Today we are taking a look at the very best theatre-related entities in a variety of different categories - books, music, television, film, and, of course, theatre - as we look back on 2011 and all of the many marvelous moments of excitement, passion, joy and exultation that only theatre and theatre-related projects can possibly hope to provide. From Stephen Sondheim's LOOK, I MADE A HAT on the bookshelves of every Broadway baby worth their weight in sequins to Neil Patrick Harris and Patti LuPone in Sondheim's COMPANY on the big screen courtesy of Fathom to the stunning Broadway revival of FOLLIES starring Bernadette Peters and its tremendous new cast album, all the way to the thrills and chills of Andrew Lloyd Webber's PHANTOM OF THE OPERA LIVE AT THE ROYAL Albert Hall on the big screen and Blu-ray to the BOOK OF MORMON breaking Broadway records and even TV's best drama and comedy, both from mastermind Ryan Murphy - GLEE and AMERICAN HORROR STORY. Plus, we also have top film picks in the categories of Drama and Comedy, as well as the best of the best of them all, with Lars Von Trier's apocalyptic masterpiece MELANCHOLIA, George Clooney's play adaptation THE IDES OF MARCH and the 80s music video stylized thriller/drama DRIVE topping the list. All of that and a whole lot more awaits in this all-encompassing look back at the theatrical highlights in all entertainment realms in 2011, as well as a look ahead to what we cannot wait for in 2012!
Toasts To The Mosts
Without further ado, here is the official SOUND OFF list of the best of the best in theatre-related entertainment, covering stage shows, books, TV, DVD/Blu-ray, music and much more in the year that was 2011.
Best Broadway Show
THE BOOK OF MORMON
The slew of Tony Awards it won in June and the boffo $50 million box office advance say more than I ever could in this column, but once or twice a decade a Broadway musical touches the national - even international - zeitgeist and in 2011 THE BOOK OF MORMON was undoubtedly, unquestionably it. Nothing has quite caught on with Generation Y in the way this show has since SPRING AWAKENING did nearly 5 years ago and the return of SOUTH PARK creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone to the musical comedy world that they exploited so well in the animated feature film musical SOUTH PARK: BIGGER, LONGER & UNCUT is sweet music to the ears of those who want some profanity, laughter and irony to go with their big ballads and spectacle-laden production numbers. While THE BOOK OF MORMON might offend some (or most), it is the hit of many a season and acts as evidence that Broadway can still be cool, hip, contemporary and relevant when it wants to be. Hello!
Best Broadway Revival
Much like literary buffs will forever argue over the virtues of the best novels of the great writers, so, too, will theatre enthusiasts eternally discuss what actually is Stephen Sondheim's best musical. Sure, SWEENEY TODD is pretty much perfect and SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE is an unparalleled masterpiece - and ASSASSINS surely pushes the envelope in not only content, but form, style and even the nature of theatrical/political discourse and what it can be in a dramatic milieu - but, for most of us admitted Broadway babies, FOLLIES is as good as it gets. There's a reason we call ourselves Broadway babies, after all - and it comes from a song in this show. A score containing more than thirty of Sondheim's very best songs, FOLLIES will never be a show to elicit guffaws and enamor audiences with the warm, inviting feel-good nature of many of the most beloved Broadway musicals of yore - the currently-running revivals of ANYTHING GOES or How to Succeed IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING are better bets for curing one's desire for more traditional fare such as that - but FOLLIES certainly packs an emotional, electrifying wallop. Then comes Loveland. There has never been a musical quite like FOLLIES before and there probably never will be - and even when there is, in the case of Michael John LaChiusa and George C. Wolfe's brilliant THE WILD PARTY, the audience didn't get it (or worse, doesn't want to get it at all). FOLLIES is all of theatre history through the lens of the greatest composer and lyricist musical theatre has ever known and if only for that reason FOLLIES is the masterpiece of them all in Sondheim's tremendous catalogue and the superlative revival is the show on Broadway to see.
