"Revisals" Have Taken Over Broadway!

Categories: Theater

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This year the message has been sent out along the Rialto:

Don't bring back a show as is!

Fix it, tweak it, and make it brand spanking new to keep it relevant.

Make it better!

After all, Godspell came back with all new jokes about Steve Jobs, Donald Trump, and Lindsay Lohan, and I actually thought that was fine since the show is a dizzying grab bag of shtick in the first place.

On a Clear Day You Can See Forever has been revised so that the female therapy patient is now a gay man who used to be a woman. The male analyst falls in love with the past-life lady and in turn the gay man falls in love with the male analyst. This is for those who thought the original plot was too simple (though I welcome any gay infusion, even if the Times said this particular revisal was like a day spent in an MRI).

And coming any minute now, Porgy and Bess made some changes the director assured us George Gershwin would have adored, but they wound up restoring the original ending, perhaps sensing that the authors knew what they were doing after all. Whatever the result, it's become a must-see because of the talent involved -- and the curiosity factor! I bet even Sondheim buys a ticket.

Whether changes are really called for in a classic musical can only be judged on a case-by-case basis, partly depending on whether the authors are alive and willing to have their work tampered with, without a gun to their head.

Still, I'd just like to see one show revived the way it was written. It would show such wonderful faith!

But not Pippin. That one needs work.



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15 comments
terrible show
terrible show

I just adore Harry Connick but the show was so awful I wish I left in intermission. Great cast bad revival. Oy, it was painful!

e jerry powell
e jerry powell

Bite your tongue.  I never got to see the original Fosse Pippin.  I wasn't but eight years old at the time, but still...

Nonplussed
Nonplussed

I blame all those straight people, they're creeping in and standards are definitely dropping, mark my words, it's the beginning of the end.

Bwaybill
Bwaybill

Well, a gay guy directed On a Clear Day, which added a gay character, so you can't really blame the straights.

Ynnocence
Ynnocence

Whew, for a while there I thought you were going to report that in Porgy and Bess they decided to cast Caucasians. Not that there's anything wrong with that.... Well OK there is.

Vodkastinger
Vodkastinger

2 outta the three shows listed are GOD (spell) awful anyways.

Gregorama
Gregorama

Totally agree with you.  And whoever said the line "like a day spent in an MRI" deserves the Pulitzer!  And since you reference Stephen Sondheim, now seems like a good time to look at his NY Times "Letter to the Editor," from this past August, which is already widely talked about as a mini-masterpiece of barely-suppressed rage.  I say "amen" to that, Mr. Sondheim:

 The article by Mr. Healy about the coming revival of “Porgy and Bess” is dismaying on many levels. To begin with, the title of the show is now “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess.” I assume that’s in case anyone was worried it was the Rodgers and Hart “Porgy and Bess” that was coming to town. But what happened to DuBose Heyward? Most of the lyrics (and all of the good ones) are his alone (“Summertime,” “My Man’s Gone Now”) or co-written with Ira Gershwin (“Bess, You Is My Woman Now”). If this billing is at the insistence of the Gershwin estate, they should be ashamed of themselves. If it’s the producers’ idea, it’s just dumb. More dismaying is the disdain that Diane Paulus, Audra McDonald and Suzan-Lori Parks feel toward the opera itself.

Ms. Paulus says that in the opera you don’t get to know the characters as people. Putting it kindly, that’s willful ignorance. These characters are as vivid as any ever created for the musical theater, as has been proved over and over in productions that may have cut some dialogue and musical passages but didn’t rewrite and distort them.

What Ms. Paulus wants, and has ordered, are back stories for the characters. For example she (or, rather, Ms. Parks) is supplying Porgy with dialogue that will explain how he became crippled. She fails to recognize that Porgy, Bess, Crown, Sportin’ Life and the rest are archetypes and intended to be larger than life and that filling in “realistic” details is likely to reduce them to line drawings. It makes you speculate about what would happen if she ever got her hands on “Tosca” and ‘Don Giovanni.” How would we get to know them? Ms. Paulus would probably want to add an aria or two to explain how Tosca got to be a star, and she would certainly want some additional material about Don Giovanni’s unhappy childhood to explain what made him such an unconscionable lecher.

Then there is Ms. Paulus’s condescension toward the audience. She says, “I’m sorry, but to ask an audience these days to invest three hours in a show requires your heroine be an understandable and fully rounded character.” I don’t know what she’s sorry about, but I’m glad she can speak for all of us restless theatergoers. If she doesn’t understand Bess and feels she has to “excavate” the show, she clearly thinks it’s a ruin, so why is she doing it? I’m sorry, but could the problem be her lack of understanding, not Heyward’s?

