My Most Memorable Pop Culture of 2019

Once again it’s time for my annual post on the pop culture that was most memorable to me over the past year. As always it doesn’t have to be something created in 2019. It just has to be something I consumed over the past year. And as always I emphasize that these are the things that meant the most to me, not necessarily the things that I think are the best thing made in any given category. In past year’s I’ve mostly tried to limit myself to one thing per category. I’m going against that this year in several categories because who says I have to choose just one thing? Sometimes I enjoy multiple things an equal amount and don’t want to choose between them. These are the things that brought me joy this year and why shouldn’t I want to introduce you to as many great things as possible? I make the rules here, so I say no arbitrary limits on how many things I’m allowed to write about!

Movie I Saw in a Theater

I often lament the lack of good romantic comedies like there once were, so I always try and go see the few and far between rom-coms that make it into movie theaters even when I know they are going to be terrible because I want Hollywood to know there’s a market for them. This year though the one rom-com I saw in a theater was not terrible. In fact it was my favorite movie of the year, The Long Shot starring Charlize Theron and Seth Rogen. I was slightly dubious about it because I don’t love Seth Rogen and all his drug humor. There was some of that in this movie, but just the right amount. I thought it was a very funny and sweet movie with a great modern day rom-com set-up for why the two leads just couldn’t be together.

I’ll also give a shout out to Knives Out, which was a very fun whodunit.

Movie I Watched at Home

This is the category I always have the hardest time filling out partly because I can never remember what I watched. Last year I kept a list and that worked out really well, so I thought that I would do that again this year. It didn’t really work though because every time I watched a movie at home, which wasn’t that frequently, I thought well that was okay, but I’m not even going to bother adding it to my list because there’s no way I would put it in my end of the year blog post. And that’s how it went for pretty much every movie I watched this year. There were zero movies on that list as of mid-December.

I didn’t initially think to include it because it’s not a traditional movie per se, but I’m going to go with the four hour Tom Petty documentary, Runnin’ Down a Dream. I’ve been meaning to watch it for years because Tom Petty is one of all time favorite artists and I’ve always heard good things about it. I just never wanted to commit 4 hours to it, but this year when I had a snow day back in February I thought today is the perfect day to finally watch this. It was indeed a very good music documentary. It focused mostly on Tom Petty’s musical career and didn’t delve much into his personal life, so I felt like it was a very good companion with the book Petty: The Biography by Warren Zanes which gets much more into Tom Petty as a person.

Fiction Book

I have two very different books I’m putting in this category this year. First is The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai, which I recently read for my book club. The book moves back and forth in time between 1980s Chicago during the height of the AIDS crisis and 2015 Paris where you pick up with the sister of one of the young men who died and who nursed many of the men in his friend group as they too succumbed to the disease. The 1980s part is for sure the better half of the story. Some of those characters are still with me. The 2015 half while not as good is still engaging enough as to not drag the entire book down and I appreciated how everything came together at the end.

The other novel that I really loved this year was Fear of Falling by Georgia Beers. It was just a really great romance about a famous singer who recently lost her manager and whose label assigns a woman to manage her that she winds up having feelings for. It has very realistic obstacles throwing a wrench in their budding romance and I literally couldn’t put it down. We were on vacation in L.A. and my husband finally had to force me to quit reading so we could go out to the Griffith Observatory.

Non-Fiction Book

I actually have three non-fiction books that I want to write about. One Day: The Extraordinary Story of an Ordinary 24 Hours in America by Gene Weingarten. In this book a reporter picks a random day out of a hat and writes a book about what happened on a day that historically we would say nothing really happened. He digs into stories that may not have garnered national attention but that certainly impacted individual people, families, and communities. I found it to be a really fascinating book.

Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe is fantastic book covering the modern history of the I.R.A. and the Irish troubles. It’s a really well written book that presents a lot of information in a really accessible way. I learned so much more than I ever knew and it gave me a much better understanding of why a hard border being imposed as part of Brexit would be such a big deal.

My final non-fiction book is Dying of Whiteness: How the Politics of Racial Resentment is Killing America’s Heartland by Jonathan Metzl.  Physician and sociologist Jonathan Metzl explores how long held ideologies based on both overt and covert racism cause people to create policies that are detrimental to their own lives. Using focus groups and lots of comparative data analysis looking at states both before and after they passed certain laws and comparing them to states with similar demographics with opposite laws. He looks at gun laws in Missouri and how they have led to a huge increase in gun based suicide by white men. In Tennessee he examines the decision to not expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act causing significantly worse health outcomes compared to people in Kentucky where the Medicaid expansion was passed. Finally, he looks at tax cuts passed in Kansas particularly focusing on the effects on education. It’s a really well-researched book and a really compelling though maddening read.

TV Show

As much as I lament the lack of certain types of tv shows that once existed in larger quantities before streaming and prestige television took over there were still a number of tv shows that gave me great pleasure this year. I have already implored you multiple times to watch both Atypical and The Bold Type, and I’m not sure I have much new to say about them. However, as far as I know I haven’t convinced anyone else to watch them yet, so I’m going to keep trying because they are really great shows. I rarely rewatch tv shows because there’s always so much new stuff out there, but I’m already considering an Atypical rewatch because I miss those characters.

Chernobyl was an excellent show. I avoided watching it for a long time despite all the rave reviews because I thought it was going to be too depressing. I thought maybe I’ll watch just one episode a week to make it more bearable and then I wound up binge watching it because it was so good.

Derry Girls was pure delight. I also liked that having read Say Nothing meant I had a little better insight into the time and place when the show is set, but it’s not really necessary to know that much about the Irish Troubles to enjoy the show. It’s just a wonderful broad comedy about teenagers in Derry, Ireland in the 80s. The 12 episodes that exist right now are just not enough. I can’t wait until the release more.

