Rewrite a Classic Musical? Whatever Works Goes

Sunday, January 24, 1999
Copyright 1999 The New York Times

  NEW YORK -- With all the usual madcap agony of making theater, they are trying to fix another big-budget musical out of town. Songs that fall flat are rejected. Characters that don't click are re-thought. The running order of numbers is rejiggered, the bad jokes are rewritten, the ethnic stereotypes that crept in are removed, the bumps in the plot repaved.

  The out-of-town notices, especially in The Washington Post, add to the jittery sense of work to be done: while kind to the star, they are less than enthusiastic about the $6 million production. "We can't afford this kind of review when we get to New York," says one concerned participant.

  The birth of a new musical: it's all so "Act One," all so invigorating. Hey, hold on a sec. Did I say new?

  The show in question is "Annie Get Your Gun," and while the frantic pre-Broadway preparations, with Bernadette Peters as pistol-packin' Annie Oakley, are indeed occurring in 1999, the date on the musical's copyright is 1946.

  Although it was a critical and popular success in the '40s, running on Broadway for 1,147 performances, the show, with music and lyrics by Irving Berlin and book by Herbert and Dorothy Fields, has long been considered unrevivable, in large part because of its outdated portrayal of Indians, starting with a deadpan chief who utters things like, "Sitting Bull go to see Great White Father about Indian Territory."

  The solution that the show's producers, Fran and Barry Weissler, came up with for "Annie Get Your Gun," which begins previews Feb. 2 at the Marquis Theater on Broadway, is one that has become increasingly common in musical theater: wholesale renovation; treating the original as a shabby apartment with unnecessary clutter and a lot of potential.

  Annie, get your makeover. A museum curator might be drawn and quartered for suggesting the application to a Jackson Pollock of a few more squiggly lines. An architect might have his drafting board confiscated for trying to replace the smoky windows of the Seagram Building with mirrored glass. Even the practice of bowdlerizing Shakespeare and other writers of classic plays and operas, so prevalent in the 18th and 19th centuries, seems positively quaint these days.

  But in musical theater, tinkering with -- even shouting over -- the voices of the originators is not only acceptable, it's expected. In the name of what "works," whether that refers to a musical's structural logic, believability of character, duration of performance or sensitivity to the feelings of audience members of every persuasion, producers and directors, writers and orchestrators are blue-penciling old scripts and scores as never before.

  The days of the revival-as-museum piece, thankfully, have receded; one has only to compare the gigantic yawn that greeted Harold Prince's stultifying 1987 remounting of his original production of "Cabaret," with the euphoria surrounding Sam Mendes' current down-and-dirty "Cabaret" at Studio 54, to understand that an immense shift has occurred in what the public responds to.

  The era of nostalgia, ushered in nearly 30 years ago by the Broadway revival of "No, No Nanette" and productions by the Goodspeed Opera House like "Very Good Eddie," reigns no more. When today's audiences pay to gaze at the past, they want a lot more than golden memories; they want to feel as if a tried-and-true form speaks to the contemporary world.

  The musical theater, though, has never responded particularly well to the sort of radical updating popularized in stagings of operas by directors like Peter Sellars, who leave the classic texts untouched but add modernist commentary by modifying time and place and adding pop-cultural flourishes.

  Musicals -- perhaps because they are essentially period pieces tied more closely to the pop music and cultural and commercial trends of a given moment -- usually do not prove as elastic.

  Theodore Chapin, president of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization, which strictly monitors every new production it sanctions, had an epiphany earlier in his tenure, when he attended a production of "South Pacific" at New York University, staged by the experimental director Anne Bogart.

  "She set it in a rehabilitation ward," Chapin said; the show was performed by actors playing emotionally disturbed war veterans, as a kind of therapy. He recalls being told that the text was not altered, and while he found it interesting, he thought it a lot less resonant than what the work's original creators had put onstage. "It was weird, it was wrongheaded, it was fascinating," Chapin said. "What it told me was how strong this material truly was."

  Still, it's clear that talented theater artists can bring out new colors in works previously seen as bland and worn-out: witness the glowing reviews for Trevor Nunn's darker (and not rewritten) "Oklahoma!" for the Royal National Theater.

  But the real issue is the validity of overtly invasive procedures on the actual texts, verbal or musical, that remold certain aspects of old musicals to contemporary taste. How much can you alter "Annie Get Your Gun" before it is no longer "Annie Get Your Gun"? Does a politically corrected Indian character make it a better musical, or simply more palatable to a wider audience? Is the process of reconfiguration a refinement or a whitewash?

  The books of many older musicals are clunky and cliched -- which sometimes is their charm. But the process of revising them most commonly means fiddling with those texts, which in the early days of the modern musical were often little more than primitive devices to fill the space between songs.

  As theater historian and critic Ethan Mordden notes in his multi-volume study of 20th-century musical theater, sophisticated musical plays like "My Fair Lady" and "Gypsy," with fully integrated books, did not come into their own until the 1950s. (To this day, creating a strong book remains one of the musical theater's most persistent problems.)

  This season, four major musical revivals on Broadway -- "Little Me," "Peter Pan," "Annie Get Your Gun" and "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown" -- were or are being reworked to some considerable degree, ranging from the new material Neil Simon handed in for his own original book for the 1962 "Little Me," to the overhaul the director Michael Mayer has engineered for "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown." The sweetly episodic 1967 musical based on the "Peanuts" comic strip by Charles Schulz opens at the Ambassador Theater on Feb. 4. (The fifth, "On the Town," which closed last Sunday, left the period book more or less intact, but could never overcome another fundamental problem, integrating the choreography with Leonard Bernstein's lush score in a meaningful way.

