Will Modern-Day Theatregoers Fall For She Loves Me? Debating the Question of "Dated" Musicals

News   Will Modern-Day Theatregoers Fall For She Loves Me? Debating the Question of "Dated" Musicals
 
One never knows how an older musical will speak to a present-day audience. Some decades-old works have found new resonance with theatreogers, while others have not. With the classic love story She Loves Me coming back to Broadway in 2016, Playbill.com correspondent Mark Robinson looks at recent revivals and why they did or did not land with Broadway fans. 

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What does it mean for a musical to be labeled "dated"? In the last two decades, many critics, historians and producers have professed that certain musicals were dated, deeming them impossible to revive successfully on Broadway. Among these outmoded titles were Pippin and Hair, but both of these shows saw spectacularly received revivals in recent years. Others have said that Finian's Rainbow is dated, and the 2009 revival failed to resonate with audiences, despite a glorious production and generally good notices. Now, the musical She Loves Me is poised to return in 2016, and again the word "dated" is bandied about as a looming specter over this much-beloved, but not frequently produced, musical. What makes a musical dated? We often hear that word come up when certain titles are being discussed for revival. For some, it means old-fashioned, a story that doesn't have relevance to today's audiences. For others, it has the connotation that a musical is too tied to the styles, vernacular and themes of the period in which it was created.

Barbara Baxley and Barbara Cook in the original production
Barbara Baxley and Barbara Cook in the original production

For a long time, it was generally accepted that the musical Hair would be a difficult piece to revive, with its music and themes firmly entrenched in the 1960s world of "Flower Power," anti-war protests and psychedelic drug celebration. The score, written in 1967, was addressing then current issues by employing music that was contemporary in style. This was not what Broadway audiences were used to hearing. Two decades later, the hippie movement and all that it represented was passé or out of place with modern audiences. Suddenly, America found itself ensconced in the Middle East, fighting a controversial war that seemed impossible to maintain, let alone win. Hair was relevant again, and although it was now a period piece, people could once again connect with its messages of peace, love and rock and roll. Did this make Hair timely or is the piece timeless? It is dated if you think of it as just a commentary on the 60s, but it is timeless if you consider that its message is universal and applies to any society that is in protest of watching young people die on the battlefield. Will Hair come in and out of fashion as the decades change and the world climate fluctuates?

For decades, Pippin was considered a challenge to revive, more for the reason that the original production staged by Bob Fosse relied so much on a super director/choreographer to take its bare bones script and shape it into a concept. Pippin is an "Everyman" type of story, so the journey of the title character is timeless. Still, the original production was a product of its time, both musically (through its Motown-inspired score by Stephen Schwartz) and its choreography (a style that was all the rage in the early 1970s). Its band of commedia dell'arte players, scantily clad, bending their bodies in uncomfortably angled configurations was iconic, but a new way of looking at the piece was required for Pippin to succeed for a new generation. Diane Paulus came to the rescue, re-imagining Pippin as performed by a circus troupe, employing conventions of the Big Top to dramatically underscore the story. Wisely, she kept the best aspects of the original Pippin, including making a place for choreographer Chet Walker to tip a hat to the great Mr. Fosse. The result was a much-revised, but refreshingly relevant, Pippin that spoke to today's audiences and that took on a form that was equal parts contemporary Broadway and Cirque du Soleil.

