Special Reports

The Best Broadway Debuts of 2023

TheaterMania’s editorial department picks out this year’s Broadway breakout stars.

The past 12 months were filled with terrific Broadway debuts by performers whose work ran the gamut from comedic to dramatic. Here are our picks, in alphabetical order, for the most memorable debuts of 2023, as determined by TheaterMania’s editorial staff.

LIFE OF PI Hiran Abeysekera Richard Parker Fred Davis Scarlet Wilderink Andrew Wilson by Matthew Murphy Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade 1 1
Hiran Abeysekera in Life of Pi
(© Matthew Murphy/Evan Zimmerman)

Hiran Abeysekera as Pi in Life of Pi
by Pete Hempstead

The amazing puppets in Lolita Chakrabarti’s stage adaptation of the novel Life of Pi were part of the show’s big draw for some, but for me the more exciting surprise was witnessing the memorable performance of Hiran Abeysekera, who played Pi Patel, a young man forced to survive at sea after a shipwreck. Abeysekera won an Olivier Award for his performance in the same role last year, and Broadway was fortunate enough to see his funny and ultimately heartbreaking take on a boy who copes with the unimaginable by creating an imaginary world around him. Abeysekera more than proved his acting chops in a role that demanded physical agility (how many actors do battle with a tiger on a lifeboat?) as well as subtle shades of humor and pathos in his witty and moving portrayal.

0190r D'Arcy Carden in THE THANKSGIVING PLAY. Photo by Joan Marcus, 2023
D’Arcy Carden as Alicia in The Thanksgiving Play at the Helen Hayes Theater
(© Joan Marcus)

D’Arcy Carden as Alicia in The Thanksgiving Play
by David Gordon

D’Arcy Carden knows comedy, as anyone who’s seen her TV work can attest. But the comedy of multiple takes to a camera and the comedy of live performance is a different beast, and when you’re playing opposite a world class funny person like Katie Finneran, you must up your game even more. In Larissa FastHorse’s The Thanksgiving Play, Carden made it seem like she’s been doing theater forever, playing a vain and apathetic Los Angeles actress to the hilt, finding hilarious ways to make us laugh with tiny fragments of gestures like chewing on a Starbucks straw. Can’t wait to see what she does next, because it’s sure to be hilarious.

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Shane McAnally and Brandy Clark
(© Emilio Madrid)

Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally, songwriters of Shucked
by Zachary Stewart

I’ve often wondered why more country artists don’t write musicals. There seems to be a tremendous crossover in skillset when it comes to composing a compelling musical hook, telling stories through song, and conveying grand emotions with vocal pyrotechnics. Nashville songwriters Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally confirmed my suspicions this year with their big, toe-tapping Broadway musical Shucked, about a small town in corn crisis. From the high-energy opening number “Corn,” to the show-stopper “Independently Owned,” to the rollicking second-act opener “We Love Jesus,” Shucked is a textbook-perfect Broadway score with a delightfully twangy all-American sound. While they didn’t win the Tony for Shucked, Clark and McAnally’s triumphant debut as Broadway composers was one of the most delightful surprises of 2023. I hope they come back with more.

Prima Facie 09 Jodie Comer. Photo Credit Bronwen Sharp Retouch Caz Lock
Jodie Comer as Tessa in Prima Facie at the Golden Theatre
(© Bronwen Sharp)

Jodie Comer as Tessa in Prima Facie
by Linda Buchwald

Solo shows are tough to pull off, especially in a Broadway house. But in Prima Facie, Comer kept the audience engrossed for the whole show, in which she played a lawyer who defends men accused of sexual assault and rethinks the justice system after she is assaulted herself. It’s a tough subject matter, but Comer demands attention. She is known for television work and hadn’t done theater before Prima Facie. Being a strong screen actor doesn’t guarantee that those skills will transfer to the stage, but she gave an unforgettable performance that earned her a Tony award.

Alex Edelman in Just for Us on Broadway at the Hudson Theatre
(© Matthew Murphy)

Alex Edelman as Himself in Just for Us
by Linda Buchwald

After several sold-out Off-Broadway runs, comedian Alex Edelman took his show Just for Us to Broadway. The thing about stand-up comedy is it all seems off the cuff, but Just For Us is a smartly constructed show in which Edelman tells of infiltrating a white supremacist meeting while weaving other anecdotes in and out, never losing the thread. It works because of his clever observations and his compelling, and of course, hilarious, delivery. Just for Us is currently on tour, which is great because it deserves to be seen by as many people as possible, but Edelman would be welcome back on Broadway any time.

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Marcel Speers as Juicy in the Broadway production of Fat Ham
(© Joan Marcus)

Marcel Spears as Juicy in Fat Ham
by Kenji Fujishima

After a hit off-Broadway run at the Public Theater in 2022, James Ijames’s Pulitzer Prize-winning take on Hamlet transferred to Broadway this year with all of its raucousness, poignancy, and transgressive joyousness intact. Marcel Spears—who, before starring in the Public Theater run, had only one off-Broadway understudy credit in New York—is a big reason for that success. As Juicy, the play’s modern-day Black and queer Hamlet figure, Spears brought Ijames’s vision of a more nuanced brand of masculinity to vibrant life with a performance that combined sensitivity, rage, and anguish in beautiful harmony. The entire ensemble was excellent, but it was Spears’s depth of feeling combined with a refreshing lack of ego on his part that made such a collective triumph possible.

Dominique Thorne in Jaja’s African Hair Braiding
(© Matthew Murphy)

Dominique Thorne as Marie in Jaja’s African Hair Braiding
by Pete Hempstead

One of the best comedies of 2023 was Jocelyn Bioh’s Jaja’s African Hair Braiding, which took a look at a momentous day in the lives of several women working in a Harlem hair-braiding shop. The production was chockfull of outstanding performances, one of which was the Broadway debut of Dominique Thorne, who played Marie, the aspiring daughter of shop’s owner. Thorne showed us a woman struggling between the desire to go after her dreams and the demands of a family still trying to establish itself in America. The show had a relatively short run, so it’s a shame that more didn’t see her in the role. But with tons of humor, a smile that conveyed fatigue more than anything else, and a truly stirring final scene in which Marie faces a life-changing turn of events, Thorne delivered a powerful debut performance that deserves recognition.