Enchanted Evenings: Bringing New Life to Broadway's Classics

By Steven Suskin
June 6, 2003

Revivals, once a rarity along Broadway, are here to stay. This past spring season saw the unveiling of several hit revivals including Nine and Long Day's Journey into Night.

The discriminating playgoer's list of Broadway highlights of the last decade includes An Inspector Calls, The Heiress, A Delicate Balance, Death of a Salesman, The Iceman Cometh and The Real Thing. Not to mention revivals of Chicago and Cabaret, two grand entertainments that have more than doubled the runs of their original productions.

"But it's only a revival" doesn't apply, not with shows of this caliber. Broadway has come to cherish its past: each season, a new generation of directors and performers put its own stamp on classic plays and musicals — much as opera companies do with great works like Rigoletto and Carmen. This year, the two worlds merged with the Broadway revival of La Bohème.

And isn't a play new to anyone who has never seen it before?

The 2002-2003 Broadway season was marked by 16 revivals, of different stripes, varieties and aims. All were determined to be as good as memories of past productions; some set out to be better, with rewrites and revisions to that end. Some gave us traditional readings of the scripts, others tried to bring new meaning to the material. Some adventures worked out, some didn't; but that's Broadway.

Half of the revivals were star-driven, an economic reality in this day of high costs and stiff competition from the show next door. Three were set in motion by actors looking to revisit roles they had played earlier. Al Pacino, winner of two Tony Awards and an Academy Award, returned in a staged reading of Salome; his last appearance in the Oscar Wilde play was an immediate sell-out back in 1992. Judd Hirsch recreated his Tony Award-winning role in I'm Not Rappaport with the very same director, on the very same set, in the same theatre as before. Two-time Tony nominee Charles S. Dutton instigated a revival of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, giving audiences the chance to see the performance that took him to Hollywood in the play that introduced August Wilson to Broadway.

Tony winner Brian Bedford, our foremost interpreter of the works of Molière, had long wanted to revisit Tartuffe. The Roundabout Theatre, which hosted Bedford's Molière Comedies in 1995, happily assented. Bedford chose to play a role other than the title character, making this a different and more provocative reading of the 350-year-old classic. Brian Stokes Mitchell, on the other hand, had never appeared in Man of La Mancha (other than as a 16-year-old dancing muleteer in a West Coast dinner theatre). On the heels of his Tony Award-winning stint in Kiss Me, Kate, Mitchell was able to mount his not-impossible dream. "We're doing Man of La Mancha with the tools — the actors, the technology, the stage technicians, the craftsmen and women — of the new millennium," he said. "It will be fresh, and it will be true to the spirit of the original."

Two-time Emmy winner Edie Falco, too, got to choose her vehicle; she was invited to do a play, any play, during her hiatus from TV's "The Sopranos." She decided on the Pulitzer Prize-winner 'Night, Mother but — thinking it might be too depressing — switched to Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune. "With revivals like this," said playwright Terrence McNally, "the casting is really the event. That's what people come to see, not the play." The presence of Falco and co-star Stanley Tucci — a far more attractive pair than the middle-aged misfits McNally originally wrote about — gave the play a different spin, but their electrifying performances made it an immediate hit.

Two big-star musical revivals were helmed by influential British directors, both of whom sought a new approach. Oscar winner Sam Mendes - of the Cabaret revival and Hollywood's “American Beauty” — undertook a new production of the Styne-Sondheim-Laurents Gypsy. Two-time Tony winner Bernadette Peters starred, celebrating her 44th year on the boards. (She made her debut at the age of ten in a 1959 revival of The Most Happy Fella, two months before Merman opened as Mama Rose.) Three-time Tony nominee David Leveaux, director of the smashing revivals of Anna Christie and The Real Thing, returned to the Roundabout with Nine. He had previously staged the piece twice, in London and Buenos Aires; this time, he enlisted the star power of Antonio Banderas and Chita Rivera.

Two other big-name revivals came to town, but tampering was inadvisable; these were tried-and-true classics, each in their fourth or fifth Broadway visit. The Westport Country Playhouse's production of Our Town played a limited engagement at the Booth, propelled by the presence of Paul Newman (husband of Westport's artistic director, Joanne Woodward). Newman — who started his career on Broadway in the 1953 hit Picnic — hadn't appeared locally since 1964. "I decided I would not go to my grave without coming back to Broadway," said Newman. So he did, to sell-out crowds. Newman was revisiting Grover's Corners, in a fashion; he played the juvenile lead in the 1955 TV musical version, singing opposite Eva Marie Saint. (Frank Sinatra stole the show as the Stage Manager, introducing the pop hit "Love and Marriage.")

Long Day's Journey into Night came from the star, director and producer of the Tony Award-winning 1999 revival of Death of a Salesman. Brian Dennehy was joined this time by Vanessa Redgrave, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Robert Sean Leonard. "Why do any great classic?" Dennehy asked. "We all want to tackle these various parts because that's what we do as actors, but also because there is a certain audience that wants to hear the truth again. There are truths told in this play, as in any great classic, that have to be heard over and over and over again."

Lincoln Center Theater and Gerald Gutierrez — producers and director of the Tony-winning Heiress and A Delicate Balance — mounted a lavish revival of George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber's Dinner at Eight. The Roundabout gave us a straightforward revival of Peter Nichols' Day in the Death of Joe Egg, importing edgy comedian Eddie Izzard for the occasion.

The most strikingly original revivals were reimaginings of two world classics. Director Deborah Warner and star Fiona Shaw brought Medea into the supermarket tabloid present, with results that were startlingly arresting. Baz Luhrmann worked within the confines of La Bohème, keeping the text while changing the century and providing contemporary English-language surtitles. "Puccini wanted to move people, to make them laugh and cry," said Luhrmann. "We want the production to have that same kind of direct connection to the audience." (Contrary to popular belief, La Bohème was by any definition a revival. The opera was first mounted on Broadway in 1927 — as the opening attraction at the theatre (formerly the Gallo Opera House) now hosting Cabaret — and was also revived in 1944 and 1948.)

A different approach was taken with two Richard Rodgers musicals. Neither The Boys from Syracuse nor Flower Drum Song had been seen on Broadway since their long-ago premieres; why not allow contemporary playwrights to fit the old songs into largely new books? "What George Abbott did with the book was terrific," said director Scott Ellis, who worked with author Nicky Silver on Syracuse, "but it was of its time. We needed a totally different attack." Which is what they did. Tony Award-winning playwright David Henry Hwang came up with the idea of rethinking Flower Drum Song: "I tried to write the book that Oscar Hammerstein would have written if he were Asian-American. It's a question of trying to create something new, but which hopefully respects the spirit and the intentions of the original."

The revivals of the 2002-2003 season will compete for many Tony Awards tonight. But, more importantly, they provided us with even more enchanted evenings to add to our list of never-to-be-forgotten Broadway highlights.

Steven Suskin is author of “Broadway Yearbook 2001-2002,” “Show Tunes” and “Opening Nights on Broadway.”