Producer and performer, Catherine Langley visited New York City for the very first time earlier this year and managed to see every single show on Broadway. She shares her experience and her top 10 list of shows. The list was written well before the Tony nominations were even announced, let alone the actual winners, but clearly Catherine Langley can pick a winner!
They say the neon lights are bright on Broadway and they would be absolutely correct.
Through January and February 2016 I was fortunate enough to make the holy pilgrimage to the Musical Theatre mothership – New York City. Don’t ask me how but I had somehow never been to New York before. The biggest thing that struck me is just how inherently ingrained their theatre culture is.
There is something about spending an extended period of time in a city that is so inherently ‘stagey’ that really inspires you and makes you really appreciate how truly lucky we are to be able to do what we do. To quote Elphaba: “For the first time I’m somewhere where I belong”!
From the plethora of billboards advertising shows to the people discussing the merits of Lin-Manuel Miranda on the subway, to the 45-minute long wait in the TKTS line or the 300 people showing up for the Book of Mormon lottery, the city utterly lives and breathes theatre. It’s so amazing to be able to see so many musicals playing at once and all of them playing to really solid or even sold out audiences. The communities are really supportive and shows will do cross promotion with each other.
During my trip (and in the middle of a blizzard no less) I also attended BroadwayCon – a convention purely celebrating every aspect of Musical Theatre. It is truly impossible to fully explain and do justice to exactly what it was I experienced. Picture the most bizarre combination of 15,000 young professionals, aspiring performers, older lifelong fans and young, obsessive fangirls in full 100% accurate dressups. You’d look around the foyer and see The Schuyler sisters, a collection of Heathers with croquet mallets and a Tracy Turnblad and Seaweed doing original show chorey in the corner. For the life of my I have NO idea how the girl dressed as Jemima from Cats got there in fully accurate makeup & leotard in the middle of the blizzard. I like to think she was on the floor of the subway rubbing on people’s legs dressed as a cat.
But the biggest thing I noticed is that no one ever batted an eyelid. This behaviour wasn’t looked at as crazy or obsessive. People get so passionate about their favourite shows and are celebrated for it. No one seems to think that starting a ‘Mama Who Bore Me’ singalong in line at the Box Office for Spring Awakening is strange behaviour.
As a Producer and performer, I feel it’s my responsibility to immerse myself in as much musical theatre as possible. Having never been to Broadway before I set myself a challenge: to see every single musical currently playing on Broadway. And I’m proud to say I passed with flying colours. Over the 32 nights I spent in New York I saw all 25 Broadway musicals, 2 plays, 2 concerts, 1 cabaret and 1 Off-Broadway musical.
Very quickly I learnt to dread the age-old question: ‘So what’s the best show you’ve seen?’ It’s absolutely impossible to pick just one. The variety of styles and scopes on Broadway at the moment makes it irresponsible to pick just one. So, in no particularly order, here is my pick for my personal top 10.
I’m going to get this one out of the way early because let’s be honest, it’s the one you’re probably most interested in hearing about.
I find the Hamilton phenomenon absolutely fascinating from so many different perspectives. It’s hard to think of another show that rivals the hype it has received. Trying to get a ticket is insane – it is currently sold out until November, people wait in the cancellation line from 4am in the freezing cold just in the off chance a ticket might be available, people pay line sitters to wait in the line for them, scalped tickets on ticketmaster go for anywhere between $600-2300 USD, fake tickets are circulating and the online lottery regularly has 50,000 unique entries for 22 tickets. Even when the lottery was in person earlier in the year 400+ people would turn up in the snow, half the road would have to be roped off and an NYPD officer assigned to it each night.
I managed to massively luck out on this one, I miraculously booked a ticket 2 days before at the regular price without having to wait in a line at all. Nailed it! If you’re heading over soon and want some tips feel free to email me!
So, I intentionally went into Hamilton having intentionally not exposed myself to it at all. I hadn’t listened to the cast recording or watched any YouTube clips, nor read any reviews. I wanted to walk into it and experience it exactly as the first reviewers would have. Having said that though, all the hype surrounding it did give me very high expectations walking in. You would have been forgiven for thinking you were at a rock concert, such were the cheers and applause every single cast member received on their entrances.
