This post was originally published on Literature’s Next Frontier on March 21, 2008.
I have been pondering lately the situation of Revival Theater here in America and more specifically on Broadway. I myself have spent time working for a not-for-profit theater company that focused on revivals and have grown up with the idea that such endeavors are beneficial for the cultural growth of our community. I still believe in that today but I would like to consider with such an idea the reality of the amount of revive-able theater there is. So thinking about these two aspects, first the benefits of having older shows revived and second the amount of shows we can revive, I have come to consider the process in choosing what to revive when. This process is not something I’ve put much thought to in the past. When Cabaret opened a few years back I thought it was phenomenal. I loved it to the extent that I saw it five times before it closed. Never once though did I think about why Roundabout was putting it on now. What had compelled them to pick this production for this date? Perhaps they themselves didn’t have an answer for that but I find that hard to believe.
So I started there, thinking about these various aspects of revival culture and have begun to formulate some conclusions, obviously these conclusions are based around examples, recent ones that I had the good fortune to see last week. In the two examples I pondered the question of how one should pick what production to revive when.
Let me start with the bad case, South Pacific which is currently in preview at Lincoln Center in New York. The show is a classic work of theater and this current production stars Kelli O’Hara a contemporary master of theatrical performance. And yet I cite this as a bad case of theatrical revival. My parents, who I saw the show with, will cite the stage direction as the primary reason for disappointment. I agree with them but I found yet another problem. For me I felt that what I had seen was in essence and in form, a rerun. The idea disturbed me, have we forced theater into such a commercial atmosphere that what is being produced now is only the garbage we know was once successful? WHERE IS THE RISK! If I wanted to see the South Pacific from the 50s I would have rented the movie!
Now let me back up for a second here and clarify a few things. I do not mean to say that the show should have been altered to be set in a modern time, no that is not the essence of reviving a show. Rather the script needs to be looked at, the morals of the story evaluated and the director and crew need to ask themselves what their vision is. That is fundamental with reviving, a new vision, a new interpretation, a new show. If a director cannot discover some new vision in the work he is charged with reviving, than perhaps he should not be reviving it. Ultimately what I am suggesting is that revivals are not revivals but are productions of their own, that’s why we award the best a Tony each year. These are unique creative works that are both tied to the original as well as the contemporary culture to which they are presented.
This brings me to the second show, a show I believe greatly reflects the continued trends in our culture over how to deal with art and industry. Sunday in the Park with George, a wonderful Sondheim production which is currently being revived at Studio 54 by the Roundabout Theatre Company. Now first I am aware that this production is much more modern in its original than South Pacific and therefore lends itself better to being revised. However the themes of the original show are not all that is inspiring and encouraging about the current revival. This particular production utilized technology in a truly enhancing way. This new approach allowed for the production itself to do what the music and action already have mastered, create. When revived again, I can promise you that this show will not look like it does for the way in which this director has envisioned the story is unique, it is not a shadow of yesteryear as seen in South Pacific.
With that being said I’ll end with my opinion and hope it fosters a discussion. Revivals are unique, they are neither new productions nor reruns of old productions, they are a hybrid, a truly unique formula for producing a show that needs to be treated accordingly. In that treatment of such works the question of why must be easily answered by the audience. It is vision and relevance that pick the shows for revision, not original popularity. I love revivals, I love how they can connect today with yesterday by both honoring the history of theater while adding to it. In this respect South Pacific does not add to the culture of theater, it only mimics it. But seeing how it has already received much attention I may be wrong in how America wants to use the idea of revivals. Perhaps all we really want is mimicry. After all thousands perhaps millions more flock to museums than galleries, are we really so tied up in glorifying our past that we forget we have a present?
That is all,