Speechless ended its run on a high note back in the spring. If you’re unfamiliar it’s a sit-com about a family whose oldest son has cerebral palsy and who is played by an actor who does in fact have CP. It was a funny and heartfelt show that I think ended in a perfect way even if I wish we got more episodes. Also a special shout out to two other shows I loved that ended their runs this year Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Jane the Virgin.

Unbelievable was a really well done limited series based on a true story of a young woman who was raped and not believed and the two female cops working on rape cases years later who finally brought her justice. It stars Kaitlyn Dever, Toni Collette, and Merritt Weaver giving excellent performances.

I also really enjoyed Ken Burns’ documentary Country Music. It was well worth the 16 and half hours of my time. I even wanted more because he didn’t go far enough in time for my liking. Maybe he’ll add more onto it down the line at some point.

I also would be remiss to not include Grey’s Anatomy because it’s still one of my favorite shows to watch every week. Last season and this season have felt like somewhat of a resurgence for the show even though I’m super annoyed with all the tie-ins to Station 19 to try and force people to start watching that. Seems like it’s only going to get worse when that show actually returns after the new year, which is just going to make me madder. All they’ve done is make me never, ever want to watch that show just out of principle.

TV Episode

The best tv episode I watched this year is also the hardest episode of anything I think I’ve ever watched. It was the fifth and final episode of the limited series When They See Us about the Exonerated Five who were wrongly convicted of brutally attacking and raping a woman in Central Park when they were teenagers. The final episode focuses on the experiences of Korey Wise, who was the oldest of the boys and the only one sent to an adult prison. It’s a brutal watch even beyond the rest of this series, which is extremely difficult but important.

In an entirely different vein, I love episodes of character based tv shows that just feel like a joyous pay-off for the characters where you get to mostly just watch them enjoy themselves. It obviously wouldn’t make for compelling television if every episode were like this, but I love when a show has developed its characters enough that they get a well deserved episode to just have fun and have good things happen to them. Season 2, Episode 9 of Pose, “Life’s a Beach”, felt like that. There were many excellent episodes in season 2 of this show which only got better this season in no small part because they dropped the stupid white characters from season one that were obviously there to sell the show to the network. Anyway, in this episode the ladies get to mostly take a break from their struggles and head away to a weekend at the beach. Their road trip is wonderful and watching them singing together in the car on the drive to the beach brought me great joy.

Album

If you don’t know what’s coming in this category then you obviously have not been paying attention to anything happening here in the past year. There were two albums that dominated my 2019. Way back on January 18 when it was released I predicted that Maggie Rogers’ Heard It in a Past Life would very likely be my album of the year, and I was not wrong. Every amazing album that came after it in 2019 did not manage to unseat it from my heart. It is by far the album I have listened to the most in 2019 (my highly skewed Spotify stats notwithstanding). I adore every song on it, and it’s one I’m sure I’m going to continue to go back to in 2020.

The album that Spotify thinks is my most played album of 2019 is the other album that deserves a spot here and that’s the debut (and maybe only) album by The Highwomen the country super group composed of Amanda Shires, Brandi Carlile, Maren Morris, and Natalie Hemby. Spotify thinks that because I did for sure listen to this album a lot, but unlike other albums pretty much only on Spotify because I bought the album as a physical CD along with a hoodie and bumper sticker. The CD is still sitting under my coffee table wrapped in cellophane. It’s too much of a pain to drag out the external optical drive to upload the songs from the CD onto my computer (#firstworldproblems).

The Highwomen’s album is full of amazing songs by these women that seek to uplift other women. As they have said many times it’s more than an album or a group it’s a movement. I adore everything that it stands for. I love these women together and separately. Even though the idea for the group came from Amanda Shires, Brandi Carlile has sort of been the front woman for the project. I’ve heard them call her their quarterback. This is only a small part of what she’s doing to lift up other women in music and there’s a reason I will follow her to the ends of the earth (I already have tickets to see her three times in 2020 in places nowhere near where I live.)

Recently she was awarded the Trailblazer Award for Women in Music by Billboard. It so happens that Maggie Rogers was the one to present the award to her and Maggie’s speech pretty much exemplifies why I love both of these women so much.

Song

2019 was a fantastic year for music. My 2019 playlist of songs I loved during the year is longer than any playlist I’ve created by over half. I’ll share that in a future post, but for now I’m going to focus on a single song here even though I could include a hundred. It’s the title song from The Highwomen called “Highwomen”. It’s a rewrite of the song from The Highwaymen, the 80s and 90s male country super group which they created a female alternative to. It re-imagines the lyrics with each verse telling the story of a woman who was persecuted. It’s an incredibly powerful song. I first heard it before it was even released when they performed it at the Newport Folk Festival. It gave me chills and made me know for sure that this album was going to be something that I loved to my very core.

Actually I lied. I have two songs because I was just reviewing the list I keep throughout the year for this blog post and realized that I had Gary Clark Jr.’s song “This Land” listed under this category as a possibility and I think it deserves a mention. It is one of the most powerful songs I can remember hearing and the video just drives it home. When I watched his Austin City Limits episode I was wondering if they were going to bleep the n-word in this song, which they did. But then I saw a promo for the episode that included a snippet of this song that didn’t bleep it. Go figure.

Concert

I usually don’t allow myself to choose a set from The Newport Folk Festival to go in this spot because I’m pretty sure I would never write about anything that didn’t happen at Newport ever again. Perhaps I should just create a new category for the best thing I saw at Newport, but I’m not going to do it this year. I am however going to write about two sets that happened at Newport though because one would have been the highlight of my year if it weren’t for the second and the second is the literally the most amazing musical experience I have ever had in my life so there was no way I couldn’t include it here.

