Louis Peitzman

“Angels In America” Can’t Escape The Shadow Of Trump — But That’s Not A Bad Thing

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Prior Walter (Andrew Garfield) gives his closing speech in Angels in America. Behind him: Louis (James McArdle), Hannah (Susan Brown), and Belize (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett).

When President Trump reportedly asked, “Where’s my Roy Cohn?” during a rant last March about his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, chances are he wasn’t thinking about the character in Angels in America.

It’s true that Roy Cohn is one of the most memorable figures in Tony Kushner’s plays Millennium Approaches and Perestroika, performed together as Angels in America and currently enjoying a widely praised revival on Broadway. But before Kushner’s version of the character debuted in 1991, Roy Cohn was a very real person — a lawyer who rose to prominence during the McCarthy era, was eventually disbarred for unethical conduct, and died of AIDS in 1986. He was also the one-time mentor to a young Donald Trump.

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Nathan Lane as Roy Cohn.

The social media accounts for the current Broadway production, which stars Nathan Lane as Cohn alongside Andrew Garfield as the reluctant prophet, Prior Walter, latched on to Trump’s offhand question, incorporating “Where’s my Roy Cohn?” into an ad campaign. The tenuous connection between Angels in America and Trump — which was there, however subtextually, from the beginning — was suddenly overt. If you want to comprehend Trump, the ad might have been saying, see this nearly 30-year-old play.

There might be some truth to that: Although Trump’s name is never mentioned in the play, Angels in America’s dissection of the Republican Party — its isolationist, individualist policies and strong personalities — provides a sort of road map toward our current political moment. But while Kushner concedes the associations, he’s wary of how some audience members might conflate Trump and Cohn. Cohn, he argues, was deeply loyal, forming a lifelong attachment to Joe McCarthy, the notorious anti-communist senator. Trump, he counters, is loyal only as long as the other person is useful. By Kushner’s account, he dumped Cohn as soon as he learned that Cohn had AIDS.

“I found myself in an odd place of wanting to defend [Roy], because I don’t think that they’re the same person, and I was nervous going in. Are people gonna read the play through that kind of Trumpian mirror?” Kushner told BuzzFeed News. “Are they gonna try to turn the Roy in my play into a borderline psychotic narcissist like Donald Trump?”

“I think there’s really very little that’s worse than Donald Trump.”

“Not all villains are equal,” he continued. “Some really bad people are worse than other really bad people. I think there’s really very little that’s worse than Donald Trump.”

Get Kushner going on Trump and he will hold nothing back — he speaks in thoughtful, impassioned monologues that reflect a deep engagement with US political culture. At times, he sounds like a gentler, more self-aware version of Angels in America’s Louis, Prior’s neurotic, diatribe-loving boyfriend, played in this production by James McArdle. That current runs throughout the plays, which serve, among other things, as a searing indictment of Reaganism. (Though first performed in 1991, the plays take place in 1985 and 1986.)

Of course, there’s much more to Angels in America than that — how else to account for the seven and a half hour runtime of the combined plays? The “gay fantasia on national themes,” as it’s subtitled, follows a series of characters, including Prior, who begins to receive celestial messages as he’s battling AIDS; Roy Cohn, who tries to mask his AIDS as liver cancer; Louis, who abandons Prior when he needs him most; Roy’s closeted Mormon protégé, Joe Pitt (Lee Pace); and Joe’s pill-addled wife Harper (Denise Gough). The characters converge and fight for survival as the play asks grand questions: How do we become the people we are meant to be? And what is the responsibility we owe to ourselves — and to each other?

“It’s about being true to yourself and, once you are true to yourself, how to be true to the people around you and find a community,” said Marianne Elliott, the director who first took on Angels in America at London’s National Theatre last year and has now transferred the production to Broadway. “It has a political statement to make about [the 1980s] but it’s very similar to now, I would say.”

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Harper (Denise Gough) and Joe (Lee Pace).

Change — and how difficult that is to achieve — is perhaps the play’s most prominent theme. The epic arcs of Kushner’s characters reflect a conception of change as an arduous, at times unbearably time-consuming process, but one that is ultimately achievable. That notion — that real change doesn’t happen overnight but rather through sometimes tedious work — runs in contrast to the quick fixes championed by politicians, like Trump, who promise to shake things up.

Sounding eerily like the character he plays in Angels in America, McArdle spoke candidly about the current state of affairs in these terms. He’s not American — his Scottish accent is particularly striking after you’ve heard him employ Louis’s nebbishy New York voice — but he’s studied his history. And he believes that, along with racism and xenophobia, the rise of Trump and of people like him in the past is tied to a disenfranchised working class eager for change.

“At any point in history where fascism takes flight is when people’s backs are put against the wall and that’s what I feel has happened here,” he said. “But the actual truth is, if we do want change for the future, it’s gonna be hard. [Trump is] giving them the sort of easy way out, and I think that’s what the play talks about — there’s no easy way out for change. If you want proper change, you’re gonna have to go into the storm.”

“If you want proper change, you’re gonna have to go into the storm.”

The themes of change, progress, and how we connect to one another are certainly not linked to any singular political phenomenon, and the timeless quality of Angels in America underscores that. At the same time, there is an uncomfortable prescience to so much of the play in terms of where we are now. It’s not just the age-old debate over the role of government in taking care of its citizens — one could read Kushner’s heaven, with its absent god, through that lens — or of how much personal responsibility those citizens bear when it comes to taking care of one another. The play also references climate change (Harper’s concern over the hole in the ozone layer is treated as a symptom of her mental illness by Joe) and immigration (America, a country built by immigrants — among other groups — refuses to embrace them).

That relevance to the current conversation is especially impressive when you consider the specificity with which Kushner infused his work: The characters talk at length about their contemporary politics. Kushner admitted that he was nervous about writing such detailed references, fearing they would one day be archaic, but he now considers their inclusion “one of the only genuine innovations of the play.”

“There’s a tendency to sort of want to avoid making a play dated by being not precise about the historical moment, but politics has a lot to do with specificity and you can’t really talk much about politics if you only deal with abstractions,” he said.

As Elliott put it, “If you’ve got really great writing, the more specific it is, weirdly the more universal it becomes.”

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The titular angel (Amanda Lawrence).

But while it’s hard to imagine a time in which Angels in America wouldn’t feel relevant, it’s impossible to ignore the unique timeliness of doing this production under the Trump administration. It’s not just the Roy Cohn of it all, but also that so much of what the play warns about — the estrangement between people across stark political divides and what Kushner calls “anti-government incoherence” — hasn’t gone away. “He kind of saw what was going to happen with the Republican Party,” Gough said. “It just feels like the politics of the play are more prevalent now than they were then.”

