Playbill's Favorite Theatre Moments of 2023 | Playbill

Special Features Playbill's Favorite Theatre Moments of 2023

From Ruthie Ann Miles in Light in the Piazza to the puppets in Life of Pi, here are the things we loved this year.

2023 was a jet-setting year for the Playbill staff. Our team of 14 went all over. We traveled to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, where we saw hundreds of shows and lived to tell many tales about it. Then, some of us ventured to London to see what was playing on the West End. Plus, we managed to thoroughly cover every show playing on Broadway and many Off-Broadway. So in short, we saw a lot of theatre. 

And so, when it came time to look back on the year, I (as Editor in Chief) wondered how we could characterize what we all saw this year—which ranged from shows in basements in Edinburgh to big-budget spectaculars on Broadway. It was unfair to rank them or to say they were "the best." The best is so subjective, and it's arbitrary based on individual tastes and biases. The Playbill staff range in ages, ethnicities, and genders—we couldn't agree on what "the best" of the year even was. 

But what we could do was provide a very idiosyncratic, very long list of our favorite things of the year. Read on to see what we have named our favorite shows, stand-out performances, and moments we will always remember of 2023. 

Ruthie Ann Miles in The Light in the Piazza Joan Marcus

Ruthie Ann Miles in The Light in the Piazza

We have a diversity of opinions here at Playbill (you should have heard us debating the pro and cons of Here We Are around our work table). But this is what many of us agreed was the highlight of our year: Tony winner Ruthie Ann Miles in The Light in the Piazza, in the all-too-brief run at New York City Center. I was honored when Miles agreed to speak to me at length about returning to Broadway and playing grief-stricken mothers, especially considering her own tragic history. I have never wanted more to get an article completely right, which was why Miles giving me her seal of approval made me feel like I could quit right now and be perfectly content (you can read that article here).

So, when it came time to watch Miles in Piazza, I could feel myself holding my breath throughout. I was awed how she mined humor from a Van Johnson joke, her giggle while she sang the lines, "Where waters shine and horses run" in "Fable," and the simultaneous control and heartbreak that was in her rendition of "The Beauty Is (Reprise)." I was also floored by her generosity—she was giving us something true, something that was not easy to give. What a gift it was to be able to receive it. I was not the only one who thought this. 

Senior News Editor Andrew Gans: "One of the season's highlights was Ruthie Ann Miles’ beautiful work in the City Center staging of The Light in the Piazza, which revealed a hitherto-unseen gift for comedy and reminded audiences of the gorgeous Adam Guettel score." 

Photo Assistant Vi Dang: "Witnessing Ruthie Ann Miles’ subtlety and reserve in Light in The Piazza was masterful."

Director of Social Media Jeffrey Vizcaíno: "Ruthie Ann Miles performing 'The Beauty Is (Reprise)' in The Light in the Piazza: Do you know what it’s like to be holding your breath along with over 2,200 people? That’s what it felt like watching Ruthie Ann Miles perform in this show. You could hear a pin drop, and the moment the song was over, the roar from the audience was like that of a Wrexham football match. I was there for the final performance and that number’s applause went on for a solid three-to-five minutes."

Nights and weekends reporter Molly Higgins: "One of my top theatrical moments of the year was hearing one of my all-time favorite scores live, and witnessing Ruthie Ann Miles’ stunningly beautiful performance in The Light in the Piazza."

Reg Rogers, Katie Rose Clarke, Jonathan Groff, Daniel Radcliffe, and Lindsay Mendez in Merrily We Roll Along Matthew Murphy

Merrily We Roll Along Finally Getting Its Due

Every theatre publication should have a resident Sondheim expert. Playbill's is Managing News Editor Logan Culwell-Block, who used to be a music director in another life, and who has many opinions about many shows on Broadway. But when asked to select his favorites of the year, he only chose one. 

