Centuries have passed since Broadway’s grand opening, and yet many productions look totally fresh this year—even revived ones from the past. This is because some draw on concepts and emotions that are simultaneously timeless and timely, while others are not afraid to speak directly to those previously overlooked.
There are those who do both at the same time. The revived “Death of a Salesman” reimagines a classic white family drama with Blacks, and “How I Learned to Drive” is a critical reminder of a pre-#MeToo showdown.
There were also standout Broadway debuts such as the awe-inspiring musical “A Strange Loop” and the defying expectations “The Kite Runner.” Both took on their deeply personal stories of pain and triumph, awakening something in each of us.
Each of the greatest productions of 2022 has given us an experience that only a Broadway outing can provide. That’s what makes it all incredible.
The idea of a musical focusing on the late Michael Jackson is already intriguing because it meant different things to different people: the King of Pop, a brother, a predator, a freak, a victim. As Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lynn Nottage tackles each of these aspects of Jackson’s identity with the utmost precision, this show is as compelling and complex as it is wildly entertaining. Based on Myles Frost’s textured, Tony Award-winning performance and set during Jackson’s 1992 “Dangerous” tour, “MJ: The Musical” explores the inner world of a surprisingly talented man who is haunted by his own trauma and demons.
When we talk about reaching universality specifically, we are talking about this extraordinary musical by Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize winner Michael R. Jackson. Just google “fat, Black and queer musical”; Only to be directed to it. This is the autobiographical story of a fat, Black and gay young man (Tony nominee Jaquel Spivey) working as a Broadway frontman with big dreams of becoming a working playwright. But to do so, she needs to weed out some familiar inner thoughts, such as self-loathing, anxiety, financial burden, “corporate blackness” and “the white girl inside.” Six dazzling queer actors bring each of these extensions of the protagonist to life, grounding the story with emotional songs, joy, and a narrative that stays in your soul long after you watch it.
“For black girls who are thinking of committing suicide/when the rainbow is enuf”
Ntozake Shange’s eye-opening 1975 korean poem “For black girls who are considering suicide/When the rainbow is enuf” has an unspoken pride that leaps from every line of it. Tony-nominated director and choreographer Camille Brown this exuberant Broadway revival It’s filled with serious expressions about everything that comes with being black and female: almost childlike joy, seemingly insurmountable trauma and sisterhood. It is this last element that fills your heart as you watch each character speaking to you like a dear friend, representing different aspects of a colorful whole.
“Death of a salesperson”
like other rare examples of a race-based narrative that is really good, director Miranda Cromwell’s “Death of a Salesman” fully understands the task. This sharp revival of Arthur Miller’s resounding 1949 play about a family man faced with the desolation of both his career and bank account in the 1940s and who has little to show for both, this sharp revival highlights Black’s experiences we don’t get enough of on the Broadway stage. These include cracks in a Black family, the American Dream trick for Blacks, and a Black son’s personal inability to live up to his father’s vision of success. Led by the overwhelming performances of Sharon D. Clarke and Wendell Pierce as unfortunate parents, as well as sons Khris Davis and McKinley Belcher III, this production is simply unforgettable.
The best way to see Suzan Lori-Parks’ 2001 Pulitzer Prize-winning play is to know very little about it. And yet even if you’ve read or seen it before, you’ll still be amazed at the way humor is infused throughout this otherwise dramatic two-person film about a pair of doomed Black brothers, starringly portrayed by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Corey Hawkins. They are devastated because the characters realize too late that they are living in their own pitch-black satire of Black life, a flawed perception of Black identity, and the fleeting hope of a three-card game. Complete with sharp dialogues and engaging performances, “Topdog/Underdog” is excellent.
Somehow, director Giles Croft adapted Khaled Hosseini’s immensely complex and beloved 2003 novel with playwright Matthew Spangler and made it even more complicated on the Broadway stage – and it works. This is partly because the hero Amir was portrayed by the same great actor Amir Arison as his childhood friend (Eric Sirakian) for twenty years of his life, both as a child and as an adult. But beyond that, “The Kite Runner” breathes new life into the heartbreaking and ultimately affirming story of a man who comes to terms with a childhood decision that changed the course of a friendship in Afghanistan. A narrative about morality and redemption, fear and forgiveness. And it reminds us that these roads are not always straight.
“How I Learned to Drive”
In the five years since #MeToo went mainstream, there’s been a lot of controversy, especially over how often screen narratives occur. centers the lives of sexual predators, with fewer details about the survivors. This heartbreaking fact is part of what makes this remake of Paula Vogel’s 1998 Pulitzer Prize-winning play – with the same main cast, Mary Louise Parker and David Morse – as vital as ever. This is a story that follows a woman grappling with the memory and damage of her family member’s long-term predatory relationship with her. Delicately directed by Mark Brokaw, “How I Learned to Drive” is another game made even more instinctive as an adult actor oscillates between child and adult versions of his character. And a powerful showdown that you never expected.
One of the most fascinating things about Richard Greenberg’s 2002 game is that its story is entirely tied to a conflict situation. It’s about a baseball star loved by fans of “America’s favorite pastime,” and many turn their backs on him when he’s revealed to be gay. Its public announcement also coincides with a pending multimillion-dollar deal, effectively eliminating it. Meanwhile, their teammates and even a close friend feel compelled to deal with the prospect of someone close to them checking in on them in the shower room. As a black protagonist played by Jesse Williams in a Tony Award-nominated performance by director Scott Ellis, “Take Me Out” challenges multiple masculine stereotypes while simultaneously confronting the dark stain of betrayal on multiple levels.
Almost every moment in “Skeleton Crew” there is a gripping feeling that something bad is going to happen. This need not be due to any sense of tension. That’s because Dominique Morisseau’s 2016 game is overflowing with both regret and a consuming sense of optimism. This sounds frustrating, but it’s very human in that respect. Because it shines a light on those well beyond the 1%: Black working-class people whose lights are about to go out forever in an auto factory in Detroit. Only a few of the characters in this Ruben Santiago-Hudson-directed production know it’s coming, but we’re getting deep thoughts from each and every one of them. These include a mom with big career aspirations (Chanté Adams), the man with no way out (Joshua Boone), and an awkward gambler (Phylicia Rashad, a Tony Award-nominated performance) trying to mend a crucial relationship. You invest in the “Skeleton Crew” story because you think you know these characters. Or maybe you are one of them. There’s only one way to get under your skin.