“I do think that there’s an obligation to hope.”

Despite the progress that has come to pass, for many people things feel worse than ever — or at least worse than anything they remember. That makes the play, by Elliott’s estimation, “very, very alive.” “The problem about period pieces [is] you look at them through a kind of haze of Vaseline and think, That was then, but it’s OK; we don’t have to worry about it because it’s not now,” she said. “Whereas actually what’s horrifying, electrifying, and inspiring about this is that that was then — it was in living memory — but it’s the same if not more extreme now. Because of that situation then, it only created a world that’s even more like it was then.”

Framed that way, Angels in America sounds awfully depressing. Yes, there is something semi-tragic about viewing it from a modern perspective: The characters sometimes sound painfully naive, their fears for the future both accurate and, in retrospect, restrained. When Joe tells Harper, in so many words, that Reagan will make the country great again, it’s difficult not to cringe. When Belize (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) says he hates America, he sounds like the only sane person onstage. And then there are these prophetic words from a homeless woman (Amanda Lawrence): “In the new century, I think we will all be insane.”

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Harper delivers her final monologue.

And yet, there is an optimism to Angels in America that provides some relief to the audience after hours of watching these characters go through hell. It’s encapsulated in the final two monologues of the play. First, there is Harper, who has left Joe and is traveling to San Francisco. “Nothing’s lost forever,” she says. “In this life, there is a kind of painful progress. Longing for what we’ve left behind, and dreaming ahead.” Then there’s Prior, who ends the show with a speech that includes his vision of a brighter future: “We won’t die secret deaths anymore. The world only spins forward. We will be citizens.”

When Prior’s speech was first delivered on Broadway in the early ’90s, there was reason for hope for those who felt beaten down by the past decade: New protocols for treating AIDS were extending lives, and the arrival of Bill Clinton in the White House seemed to signal the end of Reaganism and with it, the government’s refusal to respond to or even acknowledge the AIDS crisis. But hope was still a tenuous concept, and fear persisted. “It was the moment after the worst of the thing had happened,” Kushner recalled. “The play was talking to an audience of people who were still very raw from the war.”

So much has changed since then, but many of the audience members who see this production of Angels in America may again feel that optimism is in short supply. Kushner, however, isn’t concerned about the message falling flat. After all, Prior’s speech isn’t just a cheerful reminder that things will improve — it’s a call to arms. “I do think that there’s an obligation to hope,” Kushner said. “And to hope is not to just wish that it would get better, but to look for the plausible occasions whence hope might be anticipated, something positive might be anticipated, and then work for those.”

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Louis and Belize.

This is the message that the cast and creative team behind Angels in America kept returning to. It’s the message of the play itself. Yes, change is possible, but it requires constant persistence. Kushner cited the gun control activism of the Parkland students, while Pace pointed to the #MeToo movement and the decades of progress made by the LGBTQ community. In Angels in America, Prior has to literally wrestle an angel who demands he stand still instead of moving forward. The angels, Elliott noted, are “quite right-wing”: “They’re the enemies of progress.”

It’s not just about fighting back, however — it’s also about standing together. The play concludes with Prior alongside his chosen family: Louis, Belize, and Joe’s mother, Hannah (Susan Brown). “You look after the group,” McArdle said. “They’re creating a system of being together.”

“The process works. It works. It might take longer than we wish, but the thing actually works.”

That was by intention. “When [Prior] blesses us at the end of the play, what he’s acknowledging is the immense power of human community, and that’s what the enemies of life are most interested in assaulting and destroying,” Kushner said. “It’s all about atomizing, splintering, denying the connections between people and responsibilities that we have for one another.”

While he referenced Trump often, Kushner’s beliefs about the power of community — and the need for resilience in the face of those who would tear it apart — existed long before the current president. So, too, his conception of progress as something that necessitates tremendous effort. The play is not, then, a protest against the current administration: These big ideas had value when he first expressed them, and they will have value long after Trump is out of office.

At the same time, anyone struggling through our current reality will have a hard time not clinging to that brighter perspective on where we go from here, and the message Angels in America imparts might provide a meaningful way forward. Not to mention the fact that the distance from when the play was first performed to now offers something equally useful: perspective. The light at the end of the tunnel seems impossibly far away, Kushner realizes, but then, it did when he was first writing Angels in America. And it does to all his characters — who manage, over the course of an epic emotional and sometimes physical battle, to come out the other side.

“The process works,” Pace said. “It works. It might take longer than we wish, but the thing actually works. It’s frustrating and painful. It rips your guts out and forces you to confront things that you don’t want to confront, as an individual and as a community, but it works. That, I think, is the truth of the play.”

Louis Peitzman is a deputy entertainment editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.

Contact Louis Peitzman at louis.peitzman@buzzfeed.com.

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How John Krasinski Became The Next Great Voice In Horror

When John Krasinski set out to cowrite and direct A Quiet Place, he knew he was in desperate need of a crash course in horror. For years, he had largely avoided the genre, but now that he was going to make a horror film of his own, he had to play catch-up.

“The first thing I realized was how ignorant I was to be so strident about not seeing movies because I thought they’d be scary, because what I did was I realized I missed out on some of the best cinema that’s been going for the last few years,” he told BuzzFeed News. “Get Out, The Witch, The Babadook, Let the Right One In — all these movies are so incredibly well shot, well written, well thought out, that I’m such a lover of genre movies now.”

Emily Blunt, who plays Evelyn in A Quiet Place and has been married to Krasinski since 2010, admired his binge-watching, although she confessed that she’s “terrified” of the genre herself. “John watched every horror film under the sun to prepare for this movie,” she said. “He was like, ‘Do you want to watch It with me?’ I was like, ‘No, I don’t!’”

Krasinski’s horror education seems to have paid off with A Quiet Place, the third feature he’s directed after 2009’s Brief Interviews With Hideous Men and 2016’s The Hollars. The reviews that have come out since its South by Southwest premiere have been overwhelmingly positive. The film — which Krasinski cowrote with Bryan Woods and Scott Beck — follows a family of four as they live in silence to defend themselves from alien creatures who hunt by sound. Krasinski also stars as the father, Lee, who — along with Evelyn — works to keep their daughter, Regan (Millicent Simmonds), and son, Marcus (Noah Jupe), safe. It’s a tight, at times unbearably suspenseful thriller, with some of the most terrifying set pieces in recent horror memory. And because the characters can’t speak out loud or make any noise, it’s overwhelmingly quiet.