"As a longtime Sondheim fan, it has been wild to watch the man’s genius work truly blossom from niche theatre nerd fodder to reliable Broadway money maker. No where is that shift more stark than in our current hit revival of Merrily We Roll Along, a show that famously played just 16 performances in its first outing. Sondheim fans have spent years debating whether or not the show can even work, much less be a success. That we got a Broadway revival at all was surprising, but that it’s regularly one of Broadway’s top grossers makes it a real shocker. It’s too bad Sondheim and his Merrily book writer George Furth aren’t here to see it, because beyond the starry casting, I can’t see it as anything else but validation that they did write a good show—it just hadn’t found its best form yet in 1981. In conclusion: God bless Maria Friedman, and a happy 2023 to us all."

Logan wasn't the only one. Playbill's Photo Editor Heather Gershonowitz has a special place in her heart for Merrily: "It was the first cast recording I ever owned." So, naturally, her favorite moment of the year was "hearing the score of Merrily We Roll Along fill a Broadway house."

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins Michaelah Reynolds

Longtime Playwrights Finally on Broadway

When I asked Andrew Gans to name his standout moments of the year, one of his responses was: "Every moment of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ haunting family drama Appropriate." That's high praise considering Andrew has been covering theatre since the '90s. But he is not wrong. I first saw Appropriate almost a decade ago when it first premiered Off-Broadway. Then I saw it again in Los Angeles. And again on Broadway (I even wrote this article about it). Every time, the play managed to bowl me over with its acerbic humor, cutting commentary, and sheer humanity. 

Jacobs-Jenkins is one of several supremely talented playwrights who made their (overdue) Broadway debuts this year. These experienced writers have received accolades and numerous awards for their work, but Broadway audiences weren't familiar with them. This year changed that. Amy Herzog made her Broadway debut with her spare adaptation of A Doll's House (she'll be back again in 2024 with Mary Jane and An Enemy of the People). Jocelyn Bioh brought a piece of Harlem to Broadway with Jaja's African Hair-Braiding (and we were all the better for it). James IjamesFat Ham, a smart and irreverent take on Hamlet, showed us that tragedy isn't preordained—that we can change the script for the better. Larissa Fasthorse created a delicious evening on Broadway with The Thanksgiving Play (and her take on Peter Pan is probably coming to a city near you). 

These playwrights have more than earned their flowers, and may Broadway audiences never forget their names.

On a similar vein....

Artists of Color Taking Control

When asked what her highlight of the year was, Photo Assistant Vi Dang had a powerful response: "Actors of color telling their stories their way. I started the year off seeing the closing night of A Strange Loop, the energy in the room was so palpable it almost felt like a spiritual experience that could’ve lifted the roof off the building. The representation of Filipinos in Here Lies Love was groundbreaking and so exciting. Fat Ham, Jaja’s African Hair Braiding, Purlie Victorious, the list goes on... This season was full of amazing storytelling and artists of color making space for themselves, and it was awe-inspiring to witness each and every one."

I have nothing to add except, co-sign!

Cast of How To Dance In Ohio. Top row, from left: Ashley Wool, Desmond Edwards, Conor Tague, Madison Kopec, Amelia Fei. Bottom row, from left: Imani Russell, Liam Pearce Marc J. Franklin

The Important Representation in How to Dance in Ohio

I could not sum up the beauty of How to Dance in Ohio better than Staff Writer Margaret Hall: "Watching How to Dance in Ohio blossom this year has been an immense honor. As a proudly autistic woman who grew up in Ohio, the show naturally appealed to me the moment it was announced, but my admiration for the piece goes much deeper. Filled with musical earworms, deftly layered dialogue, and earnestly open-hearted characterizations, it is my favorite musical to reach Broadway in quite some time. I treasure my various interviews with the company, and the pleasure of watching so many others fall in love with this noteworthy new musical. There will always be a place for clever cynicism and sharp ambition on Broadway, but we have desperately needed a true blue piece of earnest theatre for this generation. I believe How to Dance in Ohio is that piece of theatre." 

Read Margaret's beautiful interview with the cast of How to Dance in Ohio here.