The first set I’m referring to was The Highwomen’s debut and as of this writing still the only actual full concert set they’ve done. I thought that they would at least do a couple dates in conjunction with the release of their album and was willing to travel anywhere to see them again, but they never did and at this point I don’t know if they ever will. I’ve seen up to three of the four of them join each other for a few songs at each other’s shows, but no other full on performances. I’ll be seeing Brandi Carlile at the Ryman in January and Natalie Hemby is opening for her. Since Amanda Shires and Maren Morris both live in Nashville and it doesn’t look like either one of them will be touring then I’m hoping maybe we can get a little reunion during that show if Maren isn’t in labor since she’ll be hugely pregnant by then. Anyway, I feel so blessed to have seen them perform. The album wasn’t out yet at that point and listening to them play it through I knew it was going to be one of my favorite albums of the year. Since I already embedded my favorite song in this post here’s a song I love, but the best part of this video is the intro.

The other set was obviously the Saturday night all-female headlining set curated by Brandi Carlile with surprise guest Dolly Parton. It still really don’t have any words for it. It was truly magical to see so many awesome women up on stage together collaborating. It would take me to long to even name them all. One of the stories I read about it after the fact said something to the effect of can someone please go check on Jade Bird and make sure she’s all right. She was smiling so big up on the stage I’m worried she hurt herself. It’s true. I went back and looked at her in some of the video and I don’t think she could have been smiling any harder. That’s how I feel about it. I still smile every time I think about it. Newport always surprises me, but I don’t know how anything can ever possibly top this experience in my book.

Broadway Theatre Production

For some reason I apparently was very into pop culture reflecting stories about 1980s Northern Ireland and the Irish troubles in 2019. I don’t know why. It’s not something I sought out. It just happened. This is all a lead in to say that my favorite thing I saw on Broadway this year was the play The Ferryman. It’s for certain the longest show I’ve ever seen as a three act play clocking in at 3 hours and 15 minutes including a 15 minute intermission and a 2 minute “pause”. It has a sprawling cast of people from seniors to a real baby about which I jokingly wondered how many babies do they have backstage to make sure they have one that isn’t crying during the show? It pretty much had all your emotions covered bringing you through experiences of great joy and others of sadness. It was also super intense at times particularly the ending, which I did not really see coming. I left that play thinking I have no idea how those actors do that 8 times per week. It’s closed on Broadway now, but if you ever get a chance to see a production I highly recommend it.

Baltimore Theatre Production

I adored Come From Away when I saw it on Broadway and saw it again in 2019 as part of our 2018/2019 season tickets at the Hippodrome. It was just as effecting as when I saw it the first time. It’s definitely one of my all-time favorite musicals ever. It’s still running on Broadway and if you’re ever in New York looking for a show to see I can’t recommend it highly enough. Don’t let the fact that it’s about 9/11 make you think you’ll leave horribly depressed because you won’t. Of course there are sad and difficult parts, but it will also leave you filled with a hope for humanity that seems in very short supply these days. The current cast did a Tiny Desk Concert at NPR this year on the anniversary of 9/11, which will give you a great taste of the show.

Podcast

I still love Make Me Smart, which I’ve mentioned in this category the past two years, but this year I’m branching out and talking about two limited series podcasts. At a total of 19 episodes between the two of them you can listen to them both in less than a day’s time. I seriously did listen to Bhi Bhiman’s Peace of Mind in a single day save for the final episode, which hadn’t dropped yet when I discovered the podcast. It’s billed as the first album released as a podcast. Bhi Bhiman wrote a bunch of songs related to social and political issues and then recorded podcast episodes exploring further the topics he wrote about in his songs. It’s really fascinating and is something I for sure have never seen done before.

The other podcast I have to recommend to you is Dolly Parton’s America, which I feel like everyone has been listening to. I’ve seen so much written about it, posted on social media, talked about on other podcasts, etc. I even overheard the people at the table next to me at brunch the other week talking about it. Jad Abumrad uses interviews he had with Dolly over the course of several years as a spring board to talk not only about her and her career but how they relate to the larger country and the issues we face as a whole. It’s really great.

Podcast Episode

Obviously I thoroughly enjoyed and very much recommend all the episodes of the podcasts I just talked about, but I thought I would branch out a little for my favorite episode and talk about the two episodes (part 1, part 2) of the Out of the Blocks podcast titled “Out of the Docks”. I’m not going to lie. There’s a good chance I picked these episodes just because I love the punny episode title so much. In these episodes rather than visiting a single city block in Baltimore like they normally do they talk to people who live and work on boats in some of Baltimore’s harbors. It was a fascinating look at the difficulties of living on a boat and the reasons why people choose to do it.

New York Theatre Trip: Little Shop and Hadestown

I went up to New York this past weekend to see a couple of shows. I usually go up in the fall and spring for a weekend to see a bunch of shows. I had been wanting to see Hadestown for awhile, but just couldn’t commit to when I wanted to go up and see it until Little Shop of Horrors spurred me on. As soon as I saw the announcement that Jonathan Groff and Christian Borle were going to star in an off-Broadway revival of Little Shop of Horrors I knew I had to see it. I love them both and thought they would be perfect in this show. Since it had a limited run I had to commit to a date. I usually try and do three shows on weekends I stay overnight, but when I bought these tickets there wasn’t anything else I had been dying to see except Oklahoma! which I had already made plans to go up and see with friends. In retrospect there were a couple of plays that weren’t open yet when I bought the other tickets that I would have liked to see, but I didn’t feel like paying to change my train ticket. Plus it was nice to get home earlier on Sunday rather than 9 pm.

If I wind up staying in a hotel that I have to pay for I usually cash in some of our credit card points. In the past I’ve stayed in the Doubletree in Times Square, which is nice because even though it’s in Times Square (ptooey!), it’s in the part that is closed to traffic so it’s quiet. For whatever reason that wasn’t one of my options this time. Based on looking at the reviews of the three hotels available in mid-Town, I went for the Hyatt Centric because it had the least complaints about noise. All three of them had complaints about a tacked on resort fee for each night, which is super annoying and something the Doubletree didn’t have. None of the hotels in question are resorts, so it is really obnoxious. The hotel points don’t cover the resort fee, so I had to pay out of pocket for that $35. They informed me when I checked in that the coffee, tea, and water bottles in my room were covered under the resort fee. Those were some great $17.50 bottles of water I drank.

