By David Patrick Stearns, USA TODAY
January 18, 1999
WASHINGTON — If you didn't know
better, you might think you'd wandered
into the wrong musical. Forget about the
usual opening number in Annie Get Your
Gun — it's gone, along with the chorus
that sang it. Instead, there's a cowboy
alone onstage, wistfully crooning a tune
most associated with the trumpet-voiced
Ethel Merman: There's No Business Like
Show Business. And that's just for
The eagerly awaited revival starring
Bernadette Peters, playing at the Kennedy
Center here through Sunday before
moving to Broadway Feb. 2, also has a
new ending. This wouldn't be surprising were Annie Get Your Gun not a
classic. Aren't classics — by definition — off limits to revisionists?
Not if the show contains ethnicity-belittling songs such as I'm an Indian,
Too. And not if the show's sharpshooting heroine has to lose a match
intentionally to gain a husband. And certainly not if it's just a rerun of the
"There's no reason to do (a classic show) unless you're going to do
something different," says Michael Mayer, one of Broadway's hottest
directors, who's busy revising another old favorite, You're a Good Man,
Charlie Brown. "Otherwise, you can see it at your local dinner theater
done in the usual way. Those shows are always there."
There's proof in numbers. An only slightly revised Annie Get Your Gun
starring Cathy Rigby had excellent reviews in 1993 but made little money.
Meanwhile, Cabaret — another perceived classic — has become
Broadway's hottest ticket thanks to a heavily revised production.
So if many Broadway revivals seem like new, it's because they are.
In fact, Charlie Brown, which opens on
Broadway Feb. 4, has several new songs
and even more new scenes adapted from
more recent Peanuts cartoons. It's been
through as many changes as a new
musical in an approach that treats the
original as "more than a blueprint, less
than a bible," Mayer says.
Over the next two or three years, look for
revisionist productions of Oklahoma!,
Kiss Me Kate, On a Clear Day You Can
See Forever and Finian's Rainbow —
all shows that have beloved scores, but,
as popular entertainment, weren't
expected to run more than two years,
much less outlive their authors.
While revivals used to be low-investment
enterprises based on anticipated
diminishing returns, and often looked like
bad photocopies of the original, revivals
given more thought and money can
behave like a hot new show at the box office. But shepherding a revival
into the hit zone requires the brightest talents in the business, and most of
those aren't interested unless they feel they have a free hand with material.
Says Annie director Graciela Daniele, "I'm not going to do a show in
which a woman says, 'You're better and I'm second-best' when she isn't.
We made them equals."
In less problematic instances, radical revisions are made without changing
the text, only the subtext. That's what happened with Nicholas Hytner's
Carousel, which was a huge hit five years ago, and Trevor Nunn's
Oklahoma!, which opened to rave reviews in London last summer. In
those cases, the directors discovered things that nobody guessed were
"When you focus on Oscar Hammerstein scripts, people are floored by
the levels of what's there," says Ted Chapin, who heads the Rodgers &
Some of Nunn's loftier levels derived from Oklahoma! involved the
observation that revolutions have been fought over some of Aunt Eller's
mildly populist sentiments in The Farmer and the Cowman Should Be
Friends. Director Mayer talks about the ill-tempered Lucy in You're a
Good Man, Charlie Brown as embodying "millennial angst." Anthony
Rapp, who has gone from starring in the cutting-edge Rent to playing the
title role in Charlie Brown, talks about "expressing the truth of the
moment, the painful ones as well as the goofy ones."
Some estate executors, who can be lawyers, cousins — often anything but
show folk (Chapin being an exception) — listen to such plans and gnash
their teeth in nervous silence, hoping for the best. Others insist that shows
must be done as written or not at all, which may be idealistically admirable
but appears increasingly impractical.
Some critics felt the dogged faithfulness to the original text of On the
Town was responsible for the recent Broadway production's premature
closing. A projected Kiss Me, Kate revival a few years ago, which was to
star Kevin Kline, was canceled because producers wouldn't go forward
without libretto revisions. Since then, the estate of librettists Bella and
Samuel Spewack has grown more flexible, and the show is again headed
"They are open now. I do think there's been a change," says producer
Roger Berlind. "But they know we're going to treat it properly."
Caution is understandable: A high-profile disaster can taint a property.
And many revision issues can be extremely subtle. One of Kurt Weill's
most respected but most neglected musicals, Lost in the Stars, about
South African apartheid, was rewritten and retitled after its original literary
source, Cry the Beloved Country, at Chicago's Goodman Theater in
But the Kurt Weill Foundation's enthusiasm curdled when its head, Kim
Kowalke, witnessed the results: "The score was chopped to bits. We
didn't want to penalize the theater but didn't want people to think this is
what Kurt Weill had written. So we put in a program note that was sort of
a 'truth in advertising' statement."
Estates can seem mercurial. Chapin, for example, also works with the
Irving Berlin estate and recommended against any further life for a
conceptual production of Oklahoma! (not Trevor Nunn's) in Birmingham,
Mich. But Chapin was perfectly open to something similar for Annie Get
There's a method here: The Birmingham Oklahoma! unfolded inside a
barn with the entire cast onstage all the time. "Oklahoma! is about people
discovering themselves in their youth. There's a lot of personal stuff in that
story . . . and it gave me the creeps that that story is done in front of a lot
of other people," Chapin says. "There are no rules. A lot of these decisions
Irving Berlin's daughters thought long and hard about having their father's
greatest theater score tinkered with, and even disagreed among themselves
about whether the show is really sexist. But in the end, Berlin's daughter
Mary Ellin Barrett felt secure about Annie Get Your Gun because songs
were merely reshuffled, with just a few minor ones cut: "If we felt that the
score was being violated in any way, we wouldn't go along with it."
Such workable parameters, however, don't necessarily make life easier for
the directors and producers. Instead, they open up new realms of creative
problems. The result often is that revivals that have been considered an
artistic cop-out for the sake of quick-and-dirty profits are anything but.
Says Mayer, "We've had the worst of both worlds, emotionally. When
you're doing a new show, you don't know if it's all going to work.When
you're doing a revival, you hope you're keeping close to the spirit of the
original. We have both. Am I going to be true to the original? Is the new
stuff going to work?"
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