But A Quiet Place also has a rich emotional core and resonant themes of parental anxiety and the endless challenges of communication. Monsters aside, it’s about the lengths a mother and father will go to to protect their children in a world of constant danger. And then there’s Regan, who is deaf and sees herself as a burden on her family, when, in fact, her disability proves to be one of her strongest assets. Her fractured relationship with her father (and herself) provides a critical through-line to the film. That deeper level recalls the similar thematic richness of the modern horror films Krasinski cited, and it’s what elevates his movie past being just a tense creature feature.

One of Krasinski’s major takeaways from his horror binge was that the standouts of the genre never rest solely on scares. But then, that was never his approach to A Quiet Place. He was first offered the movie as an actor; at that point, it was a 70-page treatment that Woods and Beck had written. Once he saw a way in beyond the surface-level horror, he signed on as a writer and director. “It was terrifying and I could see that there was a potential for this giant allegory for parenthood, and that’s what I put into the rewrite of the script and I really tried to go for it,” he said.

While he was nervous about taking on a new genre, he thought back to advice he received from Greg Daniels, the showrunner of The Office, on which Krasinski starred as Jim Halpert for nine seasons. Daniels told him that it wasn’t his job to be funny or to make sure his scenes with Jenna Fischer’s Pam were poignant; he just had to deliver the lines and leave the rest to the audience.

“I thought of Greg because I said, my job is not to try to make a scary movie, my job is to make a movie about a family that you care about and if you care about them enough, you’ll be scared to go through what they’re going through,” Krasinski said. “Yet again, I owe everything to Greg Daniels.”

Krasinski’s approach to A Quiet Place grounds the film in family drama without sacrificing any scares. It’s what drew Blunt to the project despite her reservations about the genre as a whole. She was moved by the script and its focus on a mother and father’s fiercely protective devotion to their children. A parent herself, Blunt said she identified with Evelyn more than most of the characters she’s played.

“It felt very close to home for me, as being a mother of two young children, feeling like I’m worried about exposing them to this brutal world,” Blunt said. “It’s a fragile world we’re in anyway, and wanting only happiness for my children, and their health and happiness and their safety, it’s like, this mother and the way she operates was so — it was a no-brainer for me.”

A major reason why A Quiet Place succeeds as well as it does is that the family unit at its center feels cohesive and real. There’s a bit of an unfair advantage, of course: As real-life husband and wife, Krasinski and Blunt were able to use their own relationship to give a bit of unspoken backstory to Lee and Evelyn. “John and I have that immediate shorthand obviously because we’re married and we have a whole lifetime of memories together to sort of draw from when imagining what life must have been like for this family before hell ensued,” Blunt said.

The film even includes real photos of the couple and their children as stand-ins for family photos. Given that built-in intimacy, there could have been some concern over privacy, but Blunt was unfazed. “Something that would have been more intimate for us would be a drama about marriage — that’s not what this movie is,” she said. “What’s been so cool about the reaction is that people talk about the film, they talk about [John] as a filmmaker, and then they’re like, ‘Oh yeah, by the way, they’re also, like, married in real life.’”

But it’s not just the parents who anchor the fictional family in lived-in honesty — it’s also the kids. Simmonds and Jupe are accomplished young actors who are able to convey the fear and frustration of their situation without ever opening their mouths. Simmonds, who earned acclaim for her breakthrough role in Wonderstruck last year, is especially compelling. For Krasinski, hiring a deaf actor for the role was non-negotiable. “She can give a much more honest and layered performance because she’s actually experiencing it,” he said. “I needed a guide. I needed someone to actually help me talk about the nuance of — or talk to me about the nuance of — what it’s like to be a member of a family when you’re deaf and they’re hearing.”

That authenticity shines through in all the scenes with the family — and it’s part of what makes the peril they’re in as the creatures descend on their farm so stressful for an audience to endure. Beyond their own bond as a married couple, Krasinski and Blunt had the younger actors and their parents over to their home. Krasinski said he learned the most about how to portray those fictional family dynamics by watching their real family dynamics play out in front of him. As a result, the unwavering parent-child bond that he wanted to keep front and center feels impressively organic and holds the film together.

With that combination of high-concept terror and potent emotional honesty, A Quiet Place emerges as exactly the kind of horror film Krasinski wanted to make — and one he was uniquely suited for. It’s also another great reminder of how a genre that has historically been dismissed and maligned can actually offer rich storytelling while still scaring the crap out of audiences.

“It’s a genre with sort of endless potential and possibilities,” Blunt said. “You’ve got a heightened reality, or a slightly heightened reality, and you can really actually create a sort of more profound backdrop for it. You can carve out new space for yourself in the horror genre, and I think that’s what films like Get Out and certainly John was trying to do.”

Krasinski is thrilled by the response he’s gotten so far — and somewhat relieved. He admitted that he was nervous going into this experience, particularly as a horror newcomer. But while he’s not sure what the next directorial project he takes on will be, genre fans can rest assured he’s eager to give horror another shot.

“This genre now is something where some of the most complicated storytelling is happening, some of the biggest conceits, some of the biggest ideas, so that’s where I want to be,” he said. “What was so thrilling about this was being outside of my comfort zone. I’d love to do it again.”

6 Reasons You'll Love Disney's “Frozen” Musical

As with Levy and Murin, the strength of this cast is in their ability to evoke the feel of Frozen the movie while making sure Frozen the musical emerges as its own thing entirely. Jelani Alladin is Jonathan Groff–level charming as Kristoff, but it’s fantastic to see a black actor in the role, given the dearth of characters of color in the Disney canon, particularly as romantic leads. (It’s worth noting that Anna and Elsa’s father, King Agnarr, is also played by a black actor, James Brown III.) John Riddle is unbearably likable as Hans — like, it’s actually deeply uncomfortable because you know he’s going to reveal himself to be a tool — and he has one of the most powerful voices in the cast. And Greg Hildreth manages to bring a soulfulness to Olaf, who is, you know, a talking snowman. He’s comic relief, sure, but Hildreth makes sure that you’re rooting for him at the same time. Speaking of…

Why “Wild Things” Was A Defining Film For Gay Men In The ’90s

For gay men who grew up in the ’90s, there are two distinctive eras: the time before we saw Kevin Bacon’s full-frontal scene in Wild Things, and the time after.

It’s been 20 years to the day since Wild Things hit theaters. This was two decades before Moonlight, before Love, Simon, before Call Me by Your Name: LGBT representation certainly existed, in indie comedies (1995’s Jeffrey) or the occasional prestige AIDS drama (1993’s Philadelphia), but it was neither plentiful nor especially mainstream. Many of us who were still figuring ourselves out gravitated less toward more overt depictions of gayness, like The Birdcage or In & Out, and more to subtler, subtextually homoerotic representation.

