CHRIS JONES: Broadway showed its strength in a season rife with real-life drama

This season, it felt like Broadway just could not catch a break.

There have been many lingering COVID disruptions, sometimes as shows were just about to be reviewed, throwing off companies and disrupting openings. There is now a writers strike, messing with the all-important Tony Awards on Sunday and heaven knows what else.

And last week, the air quality in the Theater District deteriorated to the point where actors could hardly breathe, let alone sing and dance. Short of flying locusts, Broadway has seen it all.

Ergo, the survival of so many shows is remarkable.

There were less obvious challenges, too. The commercial market for plays remains compromised by the quality of cable shows like “White Lotus” and “Succession.” It’s increasingly difficult to persuade audiences to get to know new people in fresh situations, rather than stay home to catch a Season 3 or 4, featuring characters with whom they’re already familiar. The tolerance for exposition now is at a low ebb; people watch long-form drama now and they’re out of the habit. Broadway should take note.

In London, there’s a brilliant fall plan for a “Stranger Things” prequel. Imagine similar untapped possibilities for Broadway. Instead, there are too many plays where the authorial point of view is clear in about the first five minutes and things go from there with do-good characters. Did not the success of “Succession” just demonstrate how much audiences appreciate the loathsome?

The 2022-23 had a trio of mostly good new musicals — ”Kimberly Akimbo,” “Some Like It Hot,” “Shucked.” But the slate did not spin off a mega-hit or anything that really came close. Why not? The form remains challenged, especially when it comes to creating new musicals, which usually come from films or biographies, given the demand for preawareness. There is huge internal pressure to conform to a far more moralistic moment than the one for which the material first was created, and for which audiences have fond memories. And that means a disconnect.

Take, for example, “Almost Famous,” a rocking show with a fine Tom Kitt score but a book and a production that never felt sufficiently free to have the kind of anarchic fun the material demanded. Broadway used to have the chutzpah to do sensualist shows like “Rock of Ages.” Would it still?

“New York, New York,” a show that had not defined its own purpose of world view and thus did not work as well as hoped, suffered from this disconnect between the era of the source and modern moralism. So did Aaron Sorkin’s new adaptation of “Camelot,” which tried to graft today’s sardonic nihilism onto a show known for its optimism. The result was an Arthur who looked like a foolish naif, not a beacon of hope.

This was also not a halcyon year for present-tense acting, which surely is why Annaleigh Ashford got such a rapturous response as Mrs. Lovett in Thomas Keil’s fine revival of “Sweeney Todd.” Suddenly, audiences got a performance that felt specially crafted for the night. Jodie Comer did the same thing in “Prima Facie.” Ideally, of course, shows have both seemingly freshly minted acting and a rock-solid base. But if that were easy, everyone would do it. Alas, many of the musicals this season featured romantic leading roles that simply did not make you want to pull for the couple in question because they did not seem to believe in each other.

The other issue challenging musicals is the current difficulty of creating truly solid vehicles that can withstand any and all day-to-day stress. That kind of construction typified “Wicked,” “The Lion King” and “Phantom of the Opera,” all shows that knew what they were, understood the needs of their audience and were built so they could function like iron cages, whatever the world threw their way.

But the season had many extraordinary pleasures, not all of which were widely recognized. Playing Oscar Levant in “Good Night, Oscar,” Sean Hayes created a starring performance with the kind of truth and inner life they teach at the finer acting schools but also coupled with the kind of bravura showmanship that audiences love and understand. Normally you just get one or the other; Hayes delivered both.

Lorraine Hansberry’s “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window” got a beautiful revival with Rachel Brosnahan delivering what I thought to be the best performance of the entire season (and not even a Tony nomination). Hansberry, of course, was at the very end of her young life when that show first was produced; this sensual, pulsing revival revealed her to be the full equal of the 20th century poetic giants from Tennessee Williams to August Wilson to Suzan-Lori Parks (whose “Topdog/Underdog” was spectacularly well revived this year). If only Hansberry had lived! What riches would have flowed.

At least Broadway had a bit of swagger in a tough year — thanks to the underappreciated Will Swenson, who was better than anyone had the right to expect as Neil Diamond in “Beautiful Noise,” the kind of anchoring show that Broadway always needs, good times and bad.