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The Best Theatre of the Decade by Matthew Murray

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    Everyone else is doing their best-of-decade lists, so why not me? Here's my look at the best theatre I've seen from 2000 to 2009 (mostly as a critic for Talkin' Broadway), in various and sundry categories that you may not have necessarily seen elsewhere. To keep things interesting and to get as many "winners" as possible involved, every show can only win one award, regardless of whether it was eligible or even a front-runner in any other category. Agree or disagree with my choices? E-mail me and let me know what you thought were the best shows of the decade.

    Award Awards

    The Best Tony Award–winning Best Play: The History Boys (2006). Alan Bennett's stirring depiction of a group of British high-school seniors in the 1980s was both absurdly funny and powerfully moving, featuring astonishing performances from Richard Griffiths as an inspirational teacher, Samuel Barnett as a troubled gay boy in his class, and Frances de la Tour as Griffiths' ultra-deadpan colleague. But the entire company, imported from the original English production, was marvelous, and the story itself an unforgettable look at the importance of education in humanity and humanity in education. If you missed the production, you can get a hint of its greatness by watching the film version—it makes a few alterations to the material to make it more movie-worthy, but the entire original cast—and the work's indomitable spirit—are lushly intact.

    The Best Tony Award–winning Best Musical: Avenue Q (2003). Its puppets, swearing, and emphatic youthfulness made this surprise Off-Broadway hit an even bigger surprise Tony winner, especially since it brought down the juggernaut known as Wicked. Jeff Marx and Robert Lopez's score nicely blends Broadway know-how with Sesame Street–inspired educational silliness, and Jeff Whitty's book helped make what could easily have been a dumb lark into a smart and almost sophisticated one. That it's still playing in New York even after it's concluded its Broadway run is a testimony to the cleverness and connection many shows in the years since its debut have tried—and failed—to imitate.

    The Best Pulitzer Prize Winner: Doubt (2004). The likes of Proof and August: Osage County provided formidable competition, but John Patrick Shanley's nail-biting examination of a priest and the nun who believes he's a child molestor stands apart. As a play, it's 90 minutes of flawless construction, without a wasted word. As a production, the original (directed by Doug Hughes and acted by the fierce foursome of Cherry Jones, Brían F. O'Byrne, Heather Goldenhersh, and Adriane Lenox) was masterfully articulated. Though each performance left you absorbed in the central issue of "Did he or didn't he?", Shanley, Hughes, and their company proved that when artists operate at the very pinnacle of their ability, the end result can make specific answers both unnecessary and undesirable.

    Special Musical Awards

    The Best Rock Musical: Passing Strange (2007–2008). Stew and Heidi Rodewald's free-form biography of Stew's sexual and musical coming of age was about as different as you could get from the emo-hit Spring Awakening, but was in every way more truer and more powerful. Buoyed by a career-making performance from Daniel Breaker as the young Stew, the show moved from Los Angeles to Amsterdam to Berlin and back again in a whirlwind of musical styles that somehow all coalesced into a single, unmistakable, and unrepeatable sound. Passing Strange reordered the possibilities of the rock musical genre in a way that not even Rent could manage in the 1990s, and though it had but a brief Broadway run (following a successful Off-Broadway engagement), one suspects its innovations will be felt for years to come. The Spike Lee–directed film preservation has its flaws, but is an invaluable document of one of the decade's most surprising and surpassing shows.

    The Best Flop Broadway Musical: The Wild Party (2000). Michael John LaChiusa's blistering interpretation of Joseph Moncure March's pre-Depression poem boasted a sizzling jazz-age score that seamlessly bridged the gap between Broadway populism and the musical's constantly evolving post-modern sound; an incomparable cast led by Toni Collette, Mandy Patinkin, and Eartha Kitt; and explosive, unpredictable direction from LaChiusa's colibrettist, George C. Wolfe. Though it ran only 68 performances on Broadway, it's received highly regarded productions all over the country and left behind one of the decade's truly great (if woefully incomplete) cast recordings. Despite being a dark and difficult show, and sometimes a cold one, The Wild Party continues to represent the pinnacle of the musical-as-art at one of the most uncertain times in its history.

