Does absence truly make the heart grow fonder?
Regarding Broadway producers and their choices of late in what shows to back, it seems so. Revivals of old plays and musicals have long been part of the Broadway landscape. But in recent years, certain titles have boomeranged back to Times Square much faster than previously.
Tennessee Williams’ oeuvre is a case in point. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was mounted on Broadway in 2003. It was then back on the boards in both 2008 and 2013. The same writer’s The Glass Menagerie was seen in 2005 and 2013. A Streetcar Named Desire visited Broadway in 2005 and 2012.
Other titles that have been revived hot on the heels on their last Broadway iteration include Jerry Herman’s La Cage aux Folles (2004 and 2010) and Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (2005 and 2012). A surprising new wrinkle to this trend has surfaced this season. The above-mentioned revivals were of longstanding plays and musicals that are considered classics. But the 2015-16 season will feature new productions of Duncan Sheik’s Spring Awakening and the musical version of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. Both shows are relative youngsters, each roughly a decade old.
Is this willingness of Broadway to so rapidly revisit a work a testament to the health of those particular shows, indicating that they are strong enough to sustain a major New York revival every several years? Or is it representative of an overly cautious strategy on the part Broadway producers, of their playing it safe by bringing back a title that is either widely known to the public, or fresh in theatregoers’ memories?
“When it comes to Broadway, ‘safe’ is such a slippery idea,” observed David Cote, the chief drama critic for Time Out New York. “On the one hand, sure, producers want to give the people what they wanted last year, but on the other, so few things actually break even, it’s always a risk. Yesterday’s smash hit can become today’s money pit.”
In the instances of the coming Spring Awakening and The Color Purple productions — as well a new revival of Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge — it can be argued that the interpretations are so different from the originals that they justify a fresh look. Spring Awakening is a production of Deaf West Theatre and will performed simultaneously in American Sign Language and spoken English.
“When I went to see the Deaf West Spring Awakening in Los Angeles,” said Ken Davenport, a producer of the new production, “within the first 15 seconds of that show, the show became even richer for me than when I saw it here — and I loved it here. It seemed to be saying something new and different. I said, ‘We’ve got to get this to New York.’”
Similarly, the new mounting of The Color Purple is a pared-down version of the show, one that was first seen at London’s Menier Chocolate Factory. It is directed by John Doyle, who has a reputation for radically re-envisioning classic musicals. And the new A View from a Bridge is piloted by the avant garde Belgian director Ivo van Hove, who is known for deconstructing classic plays by American playwrights such as Eugene O’Neill and Lillian Hellman. It will little resemble the recent, largely realistic revival starring Scarlett Johansson.
Cote doesn’t mind revisiting these pieces, given the artistic personnel involved.
“It is a special case and, to me, justifies seeing them again,” he said. “In the end, revivals of plays and musicals, no matter how old or new they are, are crucibles of culture. If a musical is any good, it will survive a new directorial vision. At best, revivals burn away anything inessential to the work and reveal what’s strong and timeless. Revivals can make a case for critical reevaluation or inclusion in the canon.”
Rob Weinert-Kendt, the new editor of the magazine American Theatre agrees, views Broadway revivals of recent plays and musicals as a hopeful thing.
“I think it's actually a healthy trend for relatively recent shows like Spring Awakening to join the ranks of the canonical revivals that come around all too regularly, whether it's Fiddler or View From the Bridge,” he argued. “The ‘too soon’ idea doesn't hold a lot of weight for me, because our culture's memory is short and great pieces deserve as many renderings and audiences as the market can bear.” In the case of the Sheik musical, there is also the sense, both among critics and producers, that the original production didn’t last as long as it ought to have. This notion lends a further practical purpose to the new staging.
"It maybe didn't run as long as it could have the first time,” said Weinert-Kendt of the show. “Maybe a fresh take is exactly what could invigorate it for a new generation.”
The new Broadway Fiddler on the Roof arrives less than a decade after the last production of the musical left Broadway. That staging was famous for starring first Alfred Molina and then Harvey Fierstein — both unconventional Tevyes. The new mounting will be directed by Bartlett Sher, who is known for revivifying old musicals with creative approaches that are both freshly inventive and faithful to the text.
For producer Jeffrey Richards, Sher’s involvement helped convince him that the time was right for a new Broadway rendition of the familiar show.
“Fiddler is, I think, a classic musical,” said Richards, “and when I had the opportunity to work with Bartlett Sher and he expressed his enthusiasm for it, I felt it might work.”
“When you’re dealing with a classic play,” continued Richards, who also produced the 2012 return of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, “a lot depends on the artists who are attracted to it, the creative team and the actors, and their reinterpretation of the production. A great play could be done every two or three years.”
Ken Davenport cited the most recent revivals and Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret and Chicago as illustrations of how musical revivals can be creative game-changers, opening the theatregoer’s eyes to previously unseen aspects of the works.
“I always think a reason to bring a revival here is when there’s a new take on it, when there’s something unique about it that makes you think of the original production in a different way,” he said. Cabaret and Chicago “were everything you loved about the original but also shown through a different lens that made everything clearer and richer.”
For a critic, there is, of course, a downside to seeing the same handful of titles on Broadway again and again.
“I get tired of Shakespeare and the same 20 American and European classics in star-fueled productions on Broadway or at BAM and Lincoln Center Festival every year,” complained Cote. Producers ought to mix it up a bit more, he added. “How about Ibsen’s Brand? Are we ever going to get The School for Scandal or The Way of the World — preferably with English casts? And what about Calderon, Pirandello, Stein, Moliere, Mishima, Gorky, Glaspell? The culture we recycle from the past 500 years or more seems to shrink every season.” Still, Cote allows that there is a general assumption in the theatre that classic non-musical dramas, such as Shakespeare and O’Neill and Williams, can be revived regularly, “because the works are large and deep and difficult and can withstand new dramaturgical and scenographic approaches. Whereas new musicals are created by committee, and exist more in the present.”
Weinert-Kendt, in contrast, doesn’t see musicals as fragile as all that. In fact, he views them as being as sturdy as the Bard.
“For better or worse, musicals are like the American Shakespeare,” he said, “and that they keep getting revived and revived to me is a sign of health, particularly compared to the picture 30-40 years ago.”
Moreover, Weinert-Kendt sees the increasing advent of “too-soon” revivals as nothing when compared to the recycling habits of other art forms.
“In general I'm not bothered by this trend, particularly in the commercial arena,” he said. “It's certainly not as out of hand as the comic-book-movie reboot trend, which seems ever more foreshortened.”
There is one aspect of the film world, however, that Davenport would gladly see carry over to today’s theatregoers.
“When I was a kid, we used to see movies several times,” he recalled. “That’s what we did. That stopped being a thing. That hasn’t really stopped being a thing for musical fans. I heard from a producer on Kinky Boots, and people see that multiple times. I think this production of Spring Awakening will be just that.”