Other than the dumb resort fee it was a fine place to stay, and I would stay there again. I had a weird deja vu moment when I got to the hotel though. I was like I have been in this place before, and it took me a minute to figure out why because I knew I had never stayed there before. I finally put two and two together and realized that when I met my friend from Minnesota in New York to see Hamilton it was the hotel she stayed at and I had met her in her room when I got to the city.

I didn’t have enough time to do much of anything before Little Shop after getting checked into the hotel, so I wandered through the street festival that was happening on 8th Avenue. I thought I might grab lunch there, but didn’t wind up super inspired by anything so I walked over towards the theatre to see what I could find near there. I wound up going back to Blossom du Jour, which is a little vegan restaurant on 9th Avenue. I had eaten there with friends before and liked it. It’s mostly take away with a little counter seating. Perfect for the quick lunch I was looking to grab.

Little Shop of Horrors was great. The fact that it was in a small 275 seat off-Broadway theatre was perfect for it. I don’t think it would have felt the same on a much larger Broadway stage. Jonathan Groff and Christian Borle were perfectly cast. I can’t think of a better actor to play Seymour than Jonathan Groff. Christian Borle was the dentist plus a dozen other bit parts. Tammy Blanchard was Audrey and was the weakest part of the show. She was a fine actress, but not the greatest of singers, which was very apparent during her big solo song, “Somewhere That’s Green”. Of course it didn’t help that it’s one of the quietest parts of the show and someone’s stupid cell phone went off. Turn off your phones people! It was a delightful show, and I’m really glad I got the chance to see it.

I met a friend that lives in New York for dinner at the newest location of Ainsworth Social, which took over the space where Southern Provisions used to be. Justin Timberlake, great singer, but apparently not so great at owning a bbq restaurant. It was eh. I’m not likely to be back. It was great to catch up with my friend though.

After dinner it was on to Hadestown. I felt about Hadestown a little bit like I felt about Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812. I still literally have no idea what that show was about. Turns out turning 70 pages of War and Peace into a sung through musical does not make for the most coherent of narratives. I didn’t mind that it made no sense though because I enjoyed the experience of the show so much. I didn’t have a problem following the plot of Hadestown, I just thought it was BORING and there wasn’t much there, there. Ultimately I didn’t care for the most part though because I love the music in that show so much and it’s a fun show to watch. I have heard some people say that it has a “One Song Glory” problem though, and it does. If you don’t know what I’m referring to that’s the great song that one of the characters in Rent is supposed to be writing during the show, and then of course it can’t possibly live up to how great it’s supposed to be. I think Hadestown has an even worse problem. Unlike apparently some people I don’t hate “One Song Glory”. Is it anywhere close to the best song in Rent? No. But is it anywhere close to the worst song in Rent? Also no. In this case though the fantastic, amazing song that Orpheus is supposedly writing to get Hades to let Persephone go so that spring and fall can return and save the world is not only not the amazing song it’s supposed to be it is decidedly the worst song in Hadestown. He sings little bits of it throughout the show as he’s supposedly writing it and I groaned internally every single time. I still really enjoyed the show and am glad I saw it, but I maybe didn’t like it quite as much as I was hoping going in. “Wait for Me” is definitely being added to my theoretical list of wonderful Broadway songs though because unlike Epic I, II, and III it actually is an amazing song.

My train home on Sunday was at 11 am, so I didn’t really have time to do much before I left the city. I did however have time to go down to Fabrique Bakery on 14th Street to get a cardamom bun for breakfast. There as an article about them in the New York Times awhile back, and I became obsessed with trying one. Anyone who really knows me knows that I am an avowed hater of cinnamon. Cardamom is one of my favorite flavors though, so I really wanted to try this pastry that was flavored with cardamom instead of cinnamon. Everyone should make cardamom rolls instead of cinnamon rolls. It was well worth the trek down in the rain to try.

Since I didn’t get my normal NYC bagel for breakfast I decided to grab one from Zaro in Penn Station to eat on the train for lunch along with my normal black and white cookie. I can now add a new screwed up bagel order to my list of things that have gone wrong with bagels I’ve ordered in NYC. I should really start checking them carefully before I leave. I have a standard bagel order in NYC, whole wheat bagel with strawberry cream cheese. The worst was the time they accidentally gave me lox cream cheese instead of strawberry. Imagine expecting to bite into something sweet and then it’s smoked fish. I’ve also been given an everything bagel with strawberry cream cheese on it instead of my whole wheat. That is not a combination I recommend. This time I got two different bagel halves. They slice them in half to go in the toaster and someone obviously grabbed half of someone else’s bagel and put it together with mine because I had two top halves and no bottoms. One half was the whole wheat that I ordered. The other half turned out to be cinnamon raisin. Seeing as I just told you how much I dislike cinnamon you can bet how I felt about that. Not to mention that if you’ve been around here for any amount of time you also know that I hate raisins. So not the best bagel experience ever. I’ll be back in the city in about a week and half to see Oklahoma! so maybe I’ll try again.

 

The Original Cast

It’s been awhile since I recommended a new podcast around these parts. I actually meant to write about The Original Cast way back in the spring, but I never got around to it and then I forgot until this week. I listen to lots of podcasts having to do with the things that bring me joy like pop culture in general and music, but for some reason until earlier this year I never listened to any podcasts about theatre. Since it is also one of my great loves I don’t know why it never occurred to me to look into any.

The Original Cast is a podcast in which the host and guest talk about an original Broadway cast recording of the guest’s choosing. The podcast is hosted by Patrick Flynn who is a playwright and a professor in the School of Communication at American University. His guests are generally people who work in theatre in some way. My friend Heather, who is a costume designer, was a guest on the show back in the spring talking about the cast album for the most recent Broadway revival of She Loves Me starring Laura Benanti and Zachary Levi. We actually went up to New York together to see the show, so of course I had to listen to her podcast episode when she told me about it. And that’s how I found out about The Original Cast and started listening to it.