  "Basically, it's a new book," Peter Stone said of "Annie Get Your Gun." The veteran librettist, with credits stretching from "1776" to "Titanic," was hired to bring the structure and sensibility of the musical into line with shows of the late 1990s.

  The score has changed, too. Not only have numbers been added and others reshuffled -- "There's No Business Like Show Business" now opens the show -- but some Berlin standards deemed unsuitable, like "I'm an Indian, Too" ("Just like Battle-Ax/ Hatchet-Face, Eagle-Nose/ Like those Indians/ I'm an Indian, too"), have been subtracted entirely. And now it's a deliberate put-on when Sitting Bull sound 'em like this.

  Changes can be as cosmetic as those in the current revival of "The Sound of Music," in which songs from the movie adaptation have been added to the stage production. Other shows are compilations of a musical's previous incarnations, like Prince's well-received "Show Boat," or are reconstituted songbooks ("Crazy for You"), or a patchwork interpolation from assorted projects by a songwriting team (Rodgers and Hammerstein's "State Fair").

  Not every revival involves rewrites: in the hands of a good director, a sublime classic like "Guys and Dolls" or "Carousel" almost seems to reinvent itself, with nary a change in punctuation. But revising has become so commonplace that the books of lesser musicals, even those by established writers, have come to be treated as if they were rough drafts.

  Mayer, whose production of "A View From the Bridge" by Arthur Miller won the Tony Award for best play revival last June, said that a show like "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown," originally produced in the more intimate surroundings of off-Broadway, needed pumping up.

  "When I went back and listened to it and read it again, I realized pretty quickly I would have to make changes," he said. "I wanted a fresh, contemporary feel. Otherwise, it would have been hard for me to do. This way, incorporating a new kind of texture, a whole new physical production, injects the audience into that world freshly." As a result, there is a new opening, two new songs (by a new songwriter, Andrew Lippa) and even a major new character (Charlie Brown's little sister, Sally).

  Not too long ago, first-rank theater people like Mayer might have looked on revival duty as mop-up work. But with recent successes, like Nicholas Hytner's beautiful and brooding "Carousel" for Lincoln Center Theater and Jerry Zaks' effervescent "Guys and Dolls," the theater elite is flocking to the archives. Nunn's new "Oklahoma!" is a runaway smash in London and due on Broadway next season. The playwright David Henry Hwang ("M. Butterfly") is working on a new version of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Flower Drum Song"; Terrence McNally (who wrote the libretto for the musical "Ragtime") has a new book for "Pal Joey" in the works, and Christopher Durang ("Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You") has written a new adaptation of the 1937 "Babes in Arms."

  The race to yesterday by these major playwrights is a signal, perhaps, of a mature genre with more glory in its past than in its future. It would be foolish to pronounce the talent and energy involved in what amount to second-generation creations not worth the trouble. Still, how much license to alter history makes sense? And what gets lost in the process?

  One of the more predictable by-products of the revision craze is a kind of purging of material involving racial and sexual stereotypes, an ethnic cleansing, if you will, of an earlier era's biases. As with "Annie Get Your Gun," for example, the director of the recent "Peter Pan," Glenn Casale, found the nonsensical Indian dialogue objectionable in the "Ugg-a-Wugg" number and excised most of it.

  Casale, in an interview, also said he was put off by the idea of Tiger Lily and her followers traversing Neverland in search of Lost Boys' scalps. Instead, he decided to emphasize the agrarian culture of the Indians; in his production, they could be seen traveling this way and that on the stage, bearing fruits of the harvest.

  This type of political correction is not rare in revivals these days. In "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown," Mayer said, he cut a number of "dated" remarks, including one by Lucy about becoming a housewife. "I couldn't live with that," he explained. Even long-running shows that are holdovers from earlier eras are susceptible.

  At a recent performance of "The Fantasticks," which has been playing on Sullivan Street in Greenwich Village since 1960, I was surprised to find that the words to one of the numbers had been changed.

  The song, "It Depends on What You Pay," is a list song detailing the many different styles in which the musical's romantic narrator, El Gallo, will, for a price, stage the kidnaping of the young heroine. The word he uses over and over to describe his efforts is "rape," which is no longer taken to mean anything but a violent crime. The lyric, as a result, has been modified: wherever possible, "abduction" has been shoehorned into the number.

  The good news here is that as more first-string talent becomes intrigued by what can be reshaped, musicals once considered too much trouble are coming off the shelves. Producer Rodger Hess hopes to bring the 1947 "Finian's Rainbow," to Broadway in early 2000. The tricky plot device in the musical, by Burton Lane, E.Y. Harburg and Fred Saidy, involves a commentary on prejudice: a racist Southern senator magically is transformed into a black man. In an effort to determine what in the show might offend black audiences today, Hess said, he retained actor Ossie Davis as a consultant.

  Nothing on stage is as perishable as topicality, and what one generation views as cutting edge becomes the next generation's tired convention. That is why many of these retooled productions will probably end up being revised, too.

  In the 1950s, Richard Rodgers commissioned a revised version of "Babes in Arms," the 1937 musical he had written with Lorenz Hart; today, the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization catalog offers both versions to potential producers. (The Encores musical concert series at City Center begins its new season next month with the original "Babes.")

  It is safe to say that the creators of many of these old shows would probably chafe at some of the tinkering with their work. Just run the idea by Stone, who gets the credit, "as revised by" in the ads for the new "Annie Get Your Gun," and who won a Tony for his book for the current Broadway musical "Titanic."

  When the possibility was raised with him that some producer in the year 2050 might ask a writer to massage portions of "Titanic," he expressed skepticism. "It's not just a setup for songs," he said of his handiwork. "I like to think it's a play."

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