids first fell for her tsunami of voice, comedy, and “Titties” of course, with opener Celisse (through December 4th).
- RuPaul’s Drag Race’s Peppermint (the first trans woman to originate a leading role on Broadway, in Head Over Heels), performs A Girl Like Me (December 5th and 6th).
- The self-proclaimed “hardest working middle-aged man in show business,” preeminent drag king Murray Hill delivers the old school joy like no one can in A Murray Little Christmas, with opener Ike Ufomadu (December 14th through 18th).
- Matt Rogers, the voice of the iconic Twink on Netflix’s Q-Force co-hosts along with SNL’s Bowen Yang, of the essential podcast Las Culturistas, in his deliciously incorrigible Have You Heard of Christmas? (December 19th and 20th).
- Sandra Bernhard, the unquestionable ne plus ultra of downtown, puts her requisite capper on the year that was in Bern It Down, with opener Unitard (December 26th through 31st).
- You have got a little time to recover for the wallop of Kinky Boots’ Kevin Smith Kirkwood reprising his uncanny and unforgettable Classic Whitney (January 24th only).
Big name cabaret abounds at Feinstein’s/54 Below with a host of stars to delight, notably:
- The woman who made cabaret once again a household word across America, “real housewife” Luann De Lesseps stars in her brand-new A Very Countess Christmas (through December 13th).
- Broadway and TV star Norm Lewis (Porgy and Bess, Scandal) debuts (There’s No Place Like) Home For The Holidays (December 16th through 24th).
- The man whose very name signifies first class cabaret premieres Get Happy: Michael Feinstein Celebrates The Judy Garland Centennial (December 15th through 26th).
- Storm Large, of the genre-bending band Pink Martini and the reality show Rock Star, appears December 20th and 21st.
- Broadway’s original Annie, Andrea McArdle, is even better onstage than she is on Cameo. Book both and make her tell her Carol Channing story! (December 27th through December 29th).
- Tony nominated sisters Liz Callaway and Ann Hampton Callaway have been singing together since long before they recorded Ann’s theme song for The Nanny. Their latest joint is Broadway The Calla-Way (January 4th through 8th).
- “The Four Phantoms” (Brent Barrett, John Cudia, Franc D’Ambrosio, and Ciarán Sheehan) deliver more than just the music of the night (January 13th through 15th).
- Her mom was the mother of sitcoms, so does that make Lucie Arnaz a TV show or at least the sister to one (a sis-com)? She’s also a bonafide Broadway star and will remind us why in I Got The Job! Songs From My Musical Past (January 19th through 22nd).
- The latest installment of long running series Sondheim Unplugged celebrates its new recording on Yellow Sound Label and available wherever music streams (January 23rd).
- He won a Tony playing Frankie Valli and is back to make the ladies (and many of us gentlemen) swoon, John Lloyd Young is Broadway’s Jersey Boy (January 25th through 30th).
A notable in cabaret and jazz is that we have a new venue, Chelsea Table + Stage, and the perfect show to experience it for the first-time would-be singer songwriter Anthony Nunziata’s Together for Christmas album release concert (December 4th).
Of course, if it’s jazz you want, Birdland is known as “The Jazz Corner of The World.” It is a wonderful place to just drop by early or late whenever you’re in midtown and feel like hearing fabulous music, but especially every Monday for Jim Caruso’s open mic Cast Party and every Tuesday for Susie Mosher’s hysterical The Lineup. Other special highlights of the season are:
- A Swinging Birdland Christmas (now in its 12th year) starring the gifted Klea Blackhurst, Jim Caruso and Billy Stritch (December 21st through 25th). There is no better accompaniment for your holiday parties.
- Marilyn Maye is easily the queen of cabaret. In fact, it is an understatement considering she was Johnny Carson’s favorite singer and counted Ella Fitzgerald among her fans. (December 29th through January 2nd).
And finally, my podcast co-host, Daniel Nolen, and I have our own weekly comedy variety and game show, Cast Offs with Ben and Daniel, at 6:30pm on Wednesdays, starting December 8th at the den of the demimonde, Club Cumming. We would be really tickled if y’all dropped by.
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