Broadway Revivals Dance to a New Tune
Musicals, which often reflect the prejudices of their day, are being revamped for today's sensibilities
NEW YORK — A lot of fruitless debate has gone into the question of what differentiates art from entertainment. The problem is that in so many cases the distinction is blurry. ''Guys and Dolls'' is indisputably artful. ''Aida'' is indisputably entertaining.
One difference that has been suggested is that artworks challenge the prejudices of the audience, whereas entertainments reflect them. This dichotomy seems especially relevant in the case of the American musical, an entertainment genre that is, nonetheless, one of our culture's genuinely original art forms.
But this is also why old musicals can be so problematic to revive. Prejudices change, and reminding us of our past prejudices is, well, certainly not entertaining.
With the early musicals, such as Gershwin's ''Girl Crazy,'' the book was just a framing device for some fabulous songs. So it represented no artistic violation to toss the old book out, write a new one, and re-package the show as the recently acclaimed ''Crazy For You.''
Sometimes directors try to scrub shows clean of political incorrectness. The last time I saw a production of Irving Berlin's classic 1942 musical, ''Annie Get Your Gun,'' the director removed one song entirely: ''I'm an Indian, Too.'' And quite rightly, it seemed. No matter what one thinks of the politically correct police, today you simply can't have Annie Oakley singing such cheap-joke lyrics. (''Just like Battle Axe, Hatchet Face, Eagle Nose... Just like Rising Moon, Falling Pants, Running Nose, I'm an Indian too.'')
But what about the shows that prided themselves on the narrative integrity of their books?
''The Fantasticks'' features a climactic Act One song, ''It Depends on What You Par,'' which pointedly illustrates the problem. Two fathers, trying to foster a match between their respective offspring, hire a Spanish bandito to stage an attempted rape of the Girl, so that the Boy can rescue her and become her hero. To a rumba rhythm, El Gallo tells the fathers of options he offers: ''We've the obvious open schoolboy rape, with little mandolins and perhaps a cape. The rape by coach; it's little in request. The rape by day, but the rape by night is best.'' Even in 1960, it's hard to imagine how this passed by without comment.
The moral dilemma
What do you do with the dated and, to many, offensive elements of otherwise brilliant material? Do you excise the offending parts? Do you alter them? Do you even have a right to tamper with the original? Do you trust that the audience will view the show in context?
Ironically, the higher a musical aims artistically, the more troublesome its dated prejudices become. It's easier to either forgive or dismiss outright old shows that are simple entertainments.
''The Pajama Game,'' the 1954 musical by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, today seems so sexist it's just stupid. But their 1955 hit, ''Damn Yankees,'' now in a splashy revival at Broadway's Marquis Theatre, provides the proverbial good clean fun. Jerry Lewis, making his Broadway debut, is having a grand time playing Applegate, the devil who offers a Faustian bargain to Joe Boyd, a couch-potato and fanatical fan of the Washington Senators baseball team.
But two shows now on Broadway in major revivals, shows that aimed high -- ''Show Boat'' at the Gershwin Theatre and ''How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying'' at the Richard Rodgers Theatre -- pose vexing questions for directors and audiences.
Everything that has ever been written about the historic significance of Jerome Kern's 1927 ''Show Boat'' is, if anything, understated.
Before ''Show Boat,'' Kern had a successful but hack-like career as an ''Americanizer'' of European operetta imports, a Tin Pan Alley songwriter, and a collaborator in the extravaganzas produced by Ziegfeld and his competitors. But in Oscar Hammerstein II he found a partner of similarly lofty ambitions.
Here was a three-hour musical that traced the lives of an extended Mississippi River showboat family through forty years (1887-1927) of social change, racial strife, broken marriages, and bitterness: Cap'n Andy; his tough-as-nails wife, Parthy; their sunny daughter, Magnolia, and the man she fatefully marries, Gaylord Ravenal, a dashing, riverboat gambler with a shady past; Julie, the Cotton Blossom's leading lady, who is, unbeknown to the showboat company, a mulatto; and her earnest leading-man husband, Steve.
''Show Boat'' was the first musical where all the songs emerged inevitably from a well-crafted book; the first show to fashion music of diverse styles (from standard Broadway song forms, to operetta, to dramatic choral numbers of operatic intensity) into an integrated score; the first show to present white and black actors singing on the same stage; the first show to deal with the still-contentious issue of marriage between the races.
Indeed, the show was so shocking that some of Kern's best work -- the brooding chorus, ''Mis'ry's Comin' Aroun','' sung by the showboat's black stage crew -- had to be eliminated. It was too bleak.