Now don’t get me wrong, I did like it a lot. The staging was brilliant, the chorey unlike anything I’d seen in a musical before, the performances were solid. Did it absolutely blow me away? Not on a first viewing. I’m always so fascinated to talk to other Australians who have seen the show. They promote it as Hamilton: an American Musical and it 100% is, but I don’t know how well it translates to non-Americans. I’m someone who is fairly well versed in American history but the specificity of events and people referenced really went over my head. Combined with lots of very fast lyrics coming at you and somewhat busy staging/chorey I actually struggled to follow what was happening for about the first half hour. For anyone who knows the show once they got to “Helpless” I was on board but it took me until then to really get into it. I feel Hamilton is very much in the ‘Sondheim’ vein. Now that I’ve listened to it several times post-viewing I appreciate it a whole lot more and realise how clever it truly is. On the one hand I’m really glad I hadn’t listened to it before seeing it, on the other hand I wonder if I would have loved it a lot more had I been familiar with it. I’d love to hear the opinions of other people who have seen it!
2. Something Rotten!
There is really only one word to describe Something Rotten: Fun! Something Rotten is utterly ridiculous and hilariously entertaining theatre. Set back in 1595, the story centers around Nick and Nigel bottom who are rival writers to Shakespeare, who is played as a rockstar. Long story short, Shakespeare is super successful and the Bottom brothers aren’t, so they go to a soothsayer to try and get him to predict what Shakespeare’s biggest hit is going to be so they can write it first. The soothsayer isn’t very good but predicts the biggest thing in theatre is going to be something called a “Musical” and Shakespeare’s biggest play is going to be called “Omelette” (ie Hamlet) What follows is utterly ridiculous and very fun, full of musical references and injokes and references to major historical events. Think A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum crossed with Spamalot.
3. Spring Awakening
When I first heard that Spring Awakening was going to be performed by deaf performers I’m not going to lie, I had questions about how that was going to work out… But it was actually a really inspired piece of theatre. The entire show is deaf accessible. Several of the performers are deaf actors including Wendla, Moritz, Martha, Otto, one of the Adult males etc. These performers have others actors who follow them around and provide their speaking and sung voices. At the same time American sign language is fully integrated into the production – ASL is used as the choreography and gestures throughout the show. There is also the odd scene that may be performed entirely in sign language where subtitles are projected onto the set. It actually made the emotional scenes have a lot more impact when performed in total silence, for example a scene between Moritz and his father.
What I actually loved more about this production than the sign language was the physicality of the production, how actors bodies were used to create shapes and structures. For example at one point all the actors not in the scene come onto the stage and assemble to create a tree. They then interact with the actors, using their arms as branches to draw the actors into the tree etc. It was absolutely fascinating to watch and I’d love to see it done in Australia at some point.
I’m not going to go into depth too much about Matilda as it is playing in Australia. But it has got to be one of the best adaptations from pre-existing source material in recent times. One of the biggest things to stand out for me on this trip was the huge requirements and expectations on child performers in Musical Theatre at the moment and Matilda has to be one of the most demanding. The weight of the show is totally on the one tiny little girl and she delivers. Truly magical, especially to see so many little kids in the audience experiencing live theatre for the first time.
5. Finding Neverland
I think this is a bit of an unpopular choice but I really did love Finding Neverland. I managed to catch Matthew Morrison’s final performance and I’m so glad I did. Again, a beautiful story done quite well. I was unashamedly bawling my eyes out at the end. I don’t want to ruin it for you but the special effects of the emotional climax at the end of act 2 is really spectacular. Rumour has it it’s coming to Australia with Warlow in 2017 so keep an eye out for that!