It feels absurd to use the word “subtle” in connection to Wild Things, the kind of steamy erotic thriller that should have been relegated to late-night Cinemax but somehow ended up with a wide release. It is too deliberately over-the-top to be regarded as true camp, although that doesn’t make it any less fun. But whether intentionally or not, there is an undercurrent of gayness that made it especially titillating to all the curious and questioning teens who managed to bypass Blockbuster’s age-restricted rental prohibitions. On paper, it’s a movie that feels designed for straight bros, but in reality, it proved much more appealing to closet queers.

That’s part of what made it such an attractive option: Wild Things was the slightly more respectable version of watching the Pamela Anderson–Tommy Lee sex tape and keeping your eyes focused entirely on Tommy Lee. The only overt same-sex content in the movie is the steamy pool scene between Neve Campbell’s Suzie Toller and Denise Richards’ Kelly Van Ryan, and the threesome involving the two and Matt Dillon as lecherous teacher Sam Lombardo. These aren’t moments of genuine passion between two women so much as a shameless excuse to pander to straight male viewers eager to see two girls making out. And yet, despite the male-gaziness of those sapphic scenes, there is a distinct feeling of true queerness, a wink to those watching Wild Things not for topless Denise Richards but for shirtless Matt Dillon.

Explaining the plot of Wild Things is an exercise in futility: The film is too twisty and convoluted to merit a full synopsis. Suffice it to say, it involves an elaborate con by an ever-increasing cast of players with shifting allegiances — not only Suzie, Kelly, and Sam, but also (spoiler alert) sleazy lawyer Kenneth Bowden (Bill Murray) and corrupt sergeant Ray Duquette (Kevin Bacon). And the film has aged horribly: The inciting incident is a false rape accusation that was cringey at the time and is now even more unbearable. But we can acknowledge how deeply offensive a movie is and also how formative its climactic shower scene was to a certain subset of gay millennials.

Near the end of the movie, after Sam has double-crossed Suzie and Kelly, he returns to his beach bungalow to find someone in the shower. The figure emerging from the steam isn’t Suzie or Kelly, both presumed dead, but a fully nude Ray Duquette. It’s a pivotal moment that reveals both Ray’s complicity in Sam’s plot and, also, Bacon’s penis. Given the rarity of full-frontal male nudity on the big screen — particularly an A-list actor in a mainstream release — it’s a fairly shocking moment. But it also feels like much-needed confirmation to those who watched Wild Things suspecting there was something gay about it all along. The major twist is that a movie that seemed all about the male gaze is actually about the male gays.

Nudity aside, the scene is as homoerotic as it can be without Dillon and Bacon actually embracing. The men are clearly very comfortable with each other — there’s no hint of awkwardness when Sam walks in on Ray in the shower — and given the film’s relentless sexuality, the idea that these dudes might not just be friends and partners in crime feels more than a little implied. If Wild Things were made today — please, god, without the false rape accusation — it’s likely that the scene would have played out differently, with Sam joining Ray in the shower. (Or perhaps that’s just wishful thinking from a former closeted teen who always imagined it ending that way.)

It’s not surprising that Wild Things has emerged as a queer cult classic: It has all the elements of the genre. There’s Denise Richards, whose ’90s work also includes the quintessential Starship Troopers and Drop Dead Gorgeous. There’s the completely batshit plot, including a what-the-fuck incest twist delivered in some offhand exposition. And there’s the endlessly quotable dialogue, most of it coming from Richards: “Where’d she get the shoes, Whores for Less?” What is surprising is seeing, in retrospect, how much of that queerness might have been intentional from the beginning. It would be silly to suggest that Wild Things was a movie made for gay men — but it would be equally naive to dismiss its queer appeal as mere accident.

Thankfully, in the 20 years since Wild Things, we’ve seen major steps forward for actual LGBT representation — including love scenes between women that aren’t clearly designed to excite straight guys. But as retrograde and objectionable as the movie is in many ways, it’s still a fascinating relic of the era. And for those of us who were drawn to it years before we fully understood why, it’s a major piece of nostalgia, a comforting reminder of how far we’ve come and of those early forbidden thrills.

This Hit Musical Is Breaking New Ground For Middle Eastern Representation

Years before she was in The Band’s Visit on Broadway, Sharone Sayegh was a student at Syracuse University visiting New York City to audition for the tour of Hairspray. According to Sayegh, the audition monitor said there were too many people present and they would have to make a cut: Because the show was about black and white race relations in the 1960s, anyone who wasn’t black or white would not be considered. Sayegh, who is Iraqi-Israeli, gathered her things and left.

“I wasn’t upset,” Sayegh told BuzzFeed News. “I was like, Yeah I’m not. I’m not white and I’m not black, so I probably should only start auditioning for Middle Eastern shows. But I was like, Wait a minute, there aren’t any, so what should I do?

With The Band’s Visit, which opened in November at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, Sayegh has found a show that’s distinctly Middle Eastern, and that actually reflects the duality of her ethnic background in its exploration of two cultures: Her parents were born in Israel but are of Iraqi descent, and she was born and raised in the US. Based on the acclaimed 2007 film, The Band’s Visit follows Egypt’s Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra as they find themselves stranded overnight in the sleepy Israeli town of Bet Hatikva. There, the locals take them in, and both the Israelis and their Egyptian visitors realize they’re all searching for the same thing — human connection.

While the show could depict a fraught, politically charged conflict between the Arabs and the Israelis, The Band’s Visit is quiet and restrained, more focused on their innate similarities and newly formed bonds than on any larger issues that might come between them. That grounded, slice-of-life approach stands out against the more common portrayals of Middle Eastern life, which often center on terrorism or border conflicts.

“I guess it could be inherently political, but I like to think that it’s not,” said George Abud, who plays Camal, a member of the band. “We just see these strangers meeting and being confused by each other and challenging each other in mostly nonthreatening ways, and just trying to figure each other out and trying to communicate.”

For Abud, who is Lebanese-American, the normalcy of the show is part of what makes it such a significant step forward for representation. Not to mention, of course, that the cast includes so many actors of diverse Middle Eastern backgrounds. Abud was so inspired by the work the show was doing that he eschewed listing credits in his Playbill bio, instead opting for the following message: “I hope young Arabic kids, like I was, see this show, or hear it, or read about it, and know that there is starting to be a place for their expression, their stories and their faces. The Arab voice, rich in history and beautiful music, is vital in American theatre.”

Explaining his choice for the unconventional bio, Abud said that he wanted to “start planting the seed and normalizing the Arab people and the Arab-American people, to show people who have not come into contact with them as much that we’ve been here and we’re part of the fabric.”

