Wednesday, April 15, 2009

In My Fashion: The Unique Struggle of Revivals

This one was originally posted in December 2007, and it's as true today as it was then.

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 simple matters 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

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