With the year drawing to a close, we look back over the musicals that wowed our critics in 2019. It hasn’t been easy to choose, but here we go…
JO LITSON – EDITOR
The cast of Come From Away. Photograph © Jeff Busby
On the face of it, the diversion of New York-bound planes to Gander in Newfoundland as a result of the September 11 terrorist attack doesn’t sound like the stuff of musical theatre, but Come From Away charms your socks off. Canadian husband-and-wife team David Hein and Irene Sankoff have written a joyous, refreshing musical that plays by its own rules. With its toe-tapping, Celtic-infused folk-rock score, and its heartfelt message about the power of community, it raises the spirits and touches the heart. At a time when kindness and compassion often seem to be in short supply, it’s a beautiful, inspiring production.
Julie Lea Goodwin and Alexander Lewis in West Side Story on Sydney Harbour. Photograph © Prudence Upton
West Side Story is the first musical that Opera Australia has staged for Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour – and what an astute choice it proved, becoming the most successful production in the eight-year history of the harbour-side event. Staged on a big, bold set by Brian Thomson, that used iconic New York symbols, director Francesca Zambello knew exactly how to use the huge, outdoor stage. Sixty years since the musical premiered, the music, the storytelling and the choreography proved as electrifying as ever when performed and staged as well as it was here.
Elijah Williams and Elenoa Rokobaro. Photograph © Phil Erbacher
When the radio and the washing machine start singing at the start of Jeanine Tesori and Tony Kushner’s musical Caroline, or Change you know this musical is going to surprise, and so it does. Set in Louisiana in 1963, while the civil rights movement gathers force, its story about a black maid working for a pittance for a Jewish family is quirky, surprising, inventive and beguiling while pulling no punches. Mitchell Butel’s thoughtful, beautifully wrought production featured a performance by Elenoa Rokobaro as Caroline that you are never likely to forget. When she sang her key number, there was hardly a dry eye in the house.
Brent Hill really did “stick it to the man” in his rocking performance in School of Rock; Justin Smith gave an emotionally complex performance as Billy’s father in Billy Elliot; Alexander Berlage did it again with his slick, ingenious production of American Psycho; and Squabbalogic’s workshop production of The Dismissal by Laura Murphy, Blake Erickson and Jay James-Moody, staged at the Seymour Centre, was so terrific I can’t wait to see the world premiere.
ANGUS MCPHERSON – DEPUTY EDITOR
The cast of In the Heights at the Sydney Opera House. Photo © Clare Hawley
Hayes Theatre Co’s award-winning production of Lin Manuel-Miranda’s first musical, In the Heights, moved to a bigger venue at the beginning of 2019 – the Sydney Opera House’s Concert Hall. The show worked a treat, Amy Cambell’s vibrant choreography filling the new space with the help of a couple of extra dancers. With Stephen Lopez playing bodega owner Usnavi and wonderful performances by Olivia Vasquez, Luisa Scrofani – and indeed, the whole cast – this production brought to life Manuel-Miranda’s gentrifying Washington Heights with upbeat music and biting lyrics.
Kelley Abbey and Jamie Rogers in Billy Elliot The Musical. Photograph © James M. Morgan
Based on the film about a working class boy who discovers his love of ballet in the midst of the 1984-95 miner’s strike. With a book by Lee Hall and music by Elton John, it’s a joyous musical, given a masterful production here and Jamie Rogers, who played Billy in the opening night performance, was a powerhouse of energy – his solo dance numbers were incredible. It also feels remarkably timely, especially as a run of the show was cut short in Hungary last year after a barrage of homophobic press. “It’s a beautiful musical full of complicated human emotion,” wrote Jo Litson. “A show with a serious political message but one that is joyously uplifting and entertaining at the same time.”
Sharon Millerchip, Ayesha Madon, James Majoos, Chika Ikogwe and Kimberley Hodgson. Photograph © Stephen Henry
The brand new Australian musical Fangirls – with book, music and lyrics by Yve Blake, who also starred in the lead role – wowed audiences and critics when it opened in Brisbane, and then again when it moved down to Sydney shortly after. A love song to fandom and a critique of the way female fans are portrayed, the musical featured arrangements by musical director Alice Chance, in a high-energy production directed by Paige Rattray.
“Fangirls is a brilliant, sparkling new Australian musical about young women coming into their power that will have you swapping stories of first concerts and first crushes, and humming the tunes all the way home,” wrote Elise Lawrence when the show opened in Brisbane. “Whether you screamed for The Beatles, One Direction, or your footy team in the grand final, you will find something to connect with in Fangirls.”
CLIVE PAGET – EDITOR AT LARGE, NEW YORK
The Black Clown. Photo © Richard Termine
The standout work of this year’s Lincoln Center Mostly Mozart Festival was an adaptation of Langston Hughes’ poem The Black Clown, in the poet’s own words, “A dramatic monologue to be spoken by a pure-blooded Negro in the white suit and hat of a clown, to the music of a piano, or an orchestra.” Co-adapters bass-baritone Davóne Tines and composer Michael Schachter, with outstanding direction form Zack Winokur, have created a 70-minute masterpiece that erupted with all the passion and dramatic wattage of the finest Broadway show. The band of 11 crackled with energy in a score that embraced work songs, the blues, the Charleston, jazz, spirituals, gospel and all the way up to R&B. Meanwhile, the 13-strong cast, led by Tines’ rich, flexible bass-baritone, sang the pants off of the music and danced up a storm in a unique, powerful, electrifying and important show.
Karen Olivo as Satine and Aaron Tveit as Christian. Photo © Matthew Murphy
A stage adaptation of Baz Luhrmann’s 2001, high-octane jukebox movie of Belle Époque bohemian life, this latest blockbuster from Aussie production company Global Creatures bears all the hallmarks of a crowd-pleasing and very palpable hit. With an expanded, every-one-a-winner soundtrack, a hard-working cast and a staging that looks a million dollars, it takes feel-good to a whole new level. Musically the show pumps long and loud while never losing a lyric, and if you thought the film was clever with its sly pop references and nimble-footed mashups, imagine that quadrupled. Alex Timbers’ smooth, well-paced direction is embraced by a cast that includes Aaron Tveit as the goofy, naïve Christian, Karen Olivo as an earthy, relatable Satine, and a star turn from Danny Burstein as the charmingly manipulative club owner. Moulin Rouge! is a clear case of “Gitchie, gitchie, ya-ya!” all round.
Austin Scott as Alexander Hamilton. Photo © Joan Marcus
This year I finally managed to catch the global phenomenon that is Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton, which lives up to every ounce of its hype. The musical doesn’t just eulogise the architect of the US Constitution, by paralleling his life with that of his nemesis, the equally neglected Aaron Burr, it provides a snapshot of the birth of a nation while lauding the value of immigrants who, when there’s dirty work needs doing, as the musical puts it, “get the job done.” Hamilton bursts onto the stage in Thomas Kail’s fluent, fluid production capturing the zeitgeist and energy of a time when idealism jostled with revolution and anything seemed possible. As an utterly compelling musical about constitutional affairs and early-American fiscal policy, it’s well-nigh miraculous. The Pulitzer Prize- and 11 Tony-winning show, which will open in Sydney in 2021, is one of those masterpieces that come along once in a decade.