She is joined heartily in this sentiment by Ms. McDonald, who says that Bess is “often more of a plot device than a full-blooded character.” Often? Meaning sometimes she’s full-blooded and other times not? She’s always full-blooded when she’s acted full-bloodedly, as she was by, among others, Clamma Dale and Leontyne Price. Ms. McDonald goes on to say, “The opera has the makings of a great love story … that I think we’re bringing to life.” Wow, who’d have thought there was a love story hiding in “Porgy and Bess” that just needed a group of visionaries to bring it out?

Among the ways in which Ms. Parks defends the excavation work is this: “I wanted to flesh out the two main characters so that they are not cardboard cutout characters” and goes on to say, “I think that’s what George Gershwin wanted, and if he had lived longer he would have gone back to the story of ‘Porgy and Bess’ and made changes, including the ending.”

It’s reassuring that Ms. Parks has a direct pipeline to Gershwin and is just carrying out his work for him, and that she thinks he would have taken one of the most moving moments in musical theater history — Porgy’s demand, “Bring my goat!” — and thrown it out. Ms. Parks (or Ms. Paulus) has taken away Porgy’s goat cart in favor of a cane. So now he can demand, “Bring my cane!” Perhaps someone will bring him a straw hat too, so he can buck-and-wing his way to New York.

Or perhaps in order to have her happy ending, she’ll have Bess turn around when she gets as far as Philadelphia and return to Catfish Row in time for the finale, thus saving Porgy the trouble of his heroic journey to New York. It will kill “I’m on My Way,” but who cares?

Ms. McDonald immediately dismisses any possible criticism by labeling anyone who might have objections to what Ms. Paulus and her colleagues are doing as “Gershwin purists” — clearly a group, all of whom think alike, and we all know what a “purist” is, don’t we? An inflexible, academic reactionary fuddy-duddy who lacks the imagination to see beyond the author’s intentions, who doesn’t recognize all “the holes and issues” that Ms. Paulus and Ms. McDonald and Suzan-Lori Parks do. Never fear, though. They confidently claim that they know how to fix this dreadfully flawed work.

I can hear the outraged cries now about stifling creativity and discouraging directors who want to reinterpret plays and musicals in order to bring “fresh perspectives,” as they are wont to say, but there is a difference between reinterpretation and wholesale rewriting. Nor am I judging this production in advance, only the attitude of its creators toward the piece and the audience. Perhaps it will be wonderful. Certainly I can think of no better Porgy than Norm Lewis nor a better Bess than Audra McDonald, whose voice is one of the glories of the American theater. Perhaps Ms. Paulus and company will have earned their arrogance.

Which brings me back to my opening point. In the interest of truth in advertising, let it not be called “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess,” nor even “The Gershwin-Heyward Porgy and Bess.” Advertise it honestly as “Diane Paulus’s Porgy and Bess.” And the hell with the real one.

Melinda9
Melinda9

I wasn't following any of this so some of your points come as a shock. The thing about the 'Gershwin purists' especially - as if George and Ira Gershwin and Dubose Heyward were unsophisticated hicks. 'This opera has the makings of a great love story'? The beauty of the music makes the circumstances of the very human and damaged characters all the more poignant. That's what opera's all about. It's like doing a production of Madama Butterfly and saying 'I don't like how CioCio San is such a doormat - let's empower her and pump up the love story. Maybe have her have a bitch fight with Kate Pinkerton, and then decide not to kill herself.She can open the best little whorehouse in Nagasaki.' Sad - people who can't make anything beautiful of their own, take other people's work, and bring it down to their own level. Their level being creating and marketing tourist bait.

MSpeer
MSpeer

I agree with you, Michael! Well said. 

Southern Dave
Southern Dave

I can't wait for the "My Fair Lady" in Ebonics!

mjm
mjm

"And coming any minute now, Porgy and Bess made some changes the director assured us George Gershwin would have adored"

more like Ira Gershwin's widow Leonore. never more, never more...

Patches
Patches

Unfortunately, if the authors are dead, the estate can speak for them, and the estate usually wants to approve any possible "revisal" because it means more moolah flowing in.

Sad.

Bwaybill
Bwaybill

I'm so with you. Can't they just do a show the way it was written? Evita is no masterpiece but I still hope they don't try to jazz it up in some way.

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