A show’s preview period is a time for the creative team to fine-tune the piece in front of an audience. Scenes are dropped, lines changed, songs added—almost anything is fair game until the show is “frozen” shortly before opening night, meaning that no more changes can be made. Ethel Merman famously declared herself “Miss Birds Eye” (as in the frozen food brand) when she became frustrated with the amount of changes coming down on a production and wished for at least her performance to be unchanged.
But Cirque Du Soleil’s Paramour recently bucked this tradition when they took four performances off to make creative changes weeks after opening night. It’s actually not the first time that this has happened in Broadway history. Read about the other shows that revamped after opening below.
Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s Camelot is a beloved Broadway classic—and deservedly so—but when it opened on Broadway in December 1960, its creative team was worried that it wasn't quite living up to their earlier mega-hit My Fair Lady. With Lerner and Loewe, director Moss Hart and leading lady Julie Andrews all reuniting for Camelot, the expectations were high, but as it turned out, the team's standards were even higher.
The first performance of Camelot, during its out-of-town tryout in Toronto, was reported to run more than four hours; substantial cuts were needed, but that's nothing out of the ordinary for a show’s tryout period. Disagreements amongst the creative team about what exactly to cut, combined with an unlucky bout of medical issues (Lerner was hospitalized with a bleeding ulcer, and Hart had his second heart attack soon thereafter), made the editing process difficult. By the time the show opened in New York, the piece had been dramatically cut down but still ran a little over three hours. The show and its cast recording were a near-immediate hit with audiences, particularly after a tribute to Lerner and Loewe on the Ed Sullivan show brought several songs from Camelot into homes all across the country in March 1961.
But despite its popularity, the creative team was still unsatisfied with the way they'd left the show at its opening night on Broadway. They revisited the production a few months into the run and decided on some new and dramatic revisions. Scenes were combined and trimmed, and most dramatically two entire songs were jettisoned (“Take Me to the Fair” and “Fie on Goodness”), resulting in a run time that was about 12 minutes shorter. The cast would rehearse the new version during the day and perform the old version at night until the switch was officially made. “We tightened the story,” Lerner told the New York Times in April 1961. “It was running too long.” The show has since become a bonafide classic of the genre, having had three Broadway revivals, a movie adaptation (that reinstated some of the cut material) and countless regional productions. It also famously became synonymous with the presidency of John F. Kennedy; after his assassination in 1963, it was reported that the cast recording had been a favorite bedtime listening selection in the Kennedy White House.
Frank Wildhorn and Nan Knighton’s The Scarlet Pimpernel, a musical adaptation of the Baroness Orczy novel about a British nobleman who saves French aristocrats from the guillotine, may be one of the more famous examples of a Broadway musical that made revisions during its run; before all was said and done, there were three distinct versions of the show that played Broadway, and many of the show's fans love to debate which particular version is their favorite.
The production of Pimpernel that first opened on Broadway in November 1997 was popular enough with audiences to keep the show running for nearly a year, but after it won no 1998 Tony Awards, the show's grosses began to dip, and it looked as if the show would be forced to close.
In an unprecedented move, new producers along with a new director/choreographer swooped in to take another look at the show and see if it could be given new life. In addition to lots of new and revised material and staging, Rex Smith and Rachel York were brought in to take over the roles of Chauvelin and Marguerite, while Douglas Sills remained in the title role. Rehearsals for the streamlined and re-staged version of the show began in September 1998, while the original version was still being performed in the evenings. The production went on hiatus after the final performance of the original version October 1, 1998, and the new production began performances October 10.
There were a few weeks of informal “previews,” after which critics were invited back to see the new and improved version of the show, and the response was markedly improved. Vincent Canby wrote in The New York Times that the production was “now what it should always have been: a light-hearted, prettily appointed entertainment, still sung in the manner of old-time operetta, but a show that moves with speed, sometimes wit and is never solemn for very long.”
And there were even more changes to come. The second version of Pimpernel ran through May 1999 and then set out on a national tour which streamlined the production even more. This third version of the show returned to Broadway, though this time in a new theatre, in September 1999, running until January 2000. When all was said and done, The Scarlet Pimpernel ran for 772 performances over two years.
Beauty and the Beast, based on the 1991 Disney animated movie, is one of Broadway's biggest-ever hits. It ran for 13 years and 5,461 performances. It also brought Disney to Broadway for the first time, launching a relationship that has spawned such Broadway hits as The Lion King, Newsies, Aladdin and The Little Mermaid.
Despite the show’s immense success with audiences, Disney tinkered with the show a bit on more than one occasion. In 1998, Grammy-winner Toni Braxton joined the Broadway company as Belle. Composer Alan Menken and lyricist Tim Rice decided Braxton should have a song that made use of her particular vocal abilities, and so they wrote “A Change in Me,” about the internal transformation Belle goes through while falling in love with the Beast. The song remained in the show after Braxton’s departure and became a standard part of the score. A few years later in 2004, a new arrangement of the song featuring a grander (and beltier) ending was written to Ashley Brown’s vocal abilities for the touring Disney revue On the Record. When Brown became Belle on Broadway in 2005, the revised ending came along with her. The new ending became the standard ending of the song and is what is used for all touring, regional and amateur companies performing the show today.
Disney also made some staging and production changes to the long-running hit in 1999, when the production was moved from the Palace Theatre to the Lunt-Fontanne (to make room for Aida). Instead of making a quick move, the production went on hiatus for a little over two months—just long enough for the unions to technically consider it a new production, which offered Disney the chance to reduce the cast size from 39 to 32. Though some economizing of production costs are certainly understandable, Disney insisted that the changes were minimal and more about polishing the show in its new and smaller home. “There will be some adjustments to the cutlery,” Disney Theatrical’s Tom Schumacher told The New York Times during the hiatus, “but all your feature condiment containers are safe.” They were also reported to have improved the lighting, sound and scenic designs. Ultimately, audiences more than embraced the slightly revised version of the show; Beauty and the Beast ran for a majority of its run at the Lunt-Fontanne after the changes were made.
Honorable Mentions: Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark and Shuffle Along, or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921
The much-anticipated musical Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark suffered setback after setback; its lead producer passed away suddenly, setting off a lengthy pre-production process with rapidly increasing costs that had to be raised by a new producer. Once the show started performing, technical difficulties led to frequent mid-performance holds and much-publicized injuries to members of the cast and crew. The scheduled opening night was postponed several times as the creative team tried to get the show ready for critics. Ultimately, producers brought in a new director (Philip William McKinley replaced Julie Taymor) and book writer (Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa was enlisted to revise Taymor’s work) to revamp the show.
After closing for a few weeks to allow for a new set of technical rehearsals and a cumulative record-breaking 182 previews (nowadays, most shows have around 30), Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark finally opened on Broadway. The show that was performed opening night—along with the creative team—was substantially different than the show that began in previews, including new songs, a new ending and even completely deleting characters.
Earlier this year, Shuffle Along’s process was a lot less dramatic. The show’s creative team, headed by director and writer George C. Wolfe, knew that without an out-of-town tryout, the show would need more work than other productions during previews to prepare it for opening night. To give the production the best chance to make any necessary changes, producers included a week-long hiatus in the middle of the preview period. Most of the changes made were to streamline the storytelling, but the running time was cut down as well.