    The Best Jukebox Musical: Ten Million Miles (2007). It's a deep shame that this country-infused, book-bound collection of Patty Griffin songs didn't earn enduring popular success, because it was more dramatically and emotionally fulfilling than the decade's two Broadway-berthed megahits, Mamma Mia! and Jersey Boys. Telling an intimate, human story about a romance between two people who aren't sure they should be having one in a world that makes connection difficult, Keith Bunin's book was an unassuming example of how to make a lot out of a little. An engaging cast consisting of Irene Molloy, Matthew Morrison, Skipp Sudduth, and Mare Winningham made Michael Mayer's original production at the Atlantic Theater Company a true delight, but it's winning material that anyone can play, and that rekindled the belief that craft need not be abandoned when openly courting an audience.

    The Best New York Musical Theatre Festival Musical That Will Probably Never Get Another Production: The Woman Upstairs (2004). "A musical about a blind violinist romancing a frigid physicist, written by who?" I was among those who pondered this question going into Kait Kerrigan and Brian Lowdermilk's musical during NYMF's first season, but my incredulity lasted until roughly 1.5 seconds after the show began. Lowdermilk's here-and-now-New-York score blended rap, pop, and street sounds with his own unique dramatic voice, and Kerrigan's book skillfully plumbed the depths of uncertainty and loneliness New York can inspire in those daring enough to brave it. No other musical at NYMF—and few in many other places—have matched The Woman Upstairs for its creativity or its simultaneous embracing and expanding the musical's boundaries. Though Kerrigan and Lowdermilk have seen a few other productions of their work since their breakthrough with this show, I hear that The Woman Upstairs is on the back burner—perhaps permanently. That's a shame, if only because it deprives audiences the opportunity of experiencing a score that's as indicative of the youth of New York today as Leonard Bernstein's On the Town was during World War II.

    Special Play Awards

    The Best Epic Epic: The Coast of Utopia (2006–2007). From 2000 to 2009, if it had to be big, it pretty much had to be Lincoln Center, and not even the company's largest shows came close to matching this sweeping three-parter. Even if you didn't know much (or anything) about the Russian literary revolutionaries of the 19th century that it chronicled, Jack O'Brien's thrilling production of Tom Stoppard's immense script—to say nothing of an unbeatable cast containing the likes of Billy Crudup, Richard Easton, Jennifer Ehle, Ethan Hawke, Amy Irving, Brían F. O'Byrne, Martha Plimpton—made this an unforgettable nine hours at the Vivian Beaumont. The show's final image, of a wave cascading over the history-making characters, was also one of the decade's most moving and haunting—a more than fitting end to a show and production that aimed for the skies and hit square on.

    The Best Mini Epic: The Orphans' Home Cycle, Parts One and Two (2009). During his marathon life span, playwright Horton Foote produced dozens of works, but they were all too homespun and unassuming to cement his status as a writer of "great" plays. Yet his last effort, a compression of nine plays into a three-evening cycle spinning the story of a character based on his own father, has also proved to be his most miraculous. The Orphans' Home Cycle captures the start of the 20th century from a variety of vantage points that circumscribe the construction—and destruction—of the America we know today. Lacking the names and the theatre-filling breadth of The Coast of Utopia, it's doubtful that Signature Theatre's scintillating, yet-to-be-completed production will go down as the history-making event Lincoln Center pulled off. The play itself, however, certainly will.

    The Best Overall Revival: Our Town (2009). Director David Cromer's impossibly inventive and shockingly shattering vision of Thornton Wilder's masterpiece of a play doesn't just redefine this story about growing up and growing old in Grover's Corners, New Hampshire, it restates how all revivals should be done: wedding an unflinching respect for the text to an iron-clad determination to not play it safe. Cromer's version is an evening-length puzzle, its ultimate picture unforeseeable even to those who know Wilder's play, but one that you don't need to be a theatre expert to understand or appreciate. Bravely acted and intricately staged, this Off-Broadway Our Town has already become the longest-running incarnation of the play in its 71-year history. With any luck, it will run for decades to come, but in case it doesn't, get your tickets now if you haven't already seen it. If 2000–2009 can have only one must-see production, this is unquestionably it.

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