NEW YORK — The challenge of reviving classic American musicals - and making them appealing to new generations and modern-day audiences - is proving to be almost as daunting as staging new shows, say producers, playwrights, and other top theater professionals.
The successes and failures of these new-old musicals are in even sharper relief these days as the number of major revivals being produced on Broadway in recent years has equaled or exceeded the new musicals presented in any one season.
"With an old show you have two strikes against you from the very start," says veteran Broadway producer and theater owner Stewart Lane. "People say 'Oh, I've seen that before and loved it - and don't want to see anything different!' Or 'That old chestnut, who wants to see that again. I want something new!' "
In fact, his comments echo what playwright Peter Stone says about the challenge of rewriting the "book" or story line of Irving Berlin's 1946 musical, "Annie Get Your Gun," which opened on Broadway last week.
"I truly expect some people to say, 'Why in heaven's name did they tinker with such a wonderful old show?' " Mr. Stone said in an interview.
'Cabaret,' 'Chicago' tweaked
While there doesn't appear to be any one formula for successfully rejigging an old show, experts point to one basic key: Revise the show's entire subtext rather than just alter its story line or rearrange the music.
For example, the hit revivals "Chicago," which opened in November 1996, and "Cabaret," which opened early last year, were radically reconceived from the way they were first presented on the Great White Way.
In rethinking "Cabaret," director Sam Mendes emphasized the show's darker political and sexual elements. It won critical acclaim and, last June, a Tony Award for best musical revival.
The device of presenting "Chicago" - considered only a modest hit when it first opened in the 1970s - in a concert format with the orchestra on stage helped turn it into a mega hit, with several different companies now playing in the United States and in Europe.
Likewise, the husband-and-wife producing team of Barry and Fran Weissler and their colleagues have attempted to make Berlin's "Annie Get Your Gun" more attractive to today's theatergoers. Playwright Stone has removed derogatory references to American Indians and reshaped the role of Annie Oakley, played by Bernadette Peters, into a less-subservient female character.
A number of the songs have also been reshuffled. So now the audience first hears "There's No Business Like Show Business" sung soulfully and wistfully by a lone cowboy, whereas formerly it had been belted out by Oakley accompanied by a big chorus.
"Annie Get Your Gun" star Ms. Peters gives director Graciela Daniele high marks for underscoring the emotional quality of the revival. Peters told Playbill magazine: "She makes it [the stage] a creative, open space, and, boy, that's important because you get the best out of everyone like that."
The revival has a huge advance ticket sale and earned generally good reviews. Knowledgeable Broadway watchers say its Berlin score and sentimental theme should carry the day with audiences and perhaps lead to touring versions later.
Recent Broadway history is filled with disappointing revivals that were too faithful to their antiquated original texts or didn't refocus well enough to produce long runs. The New York Public Theater's revival of "On the Town," which one theater scribe called more a museum piece than tour-de-force, lasted only a few months despite acclaim for its music by Leonard Bernstein.
Veteran theater insiders also blame the quick demise of several Broadway adaptations of hit movie musicals, including "High Society" and "State Fair," on the fact that they stuck too closely to their celluloid originals.
These failures followed almost immediately in the wake of the stellar, cutting-edge revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Carousel" at the Lincoln Center Theater several seasons ago. That stark, even violent restaging had nothing sugarcoated about it. Multiracial casting seemed to give new poignancy and reality to the show's love stories, critics said at the time.
Like "Carousel," the new Broadway production of "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown," which originally debuted off-Broadway in 1969, also has an interracial cast. "The key things we did to bring 'Charlie Brown' into the 1990s was to create an interracial cast, [we] re-orchestrated the music, added several songs, and updated the script," says co-producer Michael Leavitt.
Nevertheless, producing either a revival of an old musical or a new one like the short-lived "Parade" - which began performances late last year and closed earlier this year - costs millions of dollars and seems to be even riskier for producers and investors than ever.
"It's a great gamble," says Broadway and Hollywood producer Marty Richards, who co-produced and largely bankrolled Cy Coleman's 1997 musical "The Life," a raw, hard-edged show about tawdry pre-Disney 42nd Street. "But what the whole thing is about - producing new shows or reviving old ones - is a love of the theater," Richards points out.
Capsule reviews of 'Annie,' 'Charley Brown'
*Annie Get Your Gun (Marquis Theater). This revival of the Irving Berlin' musical starring Bernadette Peters hits the bull's-eye. It's everything you could wish for in a Broadway musical. The title role is sung to perfection by Peters, who plays the mythical sharpshooter Annie Oakley. Tom Wopat plays Wild West show headliner Frank Butler.
*You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown (Ambassador Theater). If you've ever sat glued to your TV watching the cartoon adventures of Charlie Brown; his dog, Snoopy; Lucy; and others, you'll most likely enjoy this Broadway revival of the 30-year- old off-Broadway musical. It's funniest moments come from the addition of a new stage character, Charlie Brown's kid sister, Sally, played by Kristen Chenoweth. Chenoweth becomes her character so convincingly you'll think she is a child trying to act like a grownup.