That’s part of the work The Band’s Visit is doing, and it’s why — aside from the gorgeous book and evocative score — these actors have been so drawn to the show. Etai Benson, who plays Bet Hatikva resident Papi, said this is the first time he’s really seen himself represented onstage. Half Israeli and half American, he is Jewish but has always felt more of a “spiritual kinship with Middle Eastern culture and traditions,” as opposed to the Eastern European Jewish culture depicted in classic Broadway shows like Fiddler on the Roof.

“This was … a Broadway musical — what I’ve always dreamed of doing in my life — that had Hebrew in it, that had my culture, that had everything that I grew up with represented onstage,” Benson said.

Benson has been cast as Jewish characters throughout his career; Sayegh, on the other hand, has struggled to be seen for Jewish roles despite the fact that she is an American Jew. “I cannot get an audition for Fiddler whenever it’s done, because they’re like, you don’t look Jewish,” she said. “And it’s like, you don’t know what a Jew is!” She has played Latinas and Indians because of a scarcity of roles for people who look like her, although she’s uncertain if she would do that again because “it feels inauthentic.”

“I rarely go into an audition without an accent because people just don’t view me as American or there hasn’t been an Israeli show or a Middle Eastern show,” Sayegh said. “[The Band’s Visit] being an Israeli piece where I didn’t have to learn a new accent and I could speak my language and there’s Arabic music — I mean, it’s just like my whole world.”

For Ari’el Stachel, who plays smooth-talking band member Haled, the show has a particular resonance. He is half Yemenite Israeli and half Ashkenazi Jew: The Band’s Visit reflects a similar convergence of cultures. But it’s also a rare opportunity for Stachel to embrace his ethnic identity, which he admitted was once a source of shame for him. “For a majority of my life I pretended not to be Middle Eastern — anything but Middle Eastern,” he said. “If I wasn’t perceived as an outsider or as a Yemenite kid or some weird kid with a father with an accent, I felt like I had social permission to play basketball, to sing, to act.”

The Band’s Visit, in which the characters’ Arab and Israeli ethnicities are both essential to their stories and not their only defining characteristic, marks a major turning point for Stachel, who only publicly revealed his ethnic background when he was a junior at NYU. “I just didn’t know that there would be roles available for me,” he said. “But I think all the time I spent concealing made me obsessed with my identity and dying to be proud of it, and so this show has enabled that for me.”

But it’s also the story that Band’s Visit tells that makes these actors especially excited about it: They all spoke about having had to audition for heavier roles, sometimes terrorists or refugees. And while they agreed that those stories are necessary, they do not represent the full breadth of the Middle Eastern experience. The simple, human story in this particular play offers a meaningful alternative to what most of these actors have faced throughout their careers.

As Benson noted, “Diversity in casting is very important, and I think our show is very emblematic of that. When you look onstage you see kinds of faces that you haven’t seen before. But to me, what’s just as if not more important is the diversity in storytelling.”

Abud put it more bluntly. “We’re mostly doing frickin’ shows downtown about Syria and the conflict in Syria. I don’t want to do fucking 200 shows about Syria,” he said. “I want to do a Theresa Rebeck [play] about annoying Upper East Side kids who are taking an art class or something. It has nothing to do with them being white. … We want to play with everybody else.”

He said that he sees two forms of progress — one is Middle Eastern actors being cast as Middle Eastern characters in their own stories, and the other is Middle Eastern actors being cast as, well, anyone. And while The Band’s Visit represents the former, its work to normalize and showcase the work of Middle Eastern actors will ideally lead to more opportunities down the line, including roles that have traditionally been played by white actors.

Stachel is already feeling optimistic. “Maybe now people will take a chance on me and let me stretch and play other types of things,” he said. “The sense that I have in meetings now is quite different, because people are able to see me in what I feel is my truth.”

In the meantime, they will continue speaking out whenever possible. Even while celebrating an accomplishment like The Band’s Visit, there is a tremendous amount of work to be done — and for these actors, that means both being grateful for the opportunity and making sure this show isn’t just a fluke.

“It’s my responsibility to help others with my platform in whatever way I can,” Abud said. “I have a very, very, very small platform, but any opportunity I can, I like to try and do something, because even if it just gives somebody a little bit of hope — like I’ve gotten from little things — that’s what the theater is.”

6 Reasons You'll Fall In Love With The “SpongeBob” Musical

There are plenty of shows that dabble in a variety of musical genres, but SpongeBob really goes for it — hip-hop, emo, gospel, and, yes, even a sea shanty written by Sara Bareilles. It’s not just Bareilles: The show employed numerous big-name songwriters, including John Legend, the Flaming Lips, T.I., and Panic! At the Disco. Amazingly enough, the score isn’t an abrasive mishmash of different styles. While the songs themselves are unique — and often bear the distinctive feel of the artists who wrote them — they come together as a cohesive musical theater score. Despite all the cooks in the kitchen, there is a unifying SpongeBob sound, and it’s like nothing else on Broadway.

The 19 Best Plays And Musicals Of 2017

1. The Band’s Visit

Matthew Murphy

The off-Broadway production of The Band’s Visit made my list of the best theater of 2016 last December, and while I try to avoid repetition, I couldn’t imagine a list of the best theater of 2017 that didn’t include it. The Band’s Visit isn’t just one of my top shows this year — it’s perhaps my favorite musical of the last decade. My love for this stunning, deceptively profound piece of theater has only grown since I first saw it. The show documents the unexpected collision between the residents of a small Israeli town and the members of an Egyptian band who find themselves stranded there overnight. Itamar Moses’ book, based on the 2007 film, is admirably restrained as it delves into the lives of two groups of people whose paths would never cross if not for one serendipitous mistake that brings them together. David Yazbek’s gorgeous score underlines the largely unspoken emotional core of the musical — this is a story about longing, and the constant search for connection. There are moments of humor and pathos throughout, with standout performances led by breakthrough star Katrina Lenk, culminating in a breathtaking final number, “Answer Me,” that catches you off-guard by wringing tears you didn’t even realize were building.

2. Burn All Night

Evgenia Eliseeva

It was hard not to think about the end of the world in 2017. The pleasant surprise of Burn All Night is how fun it makes the apocalypse seem: If everything’s going to end, now is the time to party with abandon. And Burn All Night is a party — American Repertory Theater’s production of the new musical was staged like a club. The score, with lyrics by Andy Mientus and music by Van Hughes, Nicholas LaGrasta, and Brett Moses, fits that vibe. Audience members largely stood on the dance floor, moving around the characters as they performed synth-pop bangers and pondered an uncertain future. There was a sense of dread that underscored the proceedings, with vague doom lurking on the horizon, but the show was firmly committed to a good time. Perhaps that’s what made Burn All Night so resonant in a year where many of us struggled with the quandary of how to have fun when it feels like everything is falling apart. It helps that the production assembled a vibrant cast including Lincoln Clauss, Krystina Alabado, Kenneth Clark, and Perry Sherman — their voices rose above the heavy beats and the rumble of the crowd to let the intensely catchy score shine through. Despite my wallflower intentions, Burn All Night moved me — both figuratively and onto the dance floor — and for someone who fears both dancing and the inevitable end of all things, that’s a powerful feat.

