From a Gritty Annie to an Immersive, Modern-Day Les Miz: 6 Musicals That Were Drastically Re-Imagined

News   From a Gritty Annie to an Immersive, Modern-Day Les Miz: 6 Musicals That Were Drastically Re-Imagined takes a look back at some recent productions that pushed the envelope with their re-interpretations of these classic musicals. 


Les Misérables - Dallas Theater Center

Director Liesl Tommy made headlines in 2014 for her modern-dress, immersive production of the world-known and celebrated musical Les Misérables at the Dallas Theater Center. Some of the changes Tommy made included multi-racial casting, dressing the prisoners in orange jumpsuits and a set that resembled a modern-day maximum-security prison. See photos from the production here.

"The biggest challenge is managing the pressure of expectation," Tommy told "Directing Les Miz is a bit like directing a film of a comic book or graphic novel with a rabid fan base. Every casting choice and costume choice comes with a clash in the hearts and minds of the fans." Tommy said that as a child growing up in South Africa during the Apartheid era, she felt personal connections to the story and its themes of revolution. Despite the challenges of such a drastic re-imagining, the much-talked-about production received rave reviews. Read the full interview with Tommy here.

Oklahoma! - Bard SummerScape

Rodgers and Hammerstein's classic musical Oklahoma! received a makeover at Bard SummerScape, with an immersive, in-the-round staging. Directed by Daniel Fish, the production was staged in a community hall, with performers and audience members inhabiting the same space, which was designed to feel like a small town center. "For me, Oklahoma! is about the relationship between the individual and the community," commented Fish. "What people gain and what they sacrifice when they decide to form a community." Long tables, adorned with snacks, put the audience in highly intimate proximity to the story and its players, heightening that sense of community.  The songs were performed in new arrangements for a six-piece Americana band, featuring pedal steel, mandolin and banjo. 

Damon Daunno and Amber Gray in <i>Oklahoma!</i>
Damon Daunno and Amber Gray in Oklahoma! Photo by Cory Weaver

Carrie La Mirada Theatre

Carrie, the musical adaptation of Stephen King's best-selling novel of the same name, infamously played just five performances on Broadway in its 1988 production at the Virginia Theatre. After not being produced for 25 years, a limited Off-Broadway staging in 2012 revived its chances. Southern California's La Mirada Theatre debuted a re-imagined and immersive production, which enjoyed an acclaimed run and is now to set to play performances again in October at the Los Angeles Theatre. The immersive staging, helmed by Brady Schwind, puts the audience at the center of the action by transforming the theatre into the story's setting, Ewen High School. Carrie follows a relentlessly bullied teenager who uses a secret power to get horrible revenge on her tormentors. The musical features a book by Lawrence D. Cohen (screenwriter of the film adaptation), lyrics by Academy Award winner Dean Pitchford ("Fame," Footloose) and music by Academy Award winner Michael Gore ("Fame," "Terms of Endearment"). Watch a clip from the new staging here.

Carrie Photo by Jason Niedle

Rent – London

The Pulitzer and Tony-winning Broadway musical Rent was given a re-orchestrated, reworked and redesigned production in London by Kylie Minogue collaborators William Baker and Steven Anderson. The duo updated Jonathan Larson's New York-set rock musical with the intention of making it more accessible to London audiences. "Because of Jonathan Larson's untimely death at the first preview, the show has become frozen as a kind of sacred text. It looked and sounded very much of its time." Baker told Variety in 2007. "Audiences have changed since then, and I think it needed re-appraising for a London audience. " The re-imagined staging, which changed three of the central characters into English expatriates, opened the West End's Duke of York Theatre in 2007, starring Denise Van Outen and Siobhan Donaghy from British pop group The Sugarbabes. 

Denise Van Outen in <i>Rent</i>
Denise Van Outen in Rent

AnnieTrinity Rep

Not all re-interpretations are well received, particularly if the original creators are still alive and well. Such was the case with Trinity Rep's 2003 revival of Annie, the well-known Depression-era story of the New York orphan girl who finds a home with a millionaire. Except in this re-imagined staging, helmed by Amanda Dehnert, Annie's newfound happy home turns out to be a dream and she sadly finds herself back in the orphanage. Dehnert's mission was to emphasize the poverty experienced during the period as well as the hardships caused by the Hoover administration. This was felt from the show's opening, which featured a stage populated by homeless people, dancing to a mournful version of "Tomorrow." Annie lyricist Martin Charnin attended a performance and was not impressed by the re-interpretation of the ending and asked that it be changed to better reflect the "true spirit of the show."

“They told me they thought Annie was a classic, like Shakespeare, so they could re-interpret it,” Charnin told the NY Post during the show's run. "I told them there’s one difference: Shakespeare is dead; I’m not." In response, Denhert admitted that she may have taken too many liberties with the story and the dream ending was dropped from the production. 

La Boheme – Broadway

While Puccini's La Boheme is an opera, Baz Lurhmann's innovative 1990 staging deserves an honorable mention. The "Great Gatsby" director propelled the 1846 opera a century ahead in time, setting it in Paris in the 1950's – a time of artistic experimentation and other post World War II developments. Luhrmann's goal was to re-set the drama in a bohemia that was more accessible to contemporary audiences. "For all the talk that this is another wacky Baz Luhrmann groovy show, all decisions are based on revelation of character, revelation of plot," Luhrmann told in 2002, when the show was produced on Broadway following two revivals in Australia.  His designer-wife and longtime collaborator Catherine Martin also helped with authentically re-creating the feel. "We spent a lot of time in Paris, living the bohemian life and researching all different periods of bohemia, and found that '57 was a good social-economic match [with the 1840s bohemian life]."
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