There were years worth of back episodes, so I’ve been slowly making my way through some of those on the shows I care about as well as listening to the new episodes. In addition to the full-length episodes that are put out every other week, on the off weeks he posts mini-episodes he calls Intermission. Sometimes they are little episodes he records by himself on a specific topic, but in general they are pieces of conversations from the full episodes that he edited out when they veer significantly off topic for a lengthy period of time. He then releases those conversations as mini-episodes at a later date. That’s what reminded me that I wanted to write this post because this week’s Intermission episode was part of the conversation he had with Heather on design that was cut from the original episode.

Although I don’t doubt that there are many excellent theatre and Broadway podcasts out there, this is the only one I’ve listened to. I already can’t keep up with all the podcasts I have in my feed, so I don’t generally go out hunting for new ones. Sometimes they just fall in my lap though like this one. As such I can’t actually compare it to any other podcast on the topic, but one thing that I like about this particular theatre podcast is that it’s created by someone who doesn’t live in New York and get to see Broadway theatre all the time. Many of his guests work work on Broadway, but as someone who lives in DC, Patrick Flynn is coming at it as someone who like most of us is lucky if they get to see one or two shows a year, but generally is either falling in love with a show through the cast album or maybe a touring production. I appreciate that perspective. If you enjoy the theatre like I do, I definitely recommend taking a listen.

Favorite Broadway Shows

My husband and I have season tickets to the touring Broadway shows in Baltimore. Our tickets are for the final night of the run, but I know other people who have tickets on earlier nights in the week. The show that just finished its run in Baltimore was Come From Away and at the birthday party I was at on Saturday night I was having a conversation with people who had already seen it and who were saying it immediately vaulted into their top 3 or 5 shows ever. I had actually seen it already on Broadway and adored it, but I wasn’t sure I was willing to put it that high in my rankings. After seeing it again though it might actually be.

It’s a super affecting show. The fact that all the actors play so many characters with essentially only their mannerisms and perhaps a small piece of wardrobe identifying them as someone else is amazing. The music is wonderful. I will say that I think Come From Away may have the best opening number of any musical I can think of. It’s a rare show that has me laughing out loud and in tears multiple times throughout and it’s all done in a tidy one act. So yeah, even if I’m not sure it’s in my top 3 or my top 5 it’s definitely up there. That had me thinking though if it’s one of my favorite shows then what else goes on that list. So here you go in no particular order.

Les Miserables

Les Mis has to go on this list because it is the show that first made me fall in love with musical theatre. There’s a reason this show is a classic. It’s not a perfect show and in some ways feels very much of the time and the way musical theatre was when it was written, but that doesn’t mean I love it any less.

Anything Goes

Anything Goes was the first show I saw live that was not just some production aimed at kids that we saw on field trips at our local Civic Center. I did not actually see it on Broadway though. I actually don’t remember what my first Broadway show was. I saw Anything Goes in the West End in London when my family took a trip there I think between my fifth and sixth grade years. It’s still a show I love. Cole Porter’s music is clever and fun. I’m also a sucker for tap dancing. The huge tap number to the title song in the revival with Sutton Foster from a few years ago is still one of my favorite things ever.

Rent

Rent is definitely still one of my favorite shows. I can still sing every word. I listened to that cast album approximately one billion times. It’s also the show I’ve seen the most times and in the most iterations given the movie and the recent Rent Live production. It was also the first show where the voices on that cast album were the same ones I was seeing in the live production. When you’re intimately familiar with a cast album hearing other people sing it can be a bit jarring sometimes. Granted that rarely happens to me now because if I’m interested enough in a show that I’m likely to listen to the cast album I’ve probably seen it before the cast album was even recorded. Interestingly the show I saw with much of the original Broadway cast was in London again not on Broadway. The year I studied abroad in London was the same time when probably about 3/4 of the original Broadway cast went over to London to open the show in the West End. I luckily made it to the show the first time before they left because I saw it multiple times and went I went back the second time there was a new cast.

Hamilton

Because you know Hamilton.

Cabaret

If you pinned me down, put a gun to my head, and forced me to pick a favorite musical it would probably come down to Anything Goes or Cabaret. I love the music and the story and the dance and the end is a real gut punch every time. I’ve seen several productions of this show and was super happy to get to see Alan Cumming reprise his role as the Emcee opposite Emma Stone a couple of year ago.

 

NYC Trip Day 2

My second day of this trip was my theatre day. Usually when I go up to NYC there are very specific shows that I want to see on Broadway. They are often the reason I’m traveling up there in the first place. Unfortunately Broadway has been full of jukebox musicals and musicals based on movies that I am just not interested in. Since there wasn’t anything I was dying to see I figured I would just get tickets for whatever I could get at the TKTS booth. I did figure out what my top choices were though and hoped that I could get tickets to them, which I did.

My top choice for the whole trip was to see The Ferryman. My friend Jenn who lives in the city is a TDF member and managed to snag me a cheap seat to the matinee. I wanted to do this show as the matinee because it’s 3 hours and 15 minutes. There are essentially three 1 hour acts with a 15 minute intermission between the first two acts and a three minute pause between the second two acts. I didn’t know a whole lot about the show going in other than it is about an Irish family. It takes place during the 1981 during “the troubles” when the actions of some family members a decade before come back to haunt them all. It is a sprawling cast of kids through seniors. Parts are very joyous and parts are super intense, especially the ending. I can’t imagine having to perform this show 8 times a week both to the length and the emotional toll I imagine it must take on the actors. I very much enjoyed it though and the three hours went by very quickly. It’s closing in July, but if you’re looking for a show to see in New York and are open to plays I would recommend it.

