Friday, September 16, 2011

Musical Revivals Preview

This article, "New Layers Amid Song and Dance" by Patrick Healy, appeared in yesterday's New York Times and does a great job previewing the 2011-2012 season's musical revivals -- "Follies", "Godspell", "On A Clear Day You Can See Forever", "Porgy & Bess", and "Evita". Enjoy!

THE theater director Michael Mayer faced deep skepticism in 1997 when he first proposed a radical plan to the literary executors for “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever,” a 1965 musical admired for its lush score but undercut by loopy story lines about ESP and reincarnation. Mr. Mayer wanted to rewrite the book and to transform its muddled romantic subplot into a love triangle full of dramatic and comic tension. His boldest idea: turning one of the central characters, a flighty woman named Daisy, into a gay florist named David. The gender switch was meant to throw impediments into the main narrative, about a male psychiatrist who hypnotizes Daisy/David and then falls in love with her/his past self, a woman named Melinda Wells.

“Changing Daisy into David was the most shocking thing to the executors and estates, but they were as interested as I was in finding a way to breathe new life into this musical,” Mr. Mayer said of the representatives and relatives of the show’s composer, Burton Lane, and its original book writer and lyricist, Alan Jay Lerner. “My main thought was, ‘What can we do to make this story crackle?’ ”

Now, Mr. Mayer’s reconception is set to begin performances on Broadway on Nov. 12, starring Harry Connick Jr. as the psychiatrist and the theater actor David Turner (“Arcadia”) as David. It is one of four Broadway musical revivals this fall — along with “Follies,” “Godspell” and “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess” — that offer new interpretations of the original works, albeit to widely varying degrees. While reinterpretation is a standard practice by directors who want their revivals to be revelatory (the sort of high praise that theater critics gave to revivals of “Hair,” in 2009, and “Carousel,” in 1994, for instance), changing or modernizing an older musical can be fraught when the surgery is so extensive that the work becomes unrecognizable or even disfigured.

“On a Clear Day” is the season’s fullest “revisal” — a revival of a musical whose score, script and other elements have been reworked — yet Mr. Mayer’s overhaul has stirred nothing like the furor surrounding another Broadway-bound revival, “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess.” Both productions have support from the creators’ estates. “Porgy and Bess” retains far more of the original script and music of the beloved 1935 opera, while Mr. Mayer has interpolated songs from another Lerner and Lane work, the film “Royal Wedding,” which will sit alongside standards the show has spawned, including its title song and “Come Back to Me.” Yet it is the “Porgy” creative team that has found itself under unusual scrutiny about the art and limits of revision, after a rare public rebuke last month from Stephen Sondheim.

Mr. Sondheim said he was not criticizing the “Porgy and Bess” revival itself; its out-of-town run at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., had not even begun yet. But he assailed members of its creative team over their comments to The New York Times about wanting to excavate and reshape parts of the story and flesh out the characters, particularly Bess, with new dialogue, a major new scene toward the end, and a final, upbeat stage picture not in the original work.

That new scene and the final image have been cut from the American Repertory Theater production. It is not clear if Mr. Sondheim’s criticism drove the decision, or if the creators’ revised ending will be restored — or undergo revisions itself — for the Broadway production, which is scheduled to begin on Dec. 17. Diane Paulus, the director of “Porgy” and a Tony nominee for the recent “Hair” revival, and her collaborators declined to be interviewed for this article.

Among the artistic rationales for major revisals are fixing weak books or dealing with dated — even off-putting — material, like the ethnic stereotyping in “Flower Drum Song” (heavily revised for a short-lived return to Broadway in 2002). With revisals, creative teams sometimes engage with contemporary issues; before the American Repertory Theater opening the “Porgy” team talked about making Bess less of a victim of men. In adding a gay man to “On a Clear Day” Peter Parnell, who rewrote the show’s new book, and Mr. Mayer insisted they were not trying to foist a political agenda on the show; rather, they thought the change added a useful foil, some modern complications and clever subtleties to the story.

“Having the psychiatrist as a heterosexual man and the patient as a homosexual man offered us the love-triangle possibility, a concept that felt very fresh and current to me,” said Mr. Parnell, who, like Mr. Mayer, is gay. “I didn’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, but at the same time I wanted to make these characters and their stories work together. I think it’s clicked.”

Jack Viertel, a Broadway producer and the artistic director of Encores!, the concert -revival series of American musicals, said the new “Porgy and Bess” pointed up “the dangers of taking a show that has always worked a certain way and saying, ‘I believe it can work my way.’ ”

He continued, “That can be a trap, because revivals succeed best when artists take the essence of the original work, add to it subtly or stage it inventively, and make the show live anew without betraying the original,” citing Lincoln Center Theater’s recent revival of “South Pacific” and Roundabout Theater Company’s “Cabaret” as examples.

The new “Follies,” which opened to strong reviews last week, has a score by none other than Mr. Sondheim himself, with a book by James Goldman. Mr. Sondheim and the Goldman estate gave Eric Schaeffer, the director, a version of the “Follies” script that they were most happy with, and the revival is quite close to the original 1971 Broadway production, with attention paid instead to production design that teases out the haunting qualities of the show, about a reunion of showgirls decades past their prime.

“Part of what I’m hoping people discover, actually, is that the book is really good — smart, concise, hitting home what needs to be hit home,” Mr. Schaeffer explained. “The best opportunity to try something new with ‘Follies’ is getting the atmospherics right.”

For the revival of “Godspell,” a 1971 musical based on parables from the Gospels, the director Daniel Goldstein and the show’s composer and lyricist, Stephen Schwartz, have been tweaking language in some of the parables to underscore the challenges of group identity.

“Some shows, including ‘Godspell,’ suffer if you impose a big concept or a radical vision, because the storytelling is simple and sincere,” Mr. Goldstein said. Mr. Schwartz, who later wrote the music for the Broadway blockbuster “Wicked,” was open to composing new songs for the characters, which include figures based on Jesus and Judas, but neither Mr. Goldstein nor Ken Davenport, the lead producer, saw a need.

“We all believe in the work as it is,” Mr. Davenport said. Then, joking about the Jesus character, added, “There was one version we tried where he didn’t die in the end.”

Mr. Sondheim and Mr. Schwartz are active players in the theater and eloquent guardians of their musicals. So too are the composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyricist Tim Rice, who are offering input for the first Broadway revival of “Evita,” which is scheduled for the spring. Some veterans of the revival business said a key difference for “Porgy and Bess” and “On a Clear Day” is that their creators are not around to offer blessings or cry foul. Estates and literary executors, in the interest of seeing their musical properties revived, are often open-minded about revisionist productions.

“When the originators of a work are dead, well, that tells you almost everything you need to know about the flexibility and scope you may have to reconceive,” said Michael Grandage, the director of the new “Evita.” He was quick to add that Mr. Lloyd Webber and Mr. Rice had given him latitude; he has proposed a few word changes, and it was Mr. Lloyd Webber who suggested adding the song “You Must Love Me” that he and Mr. Rice wrote for the 1996 film adaptation. (That it won a best original song Oscar didn’t hurt.)

“Evita” and “Godspell” will bear more similarities than not to the original productions, as often happens with first-time Broadway revivals, as was the case with the returns of “Les Misérables,” “A Chorus Line” and “Into the Woods” over the last decade or so. The logo for the new “Godspell,” for instance, incorporates the look of the famous 1970s design but makes it a poster within a poster.

“It honors the original while conveying a fresh modern take,” Mr. Davenport said.

No comments:

Post a Comment