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The 8 Best Broadway Debuts of 2016

TheaterMania's editorial staff picks this year's breakout stars.

One of the best things about being a frequent theatergoer is being able to witness so many new performers make a name for themselves on Broadway as they dazzle audiences. This year, loads of talented young actors and a few seasoned entertainment industry veterans appeared on the Great White Way for the first time. Here are our picks, in alphabetical order, of the year's outstanding debuts.

Denée Benton as Natasha in Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 at the Imperial Theatre.
(© Chad Batka)

1. Denée Benton
As Natasha in the Broadway premiere of Dave Malloy's War & Peace-inspired Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812, Denée Benton is filling some sizable shoes. The role was originated off-Broadway by Hamilton Tony nominee Philippa Soo. But it appears that Benton, who first played the part during the production's Boston run, stepped seamlessly into Natasha's shiny silver flats. And that dauntless attitude translates to her performance as the musical's whimsically impulsive title character. Benton builds on the doe-eyed charm Soo brought to the character, adding a layer of self-awareness that serves to make Tolstoy's heroine all the more compelling.

Carmen Cusack as Alice Murphy in Bright Star at the Cort Theatre.
(© Nick Stokes)

2. Carmen Cusack
After spending several years across the pond, the West End had already gotten wise to Carmen Cusack, but hardly anyone in New York had heard her name when she came to Broadway with the Steve Martin and Edie Brickell musical Bright Star earlier this year. This unknown commodity, however, quickly became the talk of the town, earning Tony and Drama Desk nominations for her performance and selling out her debut cabaret at 54 Below even after the show had closed its doors at the Cort Theatre. Cusack's IBDB page still has just a single credit, but we're confident her character Alice Murphy's lasting mark will propel the actress to plenty more Broadway marquees in the not-so-distant future — unless Hollywood steals her away.

Kimiko Glenn as Dawn in Waitress at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre.
(© Joan Marcus)

3. Kimiko Glenn
Kimiko Glenn was a new addition to the cast of Waitress when the Sara Bareilles' musical transferred to Broadway this spring, but the role of Dawn (which she played through July) was hers as soon as she slid on those candy-apple-red glasses. Best known for playing Brook Soso on Netflix's Orange Is the New Black, Glenn is no stranger to the quirky misfit, but the Waitress character allowed Glenn to sink even further into her loveable nerdom — and showcase her vocal chops. One of the show's most charming moments displayed both of those skills, with Glenn performing a simultaneously heartbreaking and hilarious rendition of "When He Sees Me."

Josh Groban as Pierre in in Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 at the Imperial Theatre.
(© Chad Batka)

4. Josh Groban
Everyone knows how great the honey-voiced Josh Groban sounds on his albums, but hearing him live is an entirely different level of amazing. This is especially true in the Broadway production of Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812, in which he plays Pierre: Depending on where you are sitting, he might just be singing a few feet from your face, a truly intense experience. His solo, Dust and Ashes, stops the show — one of the few times we can say that about the constantly churning production. Groban is also a trooper for spending eight performances a week in a grotesque fat suit, gladly sacrificing glamour for art (something we can't say for every recording artist on Broadway). This debut exceeded our expectations, and we hope it marks the beginning of a long career in the theater.

Lupita Nyong'o as The Girl in Eclipsed at the John Golden Theatre.
(© Joan Marcus)

5. Lupita Nyong'o
Lupita Nyong'o astounded us all with her Oscar-winning turn in 12 Years a Slave, so we already had high hopes going into Eclipsed, which marked her Broadway debut. She did not disappoint. Nyong'o played a young woman recently removed from her home by a Liberian warlord, who subsequently forced her into marriage. She spends the play torn between passive acceptance and active aggression, two bad choices that Nyong'o made equally unbearable in her heartbreaking performance. Many actors know how to create a mood onstage, but Nyong'o forces us to stew in it.

Will Roland as Jared in Dear Evan Hansen at the Music Box Theatre.
(© Matthew Murphy)

6. Will Roland
How do you make a one-liner about school shootings earn a belly laugh? Ask Will Roland, the resident wisecracker in Dear Evan Hansen. As sarcastic high schooler Jared Kleinman, Roland has the difficult task of serving as the show's comic relief, mining laughs in the darkest of possible places. He does so with a contemporary teenager's ear for sarcasm and the deadpan delivery of a veteran comic. Roland injects the show with a hilarity that helps Hansen achieve a rock-solid balance of humor and pathos.

Saoirse Ronan as Abigail Williams in Arthur Miller's The Crucible at the Walter Kerr Theatre.
(© Jan Versweyveld)

7. Saoirse Ronan
Saoirse Ronan's face may have adorned the gigantic Walter Kerr Theater marquee during the run of Arthur Miller's The Crucible, but it was her indomitable presence onstage as an otherworldly Abigail Williams that provoked fear with simply an icy glare. This is a person you wouldn't want to double-cross — a striking contrast to Ronan's Oscar-nominated performance in Brooklyn. The way she managed to conjure her own brand of theatrical magic upon her first outing was awe-inspiring.

Bobby Conte Thornton as Calogero in A Bronx Tale at the Longacre Theatre.
(© Joan Marcus)

8. Bobby Conte Thornton
In a world where name recognition drives box-office sales, Cinderella stories of unknowns making their Broadway debuts at the center of big-budget musicals are few and far between. That's what makes A Bronx Tale star Bobby Conte Thornton a particularly exciting revelation of 2016. The 24-year-old went almost straight from the University of Michigan to the Longacre Theatre where he plays Calogero — the character originally written by Chazz Palminteri for his solo show and the subsequent film inspired by his upbringing in the Bronx. When you're two years out of college and already being directed by Robert De Niro, you must be doing something right.