6. The Color Purple
Other than the expectations for child actors at the moment, the big thing that jumped out at me is the racial diversity on Broadway. This show is all about Cynthia Erivo. 100%. This has to be one of the rawest, most vulnerable, most goosebump inducing performances I have ever seen. Plus, THAT VOICE!! I’m still raving about her, she is an absolute revelation. I’ve never seen a full auditorium standing ovation mid show before until Cynthia pulled out the 11 o’clock number, ‘I’m Here’. Jennifer Hudson is disappointing but Cynthia well & truly makes up for her.
Casting a Celie is a huge challenge for anyone who does the show and I really can’t picture anyone doing a better job in the role to be honest. Expect a Tony nomination/win here.
Beautiful was definitely one of my favourite shows. For sure. The best way I can think of to describe it is kind of like a female Jersey Boys but with one woman. In a Jukebox musical it can be really hard to insert musical numbers so that they seem really organic and not just an excuse for a song or a dance. In Beautiful the musical numbers are really cleverly integrated into the story and seem to fit really well. The stakes are never particularly high but you still care for the characters and it is great to see the transformation in Carole from young teenage writer to Carnegie Hall-playing superstar.
I would really love for one of the national theatres companies, MTC in particular to pick this one up.
(Editor’s note: Since Catherine Langley’s visit to New York, Michael Cassel Group has announced Beautiful will open in Sydney in 2017.)
8. Fun Home
Fun Home is a fascinating show. It really is very interesting and quite different to shows I’ve seen before. It breaks the mould in a few ways – it’s an hour and a half without an interval, it’s performed in the round, it has an all-female writing team (#GirlPower), it’s the first Broadway show with a lesbian protagonist, it shows the same character at 3 different ages in a non-linear time line and the songs are so integrated into the story they are less songs and more musicalised dialogue. It’s really interesting and again, I’d love it to play Australia sooner rather than later.
Allegiance was a bit of a dark horse. Again I didn’t know anything about the show coming into it, other than it starred Lea Salonga. I’m actually quite sad it closed so early as it is a fascinating story that is rarely told. The story centers around the real life story of George Takei (who also stars in it). It tells the story of the Japanese-American citizens in America around the time of the Pearl Harbour bombings when they were all forced to leave their families and sent to the Heart Mountain internment camp.
I was totally transfixed by this show from start to finish. I must admit I can be sometimes guilty sometimes of zoning out during shows but this one totally gripped me. While it doesn’t necessarily go for ‘entertaining’, it’s fascinating to see a musical written out of a specific historical event that isn’t particularly known about. And unlike Hamilton, not having any prior historical knowledge of the events wasn’t a hindrance to following the story.
10. Daddy Long Legs
Ok, so on a technicality this was Off-Broadway. But I absolutely adored this show. It’s a two-hander playing in a tiny old converted firehouse. It tells the story of Jerusha Abbott, an orphan at the John Grier orphanage. She gets sponsored to go to college by a mysterious anonymous benefactor, who’s only requirement is she must send a monthly letter to him updating on her progress. Frustrated by his anonymity, Jerusha dubs him ‘Daddy Long Legs’. The show is the exploration of their relationship or lack thereof. The set is simple, it’s a study/office covered in bookshelves with windows set into them. Sets and different spaces are created with large suitcases positioned around the stage which are turned into beds, mountains etc. I really loved this, it had so much heart and spirit and was very very well done. I’m very glad I ventured off-Broadway to find this little gem.
The full list of shows Catherine Langley saw:
- School of Rock
- Spring Awakening
- Something Rotten
- Finding Neverland
- The Color Purple
- Les Miserables
- Fiddler on the Roof
- An American in Paris
- Fun Home
- The King & I
- Jersey Boys
- The Book of Mormon
- Phantom of the Opera
- On Your Feet!
- The Lion King
- Kinky Boots
- She Loves Me
- Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time
- Noises Off
- Jason Robert Brown in concert with Tituss Burgess
- Broadway Rocks Kelly Clarkson
- Sarah Stiles: Squirrel Heart
- Daddy Long Legs
Catherine Langley is the Executive Producer of Flourish Productions. Her next production is Sing On Through Tomorrow – The Songs of Matthew Lee Robinson