3. Charm

Joan Marcus

Conversations about representation and inclusion have proliferated over the past few years, but trans voices, both onstage and off, have too often been left out of the discussions. That’s part of what made MCC Theater’s production of Charm such a breath of fresh air. This was a show about trans people, with a cast of trans and gender-nonconforming actors, many of them people of color, and a trans director at the helm. Watching Charm was thrilling — it felt like the kind of significant step forward theater should be taking across the board. But the show was also a blast, because it is warm, funny, and thoughtfully crafted. Mama Darleena Andrews (Sandra Caldwell) is a sixtysomething black trans woman who decides to teach etiquette at an LGBTQ community center in Chicago, despite the reservations of nearly everyone around her. This is not a Dangerous Minds–style story about a tough-as-nails teacher struggling to get through to a classroom of students who don’t want to be there, but rather about the generational divides that foster that conflict. What’s exciting about Charm is that it embraces the shades of gray as Mama’s conception of queerness runs afoul of a more modern, progressive understanding of gender identity — while Mama advocates for a gender binary to avoid confusing people, the center where she works celebrates fluidity. The play could easily become moralistic, but instead, it allows for the kind of fruitful, open-ended conversation that more theater should aspire to.

4. A Doll’s House, Part 2

Brigitte Lacombe

In May, I found myself at a midnight performance of A Doll’s House, Part 2. Prior to that, I would have been hard-pressed to think of a play I’d want to sit through at that hour — particularly one I’d already seen — but A Doll’s House, Part 2 is such an exciting piece of theater, and Laurie Metcalf’s performance so compelling, that I was riveted from start to finish. It might as well have been Rocky Horror. Lucas Hnath’s play poses a question that countless others have asked since the original A Doll’s House was first performed in 1879: What happened after Nora closed the door on her husband and children to discover a life of her own? The way Hnath sees it, Nora (Metcalf) became a successful writer who translated her experience into works that dangerously posit women might be better off without the shackles of marriage. It would be easy to make that the rallying cry of A Doll’s House, Part 2, but Hnath allows ample complexity in his exploration of Nora’s perspective, and the perspective of those she left behind including her husband (Chris Cooper), her nanny (Jayne Houdyshell), and her daughter (Condola Rashad). All of the actors in the cast earned Tony nominations, which is a testament both to their talent and to Hnath’s script. These characters have been afforded rich emotional lives that brilliantly challenge Nora’s limited point of view — and the audience’s expectations.

5. Ghost Light

Julieta Cervantes

Theaters always seem a little haunted, probably because they are. The immersive production Ghost Light explored that idea by letting audience members step into the spooky backstage space of the Claire Tow Theater at Lincoln Center where spirits abound, putting on a show for no one in particular. Over the course of two hours, you climbed stairs and walked down dark hallways: Part of what made it so exciting was the sense that you were entering a space where you weren’t entirely welcome, seeing something you weren’t supposed to be seeing. Third Rail Projects, the company behind previous productions Then She Fell and The Grand Paradise, created the rare immersive experience that felt truly seamless. It was easy to get lost in the scenes you cycled through — a meeting with an actor in her dressing room, a dance among the empty theater seats — and by the end, I felt as though I’d truly stepped into another world. There was real magic in Ghost Light, a show that I have struggled to describe over the months since I saw it. What I can say is that even if the details are fuzzy, I won’t forget the dreamlike quality of my time wandering through the Claire Tow. Like the best immersive theater, it forced me to give myself over to it completely, abandoning the harsh realities of life — a welcome prospect in 2017 — and embracing the surreal.

6. Hamlet

Eric Michael Pearson

The Waterwell production of Hamlet wasn’t the buzziest Hamlet this year; that would be Sam Gold’s production at the Public Theater, which starred Oscar Isaac as the indecisive prince of Denmark. That Hamlet was compelling and beautifully performed, but it’s the Waterwell Hamlet, set in Persia 100 years ago and performed in English and Farsi, that has stuck with me. Modern takes on Shakespeare can be hit or miss: High-concept adaptations are smart ways to distinguish your production from the infinite iterations that came before it, but too many come across as arbitrary. This Hamlet was so thoughtfully conceived that its diversions from the norm felt essential. The use of Farsi (sans subtitles) spoke to Shakespeare’s universality, not to mention the lyricism of the language. At the same time, the new setting amplified themes of Hamlet’s conflicted identity and the changing world around him. Arian Moayed’s subtle take on the prince was a welcome interpretation, grounding a production that allowed itself insight into the world beyond Shakespeare’s original text. Some audience members might resist a production that takes these kinds of liberties with a classic, but it’s in challenging those expectations that productions like the Waterwell Hamlet leave a lasting impression.

7. Hello, Dolly!

Julieta Cervantes

Bette Midler may be the big draw of the splashy Hello, Dolly! revival, but as anyone who has seen Donna Murphy take on the title role can tell you, Midler is not the only draw. Perhaps wisely, this revival hews closely to the original and consequently feels a little like a time capsule. Given the value of escapist entertainment right now, that’s a major point in its favor: Seeing Hello, Dolly! is like stepping into a bright, pastel-colored world where there’s nothing that putting on your Sunday clothes can’t fix. This is the kind of big, loud Broadway musical that dazzles where smaller, subtler shows like The Band’s Visit and Dear Evan Hansen get under your skin. Both are valuable, and while I tend to gravitate toward those more intimate, restrained theatrical experiences, some of my happiest moments this year have been spent in the audience at the Shubert Theatre. Midler is indeed a star, and Murphy showcases the softer side of the larger-than-life character to great effect. But attention must also be paid to the supporting cast: David Hyde Pierce, Gavin Creel, Taylor Trensch, Kate Baldwin, and Beanie Feldstein. Hello, Dolly! may feel a little old-fashioned to some, but what it lacks in innovation it makes up for in pure, unbridled joy.

