The Best Musicals of 2015

A roundup of the best of the musical stage in 2015

When it comes to musical theater, there was much to celebrate this year. Sure, 2015 brought us its share of musical disasters. (See The Worst Musicals of 2015.) But there were plenty of outstanding productions as well. See list below for details. Also, this year I've decided to include a list of honorable mentions: shows that, while not exceptional, had more going for them than against. Here they are: 

  • Brooklynite 
  • The Color Purple
  • Daddy Long Legs
  • Dames at Sea
  • Fiddler on the Roof (watch for my review) 
  • The Visit

And now, here's my list of the best musical productions of 2015: 

Nicole Parker and James Barry in These Paper Bullets
Nicole Parker and James Barry in These Paper Bullets. Aaron R. Foster

What a delightful surprise of a show, on a number of levels. I really didn't know much about These Papers Bullets going in, other than that Billy Joe Armstrong had written the songs. The show turned out to be a laugh riot, if just a tad overly long. (Read my review.) Author Rolin Jones uses Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing as a starting point and crafts a clever and funny sendup of The Beatles. The cast was a real treat, including the amazing Nicole Parker and Justin Kirk in the Beatrice and Benedick roles. The show plays at the Atlantic Theater Company through January 10. More »

Evie Dolan and Alex Brightman in School of Rock
Evie Dolan and Alex Brightman in School of Rock. Matthew Murphy

One of a number of surprises on this list, School of Rock is that rarest of treats, an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical that's actually enjoyable. (Read my review.) I have a feeling the show might not bear closer scrutiny, but I had a grand old time when I saw the show, thanks in no small part to the adorable cast of prepubescent rockers, not to mention the lovably dynamic Alex Brightman in a star-making role. School of Rock had me thinking that Sir Andrew might have been better off sticking to rock and reining in on the semi-operatic pretense. Not that the guy has been suffering financially at all, but he hasn't written a hit since Phantom, nor an artistically solid show since Evita. More »

Betsy Morgan, Barbara Walsh, and Caissie Levy in First Daughter Suite
Betsy Morgan, Barbara Walsh, and Caissie Levy in First Daughter Suite.

Another major surprise. I've always been a reluctant admirer of Michael John LaChiusa, admirer because he's talented and uncompromising, and reluctant because he's never really made me feel for any of his characters. Well, not until First Daughter Suite. (Read my review.) What's even more surprising are the people he made me feel for: Pat Nixon, Barbara Bush, Laura Bush, Nancy Reagan, and their kinder. Yes, the show is not exactly a love letter to Republican women -- more a sometimes-bizarre meditation on filial responsibility -- but in its own fanciful way, the show made palpable the struggles of those thrust often reluctantly into the limelight.  More »

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Daveed Diggs an\d the Broadway cast of Hamilton
Daveed Diggs an\d the Broadway cast of Hamilton. Photo: Joan Marcus

Hamilton has become such a phenomenon on its own that I almost left it off this list entirely. I mean, the show doesn't need any help from me, right? Also, I'm not quite as gaga over the show as the rest of the critical community seems to be. Sure, it's a good show. A very good show. But it's no great masterpiece. And I've seen the show three times, mostly because I wanted to be as solid as possible in my conception of the show before I started to pick it apart. (Read my reviews of the Off-Broadway and Broadway productions.) I will concede that the show is spectacular to witness: the direction, staging, and orchestrations are simply outstanding. I honestly don't think I've ever seen a show as fluidly and dynamically staged as Hamilton. But is it one for the ages? Is it Oklahoma? Is it Company? Is it A Chorus Line? Is it Rent? I have my doubts. More »

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Ben Scheuer in The Lion
Ben Scheuer in The Lion.

A couple of the shows on my list this year were also on my list of The Best Musicals of 2014. I debated whether I should leave them off, but I decided that both shows were so good, they deserved the additional recognition. One of them was The Lion, a deeply moving one-man show that I first saw at the Manhattan Theatre Club and then again during a commercial Off-Broadway run for the show. (Read my review here .) The Lion is written and performed by the talented (and adorable) Ben Scheuer, but what begins as a sweet paean to how Ben fell in love with music becomes something much deeper and richer and more dramatically satisfying. Scheuer has since been touring the country, and the world, with the show, and keeps promising to release a cast recording. (Watch videos of songs from the show here and here.) I look forward to that recording, as well as to any future work by this remarkable young man.  More »

The cast of On the Twentieth Century
The cast of On the Twentieth Century.