Seeing Shucked Three Times

I rarely see shows multiple times, mainly because I have way too many to see and on my nights off, I would rather be watching cooking demonstrations at home. But I somehow saw Shucked on Broadway three times. All three times, Alex Newell stopped the show with their rendition of "Independently Owned," I laughed at the jokes ("Remember when we used to make sand castles with Grandma? Before Grandpa hid the urn?"), and I saw people dressing up as corn. Alright, I guess you can understand why I saw it three times, and every person I took to it thoroughly enjoyed themselves. It's breaking my heart that this gem of a show is closing on Broadway. It's the kind of show we need more of these days: joyful, original, and reminding us of the importance of community (and corn). 

It's not just me, Playbill's Photo Editor Heather Gershonowitz also loved the show (we both even bought merch). "It was just fun, the comedy was clever, I'm a fan of composer Brandy Clark, so I enjoy the music. It was thrilling to watch Robert Horn react to the audience’s reactions from the box, and seeing Newell experience the accolades they deserve. It was also the best show to take a group of friends to for a night out."

Here's also my chance to plug my interview with the composers of Shucked on why they stuck with the show for a decade.

Sarah Brightman and Andrew Lloyd Webber Kayleen Bertrand

Phantom's Closing Night on Broadway 

Besides Sondheim experts, we also have Phantom of the Opera experts here at Playbill. The biggest one of them all is Staff Writer Meg Masseron, who has seen the show a jaw-dropping 27 times. For the closing night of Phantom, we had Features Editor Talaura Harms and News Editor Logan Culwell-Block attend (you can read their account here). But we needed to have a memorial for Phantom in this year-end wrap-up, and Meg did not disappoint. 

"Although the show’s closure was a sad day for me, it ended up being one of my most-cherished memories as a super-phan. Though I tried and failed the ticket lottery probably close to 20 times in the days leading up to the final performance (not even counting the entries my friends and family did for me), the Playbill team was able to set me up with a press pass to cover the curtain call. I’ll never forget being ushered into the pitch dark Majestic. In my ear, I caught the final note of the show ringing out through the voice of Laird Mackintosh—my first-ever Phantom, and my all-time favorite out of the dozen that I’ve seen. He was an unexpected understudy for the final performance. Once the orchestra faded out, we made our way through the aisles. I was awestruck as I caught shadowy glimpses of so many Phantom alumni standing in the seating sections surrounding me. To this day, when I think of the moment confetti fell from the chandelier (as it twinkled its lights once more), I get misty-eyed. I probably always will. 

"The next day, I got to interview Mackintosh about his tenure in Phantom the following day. It was and surely always will be the best interview I’ve ever had—it was a full-on geek-out session!" Read Meg's interview here.

Jodie Comer Heather Gershonowitz

Standout Performances

Besides Miles' performance in Piazza, there were a number of others the Playbill team loved this year that they needed to spotlight. Here were some of them. 

"Conrad Ricamora’s passionate performance as the ill-fated Filipino politician Ninoy Aquino in the too-short-lived Here Lies Love." —Andrew Gans

Jodie Comer's "captivating" performance in Prima Facie, which made Molly Higgins sob and Jeffrey Vizcaíno go: "I forgot it was Jodie Comer on stage, and it felt like every word spoke was uttered for the first time, on the spot, real. From the funny to the heartbreaking, Jodie Comer proved she is one of the most talented actresses of her generation. And I’m lucky I got to see it for one night."

"Laura Linney’s heartfelt, comedic, and often-moving performance in the two-hander Summer, 1976, which explored the imbalanced nature of a decades-long friendship."—Andrew Gans

"Leslie Odom, Jr.’s final monologue in Purlie Victorious. We’ve waited almost 10 years for his return to Broadway, and this role is exactly what I needed. His comic timing is spot on, he touches even the back row of the balcony, and his power is unmatched. If anyone ever doubted what a star Leslie Odom, Jr. is, then they need to get to Purlie immediately." —Jeffrey Vizcaíno

Hiran Abeysekera, Richard Parker, Fred Davis, Scarlet Wildeernik, and Andrew Wilson MurphyMade (Matthew Murphy and Evan Zimmerman)

Puppets on Parade

Besides Sondheim and Phantom experts, we also have a puppet and clowning expert here at Playbill: Features Editor Talaura Harms. So for her end of year shout-outs, it was all about things a little off the beaten path. 