8. Hundred Days

Joan Marcus

When I saw Hundred Days, the audience seemed a little mystified — was this a musical or a concert? Indeed, the New York Theatre Workshop’s production walks that line, as Shaun and Abigail Bengson (the lead singers of the aptly named band the Bengsons) reflect on their unlikely courtship through song. But once you get past worrying about exactly what to call it, Hundred Days tells a captivating, emotionally potent story about how it feels to fall in love — and how it feels to be consumed with fears of losing it. The Bengsons’ music is as exhilarating as ever, and the wince-inducing honesty of their lyrics pairs well with the deeply personal nature of the story they’re sharing. Even if the specifics of their tale are unique to their experience, Hundred Days remains painfully relatable as it circles the question of how we can ever spend enough time with the people we love. It feels a little inaccurate to call the show experimental, but it does — like so many NYTW productions — broaden our perception of what theater can look like. That’s almost always a good thing. And for every patron who felt somehow put off by what they were watching, there were plenty of others who were excited and inspired by experiencing something new.

9. If I Forget

Joan Marcus

To say that Jewish identity is fraught in 2017 is something of an understatement, but Jewish identity is always fraught — it’s kind of our thing. Steven Levenson’s sharp, relentlessly thought-provoking play is about Jewish Americans at a different, still complicated time in our history, the early 2000s. There are a lot of big ideas here, some more compelling than others. They are delivered with passion by characters defined in part by their firmly rooted convictions. In lesser hands, If I Forget could feel like a lecture, but this is an openhearted play that recognizes that there’s some validity to what everyone is saying, even if it’s hard to imagine a compromise. Having strong actors across the board also makes some of the heaviness go down easier, and Jeremy Shamos, Maria Dizzia, Kate Walsh, and the rest of the cast did exceptional work, mining the humor and nuance in Levenson’s script. (It’s been a good year for Shamos, a late addition to the cast of Meteor Shower on Broadway. He’s great in that, too.) I’ve seen a lot of conversation-heavy plays about family drama this year — and, let’s face it, every year — but If I Forget still managed to surprise me.

10. Indecent

Carol Rosegg

I would say that Katrina Lenk was lucky to appear in two of the best shows on Broadway this year, but really those shows — Indecent and The Band’s Visit — have been lucky to have her. She is the kind of performer you can’t take your eyes off of, and she’s one of the many pieces of Indecent that came together to form a distinctive and invigorating theatrical experience. Indecent tells the true story of the controversy surrounding Sholem Asch’s play God of Vengeance, which saw its cast members arrested for obscenity when it was performed on Broadway in 1923. The show is sprawling in its scope, covering several decades of plot and incorporating music, fantasy, and scenes from the provocative God of Vengeance. Playwright Paula Vogel wisely avoided a literal retelling of history, and director Rebecca Taichman — who won a well-deserved Tony for her work — emphasized the show’s theatricality at all times. It was lyrical and heightened: You were fully aware you were watching a play. And so while there was so much to fall in love with in Indecent, what stirred me most was that it could only have worked onstage. Here was a show about the unique power of theater that showcased the unique power of theater, a stunning reminder of the importance of showing rather than telling. I wish Indecent had found more of an audience, but mostly, I’m grateful that it happened.

11. {my lingerie play} 2017: THE CONCERT AND CALL TO ARMS!!!!!!!!! The Final Installation

Jeremy Daniel

Let’s get this out of the way first: I went to middle school and high school with Diana Oh, the visionary behind {my lingerie play}, but the show’s presence on this list has nothing to do with favoritism. Honestly, I had only passing familiarity with Oh’s post–high school work and wasn’t sure what to expect from this production at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater, so I was completely unprepared for the profound effect it would have on me. Like so many of the best shows I’ve seen this year, {my lingerie play} is easier to talk about in terms of how it made me feel than what exactly took place. I left the show feeling empowered, emboldened, and — in part thanks to the glittery eyeshadow I applied at the theater’s makeup station — sexier than usual. {my lingerie play} is appropriately angry as Oh indicts rape culture and institutional racism, but it’s also filled with love. I have never before felt so connected to an audience of strangers as Oh celebrated self-expression, enthusiastic consent, and queering the world. The show is such a rare and special thing that I feel a kinship with everyone who saw it and a little sorry for those who didn’t. Oh wrote, “I want to create the kind of art that makes people sweat from their soul.” I can’t think of a better articulation for what her work did to me.

12. Oh My Sweet Land

Pavel Antonov

I wept for the entirety of Oh My Sweet Land, mostly because I was seated in a small kitchen and the actor in front of me was chopping onions. That’s not to take away from the potency of the work — I just think it’s important when articulating what an in-your-face piece of theater this was to note that the chopping of onions was quite literally in my face. And my eyes were burning. Oh My Sweet Land was performed at kitchens across the city over the course of its run, allowing for an intimacy that could never be achieved in a traditional theatrical setting. The play is a monologue: For a little over an hour, a woman (Nadine Malouf) cooks kubah, a traditional Syrian dish, and recounts her story of falling for a Syrian exile and returning to her homeland in the midst of war and a refugee crisis. It’s a very personal perspective on a conflict that’s challenging for most to conceive, and that specificity, coupled with the innovative staging, gives Oh My Sweet Land a startling immediacy. Written by Amir Nizar Zuabi, who conceived of the play with actor Corinne Jaber while they were traveling through Syrian refugee camps, Oh My Sweet Land is a gripping rebuke to anyone who hears “Syria” and tunes out. I have thought about it often since I saw it in September, the sense memory evoked every time my eyes burn from onions.

13. Once on This Island

Joan Marcus

I first fell in love with Once on This Island in high school, and I was delighted to hear about a revival directed by Michael Arden, whose Spring Awakening was one of my favorite shows of 2015. I knew his take on the musical would be distinctive, and I was blown away by the choices he made in bringing Once on This Island to Broadway again. In many ways, the show covers well-trod territory: It’s essentially a fairy tale, following Ti Moune (Hailey Kilgore), a girl chosen by the gods for a higher purpose, and her star-crossed romance with Daniel Beauxhomme (Isaac Powell). Arden’s production captures the familiarity of the story while imbuing it with a freshness and a modern perspective that feels firmly planted in 2017. Outside of the staging and aesthetic, Once on This Island also boasts an incredible ensemble: Kilgore is a truly fantastic discovery, emerging as a star from the moment she makes her entrance. And it’s impossible to overlook the other breakthrough Broadway debut, Alex Newell as earth goddess Asaka. I’ve been following his career since The Glee Project and he’s always seemed destined for greatness. His “Mama Will Provide” is the Broadway showstopper of the season — the gods are good.

