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The Year in Theater

Stephen Sondheim
Universally respected but intermittently loved composer of the most serious musicals in the Broadway canon, Sondheim had a very good year in 2007—as he did in 2006, 2005, and 2004. Follies, given a glittering revival by Encores! featuring Victoria Clark and Donna Murphy—two leading ladies at the top of their game—is the fourth Sondheim show in as many years to be not just admired but lavishly embraced by a New York audience, a hot streak that includes the shattering Assassins, the brilliantly bloody Sweeney Todd (onstage and now onscreen), and the coolly unsettling Company. Few sights in the city’s culture these days are more gratifying than watching the greatest living stage composer, now 77, have his work cherished anew while he’s here to enjoy it.

Spring Awakening
When the year started, Spring Awakening was a critics’ darling facing long odds for survival. Did an audience exist for a pop-musical version of a 116-year-old German play about hormonal teens featuring onstage nudity, simulated masturbation, S&M, and the dirty words they don’t air on MTV? As the year ends, Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater’s show is a runaway hit: the winner of eight Tony awards, including Best Musical, a crossover phenomenon (compliments of a Gap ad featuring the eye-candy cast), with box-office momentum that Jonathan Franzen’s bitchy tirade against the adaptation couldn’t impede. The success of this gutsy indie-rock show proves that the 21st-century musical doesn’t just live: It kicks ass.

Thornton Wilder Joins the Library of America
Even though he won just about every honor an American writer can win (three Pulitzers, a National Book Award, the cover of Time), Thornton Wilder is the most neglected of this country’s great playwrights. The author of Our Town, The Skin of Our Teeth, and a handful of the best one-acts ever written got a much-deserved accolade this year from the Library of America, which added a volume of his plays and theatrical essays to the all but official canon of American letters. (With luck he’ll one day be joined by August Wilson, who also got a handsome literary tribute this year in Theater Communications Group’s boxed set of his ten-play cycle about the African-American experience.)

Stew, creator and star of Passing Strange.  

Passing Strange
Except for the occasional extravaganza like Charles Mee’s Queens Boulevard, which captures the raucous multicultural life of Astoria on Mimi Lien’s wonderfully busy set, new musicals lately run toward small casts on spare stages. Passing Strange, Stew’s coming-of-age musical at the Public, had a small cast, but there was nothing spare about the dazzling back wall. Scenic designer David Korins and lighting designer Kevin Adams collaborated on what looked like a giant circuit board or video-game console. It loomed even more impressively than the colossal lab in Young Frankenstein—its closest rival in terms of onstage coolness—at a fraction of the cost.

Boyd Gaines in Pygmalion  

Boyd Gaines
A few of New York’s best and busiest actors flashed considerable range this year: Martha Plimpton (A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Cymbeline), Donna Murphy (Follies and LoveMusik), and Michael Cerveris (King Lear, LoveMusik, and Cymbeline). But nobody can touch the far-flung trio of outstanding performances given by Boyd Gaines: the lieutenant with the stiff upper lip in Journey’s End; Herbie, the agent with the heart of gold in Gypsy, and Colonel Pickering, the courtly, daffy phonetics researcher in Pygmalion. A war drama, a classic musical, and a Shavian comedy: It’s an awe-inspiring trifecta, all the more so because he made it look easy.

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