Other musical revivals haven't been so lucky. Finian's Rainbow and its tongue-in-cheek jabs at financial credit, its subtly veiled allusions to communism and its blatant, scathing indictment of racism should have been timely in its expert 2009 revival. All of these issues were still at play (swap out communism for socialism), but Finian's Rainbow didn't succeed where Pippin and Hair did. Was this musical just too old-fashioned for contemporary audiences? Is it a style of musical that modern audiences are less likely to appreciate in the wake of edgier, in-your-face pieces like Rent, Spring Awakening, Next to Normal and Hamilton? If that is true, then what chance does She Loves Me have? Much of its story is old-fashioned, with its tale of lonely hearts clubs, pen pals and a simple, comedic love story. There is nothing contemporary about the Bock and Harnick score as it was written in a time when Broadway had its own distinct sound. Yet, that old-fashioned musical flavor hasn't hurt The King and I, On the Twentieth Century and a couple dozen other titles with "dated" plots, themes and music that have been revived successfully on Broadway in the recent decade. Did the script of Finian's Rainbow need reworking to make it accessible for modern audiences? Is the same question relevant where She Loves Me is concerned? Debates are also waged over the musical Applause (1970), a piece that just overflows with words, phrases and allusions that go hand-in-hand with the early 1970s, that won a Tony for Best Musical and hasn't been revived on Broadway since. The orchestrations of Charles Strouse's music have a period sound that would have once been called "groovy." It was an awkward transition for Broadway musicals in this time period, as its sound evolved to embrace rock and roll while trying to remain simultaneously classic Broadway. (Company and Promises, Promises have similar sounds to Applause). Applause has a story that is timeless; it was based on the 1946 Mary Orr short story "The Wisdom of Eve" which had been made into the Oscar-winning film "All about Eve." The plot is that of an aging actress whose career is usurped by a young upstart who, through careful study of her idol, begins to morph into her. It's an intoxicating premise. Would new orchestrations and some refreshing of the dialogue make Applause a viable candidate for revival?

Should a composer's or a book writer's work be altered in order to make a piece more accessible for today's ticket buyers? One can argue that the material belongs to its creator and that producers and directors have no business making changes to that artistic vision for a revival. It is, after all, that vision that shaped the piece. It is their art. No one would presume to repaint the Mona Lisa in modern clothing in order to make her more accessible to modern-day audiences. On the other hand, if that original work no longer has relevance to an audience, aren't these producers and directors keeping the best of the piece alive by revising what doesn't work? Revivals such as Damn Yankees (1994), Cabaret (1998), You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown (1999), On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (2011), Porgy and Bess (2012) and Pippin (2013) all included some bold alterations to the original material, meeting with varying degrees of success. This kind of revival has led to the coining of the word "revisal," a moniker indicating that the spirit of the original work is there, but that certain liberties have been taken with the source material, usually because it is dated.

Judy Kuhn and Sally Mayes in the 1993 revival
Judy Kuhn and Sally Mayes in the 1993 revival Photo by Carol Rosegg

She Loves Me was never an enormous hit. The original Broadway production in 1963 ran a respectable 302 performances. The 1993 revival bested the original run (not by much) holding on for 354 performances. The piece has always been affectionately embraced by critics and theatre historians as something special, a startling little gem that is often overlooked in comparison to flashier, bigger bagatelles. It is not a star vehicle despite the upcoming revival that will feature Laura Benanti, Josh Radnor, Jane Krakowski and Gavin Creel in the leads. She Loves Me is decidedly not dated, nor does it require revising when one considers that this tiny musical continues to live on in the hearts of cast album collectors, performers, directors and producers. The people at The Roundabout Theatre Company wouldn't be considering a revival if they didn't think that She Loves Me could reach today's theatre patrons and overcome some of its inherent challenges. A musical is dated when it is no longer relevant to contemporary audiences. Musicals that take place in other times and places aren't necessarily dated just because they are old-fashioned. If the themes of a musical (love, hate, greed, jealousy and life-affirmation, for example) are still relevant today, then that piece will transcend the barriers of time and place and connect with ticket buyers. Revisions may help keep a dated piece breathing so that audiences can enjoy the original's intended spirit or its superior score, but this comes at a cost of losing authorial intent.

Mark Robinson is a theatre, television, and film historian who writes the blog "The Music That Makes Me Dance" found at markrobinsonwrites.com. Mark is the author of three books: "The Disney Song Encyclopedia," "The Encyclopedia of Television Theme Songs" and the two-volume "The World of Musicals."

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