LOOK, I MADE A HAT by Stephen Sondheim
Coming after last year's masterful FINISHING THE HAT, which covered the period of his legendary career leading up to 1981 and MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG, Stephen Sondheim's sequel of sorts - LOOK, I MADE A HAT - manages to go even further in illustrating the man behind the music and lyrics of many of the finest American musicals ever written. Covering the Pulitzer Prize-winning SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE, as well as the Tony Award-winning INTO THE WOODS, ASSASSINS, PASSION and his most recent piece, WISE GUYS/BOUNCE/ROAD SHOW, as well as his multiple film projects, the absolute crowing jewels of all the many riches to be found in this tome come in the form of the abandoned projects - a collaboration with Leonard Bernstein and John Guare on A PRAY BY BLECT; the early-90s William Goldman/Rob Reiner contemporary original musical film collaboration SINGING OUT LOUD - as well as in the lyrics for many of Sondheim's lesser-known contributions to a number of projects (John Lindsay's New York City mayoral campaign theme song and two Tony Bennett tunes penned with Jule Styne among them). Broadway baby or musical neophyte, Sondheim's LOOK, I MADE A HAT is the most important book you are likely to add to your library this - or any - year.
THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA LIVE AT THE ROYAL Albert Hall
While those in the US technically may have to wait a few more months to pick up the DVD and Blu-ray of the truly spectacular and positively phantastic 25th anniversary production of the most successful musical in world history, THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA AT THE ROYAL Albert Hall, the UK edition is readily available from Amazon UK and since it is region-free will play in all Blu-ray players (the accompanying DVD, alas, will not). It is well worth being one of the first stateside to warm to its many marvelous charms. Featuring role-redefining performances of the title role and the object of his affection, Christine, by Ramin Karimloo and Sierra Boggess, respectively, PHANTOM 25 is one of the finest entertainment events of the century so far and stands alongside COMPANY as the best you are ever likely to see live theatre rendered on film. The title song, "The Music Of The Night" and "Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again" sound better than ever and the show itself is as spine-tinglingly romantic and terrifyingly horrific as it has always been, if not even more so in this elaborate new staging for the Royal Albert Hall. The Blu-ray presentation is pristine in both sound and video and the entire package as seen on disc make this the absolute must-have Blu-ray out of all discs released this year.
Best Soundtrack/Cast Album
GLEE: THE MUSIC: WEST SIDE STORY
While there are a multitude of virtues to the new Broadway cast recordings of How to Succeed IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING, FOLLIES and THE BOOK OR MORMON, the true-blue best Broadway-related cast album or soundtrack in 2011 is without a doubt the cast of GLEE taking on the score of WEST SIDE STORY. From the sensational "Something's Coming" as performed by Darren Criss - a track which actually had its world premiere in this very column - to his sterling duets with Lea Michele on "Tonight" and "One Hand, One Heart", all the way to Naya Rivera and Michele's considerably committed and quite caliente "A Boy Like That/I Have A Love" right through to Michele and Idina Menzel's "Somewhere", the musical theatre lover in 2011 may very well have found their ultimate nirvana in the form of GLEE's "The First Time" episode and the season's subsequent soundtrack featuring almost all of the songs from Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim's legendary, rightly classic score for the musical tragedy. Even Harry Shum, Jr.'s "Cool" and the cast's "America" come to bristling, bouncy life on disc - and right in your ears, face and heart in the process. True, it's all a bit assaultive, but it's exceptionally appealing all the same. The powers that be at GLEE taking the Shakespearean teen romance and virginity angle so imperative to the original play, Romeo & Juliet, and weaving it into the plot of the episode itself was a stroke of pure genius, but the music as heard on the soundtrack surely stands on its own. So, after ROCKY HORROR last year and WEST SIDE STORY this year, what musical will GLEE take on in 2012? We shall have to wait and see - but, until then, we have those two fantastic soundtracks with which to satiate ourselves. All of the WEST SIDE STORY tracks from GLEE are available to purchase on iTunes.
Best Miniseries On TV
MILDREd Pierce - HBO
Todd Haynes crafted a glittering gem out of the James M. Cain novel in his near-6-hour HBO miniseries adaptation of it starring Kate Winslet. While the languid pace and stylized acting may not appeal to all, Winslet gives a career-defining performance as the beleaguered and downtrodden titular heroine and it is worth the long journey if only to witness her and Veda's denouement. Evan Rachel Wood and Guy Pierce manage to create studied, unforgettable characterizations of unlikable people, while Melissa Leo leaves a lasting, loving impression in her featured role, as does Brian F. O'Byrne (particularly in his heartbreaking scenes with Winslet in the final part). The Blu-ray comes with episode introductions and two commentaries by Haynes himself and the entire package should prove to be a must-have for any fans of fine films or great acting when it is finally released in early 2012.
