Following the year of theatre closures and uncertainty that 2020 brought on, 2021 was expected to be drastically better. And if we’re measuring the joy this year brought, 2021 was a far better year for a theater community that suffered the loss of jobs and an arts outlet that always felt constant and readily available. Later in the year, with the announcement of widespread COVID-19 vaccines and increased testing, the return of theater began to feel more real. By early fall, the release of Broadway reopening dates began to pour in and some sense of normalcy was on the horizon. While we’re still in the midst of a pandemic that continues to leave performances up in the air, this community continues to do the work and continue the show. This year alone, theater workers and fans have rallied and fought for safer work environments, created space for new and inventive shows to be brought to stage, brought diversity and inclusion back to the forefront, and worked to make theater accessible far beyond the Broadway stage. Here are some of the biggest theater moments of 2021.
Broadway Is Back!
After more than a year of empty Broadway houses and an industry left feeling void, Pass Over became the first play to welcome audiences back to Broadway. The play, written by Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu and directed by Danya Taymour, first premiered at the Steppenwolf Theatre in 2017, in a production that was captured by Spike Lee. After a revision to the play’s ending, the production moved to Lincoln Center’s Claire Tow Theater in 2018. After Nwandu felt inspired during the shutdown, she made yet another revision to the play’s finale ahead of its transfer to Broadway’s August Wilson Theatre on August 4. Nwandu’s bold play also marked the first time a production by a Black playwright would be presented inside the Broadway house.
Tony Award–winning musical Hadestown and Waitress starring Sara Bareilles became the first musicals to reopen on Broadway on September 2, followed by four of Broadway’s biggest hits and long-running musicals — Hamilton, Wicked, The Lion King, and Chicago, on September 14.
The return of Broadway included an unprecedented surge of new works by Black playwrights. Seven new plays written by Black playwrights — including Douglas Lyons, writer of Chicken & Biscuits; Alice Childress, writer of Trouble in Mind; Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu, writer of Pass Over; Ruben Santiago-Hudson, writer of Lackawanna Blues; Keenan Scott II, writer of Thoughts of a Colored Man; Lynn Nottage, writer of Clyde’s; and Dominique Morisseau, writer of Skeleton Crew — were included in this year’s round-up of plays produced on Broadway.
To honor the return of theater, The Broadway League and Playbill worked together to take over Times Square for the first-ever three-day outdoor festival. The event featured ¡Viva! Broadway When We See Ourselves, a musical celebration of the joy, diversity, and extensive contributions of the Latin and Hispanic theater community; performances by stars from 18 Broadway musicals; and Broadway Podcast Network’s What’s Up Broadway?–led daily panel discussions. Curtain Up! was a one-of-a-kind experience to usher in Broadway’s reopening season.
Experimental Theater Reigns Supreme
From digital theater performances like This American Wife, to an outdoor staging of Seven Deadly Sins, to audio-dramas such as Twits, and two different Broadway shows running in rep at the Lyceum, theater took chances this year. This American Wife is the newest digital theater creation from Fake Friends that showed the possibilities of what online theater can do. Seven Deadly Sins took over several storefronts in the Meatpacking District. The production included seven 10-minute works written by some of the country’s most provocative playwrights: Ngozi Anyanwu (Gluttony), Thomas Bradshaw (Sloth), MJ Kaufman (Pride), Moisés Kaufman (Greed), Jeffrey LaHoste (Envy), Ming Peiffer (Wrath), and Bess Wohl (Lust). For each play, audience members watched the performances take place in a glass block and listened to the production while wearing headphones. Seven Deadly Sins offered an innovative theatrical experience. Twits, a Broadway Podcast Network original audio-drama starring Michael Urie, Lillias White, James Monroe-Iglehart, and others offered theater lovers a new audio-only experience. Dana H. and Is This a Room, two plays based on real-life instances, ran in repertory at the Lyceum Theatre, the first of its kind that created a new model in which to experience Broadway shows.
Great American Musical composer Stephen Sondheim died on November 26 at the age of 91. Sondheim influenced multiple generations of theater artists, particularly with his landmark musicals Company, Assassins, Sweeney Todd, Into the Woods, and Follies. Six of Sondheim’s musicals won Tony Awards for best score, and he also received a Pulitzer Prize (Sunday in the Park With George), an Academy Award (for the song “Sooner or Later” from the film Dick Tracy), five Olivier Awards, and the Presidential Medal of Honor. In 2008, he received a Tony Award for lifetime achievement. On the Sunday after his passing, the Broadway community — including familiar faces Lin-Manuel Miranda, Raúl Esparza, Sara Bareilles, Stephen Schwartz, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Laura Benanti, and Josh Groban — took over the red steps in Times Square to honor Sondheim with a sing-along of his famous ballad “Sunday.”
Black Women Take the Lead
For the first time on Broadway, Black women will lead in The Phantom of the Opera and Wicked. Emilie Kouatchou, who made history in October as the first Black actor to play the role of Christine Daaé in the long-running production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera, will again secure her place in the record books when she takes over the role full-time on January 26, 2022. And over at the Broadway production of Wicked, for the first time in more than 18 years, a Black actress will take over the role of Glinda full-time. Brittney Johnson, who joined the company in 2018 and has previously understudied the role, will be promoted to Wicked’s leading lady on February 14, 2022.
This past year has been an unpredictable roller-coaster ride for theater, and it’s not quite over yet — but here’s to making new memories and seeing more shows in 2022.
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