"I love Broadway—from the complicated, heady narratives of its Tony- and Pulitzer-winning plays to the jaw-dropping spectacle of its big-budget musicals. And some of this year’s offerings have been outstanding. But I have a real soft-spot for the things that sit a little off-center in the conventional theatre world…things like circus, puppetry, storytelling, magic, mime, and clown. 

"Some highlights for me this year were Scott Silven’s At the Illusionist’s Table, an intimate magic show over a three-course dinner at The McKittrick Hotel; National Theatre of Scotland’s folk fable The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart (also brought in by the McKittrick); master clown Bill Irwin in Beckett’s End Game at Irish Rep; the extraordinary design and puppetry in Life of Pi; the ridiculous and genius play performed entirely in gibberish with cardboard props in The Ice Hole: A Cardboard Comedy by Guillois’ Compagnie Le Fils du Grand Réseau’s at Edinburgh Festival Fringe; and the puppetry and storytelling of Life and Times of Michael K, an Edinburgh Fringe favorite invited to Brooklyn by St. Ann’s Warehouse. (And I’m already looking forward to the circus work and puppetry in Water for Elephants this spring!)"

Lakisha May and Nana Mensah in Jaja’s African Hair Braiding Matthew Murphy

Stunning Stage Effects

Puppets weren't the only things that impressed us visually things year. A highlight for me was the wig design in Jaja's African Hair Braiding. If you know anything about a hair-braiding salon, you know braids can take all day. But somehow, in just 90 minutes, the actors onstage were able to conjure a fully braided look—there were micro braids, towering twists, and pink puffs. It was nothing like Broadway has ever seen before, and my wish for 2024 is for Jaja to receive an encore run.

Another piece of design that wowed me was the set design in the Off-Broadway play Stereophonic (by David Adjmi with music by Will Butler). The three-hour play followed a band (who bears a resemblance to Fleetwood Mac) recording an album. The hyper-realistic beauty of the play was amplified by the set, which featured a working sound booth that was soundproof, a working sound console that could record and play back, and microphones that captured everything that the talented actors/musicians were doing on that stage. My other wish for 2024 is a Stereophonic album and an encore run for that show. Here were other design highlights from the Playbill staff. 

Video Editor Ethan Treiman: "I’ll always remember two iconic trapdoor moments from this season. (Spoilers!) In the Broadway production of Life of Pi, Hiran Abeysekera—who gave a season standout performance as Pi Patel—jumped into the sea to evade the tiger with whom he was trapped. As Pi hit the water—a solid stage, remember!—he appeared to pass right through its surface. Director Max Webster and lighting designer Tim Lutkin even projected a small ripple onto the stage at the moment when Abeysekera passed through the trapdoor. *Chef’s kiss.* The second sensational moment occurred in Sweeney Todd. At the very end of the epilogue, Josh Groban and Annaleigh Ashford took each other’s hand and stepped deliberately into an unseen trapdoor. The lights cut out just before they passed out of sight, as they quickly descended to hell. I gasped out loud."

Andrew Gans: "Visuals I will not soon forget include walking into the Vivian Beaumont Theater and witnessing the stunning simplicity of snow falling onto a lone tree in Tony nominee Lap Chi Chu’s design for the recent revival of Camelot, Beowulf Boritt’s rising bandstand that featured Anna Uzele’s stentorian version of the title song of New York, New York, and the filmic elements and bloody finale of the current West End revival of Sunset Boulevard.

Vi Dang: "The immersive production of The Jungle at St. Ann’s Warehouse about displaced refugees—the way they transformed that space into a cafe was inventive. The performances were provoking and deeply moving."

Wicked's 20th Anniversary Celebration

Wicked on Broadway turned 20 years old October 20, 2023. And, Playbill was there to celebrate with the cast. The carpet was green, the Elphabas were plentiful, and that ended up being Playbill Social Media Coordinator Meredith Ammons' favorite moment of the year.