Best Miniseries On DVD
BRIDESHEAD REVISTED - 30th Anniversary Blu-ray
This 13-hour, 1980-1981 adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's early-20th-century British aristocracy study, BRIDESHEAD REVISITED, is a TV entity like few others and it has been rendered expertly in this lovingly-produced and elegantly-packaged 30th anniversary Blu-ray edition. The performance of Jeremy Irons alone makes this a must-watch for theatre fans who have followed his work since and the added enjoyment provided by acting legends John Gielgud, Claire Bloom and Laurence Olivier in featured roles makes it even more engrossing and enthralling to experience as the sordid tale plays out over the course of its 11 parts. Sure, it's a little slow in spots, but that oh-so-exacting lulling into the style of the film is much like going back in time and into the period the film covers itself as it all plays out. A true treat. One of the finest TV miniseries ever made that will be of particular interest to DOWNTOWN ABBEY fans, particularly since that splendid show is about to enter into the same era as BRIDESHEAD. Additionally, the Blu-ray comes with a plethora of behind-the-scenes documentaries, commentaries, recollections, texts and pictures by the creative team and cast.
Best Film On DVD/Blu-ray - Comedy
MIDNIGHT IN PARIS
While one could have safely assumed that by his 42nd feature film Woody Allen would have started to run out of ideas, exactly the opposite is so with his newest film - his paean to Paris is pretty perfect. MIDNIGHT IN PARIS is as fresh as a hot soufflé and the perfect casting only makes it better - Owen Wilson has never been better and Rachel McAdams and Michael Sheen are spot-on. That's not even making mention of the historical and period individuals that figure into this romantic, surrealistic flight of fancy - Kathy Bates, Adrien Brody, Marion Cotillard and many more do wonders with their roles. Breakout stage star Nina Arianda shines in her small role, as does Corey Stoll as Ernest Hemingway. Indeed, if you can't afford a trip to Paris this New Year's Eve, a play of the Blu-ray or DVD of MIDNIGHT IN PARIS is the second best thing. Bon appetit.
Best Film On DVD/Blu-ray - Drama
THE DEVIL'S DOUBLE
Giving the dramatic performance of the century in not one but two roles, Dominic Cooper is a force of nature in THE DEVIL'S DOUBLE and his omission from major awards consideration so far this Oscar season is a true head-scratcher. See why here. Playing both Saddam Hussein's son and the man forced to act as his double, the Middle East-set indie thriller is SCARFACE for the modern age with a slightly more moralistic bent. From the most subtle of reactions in the first reveal of Uday, Hussein's son, by his double and their subsequent interactions throughout, all the way to the terrifying brusqueness of Philip Quast as Hussein himself, THE DEVIL'S DOUBLE is expertly acted and the film possesses a unique, alluring and idiosyncratic style all its own. Dominic Cooper is one of the brightest young stars of his generation, as Broadway babies who saw him in THE HISTORY BOYS onstage and MAMMA MIA onscreen most assuredly are aware, and, with THE DEVIL'S DOUBLE, he cements his place as one of the finest actors of our age.
How to even begin to describe and discuss Lars Von Trier's end-of-the-world ode, MELANCHOLIA? For one: a story told in two acts; the story of two sisters. Secondly: it is about a wedding. Third? That may be giving too much away. Kirstin Dunst is unforgettable in the lead role - if she is not nominated come Oscar time I will have lost all faith in critics and awards committees - and Charlotte Gainsbourg is utterly fearless in her acting and painfully, tangibly fearful in her role - as she was in Von Trier's last outing, the button-pushing ANTI-CHRIST; and, assumedly, will be next year in the lead role of Von Trier's new film, curiously titled NYMPHOMANIAC. Kiefer Sutherland, Stellan Skarsgard and his son, Alexander Skarsgard (sharing the screen for the first time), provide nuanced, delicate portrayals of treacherously tricky and subversive roles, but the ladies walk away with the show in the final reel. What a wipe-out of an ending! Like Von Trier's own take on Kubrick's 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, MELANCHOLIA is the anti-apocalypse film. Or, should that be: the all-apocalypse film? Whatever it is, it's the best damn movie of the year. See for yourself why - even if it's just for the Hell of it.