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Between shows I met up for a quick dinner with my friend Jenn, who I hadn’t seen for pretty much exactly a year which I know because Facebook started popping up memories of my trip to New York last April when I went up to see Brandi Carlile in concert and to see Children of a Lesser God and stayed with her. Since we were meeting up after she got off work and we both had tickets to separate shows at 8 pm, we met up the Turnstyle which is a food hall/shopping place built inside the Columbus Circle subway station. It was conveniently equidistant from our theatres and made it so we weren’t stressing about getting in and out of a sit-down restaurant. I had some very tasty plantain tacos from some taco place in there. I would definitely eat there again.

My evening show was My Fair Lady, which I wanted to see solely because Laura Benanti was playing Eliza Doolittle. I very carefully made sure that she was not scheduled to be out during this performance because otherwise I did not care. She was very good in the role, and it was a good production, but this show pretty firmly falls into the all your problematic faves category at this point. I couldn’t stop thinking about the recent Crazy Ex-Girlfriend episode where she discovers that all her favorite musicals are all very problematic when looked at through today’s lens. They did try and make it a little better by returning to the original ending of the play where Eliza walks away from Professor Higgins, which was changed in the musical. I thought it was a little awkward since they see the script all the way through and she comes back to him only to turn right around and walk away. I appreciate the sentiment though I guess because he is really terrible to Eliza throughout the whole show and never really, truly comes around.

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NYC Trip Day 1

My husband had to go up to NYC for work for a few days this past week. I needed to use up some vacation time, so I decided to make use of the free hotel room and join him. Since he had to be downtown for work we stayed down there in the Millennium Hilton, which is right across from the World Trade Center site. Our room had a fantastic view of the memorial.

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We took the train up on Tuesday morning. He headed into work and I wandered around the city. I didn’t want to spend a bunch of money to get into a museum, so I decided to go up to the main building of the New York Public Library to see the exhibits they had up. On my way up to the library I walked past Macy’s and saw that they had some flower show up called Journey to Paradisos, which involved elaborate flower displays with spaceships and aliens in their windows and all over inside the main level. The subject matter was kind of weird, but the flowers were pretty. I didn’t get any good shots of the window displays because the sun was at a bad angle and the reflections of the buildings in the glass blocked out was actually inside the windows.

It’s been over a decade since I last went inside the library. The last time I was there they had really cool exhibits on illuminated manuscripts and maps. The exhibits up this time were not nearly as elaborate. They had a Stonewall 50 exhibit celebrating LGBTQ rights and 50 years since the Stonewall riots. There was also a Walt Whitman exhibit that I didn’t spend a lot of time in because I don’t care that much about Walt Whitman and the space felt really crowded and claustrophobic so I just kind of wanted to get out of it.

I hadn’t originally planned to see a show on Tuesday night, but I had looked at what else was going on around the city and didn’t see anything that struck my fancy. I noticed that the new play Burn This starring Keri Russell and Adam Driver was in previews, so I convinced my husband we should go see it. It’s a revival of a 1987 play and is still set in the 80s here although for the most part it could have been set today. There are a few references and one scene that revolves around an answering machine that would have had to be changed, but other than that it could have happened in modern times. It did allow us to joke about Keri Russell only wanting to play 80s characters and my husband wondering if she just brought over her wardrobe from The Americans.

It’s a 4 character play with Keri Russell playing a woman whose roommate and dance partner was recently killed in a boating accident with his gay lover. The other characters played by David Furr and Brandon Uranowitz are her boyfriend and her other roommate and Adam Driver who plays the brother of the dead roommate who comes in and sort of upends all of their lives. Adam Driver is perfectly cast in this role. I can’t imagine anyone else in the part. There is some wonderful humor with him and articles of clothing. I’m really glad we decided to go see it on somewhat of a whim as I really enjoyed it.

I also really wish I could have someone associated with the show make me a playlist of all the songs used in and around it. To get you in the mood for the 80s setting of the show they had a fantastic playlist of 80s songs playing while you were waiting for the play to start. Then there were some really great music cues throughout the play itself. They really all felt perfectly placed and meaningful and not just let’s throw some 80s songs into this. I don’t really know anything about the original run of the play, so I would be curious to know about the music used back then. I’m hoping once the play is fully running that maybe some equally nerdy music person will create a playlist from it or if nothing else tell me what the song used as the main music cue at the beginning and end of the first act is because while I totally know the song I can’t for the life of me remember what the name of it is or who it’s by and I couldn’t pick out enough lyrics to even try and Google it and it’s driving me crazy. So you know, someone else go see it and tell me what that song is.

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Be More Chill

This past weekend I went up to New York with a couple of my friends in what has unintentionally apparently become our annual March Broadway trip since this is our third year running. I went into the show fairly cold. I had a general idea of what the story was about, but I hadn’t heard any of the music yet. I knew the backstory behind its run in New Jersey several years ago followed by a cult online following of the album recorded for that production that then propelled the show to off-Broadway and now onto Broadway. It just opened on Broadway this week, so it’s been pretty easy to avoid unless I guess you’re a theatre obsessed teenager on Tumblr or wherever the teenage fandom hangs out online these days. Most people I know have never even heard of this show before.

In my mind the show is a cross between the tv show Chuck (guy gets computer implanted in his head that makes him cooler, but then it causes mental problems), the movie Can’t Buy Me Love (teenage dork does something to try and make himself popular, but winds up blowing off his good old friend in the process), and the movie Labyrinth (because the representation of the super computer in the boy’s head reminded me of David Bowie’s character in Labyrinth even though it was supposed to evoke Keanu Reeves’ character in The Matrix). In non-pop culture references the show is about a nerdy teenage boy who wants to be more popular and finds out about some super secret super computers “from Japan” the size of a pill called squips that you can drink and they will implant in your brain and tell you what you should do to “be more chill”. Then of course all the lessons about learning how to like and be liked for yourself that teenage stuff like this likes to teach you.