14. Pacific Overtures

Joan Marcus

John Doyle’s direction isn’t for people who like spectacle: He is the master of the stripped-down production, and his take on Sondheim’s Pacific Overtures was one of his sparsest works yet. The cast for the Classic Stage Company production was winnowed down to 10, with a minimalist set and costumes. The show itself was cut down, with Sondheim’s approval — “Chrysanthemum Tea” was excised, along with the original Act I closer, “Lion Dance.” The new version ran a brisk 90 minutes. But absent all the frills, Pacific Overtures — one of Sondheim’s lesser-known works — emerged as one of the composer’s finest achievements. Fans of the show have been singing its praises for years, and Sondheim himself has called the song “Someone in a Tree” his personal favorite, but I’ll admit that until this production, I never quite understood why Pacific Overtures had such an ardent (though minimal) fandom. By laying it all bare, however, Doyle exposes how much the show accomplishes over the course of its brief runtime. Each song is a play unto itself, and together they document the arrival of the Americans in isolated 1853 Japan, and the modernization of the country that followed. It’s at times a darkly comedic satire, but it also includes unabashed poignance. “Someone in a Tree” is particularly moving — I get it now.

15. Red Flags

Lauren Ludwig

I’ve already written about my experience with Red Flags, a play that takes you on an exceedingly awkward first date, but in revisiting the theater I saw this year that has stuck with me the most, I realized I’d be remiss to leave Red Flags off the list. Of all the immersive shows I saw in 2017 — and there were many! — Red Flags was easily the most uncomfortable. You can read my full account of the evening in my earlier piece, but the short version is that I met up with Emma (Lauren Flans) for a first date. We spent an hour walking around and talking about our lives, and she made me feel increasingly uneasy as she shared intimate and troubling details about herself. Red Flags forced me to consider what counts as theater: The Capital W piece is scripted — Lauren Ludwig wrote and directed — but it’s performed for an audience of one and it required more participation than any other show I’ve been to. Even by immersive theater standards, it’s unconventional, but there’s no denying that Emma is one of the most compelling theatrical creations I’ve encountered this year. And like so many of my favorite shows, it confronted some often deeply unpleasant truths about relationships and human interaction: There are some people we push out of our lives because it’s easier than trying to understand them. I didn’t think I’d go on a date with a woman this year, but what is theater for if not to push you out of your comfort zone?

16. School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play

Joan Marcus

The cheekily titled School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play gives you a clear sense of the show’s aims: This is an African version of that all-too-familiar high school story of queen bees and wannabes. The setting may be different, but the vying for social dominance at all costs is largely the same. Here, Paulina (MaameYaa Boafo) is the most popular girl at her boarding school in Ghana, terrorizing her legion of followers into submission. She’s almost guaranteed a spot in the Miss Universe pageant — that is, until a new girl, Ericka (Nabiyah Be), arrives. Jocelyn Bioh’s play (directed by Indecent Tony winner Rebecca Taichman) is searingly funny, with the kind of barbed dialogue we’ve come to expect from the high school genre. Part of what makes it so brilliant, however, is the way it not only plays into those Mean Girls tropes but also subverts them. There is ultimately more going on in School Girls than it appears in the opening scene; as the play delves into colorism and the harsh realities of Paulina’s life, it becomes even sharper. Bioh has said she wanted to tell a different kind of African story, and the MCC production is indeed a far cry from the kinds of African stories that usually end up onstage. Not for nothing, it has also set a new bar for performances of “The Greatest Love of All.”

17. SpongeBob SquarePants

Joan Marcus

You would not believe the amount of energy SpongeBob SquarePants stans expend in our efforts to convince naysayers to give the show a shot, but we’re honored to do it. In fact, you don’t even have to be talking about SpongeBob for me to slide into your conversation with a sudden, “Actually, the SpongeBob musical is the most fun you’ll have at any Broadway show, plus it has a really wonderful score and a cast of legitimate talent, so you’re pretty much guaranteed to enjoy yourself even if you’ve never watched the show.” Maybe this is why I don’t get invited to more parties? But seriously, haters, there’s a reason reviews for SpongeBob have been so rapturous: It really is that good. Director Tina Landau has somehow translated a Nickelodeon cartoon into a Broadway musical, and it all works so much better than it has any right to. The score comes from disparate big name artists like Panic! At the Disco, the Flaming Lips, T.I., and John Legend, but it flows together seamlessly. And oh, yes, that cast: Ethan Slater is delivering an all-time great performance as a cartoon sponge, and there are breakout moments from Patrick (Danny Skinner), Sandy (Lilli Cooper), Squidward (Gavin Lee), Mr. Krabs (Brian Ray Norris), and Plankton (Wesley Taylor). Have you heard that the best voice on Broadway belongs to Jai’Len Josey, who plays Pearl? Believe the hype.

18. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Joan Marcus

I have seen Sweeney Todd so many times that I was a little wary about a new production, even with the gimmick of being served meat pies (mine was veggie) before the show. But the Barrow Street Theatre production, which completely transformed the theater into a pie shop, is no gimmick — this is a thrillingly immersive restaging of the Sondheim musical, one that makes the title character terrifying in a way I no longer thought possible. Yes, he still sings, but you’re also a little concerned he might come up behind you and slit your throat. I saw this Sweeney Todd twice, and my second time was even better thanks to Carolee Carmello as Mrs. Lovett. Of all the productions I’ve seen, her sympathetic and gorgeously sung performance is easily my favorite. While I’m not going to advocate for all theaters to upend themselves the way that Barrow Street did — that sounds awfully expensive and time-consuming — I do think that this is the kind of commitment it takes to make something old feel new again. It was a risk to put so much into creating an entirely different space for one show, but the success of Sweeney Todd, both critically and commercially, shows how well those risks can pay off.

19. The Wolves

Daniel J. Vasquez

I first saw The Wolves at the end of 2016 when it was at the Duke on 42nd Street. I didn’t include it in my best theater last year, but its absence gnawed at me — now that the show is running in a production at Lincoln Center, with the cast largely intact, I have an opportunity to remedy that. Sarah DeLappe’s play, which tracks a girls’ soccer team, is the kind of play that grows on you over time, proving itself to be even deeper and more emotionally resonant as you step away from it. It’s slight, with almost all of the action — including one traumatic event near the end — occurring offstage. It’s only in listening to the conversations between these girls that you unlock the often painful realities of their adolescent lives. An ensemble this large could easily blur together, but the strength of The Wolves is in DeLappe’s ability to clearly define each of her characters. Somehow in just 90 minutes, you get a clear sense of all of them, and you can imagine their lives stretching far beyond the confines of the play. And, of course, that’s also a credit to the cast, all of whom — Paola Sanchez Abreu, Brenna Coates, Jenna Dioguardi, Samia Finnerty, Midori Francis, Lizzy Jutila, Sarah Mezzanotte, Tedra Millan, Susannah Perkins, and, in the sole adult role, Mia Barron — are worthy of recognition.

Louis Peitzman is a senior entertainment editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. Peitzman writes about and reports on theater, film, and television. Contact this reporter at louis.peitzman@buzzfeed.com.

Contact Louis Peitzman at louis.peitzman@buzzfeed.com.

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