1. ‘Take Me to the World: A Sondheim 90th Birthday Celebration’
Nothing sang as movingly to me this year — about coming together to celebrate when we can’t actually be together — as this digital tribute in April to musical theater’s greatest genius. With Raul Esparza as host, the 2½ hours of Sondheim songs — performed by the likes of Meryl Streep, Audra McDonald, Christine Baranski, Ben Platt, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Kelli O’Hara, Bernadette Peters, Donna Murphy, Randy Rainbow, Lin-Manuel Miranda and a host of others — was arranged as a benefit to help out-of-work artists. It was a gala, with Paul Wontorek directing and Mary-Mitchell Campbell as music director, that took us to a world we felt we’d lost.
2. ‘You Can’t Stop the Beat’
Okay, maybe the roof-raising “You Can’t Stop the Beat” video, released in May in support of the Actors Fund, matched the Sondheim celebration for emotional wallop. The creative team for re-creating the finale of the musical “Hairspray” with 150 actors and dancers made for the most exuberant music video of 2020. So let’s name them: co-directors Janet Roston and David O, composer and co-lyricist Marc Shaiman, editor Ally Rice and producer Christopher Sepulveda. Seven months later, you still can’t stop me from watching it.
3. Mary Neely
But wait! And omg, then there’s Mary Neely, a Los Angeles-based actress who, amid the sadnesses of the covid-19 crisis, wittily established herself as the Sarah Cooper of musical theater. Using her smartphone, some hilarious homemade costumes and a remarkable talent for loving mimicry, Neely filmed herself as multiple lip-syncing characters in everything from “Grease” to “Les Miserables.” Her Tik Tok-ed tweets culminated in an epic one-woman replay of “The Sound of Music” on the streets of Los Angeles, and spelled midyear glee for musical lovers everywhere.
4. Geffen Playhouse
The West Coast also was the locus for the hottest digital theater company in the land. The Los Angeles-based Geffen Playhouse was a traditional — and will eventually be, again — producer of in-person plays. Then came the nationwide theater shutdown, which Geffen turned into performance gold. Its playfully interactive “Geffen Stayhouse” Web shows, assisted by Zoom, minted hit after hit. Most delightfully in this series: Helder Guimarães’s magic show “The Present,” which mailed boxes to ticket holders, who opened them on the night of performance and played along with Guimãraes’s card tricks. When it closed in October after a months-long run, it had a waiting list of 12,000 who still wanted to play.
5. ‘Hamilton,’ the streaming version
Elsewhere online, “Hamilton” resurfaced as a movie. And what, dear readers, is a year without a signature Lin-Manuel Miranda event? On July 3, Disney Plus released the streaming film of the original Broadway cast, performing onstage at the Richard Rodgers Theatre. It proved a thrilling reminder of Miranda’s stunning, award-vacuuming achievement, created with the help of director Thomas Kail, music director Alex Lacamoire and choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler. Bravo to Disney for moving up the premiere by more than a year, and relieving our summer theater doldrums.
6. ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ at the Garden
Meanwhile, back in the world of three dramatic dimensions, we could give thanks for an event that managed to go forward on a stage, live and in person, just before a virus spread disaster. On Feb. 26 at Madison Square Garden, just two weeks before the novel coronavirus shuttered Broadway and beyond, the cast of “To Kill a Mockingbird” performed Aaron Sorkin’s hit adaptation of the Harper Lee novel for 18,000 New York City students. The free performance — astonishing in scale — demonstrated the powerful hold that story holds for Americans of all ages.
7. ‘Slave Play’ and the Tony Awards
A developing story in the theater world was defined by a vote this fall. Yes, I’m talking about . . . the coronavirus-delayed nominations for the 2019-2020 Broadway season Tonys. Announced Oct. 15, they were notable not only because they covered shows that opened well in advance of the March 12 shutdown, but also because of the play that led all others: Jeremy O. Harris’s “Slave Play,” which garnered 12 nominations — the most by any straight play, ever. What it augured, in a year in which artists of color openly challenged white supremacy, was perhaps a new era when theaters reopen that explores more fully the aspirations of playmakers who identify as BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of color).
8. ‘The Amen Corner’
American theater sometimes falls back too avidly on past successes, but on some occasions, looking back proves the ideal way to move forward. That notion was crystallized by the Shakespeare Theatre Company in February, when it took on the rarely revived “The Amen Corner,” a gospel play from the 1950s by James Baldwin. In a hypnotically epic production directed by Whitney White, the groundbreaking aspects of Baldwin’s play were searingly realized: The story of a Harlem preacher — Black and female — navigating challenges to her faith, family and ministry, illuminated a timelessly riveting struggle.
9. ‘Next to Normal’
My severe case of show-tune withdrawal compels me to acknowledge the most satisfying musical I was able to see onstage this year. It came courtesy of the Kennedy Center’s Center Stage musicals-in-concert series, and its January revival of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Next to Normal.” Michael Greif, who directed Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey’s show in all of its pre-Broadway and Broadway incarnations, returned to the musical, with incandescent new leads in Rachel Bay Jones (“Dear Evan Hansen”) and Brandon Victor Dixon (“Hamilton”). The musical, about a woman’s ride with a bipolar disorder as swervy as a luge run, cleaves the heart. Recalling the joy in being able to watch it with 1,000 other people does, too. Speaking of joy: Honorable mention goes to another Kennedy Center effort, the “On Stage” program in the Opera House, which for one brief shining moment in September allowed Renée Fleming and Vanessa Williams to sing live to a small invited, socially distanced audience.
10. The unnamed production — stay tuned
The 10th spot belongs to a show that never opened. Call this my Tomb of the Unnamed Production. I saw it, loved it — and it shuttered just as I was pushing the “send” button on my review. So the happy news is in limbo, a phantom zone in which an entire industry, along with millions of its workers, languishes. The best of 2020, for so many of them, would be the government coming to their rescue, in the form of passage of the $3 trillion federal stimulus package known as the Heroes Act. They are what make a best-of list even possible.