I waited to read the New York Times review of the show until we were driving home last night because I didn’t want their critic’s view of the show coloring mine. I’m glad I did because his basic assessment of the show was teenagers get off my lawn. I guess he felt like he just couldn’t completely outright pan the show because it already has such a large following and it broke the Lyceum Theatre’s box office record for weekly ticket sales. So instead he basically just said it’s a terrible show by theat-ah standards, but I guess it’s okay for you teenagers. No one over 21 should bother.

Well, I’m 40 and I thoroughly enjoyed the show as did the other three over 40 adults and yes two 13 year-olds I was with. The other adults sitting around me all seemed to really like it too. I heard multiple people around me during intermission talking about how much they were enjoying it. So sorry it wasn’t up to your exacting standards Mr. NYT Critic. Sometimes you just want to go to the theatre to have fun. Is it the best show I’ve ever seen? No, but was I thoroughly entertained for 2 and half hours? Yes, I was. Plus I’ve had the song “Michael in the Bathroom” stuck in my head since the show. Also that song leads to perhaps one of my favorite theatre callbacks ever which I won’t spoil here. That’s pretty much all I’m asking for in Broadway show, and Be More Chill delivers it.

I will agree with him on one thing though. The show is needlessly loud. They definitely can and should take the sound down a notch or two. There’s no need anyone needs to risk hearing damage at a Broadway show. Yes, the music is more rock based, but that doesn’t mean the show needs to be rock concert loud. Concerts themselves are out of control with the sound levels, but at least there they can make the excuse that they have to overpower the ambient noise of the crowd and the bar, which is not an issue in Broadway theaters.

Is this a show I’m going to recommend to my 70 year old mother? Probably not, but if you still have a soft spot for teenage related pop culture like I do then this show is well worth your time. And obviously if you have some teenage theatre lovers in your life then apparently this show was made for them.

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The Boys in the Band on Broadway (AKA Matt Bomer Day)

My friends Jenny, Sarah, and I have a longstanding crush on our “gay TV boyfriend”, Matt Bomer going all the way back to his days as Bryce Larkin on Chuck. It of course was firmly cemented during his years on White Collar and then sent into complete overdrive with the Magic Mike films. Sadly I haven’t loved a lot of what he’s been doing lately on TV as I am not into American Horror Story at all. I also never watched whatever that Amazon show he did was. I watched the pilot and didn’t love it and then eons later when the show finally dropped I didn’t have time to watch it at the time and then sort of forgot it existed until I started writing this. Maybe I’ll watch it, but probably not.

Anyway, when we saw that Matt Bomer was going to be starring in a revival of The Boys in the Band on Broadway there was no way we couldn’t make a trip to NYC to see him in it, something I kept calling Matt Bomer Day in homage to Rex Manning Day from Empire Records. The rest of the cast including Andrew Rannells, Jim Parsons, and Zachary Quinto. My sister assures me that Michael Benjamin Washington who is also in the cast is someone that we went to high school with in Plano, TX and that he was her class president. Our high school was huge and I didn’t know most of the people in my own class let alone anyone in the year behind me so I don’t feel bad for having no clue but now I think it’s a fun tidbit.

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The last time the three of us went up to NYC together to see a show was a few years ago to see Neil Patrick Harris in Hedwig and the Angry Inch. We took the MegaBus and got stranded on the New Jersey turnpike for 3 hours in the middle of the night on our way home, so this time we decided to take the train which was a much better choice even if it is more expensive. We just went up for the day without enough time to really do much between our show and the train on either side, so we just wandered around mid-town, had brunch, and of course got cookies at Schmakery’s.

I didn’t know much about the play going in other than knowing the amazing cast and that the show was a revival on it’s 50th anniversary. Having now read the New York Times review (which liked it much less than I did for some of seemingly the same reasons they didn’t care for Children of a Lesser God as much as I did), I now know that the original play was in fact two acts and that this production was trimmed and condensed into a 2 hour one act play. You can definitely still feel the shift where the act break would have occurred so I was not surprised to learn this.

It’s certainly not a perfect show, but it kept me entertained for 2 hours and that’s pretty much all I’m looking for in my Broadway entertainment. It’s still set in 1968 and is still a show that was written in 1968, so it still retains the sensibilities of homosexual life (or at least the way it was viewed) in 1968, which is one of the things the New York Times reviewer seemed to take issue with. I on the other hand am willing to view things as period pieces. Yeah, if this play about a birthday party being thrown by a group of gay guys for one of their friends was written 2018 it would probably not be this play, but it was written 50 years ago so it is and the characters act and react in the ways that they do because it was.

The first half was really amusing. There are still some zingers in the second half, but it does take a much more dramatic turn. I maybe do agree with the reviewer that Jim Parsons was perhaps not the right actor for the lead role. No offense to Jim Parsons, but he’s a pretty one note actor and while that worked for some facets of the character I’m not sure it worked for all of them. My boyfriend Matt Bomer was perfect though. That man is so pretty it’s almost criminal. We got to see a lot of him mostly naked on stage. It’s worth the ticket price just for that. The first half of the show was better not only because it was funnier, but because he did more than stand in a corner and be eye candy which is mostly what his character did in the second half of the show. At any rate I definitely enjoyed the show and getting to be so close to a long term TV crush.

After the show of course we went to the stage door to hopefully get autographs and photos. Given the large cast of well known actors it was unsurprisingly mobbed by the time we got out there, so we were a couple people deep from the rail. Everyone in the cast came out except Jim Parsons. I don’t blame him though because it was a 2 show day and he is working on a broken foot. Even though we weren’t right in front we were close enough that I managed to throw my arm across the shoulders of the people in front of me and get everyone in the cast to sign my Playbill except Zachary Quinto because some other woman threw hers on top of mine at the last second and he moved on down the line too quick to notice mine once she pulled hers back.

