THE NORMAL HEART AND AS IS, 1985
As theater artists were dying by the score and American society refused to face AIDS, two dramatists demanded that it do so. In The Normal Heart, Larry Kramer was fierce and angry; William M. Hoffman, in As Is, was gentler and more restrained. Both proved that social drama still works, that New York playwrights can help force an issue onto the agenda.
August Wilson’s ten-play cycle about the African-American experience in the twentieth century is one of the epic achievements of the past few decades, and Fences is its crown jewel. In 1987, Wilson’s story about the battle between Troy Maxson and his son Cory won everything in sight, thanks in part to the towering performance of James Earl Jones.
THE HEIDI CHRONICLES, 1988
Wendy Wasserstein’s Pulitzer winner traced one woman’s trip through the rewards and disappointments of the feminist revolution. Along the way, she captured the way that success and failure (and friends and family) get all jumbled up in this town. Long before Sex and the City followed her lead, she became the first woman writing solo to win a Tony for Best Play.
THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, 1988
Like it or loathe it, this unkillable juggernaut defines the British megamusical invasion. With Cats and Les Misérables, it made Broadway bigger and blander in the eighties, but also tourist-friendly enough to keep the lights on.
ANGELS IN AMERICA, 1993
Tony Kushner’s sprawling chronicle of Reagan-era New York life offered the best evidence in decades that American theater could transcend little domestic dramas. The seven-hour epic dared to be both intimate and political, and to give Roy Cohn the best lines. (See Q&A, here.)
Jonathan Larson’s death on the eve of the premiere created the legend. But it’s his just-edgy-enough pop score that has endeared this East Village La Bohème to the city’s youth culture ever since.
THE LION KING, 1997
Julie Taymor, already revered for her puppet artistry on shows like Juan Darien, turned a middling Disney film into a major aesthetic triumph. A high point of Broadway theatricality, the show also marked the rehab of the New Amsterdam Theatre, an early leap in the recovery of Times Square.
THE PRODUCERS, 2001
Maybe it flamed out early, and maybe Young Frankenstein couldn’t repeat the trick. But the mix of Mel Brooks’s shtick and the chemistry of Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick became a phenomenon like none in living memory. It set records for box office, for Tony awards, for desperate measures taken to secure a ticket.
THE ARGUMENT STARTER
TAKE ME OUT, 2003
Richard Greenberg’s play doesn’t have the stature of some major plays left off this list, but a story this smart and vibrantly theatrical is too exciting to omit. Much more ambitious than its synopsis (“the play about the gay baseball player”) suggests, the best play of the decade so far tackles the way race, money, and sexuality collide in New York today—and also happens to be hilarious.
SWEENEY TODD, 2005 REVIVAL
In the 1979 debut of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s demonic musical, Hal Prince tried to capture a corrupt society onstage. In the reimagining by John Doyle, a gifted cast of New York actors doubled as its own orchestra. The feverish, stripped-down result was a rebuke to megamusical bloat, and testified to the pure power of audience imagination.
THE COAST OF UTOPIA, 2006–2007
Arcadia and Rock ’n’ Roll are better plays, but director Jack O’Brien made Tom Stoppard’s epic about nineteenth-century Russian intellectuals a once-in-a-generation showcase for New York talent: Brían F. O’Byrne, Ethan Hawke, Billy Crudup, and Martha Plimpton, plus their co-stars, plus genius designers, plus an audience that kept the trilogy running long past Lincoln Center’s expectations. It was a milestone even before it broke the record for Tonys for a play.
IN THE HEIGHTS, 2008
It rode to Broadway in the wake of Spring Awakening, but Lin-Manuel Miranda’s score sets this show apart. By incorporating salsa and hip-hop, it captures the musical identity of the city—the other New York, the one Broadway doesn’t see—more than any show since Hair. Here is where the next 40 years might lead, if we’re lucky.