One of the most exciting things about any Broadway season is to see what formerly produced musicals are picked up, dusted off and given a new life through a revival. Audiences eagerly anticipate seeing an old chestnut or a compelling favorite as it is shaped through news eyes with a fresh point of view. On the Town, On the Twentieth Century, The King and I and Side Show were all eagerly awaited titles of the 2014-15 season and 2015-16 has already teased and tantalized us with the prospects of Spring Awakening, Dames at Sea, Fiddler on the Roof, The Color Purple and She Loves Me.
Certain musicals have been revived in a way that a new production is not all that different from the original productions. For example: revivals of A Chorus Line and Hello, Dolly! have been similar to their original productions in design, staging and choreography. Other revivals have been given entirely reimagined productions that mine the material for a different tone, message or concept that can make an old musical feel like we are seeing it for the first time. Over the years, particular titles have shown that they easily lend themselves to this type of artful reimagining.
One musical that continues to be reimagined, again and again, is the fairy tale-inspired Into the Woods. The original Broadway production in 1987 had a classic storybook look about it with a modern sophistication and wit running through the direction and performances. Theorists and critics drew symbolic connections between Into the Woods and such metaphorical giants as the AIDS crisis and nuclear war, though composer Stephen Sondheim and book writer/director James Lapine have never confirmed intending such links. That people can make such inferences about the piece speaks to why each inception of Into the Woods is so distinctly its own. When Into the Woods was revived on Broadway in 2002, the world was just coming off of the 9/11 attacks. With Lapine directing again, the production clearly took on a tone that reflected what the United States had been through. It galvanized the audience to pull itself up by its bootstraps, fight the giants (whomever they may be) and to come together as a community. Though Into the Woods has a very distinct book that is not a mere outline where directors can easily inject their concepts, it is the themes of the piece (forgiveness, taking responsibility, the legacies we leave behind) and its fairy tale universality that make Into the Woods so easily adaptable to any point in time where society is in conflict or is coming through a crisis.
Candide has had its share of reimagining. When it first opened on Broadway in 1954, this operetta based on the classic Voltaire novella about an optimist seeking the "best of all possible worlds," was admired for its lovely score and beautiful voices. Critics, however, were generally dismissive and audiences stayed away. The production folded after 73 performances. Usually, this would mean the end for a musical. The material, however, stayed fresh in the minds of those who saw the possibilities rather than the problems. In 1973, Harold Prince directed a new production which turned Candide into a widely-praised, unconventional piece of musical theatre. The reimagining required gutting the Broadway Theatre, putting the audience on stools and bleachers and creating islands of playing areas throughout the audience, as well as major revisions to the script. Playwright Lillian Hellman, who had provided the original book for the musical, would not consent to have her material used for the revival. Hugh Wheeler was brought in, and an entirely new, Tony-winning book was fashioned. Audiences were immersed in the production as it surrounded them in every direction. Wheeler's new book better captured the wit and wisdom of Voltaire's novella and the production ran for 740 performances. In 1997, Prince once again reimagined Candide, this time for the proscenium stage. The production drew its look from the carnival and the circus, and Prince kept it moving at a clip. An emphasis was put on capturing the glory of composer Leonard Bernstein's orchestrations and the whole production was lush and opulent. It ran for 104 performances and received mixed notices, though it garnered a handful of Tony nominations. The ongoing effort to create the perfect production of has opened it up to constant reimagining with each attempt.
The works of Rodgers and Hammerstein are some of the most regularly revived musicals on Broadway. People forget how completely unconventional their musicals were when they first opened, stretching the art form of musical theatre with serious content and the integration of song and dance with the book and characters. Their musicals were so influential that, for decades, their style defined the structure and rules by which all Broadway musicals were written. The Rodgers and Hammerstein format became so commonplace that their own masterpieces were, for decades, taken for granted and often relegated to the realm of old-fashioned and overly optimistic musical theatre.
In the last two decades, Lincoln Center Theater has revived three of the big-five Rodgers and Hammerstein titles in a way that has revealed a darkness and a complexity within these musicals that were, for many, merely happy and hopeful confections that always led to a happy ending. Director Nicholas Hytner reimagined Carousel as gritty and complicated, underscoring the tension, pain and dysfunctional love experienced within an abusive relationship. The opening sequence of "The Carousel Waltz," written to open at a small traveling carnival, was turned into a set piece of enhanced storytelling. Starting at a textiles mill, Julie Jordan wove at her loom until the clock ticked away the end of her workday. She made her way to the fair with her friend Carrie Pipperidge and took in some of the attractions before embarking on her fated carousel ride. These additions allowed us to look in on Julie's mundane world and they developed her character in a way that we better understood why she would be attracted to the excitement, color and physical appeal of this imperfect midway barker who would become her abusive husband.
Bartlett Sher's production of South Pacific took this Pulitzer-Prize winning work and reignited the themes of prejudice and war so that they were not only palpable, but at the forefront of the piece where they were intended to be. The song "Carefully Taught" was now South Pacific's central anthem and, once again, a powerhouse eleven o'clock number. Sher's current revival of The King and I at Lincoln Center avoids the chirpy cheerfulness and situational comedy moments that are sometimes criticisms of productions of the show. In this imagining, Anna and King Mongkut are equally drawn to each other as people and yet repelled by how the other one conducts themselves. It is not just petulant stubbornness or cultural differences that incite their tug-of-war; it is a struggle to maintain their individual dignity while cautiously seeking mutual understanding. In both productions, it artfully depicts how two cultures can clash and draws connections to our own lack of empathy and openness in today's world climate.
What these Lincoln Center revivals have done is to tell the same stories with their original words and music, but erase any whitewashing that would lead the audience to believe that a clean, happy ending is the final intention. Reimagining Rodgers and Hammerstein and more deeply exploring their works for their inherent truthfulness, has given audiences a better appreciation of the duo's understanding of human failings, of compromise and of loss and gain. The strength and durability of their work opens their musicals up to myriad interpretations, from old-fashioned musical comedy to something more complex and thoughtful.
Musicals can also be easily reimagined when their structure is an outline that can be filled in and fleshed out by a director and/or choreographer. Two recent revivals of Stephen Schwartz musicals, Godspell and Pippin, demonstrate the elasticity of these musicals and how a new concept can create a fresh experience. Godspell, sometimes considered mired in its early 70s hippie sensibilities, was given a contemporary, fresh look in 2011 by director Daniel Goldstein that shed all of these preconceived notions. It was a Godspell for the new millennium with a pop sound and modern tone. Pippin's commedia dell'arte storytelling style was set aside by director Diane Paulus, who used the conventions of the circus for the 2013 revival. This wasn't a mere gimmick, as the circus acts were actually used to enhance storytelling and character development. Both Pippin and Godspell are written in a way that invite reimagining and it is the challenge of directors to shape the pieces with their innovations and creativity.
A revival of a musical can be an exciting thing, especially when the piece is rife with possibilities for reimagining. Whether it be strongly-written content that invites a new interpretation, or a free-form structure that affords the director a variety of possibilities, certain titles will continue to awe and delight audiences as they see the latest inception through such groundbreaking revivals. 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."