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We sadly weren’t close enough to get our photo taken with Matt Bomer right next to us, but my friend Jenny did yell out and ask him to look up and smile for us so we could get a selfie with him in the background and he totally did. Sarah also got lots of good photos of all the actors as they came out and were interacting with people. I did get a little bonus in that as we were walking away a gentleman grabbed me and said hey I got this photo of you with Matt Bomer would you like me to send it to you. I was like uh yes, please. It’s not the greatest photo ever. Someone else’s camera is blocking part of it and it’s a little blurry, but I’ll take it.

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It was a super fun day and really glad we did it. Hopefully this won’t be the last Broadway show that Matthew Bomer stars in. And I’m sure we’ll be up to see something else even if he’s not starring in it.

 

David Bowie Exhibit and Children of a Lesser God

I did a few other things in my trip to NYC last weekend. Because of my concert ticket mix-up that led to me staying an extra day I had all of Friday during the day to do something. I have been wanting to go to the Tenement Museum for forever, but since it’s all timed guided tours I often feel like I don’t have time to fit it in between whatever else I have scheduled. I thought this trip might be a good opportunity, but from what I understand some of the tours are outside and they recommend you pairing an inside and outside tour. The weather was supposed to be not great so I nixed that idea.

In looking through the weekly New York Times article about what exhibits to see this weekend I stumbled on the fact that there was a David Bowie exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum that sounded pretty cool. I decided that was what I wanted to do. I told my friend who I was staying with and she decided she wanted to go too, so we both got tickets (it’s timed entry and you should definitely buy tickets online ahead of time).

Our entry wasn’t until 1:15 so we decided to head down to Brooklyn early and find somewhere to grab brunch/lunch beforehand. Based on Google maps it looked like there were a number of options up one of the major roads near the museum so we just decided to wander. We saw a place on Google maps as we were walking called Tom’s that said it was a Brooklyn institution since 1936. After popping our heads into a couple of other places that we decided weren’t what we were looking for we wound up at Tom’s. At first it looked like we might not be able to get a table, but there was a an open table for two hidden away in the back corner. We were sitting there talking and all of a sudden I glanced at the wall and saw this

framed lyrics to Tom's Diner by Suzanne Vega

So we apparently accidentally stumbled on eating at the Tom’s where Suzanne Vega wrote the song “Tom’s Diner” and only knew about it because we wound up sitting at that particular table. I love serendipity.

The David Bowie exhibit was really cool. I don’t have any photos of it really because there weren’t any photos allowed. I’m happy about that because it was crowded enough and difficult to see and read everything without having to deal with people trying to take photos of everything. The exhibit was really cool. When you go in you get handed a pair of headphones to use through the entire thing. There’s some mechanism set up so that what is playing changes as you move through the exhibit most often providing you the audio to whatever video is playing. There were of course lots of artifacts, lots of video and audio, and costumes. If you even remotely like David Bowie I would highly recommend this exhibit if you can make it to Brooklyn before it ends in July.

Before heading home on Saturday I saw a matinee of Children of a Lesser God. Although I had some knowledge of what it was about I had never seen a previous staged production of it or the movie. This revival stars Joshua Jackson as James Leeds a speech teacher at a school for the deaf and Lauren Ridloff as a Sarah Norman one of his students who doesn’t want to learn to speak or read lips and whom James falls in love with. She signs her entire performance and you basically get what she is saying by the way he responds to her. I wonder how it would change the experience if you knew sign language and were watching. It’s a very thought provoking play about communication and power.

I really enjoyed it and though Joshua Jackson and Lauren Ridloff were both great. Anthony Edwards is underutilized in the role of James’ boss, which is one of the few things I agree with in the New York Times’ less than favorable review of the production. The set also didn’t do much for me, but those are about the only disparaging things in that review that I agree with. The show like the original is still set in the 1970s. The gender dynamics were treated as such which is something the reviewer seemed to take issue with. He seemed to want the show to also address race and gender in ways the show wasn’t meant to. I thought it was a great show and I would definitely recommend it if you’re in New York and looking for a play to see.

Dear Evan Hansen

I recently went up to New York for the day with some friends to see Dear Evan Hansen. It was a show I wanted to see for a long time, but I didn’t jump on the band wagon soon enough and it was hard to get tickets. So we bought these almost 9 months ago, and the day finally came the weekend before last.

I loved the show, and it was as great as I had been hearing. The musical is beautiful and moving. I definitely cried multiple times during the show. At a time when everyone seems so divided the show’s message about human connection felt really poignant.

I often like to go into shows cold especially if I know I’m not going to be seeing the original Broadway cast because otherwise I wind up comparing the cast I’m seeing to what I hear in my head from the cast recording. Although there were still a few people left from the original cast most of them were new, so I did studiously avoid listening to the cast recording and only knew the bare minimum of the plot going in. In retrospect I wish I had known a little bit more going in because I spent three quarters of the show anxious about how Evan’s lie was going to blow up in his face. It actually turned out to be much less terrible than I was anticipating, but either way I kind of wish I had known what was coming so that I didn’t feel so much stress about it for most of the show. Stupid anxiety brain.

Speaking of anxiety brain that was my one complaint about the show. You can’t really think too hard about the mental illness piece of it otherwise you’ll hate it. I mean it’s not instantaneous, but there is a lot of subtle suggestion that getting popular and getting a girlfriend seemingly cured Evan of his debilitating anxiety, which is just not how that works. I loved the rest of the show, so I’m just going to set that aside and not worry about it too much.

It’s definitely a great show, and if you can get tickets I would recommend it to you if you’re looking for a Broadway show to see. That being said I think it’s a show that you can also wait and see as a touring production if you’re like me and weigh out which shows are best seen on Broadway versus those which will be fine as a touring production. There’s not really anything in this production that can’t be recreated well enough on a tour, and especially now that you’re not really going to see the original Broadway cast if that’s something you’re into there’s no reason that the touring actors aren’t just as good as who you would be seeing on Broadway.