Resettling the score on Broadway

                   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
                   starters.

                   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
                   last revival.

                   "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
                   there.

                   "When you focus on Oscar Hammerstein scripts, people are floored by
                   the levels of what's there," says Ted Chapin, who heads the Rodgers &
                   Hammerstein Organization.

                   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
                   for Broadway.

                   "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
                   1993.

                   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
                   Your Gun.

                   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
                   are emotional."

                   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?"
 

                    BACK to the YAGMCB page...