The year 2012, as Queen Elizabeth II might have said, was quite the annus horribilis on Broadway. Especially after the leaves started to turn.
Consider the less-than-regal disappointments. "The Anarchist," the polemical new play by David Mamet, closed within days, starry cast notwithstanding. The revival of "Glengarry Glen Ross" turned out to be mediocre, starry cast notwithstanding. Katie Holmes and Norbert Leo Butz — semi-starry, tabloid-starry — could not make full sense of Theresa Rebeck's veracity-challenged "Dead Accounts." "Chaplin" squandered the brilliance of its lead performer, Rob McClure, by trapping him in a rushed, conventional biographical structure that illuminated far too little of the famous Hollywood tramp. "Scandalous" ran away rapidly. "Rebecca," in a dazzling reminder that Broadway business can get trapped in the kind of shady, byzantine investment practices long abandoned by more sane industries, never even opened.
There was some solace when "A Christmas Story" proved that holiday shows can have quirks, Midwestern charm and a big heart. But those who make a living from the Great White Way have cause to celebrate on New Year's Eve, when the year ends at last.
Unless they were involved in the Steppenwolf Theatre Company's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" a prismatic revival that recast this great American play through the lens of a marriage wherein he (George) might burst a gasket at any moment, and she (Martha) must spin a variety of stories to try to prevent that from happening. There was no better Broadway production all year.
Elsewhere, this was a year of ego-driven peculiarities: Mike Tyson, William Shatner (who insisted that he owns the world in which we find ourselves), a musical with cheerleaders cheering.
Unlike "Lysistrata Jones" (which opened at the very end of 2011 and closed at the very start of 2012), "Bring It On" at least delved into teenage agony and ecstasy without layers of faux-Greek pretension.
Director Diane Paulus' controversially revisionist Broadway revival of "Porgy and Bess" was far more substantial and artful than any of the offerings above; it was beautifully sung and came replete with a thudding naturalistic intensity and some towering emotional performances. If you took each of these characters in isolation, the work felt like a series of rich portraits. But there also were some walls around these difficult characters. Porgy was not enough of a difficult choice for Bess, and this latest version of this iconic work did not let the denizens of Catfish Row take charge of their own story nor fully explore how all their fates were inevitably intertwined.
Mike Nichols' revival of "Death of a Salesman," starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, was similarly rich and complex and was notable not least for its brilliant, adaptive reuse of the original Jo Mielziner design, created back when we all better understood the advantages of contained scale. Hoffman set off fireworks, but his Willy was no tragic everyman, no vessel of representative magnitude. He was an unsympathetic neurotic, a reasonable interpretation of this character, but not, surely, the whole shooting match.
The Stratford Festival of Canada did not seem to bring the whole experience of its "Jesus Christ Superstar" (excellent in Canada; shrill in New York) to the Great White Way, although injury to a lead actor intruded.
The Broadway revival of "A Streetcar Named Desire" had its limitations, but it was a warm-centered, honest and accessible experience that surely proved that the language of Tennessee Williams belongs, like the language of William Shakespeare, to everyone and has no need to be hobbled by geographic or temporal referent.
"Nice Work If You Can Get It" was a nice show if you could get there, although not much more. And "The Columnist," a new play by David Auburn about columnist Joseph Alsop, was rather better than was appreciated. Critics had yet to see what was coming later in the year. Even the poor "Leap of Faith" would have benefited from a delay into the wilderness of the fall.
In the first half of the year, Rick Elice's "Peter and the Starcatcher," a whimsical and strangely appealing tale, proved the resilience of, and our fascination with, the disrupting universe created, many removes previously, by J.M. Barrie, who figured out our endless appetite for eternal youth.
But as the spring bloomed in New York, it became clear that 2012 had just one great show, "Once," a wonderful musical that focused on the Dublin struggles of two ordinary people, musicians and lovers dangling on the edge of Eros, whom we all can recognize. This unstinting understanding of life as it is lived was combined with genuine formative new ideas that should, one hopes, improve the way movie musicals are adapted for the stage in the future.
Here's the template. In "Once," book writer Enda Walsh, director John Tiffany, and choreographer (if that's the word) Steven Hoggett all understood that simplicity and emotional honesty beget theatricality and that we need no clutter on a stage to believe in the truths of love, sacrifice and loss. Sounds simple. Not simple at all on Broadway.
Disney's "Newsies the Musical," the main spring competition for "Once," did not concern itself with those things. It did, though, concern itself with joy, lovable characters and, above all, with dance.
Among the best performances all year on the Great White Way was one by Ryan Steele, the ensemble member who played a character called Specs. When he twirled in the air, hundreds of teenage girls nightly better understood what Broadway could do for them, even in a rough year.