The 19 Best Plays And Musicals Of 2017

From a tiny kitchen to a pie shop to a pineapple under the sea, theater in 2017 took us outside our comfort zone. Here's a look at the best of the year, presented in alphabetical order.

1. The Band's Visit

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

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

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

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

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

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!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.


This post has been updated to include a photo of the Lincoln Center production of The Wolves.

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