The Year in Musicals
Because regional theaters plan their seasons years in advance, artistic directors don’t know exactly how relevant their shows will seem when they’re finally performed for D.C. audiences. Some productions can be forgiven for poor timing—who could have known that Arena Stage would open The Pajama Game, a lighthearted musical about the fraught relationship between a factory worker and union leader and the factory’s hunky new superintendent, just as women began to share their experiences with workplace harassment and hold powerful men accountable for their actions—but two other shows that dealt with significant political and historical issues landed with grace on D.C. stages.
Caroline, Or Change, Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori’s musical about a black maid working for a Jewish family in 1963 Louisiana, has an ambiguous ending—the title character is pretty much in the same place at the end of the musical as she is at the beginning. But in the days following the presidential inauguration, its imperfect conclusion and the characters’ reckoning with injustice in large and small ways felt acutely relevant. (Caroline, Or Change would feel even more relevant over the summer when activists started removing Confederate monuments nationwide.) Nova Y. Payton brought out Caroline’s weariness and tenacity—neither performer nor character suffers fools and she conveyed that without belittling the 10-year-old boy she played opposite.
Payton brought that same sense of humanity to Ford’s Theatre’s production of Ragtime. Based on E.L. Doctorow’s novel about three families whose lives connect in New York in the early 20th century, the musical is filled with soaring anthems that tend to describe life as it should be as opposed to how it is. That hasn’t stopped me from thinking repeatedly of Payton and Kevin McAllister singing “Wheels of a Dream” or McAllister closing the show with a goosebump-giving rendition of “Make Them Hear You.” Thanks, Ford’s marketing department, for making the latter available on YouTube.
D.C.’s theater scene also got a plentiful dose of national recognition in 2017. Lynn Nottage’s Sweat, performed at Arena Stage in 2016, won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and was nominated for three Tony Awards. Two musicals that developed in D.C. also got the attention of Tony voters. Come From Away, which ran at Ford’s in 2016 before moving to Broadway, received 7 nominations, winning one award, and Dear Evan Hansen, which premiered at Arena Stage in 2015, won six awards, including Best Musical.
And with the eyes of theater watchers around the world on D.C., the most anticipated musical of 2018 opened on Pennsylvania Avenue NW this fall. Mean Girls, with a book by Tina Fey, music by Jeff Richmond, and lyrics by Nell Benjamin, played to sold out crowds at the National Theatre. Like the movie on which it is based, the musical takes you back to the most miserable parts of high school, where you happily spend 2.5 hours vicariously taking in all that adolescent madness. While it will likely evolve before it opens in New York, it has the potential to be D.C.’s next great theatrical export. —Caroline Jones
The Year in Plays
The Year of Our Lord Two Thousand Seventeen began with 2.6 million Americans marching in support of women the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration. It ended with a wave of exposures of decades of predatory behavior by powerful men in media and politics. In between, stories (mostly) by and about women ruled Washington’s stages: Lisa Loomer’s Roe, which was came to Arena Stage in January following its world premiere at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival nine months earlier, was a shamelessly didactic wiki-play about the landmark 1973 Supreme Court decision and its aftermath that probably wouldn’t feel half as powerful had Hillary Clinton won the presidency. But it was true to the complex life story of Norma “Jane Roe” McCorvey (played by Sara Bruner), whom after a brief career as a reproductive rights activist, switched sides and became active in the anti-abortion movement. Loomer dug deep into the inconsistencies among McCorvey’s oft-revised tellings of her own story, creating a rich, compelling exploration of the inhumanity of turning a person into a symbol.
In March, at Studio Theatre, playwright and director Aaron Posner offered the third and most daring of his postmodern Chekhov rewrites, No Sisters, and upped the ante by staffing it with (much of) the same cast who performed Jackson Gay’s production of Three Sisters simultaneously. That meant ringers like Kimberly Gilbert and Todd Scofield were running up and down the stairs from Studio’s Milton Theatre to the Mead, and sometimes doing crowd work to fill time (in No Sisters) when the two shows fell slightly out of sync.
Finally, Forum Theatre’s Nasty Women rep featured a talented crew performing both Ruby Rae Spiegel’s Dry Land and Monica Byrne’s What Every Girl Should Know, two harrowing plays about unplanned pregnancies set a century apart. Emily Whitworth’s performance as a high schooler who resorts to increasingly desperate means to be rid of her baby stuck with me all year, as did Matty Griffiths’ near-silent role as a janitor at her school. —Chris Klimek