Recently, Entertainment Weekly published “The EW 1000,” a humongous list of their picks for the best in all of pop culture from the last 25 years. I was to happy to see that they give some props to New York theater, ranking their picks for the Top 50 productions since 1983. A pretty interesting list, all-around, bound to start some discussions. It got me thinking about what my picks might be from within that timeframe, and after I sat down and thought about for a few minutes, I found that my picks were pretty easily discernible.
So, with that little intro, I give you my purely subjective list of Top 10 Personal Favorite New York Theater Experiences of the Last 25 Years. These were the experiences that immediately stood out in my memory, and have stayed with me over the years for a variety of personal reasons. Here goes, in chronological order…
- Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1984). August Wilson’s Broadway debut. My father was in the original production, both on Broadway and at Yale Rep. I attended the Broadway opening with my mom, and to this day it remains one of the most electrifying and memorable theatergoing experiences of my life.
- M. Butterfly (1988). The theatregoing public’s introduction to B.D. Wong, who gave a brilliant performance as Song Liling that included an astounding onstage transformation from his female persona to his male persona during the intermission between Acts II and III that made everyone forget they had to go to the bathroom. Theater magic at its best.
- Our Town (1988). Lincoln Center Theater’s revival, directed by Gregory Mosher. This was the production that starred Spalding Gray as the Stage Manager, Eric Stoltz and Penelope Ann Miller as the young lovers, and brought this old chestnut thrillingly alive for a generation of audiences that thought it was nothing more than a musty old museum piece.
- The Who’s Tommy (1993). The last Broadway musical I paid full price for, and boy was it worth it. I saw it ten days before it closed, and it was so exciting and vibrant and alive after a nearly a two-year run that I would’ve gladly paid full price to see it again. Amazing.
- Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in ‘Da Funk (1995). The original Off-Broadway production at The Public Theater, before it moved to Broadway. I was in college at the time, and one of my fellow classmates from acting class, Baakari Wilder, was in this show. Nice guy, very funny, and a good actor to boot. We all knew he danced, but had never seen him in action. So, unbeknownst to him, I went to see the show early in previews. And when I saw him take the stage with Savion Glover and Co., tapping away furiously, I realized I was seeing him in his true element for the very first time. Astounding.
- A Delicate Balance (1996). Lincoln Center strikes again with this Broadway revival of Edward Albee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play. Easily the finest example of a director (in this case, the late Gerald Gutierrez) being able to express a play’s themes through design, stagecraft, and acting that I have ever seen. Clear, precise, and devastating. The spectacular trio of Rosemary Harris, George Grizzard, and Elaine Stritch in the lead roles didn’t hurt either.
- I Can’t Remember Anything / The Last Yankee (1997). A double-bill of little-known Arthur Miller one-acts produced by Signature Theatre Company during their Miller season. I was on the stage crew for this production and had a blast doing it. I got to see the inner workings of a real Off-Broadway company first-hand; I got to observe the late Joseph Chaikin (who directed) in action during rehearsals; I got to watch a bunch of seasoned New York theater actors – including Peter Maloney, Rebecca Schull, and Joseph Wiseman (in what turned out to be an Obie award winning performance) – do their thing every night; and, best of all, I got to meet Mr. Miller himself. It doesn’t get any better than that.
- Hedwig and the Angry Inch (1998). Another personal experience for me, as I worked this production as a staff usher and assistant house manager for the first seven months of its Off-Broadway run. I saw it dozens of times – with both John Cameron Mitchell and Michael Cerveris in the title role – and it was just as good the 40th time I saw it as it was the first time. Now that’s theater magic.
- Death of a Salesman (1999). The Broadway revival starring Brian Dennehy and Elizabeth Franz, both of whom were heartbreaking. Another instance of a director (in this instance, Robert Falls) breathing new life into a well-known classic. My best friend, Ed, and I caught this one on the tail end of previews, and were blown away by it all over again.
- Blackbird (2007). An extremely intense experience, and quite a gutsy move by Manhattan Theatre Club, I thought: a harrowing production of David Harrower’s pedophile love story starring the fantastic Jeff Daniels and Alison Pill. In a word: wow. (I reviewed this production for nytheatre.com, and you can read my review here.)
Honorable mentions to the following productions: Lost in Yonkers (original Broadway production, 1991), Lobby Hero (Off-Broadway transfer, 1993); and Hamlet (The Public Theater, 1999).
And kudos to Entertainment Weekly to legitimizing theater as a pop culture force for the general public outside of New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. Live theater gets all the help it can get these days, and by giving it valuable national space EW arguably does more for the theater with this list than the NEA has done for it in God knows how long.
Okay, I’ve given you my list. Now I’d love to hear more about what some of your faves from the past 25 years have been. Ply me with comments, Dear Reader – GO!