Commentary: 2016’s Musical Theater Fails
By Christopher Caggiano, Contributing Writer, January 1, 2017
Today marks the start of a new year. Milestones like New Year’s Day are important. Like dawn, like Monday, like a birthday, New Year’s Day prompts reflection and planning. A Gregorian auto-reset for life.
New Year’s Day also means lists. Like other critics, I like to take some time at year’s end to look back on the theater I’ve seen over the previous 12 months. 2016 had its share of hits and misses. I shared hits in a previous article. Let’s have a look at the misses.
The Worst Musicals of 2016:
- Beowulf – Since I’m such a big fan of The Great Comet, I’ve naturally sought out Dave Malloy’s other work. Unfortunately, everything else has been fairly disappointing, particularly Beowulf at Trinity Repertory Theater in Providence. What a mess. Now, Malloy only contributed the music here, but I found nothing of merit anywhere on that stage. This ham-fisted attempt at updating the Beowulf legend was poorly crafted and artistically bereft.
- Bright Star – Bright Star was everyone’s favorite 2016 flop. Everyone except me. The supposed charms of this southern gothic smarm-fest were totally lost on me. Not even Carmen Cusack’s admittedly impressive Broadway bow could lift this snoozer out of the doldrums. And the show featured what may be the single most horrifying act one tag in musical-theater history. Sure, the music sounded great, but the characters were thin, the dialogue was jokey, and the plot strained credulity to the breaking point.
- In Transit – In Transit is not so much bad as terminally bland. Once the novelty of the show being Broadway’s “first a cappella musical” wears off, we’re left with two-dimensional characters, an uninspired score, and a by-the-numbers story that goes nowhere fast.
- Ride the Cyclone – Ride the Cyclone starts with a painfully grim premise — a small group of high school students are killed in a theme-park accident, and are each then forced to make their case for being the one person to get a second chance at living. What follows is a dull slog through each character’s uninteresting backstory, accompanied by forgettable songs, and self-conscious, would-be comic dialogue that isn’t nearly as funny as the creators seem to think.
- Southern Comfort – This show certainly meant well, attempting to bring to life the struggles of a small group of transgender people in the south. But noble intensions mean nothing unless the show itself is well-crafted, which Southern Comfort decidedly wasn’t. The characters became mouthpieces spouting platitudes rather than real people. I thought it was the least distinguished musical I had ever seen at the Public Theater. That is, until I saw The Total Bent…
- The Total Bent – I’m a huge fan of Stew’s Passing Strange, a raw and personal exploration of Stew’s own coming of age. But Stew’s follow-up show, The Total Bent, was a major letdown. The Total Bent is another coming-of-age story, this one about a young gay man and his complicated relationship with his father, a famous blues artist. But the same convention-breaking, fourth wall-shattering techniques Stew used in Passing Strange here become enervating and irritating. The show reeks of self-satisfaction, and eventually becomes buried under the weight of its own pretensions.
- Tuck Everlasting – One of the fastest-closing Broadway flops of the year was Tuck Everlasting, a show that was clearly aimed at capturing the family market, but that represented a major misfire. The songs were bland and unmemorable, the book was plodding and twee, and the production bordered on saccharine. Tuck Everlasting was almost worth seeing for Casey Nicholaw’s final ballet, a deft condensation of the entire adult life of the central character, Winnie Foster. Too bad about the bland, unmemorable show leading up to it.
- American Psycho – This one could have been good. In the right hands, an American Psycho musical might have been a darkly funny exploration of the Reagan era and the mindless, empty people therein. Unfortunately, those hands were not songwriter Duncan Sheik and librettist Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa. Under their ministrations, the story of Patrick Bateman became jaw-droppingly tasteless and unremittingly grim.
- Himself and Nora – Speaking of grim, few musicals this season were as bleak and uninviting as Himself and Nora, a coarse and superficial exploration of the life and career of James Joyce. Composer and librettist Jonathan Brielle seems to have thought it was a good idea to portray one of the greatest minds of the 20th Century as a randy, vulgar schoolboy. It wasn’t.
- Paramour – Yeah, sure, the Cirque du Soleil circus acts are cool, but the show surrounding those acts is a disaster. The songs are generic and weak, the libretto is an embarrassment, and nobody seems to have given much thought to how to make all of the circus acts relevant to the story. Paramour may be taking in $1 million-plus a week, but the utter lack of craft in the show’s construction is appalling.
Editor’s note: Portions of this article appeared in an article published December 30, 2017.
Cover Photo: Benjamin Walker and the cast of ‘American Psycho;’ photo: Jeremy Daniel.