The Top 10 Plays and Musicals of 2011

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Michael McCabe / Jeffrey Richards Associates / AP

Often the hardest part of picking the 10 Best Plays and Musicals of the year is deciding which one deserves the No. 1 spot. This year it was the easiest: War Horse, the spectacular stage version of the World War I-era children’s story, imported from the National Theatre in London, was the clear standout for me as the theatrical event of the year. A lot of people might disagree and give the honor instead to The Book of Mormon, the runaway favorite both among critics and at the box office. I found it so overrated that I was tempted to leave it off my list entirely. But fair is fair: in a weak year for Broadway musicals, it was probably the best of the bunch.

Any 10 Best list for theater also faces limitations of a kind that other entertainment lists don’t face. For one thing, I can only rank what I have seen, and that means mostly productions in my home base of New York — and even there, with a bias toward Broadway and the larger off-Broadway venues. I love finding shows from regional theaters outside New York to include, but since my travels this year were limited, only one show on the list, the new production of Porgy and Bess that opened last August in Cambridge, Mass., comes from the provinces. But I was happy to be able to highlight some unconventional downtown fare, like Sleep No More and Traces, which show that theater is more than just “Plays and Musicals,” as this list is somewhat misleadingly called.

Then there is the limitation of deadlines. Two or three worthy shows did not open until after this list went to press (and, unlike movies or TV shows, you can’t see them in advance on DVD). One of them, Lysistrata Jones — a high-energy, high-school musical update of Lysistrata, in which a band of cheerleaders withhold sex from their basketball-player boyfriends until they win a game — might have been a contender. But I’m not sure what I would have been willing to drop. Besides, Lysistrata Jones will have plenty of champions; Death Takes a Holiday hardly had any.

Read Richard Zoglin’s Top 10 Theater of 2011