Best Film - 1st Runner-Up
THE IDES OF MARCH
George Clooney's THE IDES OF MARCH did the little-known 2008 Beau Willimon play upon which it is based one better in his sleek, chic and terse film adaptation of the political thriller/comedy. The words bite, pierce and sting - particularly when emanating out of the mouth of Philip Seymour Hoffman in one of his most striking essayings of a role to date (which is really, really, really saying something given the pedigree of his performances so far). So, too, do Ryan Gosling and Evan Rachel Wood score in their central roles and Marisa Tomei is as engaging and spritely as ever. A film evocative of ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN, NETWORK and the great adult political dramas of the 1970s but completely contemporary and compelling all on its own terms, THE IDES OF MARCH is a real winner with some real good ole boys - and a great girl or two, too - doing David Mamet-esque work and making it all their own while doing so. A grown-up film that shows George Clooney has matured into a formidable director in addition to his suave screen persona (which he uses to great effect as the charismatic, Mitt Romney-esque political candidate in the film).
Best Film - 2nd Runner-Up
DRIVE is Nicolas Winding Refn's ode to the 1980s music video-stylized, neon-tinged vistas of LA as seen through the eyes of an enigmatic and (seemingly) emotionally immovable stunt driver played with an equal-parts tender and tough touch by Ryan Gosling. In a complete 180 from his roles in IDES OF MARCH and CRAZY, STUPID LOVE, Gosling says nary a word and seemingly speaks entire Shakespeare-level monologues with only his eyes - as reflected in the rearview mirror, of course. Albert Brooks is very scary (and funny, too) and Carey Mulligan is strong, as always. Part TAXI DRIVER and a little MIAMI VICE with a dash of AMERICAN GIGOLO and all filtered through a contemporary European indie film production, DRIVE is a film that defies description insofar as plot is concerned. Just let it take you along for the trip - it's one definitely worth taking. Oh, yeah, and it's sort of a musical and sort of a horror film, too. Just go with it - it's worth the ride.
Best Entertainment Event
Stephen Sondheim's COMPANY
A chorus of wows for Stephen Sondheim's COMPANY on film. Everything about this entity - from the multi-media nature of the presentation (a fully-produced and staged concert production recorded for film) to the fact it was broadcast in movie theaters worldwide (and will be available on DVD and Blu-ray in 2012) to the impossibly starry cast itself - is as unique as the concept musical by Stephen Sondheim and George Furth upon which it is based. Director Lonny Price pulled off the proverbial hat trick - to make a pun on Sondheim's book title and SUNDAY song - and made COMPANY not only the most exciting and enthralling adaptation of a Sondheim musical on film to date, but perhaps the finest rendering of a musical on film ever. This is as good and great and grand - and guffaw-inducing - as musical theatre gets. Sondheim's most revolutionary score and one of the musical theatre's best books both get a master class reading thanks to this bevy of Broadway and Hollywood heavyweights - Neil Patrick Harris, Patti LuPone, Christina Hendricks, Jon Cryer, Martha Plimpton, Stephen Colbert, Katie Finneran, Anika Noni Rose, Aaron Lazar and the rest included - and the result is theatrical lightning in a bottle. While PHANTOM 25 may end up being the more lucrative of the two projects, between that sublime experience and this COMPANY film - not even mentioning their broadcasts of four productions from Shakespeare's Globe - in just one year Fathom has proven that they are the most significant part of entertainment in 2011 insofar as bringing the magic of theatre to the widest audience imaginable - or even conceivable - and doing so at an affordable price. Thanks to them, we now have two crown jewels to add to our most beloved theatre memories of not only this year or this century so far, but ever.
Looking Ahead To 2012
So, what is the foremost property most worth looking forward to for theatre fans in 2012 that won't be only available to see on Broadway? Without a doubt, that would be the new NBC musical dramedy series SMASH, premiering February 6 at 10 PM on NBC. Featuring some big Broadway names (like Megan Hilty, Christian Borle and Brian d'Arcy James) and many notables familiar to all (like Debra Messing and Anjelica Houston), SMASH purports to be the most all-access behind-the-scenes Broadway-centric TV series to date, and the participation of HAIRSPRAY tunesmiths Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman - in addition to CHICAGO executive producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron - makes this the far and away must-see-TV event for theatre fans in early 2012. If the pilot alone is any indication of the excellence in style, story, songs, characters, drama and overall execution that we are to expect from the show every week, GLEE may very well have met its TV musical match! Fingers firmly crossed that SMASH fulfills the promise of its title - I think and hope it will.
Until then, Happy New Year!