Another trend on this list is that, for the majority of shows listed, I found myself wanting to go back again and again. The only shows here I only saw once were the first three listed. (And, who knows? I may go see School of Rock again.) I saw On the 20th Century three times. It's funny, but the first time I was only so-so about the production. (Read my review.) But I found myself wanting to go back, partly because the show itself is an old favorite, but also because of the bang-up job the revival cast did of bringing the ridiculous hijinks to life. I mean, Kristin Chenoweth, Peter Gallagher, Mike McGrath, Mark Linn Baker, Andy Karl, and Mary Louise Wilson, all in top form, and all of whom only got better as the run progressed.   More »

Kelli O'Hara and Ken Watanabe in The King and I
Kelli O'Hara and Ken Watanabe in The King and I.

Here's another show that I saw three times, and I'm thinking of going again to see the new King, Hoon Lee. I was almost entirely entranced by the current Broadway production of The King and I the first time I saw it, with one glaring exception: Ken Watanabe as the King. (Read my review.) It's a testament to the quality of the piece, and to the gorgeous job director Bartlett Sher has done of bringing this classic work to stunning life on stage, that Watanabe's unintelligible and unrestrained performance couldn't quite diminish its lustre. The third time I saw the show, Jose Llana had taken over as the King, and for me what was already glorious became that much more of a multi-sensory wonder. And then there's Kelli. Oh, Kelli. Thankfully, Kelli O'Hara received a long-overdue Tony Award here for her remarkably rich and restrained work as Anna Leonowens. Brava, girl.  More »

03
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Keala Settle, Jessie Mueller, and Jeanna de Waal
Keala Settle, Jessie Mueller, and Jeanna de Waal.

This one has yet to hit Broadway, but I'm predicting great things based on what I saw at the A.R.T. (Read my review.) Waitress is simply gorgeous. The show has two stars, one on-stage and one off: Jessie Mueller and Sara Bareilles. Anyone who's seen Mueller live can attest to her incandescence, and she shines as bright as ever in Waitress. And, despite never having written for musical theater before, Bareilles seems a natural, crafting both heartfelt ballads and jaunty uptempo numbers. What's remarkable about her songs is that they serve the story, but they also have a decidedly contemporary sound. With Waitress and Hamilton, has Broadway finally started to catch up with popular music, after nearly 50 years of being on the pop-culture penumbra? Stay tuned.  More »

Little Shop of Horrors
Ellen Greene and Jake Gyllenhaal.

Seeing Little Shop of Horrors at Encores! Off-Center may have been the theatrical highlight of the year for me. In fact, it may be one of my all-time favorite nights in the theater. (Read my review.) Of course, the show is a classic, and it was great to see Jake Gyllenhaal live on stage (and no amount of dweeby clothing and schlumpy posture can mask how hot this guy really is. I mean, woof). But what really made the night special was Ellen Greene in her triumphant return to the role that has become indelibly hers. What made the night magic was not just her letter-perfect rendition of the role, but the fact that the audience was there for her. Gyllenhaal signed on only after tickets had gone on sale. So the people who were in attendance that first night (two more performances were added after Jake came on board) had bought their tickets because of Ellen. Two moments stand out: the thunderous applause for "Somewhere That's Green," and the curtain call, during which Jake graciously ceded the stage to a visibly shaken Greene, leaving her to bask in the glow of 30 years of love. Stunning.  More »

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Tony nominees Judy Kuhn and Sydney Lucas in Fun Home
Tony nominees Judy Kuhn and Sydney Lucas in Fun Home.

Another thrilling highlight this year for me was when Fun Home swept the Tonys, including one of the most satisfying upsets in years for Best Musical. I had seen Fun Home twice at the Public before it moved uptown, and have so far seen the Broadway production three times. And I'll be making my sixth visit to Maple Avenue this coming Saturday. So, clearly, I love the show. (Read my reviews of the Off-Broadway and Broadway productions.) There are so many reasons to love Fun Home, but what it ultimately comes down to is that librettist Lisa Kron and composer Jeanine Tesori have demonstrated that commercial musicals can tackle challenging subjects in innovative ways and still make money. (Fun Home recently paid off its initial investment and is now running in the black.) Not too bad (if I say so myself...)  More »