"Wicked was my very first Broadway show at the age of six. Since then, it has been a driving force in my love for musical theatre. From going to see the tour on my 16th birthday to dressing up as Elphaba for Halloween to being there the week Broadway reopened, Wicked has always been a part of the milestones in my life. That green carpet was a complete full circle moment. Julia Murney and I were wearing matching red Adidas gazelles. Also, Ana Gasteyer and Lindsay Pearce complimented me on my outfit. So, I could die happy!"

Going to the Edinburgh Fringe

This year, the Playbill team got to do something that is so rare: We got to go to the biggest arts festival in the world and cover it in extreme detail. I have to admit, thinking back on those three weeks and the 20+ shows I saw, it's all a blur. But Jeffrey Vizcaíno had the best summation of the sheer craziness and ecstasy of being at the Fringe, and the beauty of discovering what will be the next hit show in its very infant stages. Take it away Jeffrey!

"I had one goal going into to Edinburgh Festival Fringe: to see that one show. The show that I would go back to New York City and brag about for months if not years. The show that I could say, 'Well, you know, I saw it in Edinburgh before it went to [insert major commercial venue].' And, everyone, Public was that show for me. The music was bop after bop full of earworm melodies. The cast had vocals that left my jaw open. And the message of inclusion and acceptance was touching without being condescendingly preachy." Months later, Jeffrey is still talking about it, so you know it was a good show. 

J. Harrison Ghee and Heather Gershonowitz Jeffrey Vizcaíno

Historic Tony Wins

This year, history was made at the Tony Awards as both J. Harrison Ghee and Alex Newell became the first non-binary actors to win a Tony. We cheered loudly in the Playbill office when both events happened. That's why Heather Gershonowitz's year-end highlight was "celebrating J. Harrison Ghee and Alex Newell all season, especially on Tony night." And Molly Higgins' highlight was "Alex Newell and J. Harrison Ghee’s Tony wins and their historic significance for the LGBTQ+ community." You can see Heather's photo with Ghee above.

You can read my interview with Newell the morning after their win here.

Celebrities in the Wild

Here at Playbill, we get direct access to many, many celebrities. And we have to pretend that's totally normal. Such as the time Sarah Paulson called me and we spoke for half an hour, and I had to pretend she was just a woman I was having a conversation with and not an award winner. When you work at Playbill, the primary directive is: stay cool. And who is cooler than the Playbill staff? Here are memorable interactions some of us had with Broadway stars.

"I witnessed the unexpected and honestly historic crossover of Abby Lee Miller, Hillary Clinton, and Chita Rivera all on the red carpet for opening night of Dancin’." —Molly Higgins

"I watched former Lady of The Lake, Hannah Waddingham, cheer for Leslie Kritzer mid-song during Spamalot." —Heather Gershonowitz

Bernadette Peters at West End Woofs Heather Gershonowitz

Bernadette Peters' Return to the Stage

This year, three of Playbill staffers got to spend some time with three-time Tony recipient Bernadette Peters. The funny thing is: none of them live in London, which is where Peters made her long-awaited return to the stage in the Sondheim revue Old Friends in the West End (her last stage foray was Hello, Dolly! in 2017). But that didn't stop our intrepid Peters fans. For Andrew Gans, "Perhaps the pinnacle of the musical season was the thrilling work of Tony winners Bernadette Peters (the definitive 'Send in the Clowns') and Lea Salonga in the wonderful, fast-paced Stephen Sondheim celebration, Old Friends, at London’s Gielgud."

Heather Gershonowitz witnessed this moment at West End Woofs (Peters' London version of Broadway Barks): "I attended and photographed West End Woofs and witnessed Bernadette Peters greet a St. Bernard named Dolly by saying, 'I played you on Broadway.'”

And Playbill Editorial Assistant Dylan Parent wrote one of the best Peters articles you will read this year. When asked what her highlight was, as our resident Peters expert, Dylan responded: "When I answered a call on my cell phone and the voice on the other end said, 'Hello, Dylan, this is Bernadette Peters.'"

As you can see, it's been a very busy year here at Playbill. Join us back here in 2024, as we continue to cover (and occasionally commentate) on all things theatrical.

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