Monday, December 10, 2007

In My Fashion: The Unique Struggle of Revivals

The Crucible is one of my favorite plays, tied with A Raisin in the Sun as tops on my list. I was assigned to read it as part of a high school America literature class, and it instantly gripped me by the transcendent elements of the story; I knew people in my own life who would have easily found themselves caught up in the hysteria. Finishing the play became painful. I wanted to know the ending but dreaded reaching it, knowing that there was no way it could possibly arrive at a happy conclusion.

I recently watched parts of the Nicholas Hytner film version, which I have yet to see in its entirety. I loved the play so much that, even though I had never seen it on stage, when the movie came out, I didn’t see it. I had envisioned it so vividly all the times I read it, I couldn’t face the changes in the movie. I even read Arthur Miller’s screenplay, published at the time of the movie’s release, while never seeing the movie.

For me, the idea of showing the events in the forest—one of the scenes from the movie I’ve never watched—spoils the mystique of what actually happened. In the original play, the audience finds out about it piecemeal, like good exposition should be given, but the result is an element of surprise as the reader/audience learns about it, all shadowed by the darkness of the unknown, allowing the imagination to take over from the dialogue.

What I have seen of it, I have also struggled with the difference between the images cultivated in my head by multiple readings and those of Hytner. I know that Arthur Miller thought Daniel Day-Lewis to be ideal for John Proctor, but not only did he not look the part to me, he never fully embodied my vision of the man, though I do like the choices of Winona Ryder and Joan Allen as Abigail Williams and Elizabeth Proctor.

But this latter point is the nature of a revival. Yeah, this was a film adaptation, but the concept is the same. A new work arrives onstage without any opinion or bias shaping its reception. There is no Pearl Bailey rendition of “I’m Here” to haunt LaChanze and no Robert Morse or Bonnie Scott to influence our hearing of “If I Told You.” In thirty years, should The Color Purple or The Wedding Singer be revived, that’s exactly what the future generation of actors will need to face.

It seems to me that many of the complaints I hear about revivals are a simple matter of choices. The choices the director made in comparison to the choices someone on a message board would make. I had heard “Conga!” from Wonderful Town probably two-hundred times before the Donna Murphy revival opened. When they performed the song on The Today Show, I had envisioned the staging in my head so many times, it was slightly disappointing. It wasn’t that Kathleen Marshall didn’t so a fantastic job, because she did; it was that I had my own picture formed.

Truth be known, the vision in my head was no more correct than Kathleen Marshall’s. I would not be so presumptuous to even suggest that I could direct anything a fraction as well as Ms. Marshall does. I had simply formed my own stage pictures from the process of listening.

Unfortunately, many people take their choice preferences, formed by prior productions, years of listening to original recordings, and their own imaginations, and use that as a reason for discouraging the new production of an existing work. If a libretto or play is rich enough, it will withstand and welcome the interpretation of directors, readers, and audiences (though if enough alterations are made to book or songs, that’s another matter entirely). It boils down to choices, choices that, many times, are really just differences of opinion.

That is not to say that every revival is great or that one shouldn’t make criticism; however, I think it is important to analyze what is motivating that criticism. For many plays and musicals, the production requires the director to make a series of interpretive choices. It also requires the actors to do the same. Sometimes, these choices are a matter of preference. One preference doesn’t trump another; it’s all a matter of personal taste.

the Broadway Mouth
December 10, 2007


Kirby said...

Again, very well said. The same could be said of film remakes and even sequels to an extent.

Just as many people are likely to say, knee-jerk, that a revival will "not live up to the original" as do a remake or sequel or even a film version of a stage work.

Frankly, it gets tiring and iritating to hear so much negativity, I tend to avoid such discussions just to remain sain.

- kch

Brian said...

As a rookie director, I've been watching movie adaptations of my favorite plays and musicals and comparing them to the scripts I've read, the images I had in my mind.

For example, I recently read the script of Sweeney Todd, and then I saw the movie just yesterday. The differences between what I saw in my mind and what I saw on screen weren't THAT huge, but it was enough to turn me off to certain aspects of the movie.

I wrote a blog review of Sweeney Todd which sort of explains my issues with it. You can check it out at The Director Sector. Go check out the movie and let me know what you think.

The hardest part, I think, is that when a director does a revival or adapts a story, there are changes that must be made. I'm currently in the process of developing concepts for some popular plays that have been done over and over and over again (A Raisin in the Sun, for one). The biggest problem I'm facing is that I have to take a play that's been almost overdone and make it fresh again -- that is, somehow come up with a new approach to it that has't been done before.

Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. Like you said, it's not that some versions are terrible, they're just different than what we expect, and that makes all the difference.