The Saturday List: 2013 in Musical Theatre

Scenes from KINKY BOOTS (a close up of Billy Porter's face as Lola), A GENTLEMAN'S GUIDE TO LOVE AND MURDER (Monty - played by Bryce Pinkham - stands between the two women who wish to marry him - played by Lisa O'Hare and Lauren Worsham) and HERE LIES LOVE (Jose Llana and Ruthie Ann Miles dressed up as the Marcoses.
Scenes from Kinky Boots (featuring Billy Porter), A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder (featuring Lisa O’Hare, Bryce Pinkham and Lauren Worsham and Here Lies Love (featuring Jose Llana and Ruthie Ann Miles).

This year, we’re stepping away from the kind of ranked lists we have done in the past, looking instead at different years in musical theatre history. Each week, we’ll look at the big award winners of the year and the legacy of some of the shows that lit up stages on Broadway, Off-Broadway and in the West End, with occasional leaps into what other countries had to offer.

For our first column of the year, let’s jump back a decade to 2013. Designated as the International Year of Water Cooperation and the International Year of Quinoa, 2013 was also the year that saw Edward Snowden’s rise to international fame, the tragic Boston Marathon bombing and the election of Pope Francis to the Papacy. At the movies, Frozen, which would become a stage musical in the years to come, was top at the worldwide box office. “Thrift Shop,” “Blurred Lines,” and “Radioactive” were top of the charts when it came to pop music, and the most popular new word of the year was “bingeable.” Let’s take a look at what was happening on musical theatre stages around the world.  

1. The Award Winners for Best Musical

Kinky Boots was named Best Musical at the Tony Awards in 2013, having opened on 4 April of that year following a developmental run in Chicago in 2012. Its biggest competition came from Matilda the Musical, which premiered on the West End in 2011. At the following year’s ceremony, another 2013 Broadway musical, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, would take home the prize. Across the pond, the Olivier Award for Best Musical went to Top Hat, a new stage adaptation of the 1935 film, which featured a score by Irving Berlin. As is usually done in adaptations of this nature, several Berlin songs written for other projects augmented the song score from the movie. Following a tour of the United Kingdom in 2011, the production made its West End bow in 2012. The following year, an American musical from 2011, The Book of Mormon, took home the top prize, beating the only nominated musical from 2013 in both seasons, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. All in all, it was not a great couple of years for new British musicals.

2. Most Overrated

I’m sad to say it, but the most overrated musical of this year for me is Kinky Boots. It’s a good musical, but not a great one. Cyndi Lauper’s score stays with you for the night but not for the ages. Harvey Fierstein’s book is aware of the ideas with which it grapples, but it never distils these fully into the plot and characters. In short, Kinky Boots never quite gets to grips precisely with what it wants to say about gender or race. There is a distinct sense of everyone hedging their bets. While Jerry Mitchell’s innovative staging distracted audiences from that shortcoming, the cast’s performances truly elevated this show in its original run, a trend that seems consistent wherever it travels. This is especially true of Billy Porter’s Lola. What Porter did with songs like “Not My Father’s Son” and “Hold Me In Your Heart” turned what could easily be played as sentiment into pure emotion, creating moments that really mean something in a world like ours.

3. Most Underrated

Hands on a Hardbody is a somewhat unconventional musical. It’s like A Chorus Line, but instead of dancers auditioning to be part of a Broadway ensemble, a group of working-class Americans competes to win a hardbody truck. Whoever keeps their hand on the vehicle for the longest time goes home with the prize. What’s amazing and perhaps even surprising about this show is how well it captures moments of people just being human in songs like “Alone With Me” or scenes like the one in which Norma breaks into uncontrollable laughter before transitioning into “Joy of the Lord.” That sense of empathy is one key element of the theatrical act. It invests the show with stakes in which an audience can invest. It’s a pity that high schools and community theatres don’t produce this show more often, as it has a lot to offer.

4. Hidden Gem 

After Evita but before Six, there was Here Lies Love. Presented as a concept album before its premiere as an immersive Off-Broadway poperetta, Here Lies Love tells the story of Imelda Marcos, the former first lady of the Philippines. Created by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim, the show offers 90 minutes of great bops with some fantastic hooks. While the concept album showcases a range of pop artists, the cast recording features Ruthie Ann Miles, Jose Llana and Conrad Ricamora in their stage roles. The concept for the production was a club party, during which a DJ and the club’s staff presented the story of the Marcoses. As the clubbers, the audience was encouraged to dance along as the show progressed. What a brilliant way to illustrate our complicity and relative distance in the political processes that shape our lives!

5. Show of the Year

For me, the show of the year was A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder. With an award-winning book by Robert L. Freedman, who collaborated on the score with Steven Lutvak. This musical is a delightful romp through Edwardian-era London, poking fun at the conventions of class with some delicious nods to the conventions of the theatre of the time too. Witty and droll, the show is entertaining from curtain to curtain as Monty Navarro works his way to an earldom by bumping off the eight relatives that stand between him and his aristocratic right as one of the D’Ysquith dynasty. There is great fun in numbers like “Poison in My Pocket” and “I’ve Decided to Marry You” and outstanding character work in songs like “Foolish to Think” and “Inside Out,” which balances the drive of the farcical book. It’s outstanding work all around. The show bears repeated viewings and the cast recording, many listens.

2013 was certainly a good year for musical theatre – not the strongest ever, perhaps, but one in which several enjoyable shows left their mark on the world. Kinky Boots is among the thirty longest-running Broadway productions of all time, and the Tony Awards ceremony opened with one of the best numbers in the history of the awards, “Bigger!” by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Tom Kitt. What a tribute to a solid Broadway season!

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