Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Revivals and Revisals: Paint Your Wagon Any Color You Want

Most recently, there has been some talk of a new production of Paint Your Wagon in which the story has apparently been rewritten to remove the polygamy elements while keeping the characters and basic elements of the original story.

I love my Paint Your Wagon CD. There are so many wonderful Lerner and Lowe songs (I can’t get enough of Olga San Juan’s “How Can I Wait?”), but when I read the libretto a couple years ago, it didn’t quite leave me with the same feeling.

Very few of the revivals to hit Broadway do so without some alteration. In Kiss Me, Kate, John Guare was tapped to make some ghost alterations to the Spewack’s original book, including making major changes to the Ron Holgate character as well as interpolating “From This Moment On” from another Porter show. According to Donna Murphy, there were some nips and tucks to Wonderful Town, while the producers of Bells are Ringing brought in Comden and Green to make some lyrics changes. In addition to her usual new orchestrations to open up shows for more dance, Susan Stroman switched around the order of things for The Music Man. Trevor Nunn got the Rodgers and Hammerstein organization to allow for some changes to Oklahoma!, and The Sound of Music revival added the two songs from the film.

Throughout Ken Bloom and Frank Vlastnik’s Broadway Musicals: The Greatest Shows of All Time, Bloom and Vlastnik make a case for keeping classic musicals just as they are, no re-writes, no updates, no edits. For a long time after reading this book for the first time, I felt strongly about that.

But now, I’m honestly torn.

Broadway musicals, in my mind, are like the plays of Tennessee Williams, the novels of Willa Cather, the short stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne. You don’t mess with great pieces of literature. They act as the signature of the writers, and they should be enjoyed and studied without alteration.

But then the truth is that musicals are collaborative pieces. It’s not just Jule Styne and Leo Robin’s songs, it’s also Joseph Fields and Anita Loos’ book, not to mention John C. Wilson’s direction which no doubt guided the whole effort, plus Agnes DeMille’s choreography. Without any one of those pieces, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes could have become a very different piece.

What changed my mind about Bloom and Vlastnik’s assertions was The Boy Friend. I saw the Julie Andrews tour. I was very excited to see it. Because Julie Andrews was on the CD, I had checked it out of the library several times in high school and copied three of the best songs onto a mix tape. Once I got into Broadway musicals, I bought the CD.

There are a lot of fun songs in that show, and from reading the plot synopsis in the liner notes, I had imagined it to be a funny and romantic show along the lines of Guys and Dolls. I even mentioned this to a friend of mine as a possible show I could direct when I was directing high school plays. She had seen the show and said, “I saw that at a high school once, and there was just nothing to it.” I figured she had just seen a dopey production.

Nope. Nope, she didn’t.

I know the show has fans, but when I finally saw it in production, whatever charms it had on the 1950s audience intimately familiar with the 1920s shows to which it was a valentine, was completely lost to the 2000s me. The plot is paper thin and the characters ½-dimensional.

A show simply must appeal to a modern audience. Theatre is not a museum. So, if that show contains sexist or racial caricatures no longer acceptable or jokes and plotting that wouldn’t connect with a modern audience, then the show needs to either be shelved or altered.

The problem is either when the music is so good or the book is so good except for “that one element” (or is great in summary but not in execution). One could argue that these are the exact reasons why Encores or Reprise exists, to showcase great music from shows that don’t get much play anymore, usually because of out-dated or clunky books.

However, there are millions upon millions of people without access to Encores or Reprise, yours truly being one of them. In its short run, more people saw the Sweet Charity revival (myself included) than could have ever have seen it in an Encores or Reprise production.

That is not to say that all changes are necessary. There is a big difference when “I’m an Indian Too” is excised because it requires Native American stereotypes that will turn off the wealthy, well-educated audience that supports Broadway, and when new songs are inserted in The Pajama Game for no apparent reason.

Honestly, there are many changes made for artistic interpretation of the director. That’s where I have issues. Nobody takes a great modern play, like The Crucible, and begins to add re-writes and switch things around because of their own artistic interpretation. This classic piece of literature, particularly now that Arthur Miller has died, is considered “locked.” Tennessee Williams isn’t around to makes alterations to Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, so nobody else will be allowed to. The director works to interpret what the playwright has given him or her. Like all great literature, it still leaves room for interpretation—is Brick gay or is he straight?—but it does so within the intents of the playwright.

I think of the Trevor Nunn Oklahoma! preserved so beautifully on DVD. As far as I can tell, the changes to that production were essentially interpretative changes—Trevor Nunn saying, “If I had originally directed this, here’s what I would have done.” But, I would say, “You didn’t, and you are compromising the playwrights’ intentions.”

That is really one of the key problems with much of the criticism on message boards. The harshness often comes not from “Where did this production go wrong” as much as “Here’s what I would have done, which is obviously infinitely better.” The problem arises when it results in the compromising of great American works of art.

But then you do have a problem when the shows become museum pieces. Should no one ever hear those great Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh Wildcat songs live because the libretto is reportedly weak?

A good example of this is with Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman’s Over Here!, which has a libretto by Will Holt. If you read the synopsis in the liner notes, the show sounds like tons of fun. However, if you read the libretto—published by Samuel French, so you can actually order it and read it—the show is written to the people who lived during World War II. It has a “remember the good old days” aura about it.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t remember the good old days. The good old days to me are Saved by the Bell. And, I don’t think there are tons of people who remember those good old days left to fill a theatre for a long run.

It would be my dream to write a modern musical comedy libretto for Over Here! using the old songs (and probably needing a few more added) to make it palatable for modern audiences, allowing audience to hear that great music again.

Did I mention I would love to see Paint Your Wagon on stage in an entertaining form?

But there I go contradicting myself. Bad, bad Broadway Mouth.

In the end, it’s all about money. Who wants it and who is willing to sacrifice grandpa’s work to get more of it? If I ever get a show or eight on Broadway, I hope to God my grandchildren aren’t bastardizing my work to send their children through college. But then, I also hope I write shows that are timeless enough to survive decades untouched.

the Broadway Mouth
September 26, 2007


Kirby: said...

Great piece, as always.

Just a note: "From This Moment On" was in the movie version of "Kiss Me Kate".

Broadway Blog said...


I actually have tried to block out the film adapation of KISS ME, KATE as much as possible and forgot that the song was there. But I still think it came from another Porter show first.

I'm going to try to look it up in one of my theatre books when I'm near them and remember.