Since 1927, every revival of ''Show Boat'' has been so extensively altered and edited that no single version can be deemed legitimate. This gave director Harold Prince latitude in putting together his conception of the show.
Harold Prince's 'Show Boat'
Through consultations with the conductor and American musical scholar John McGlinn, Mr. Prince has presented us with a version of the show that, if anything, is closer to Kern's vision than the original production. All the essential music, including the original overture (a dramatic orchestral composition that was replaced in the 1927 Broadway opening with a more typically stylish medley) and the ''Mis'ry's Comin' Aroun''' chorus, has been restored.
While committed in principle to presenting the work as it was conceived, Prince admits, without apology, to altering some of the book's stereotypes and offending lyrics. The original version opens with a chorus of black stevedores loading bales of cotton on a dock and singing:
''Niggers all work on de Mississippi/ Niggers all work while de white folks play/ Loadin' up boats wid de bales of cotton/ Gittin' no rest til de Judgment Day....''
In this production, the lines are replaced with ''Colored folks work on de Mississippi.'' In 1927 audiences were shocked by the lyrics, which was Kern's and Hammerstein's point. Today audiences would be more shocked by sticking with them.
''Show Boat'' suffers, like Gershwin's 1935 ''Porgy and Bess,'' from being a white man's take on a black story. But Prince has come up with an effective touch to make the black presence powerfully felt. All the subsidiary black characters from the chorus -- laborers, cotton pickers, maids, showboat workers -- do double duty as stage hands during the show. With vacant stares, their bodies broken by oppression, they hoist props, shift sets, and yank the ropes that control the backdrops.
The story of Magnolia and Ravenal is framed by these grim black characters. They are forever present, providing stark black counterpoint to the white themes.
The entire cast of the Prince revival has been justly praised by critics. But Elaine Stritch's raspy, pugnacious Parthy deserves special mention.
When Frank Loesser's ''How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying'' opened in 1961, everyone involved -- Loesser, director Abe Burrows, the critics who championed it, the jury who awarded it the Pulitzer Prize in drama -- repeatedly said the show was a satire. Now director Des McAnuff, choreographer Wayne Cilento, and designer John Arnone (the team responsible for the recent high-tech revival of ''Tommy'') have brought us a new production of ''How to Succeed.'' As before, they and their publicists constantly repeat the same line: The show is a satire!
This defensiveness concerns the show's depiction of women. The story tells of an ambitious young window-washer, J. Pierrepont Finch, the role that made a star of Robert Morse. With the aid of a how-to manual, Finch manipulates his way from the mail room to the company chairmanship by fawning, conniving, churning out the charm, and taking audacious risks. Of course, this being 1961, all the women in the World Wide Wicket Company are stuck in secretarial jobs.
The problem is that the women don't question their ''stuckness''; they just want a marriage-ticket out of it. When Rosemary, the good-hearted secretary who falls for Finch, sings her fantasy of life in the 'burbs with an executive hubby (''Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm''), you can argue that the song is just a send-up of the way things were. If so, it's an uncomfortable send-up.
Let the audience squirm
Probably the best thing to do is to leave the sweet-tuned song alone, however much it makes audiences squirm. Instead, McAnuff (betraying his discomfort?) stages it so that as Rosemary sings, behind her we see mock-Rosemarys living out the fantasy come true. One is pregnant and harried; another, wielding a plunger, attacks a toilet; another struggles with a runaway vacuum; and so on. This interpolated busyness just makes the audience laugh out loud at Rosemary: ''Ha! Ha! Don't we know better.''
This is all the more wrong-headed, since the Rosemary, Megan Mullally, is absolutely wonderful -- a strong singer, and a beguiling stage presence.
This Rosemary is capable and resilient. Left alone to sing her song, you'd probably think to yourself: ''Well, what other fantasy has Rosemary been allowed to have? But I bet she figures it out pretty soon. Keep his dinner warm, indeed.''
Fortunately, all the female characters, though their roles are small, are strong. Smitty, the gruff secretary to the company president, is played by an indomitable black singer and actress, Victoria Clark. And McAnuff uses Clark effectively. In the male ensemble number, ''The Brotherhood of Men,'' Smitty, swept up by the all-for-one fervor, is supposed to join in. Clark's Smitty takes over. And she turns the number into a jam. The brotherhood is commandeered by a Soul Sister. It's a nice touch in the spirit of the original conception.
Here and there McAnuff has changed an offending line. One song is cut: ''Cinderella, Darling,'' in which Rosemary, wary of Finch's marriage proposal (he's too obsessed with success) is prevailed upon by her secretarial sisters to give in. (''How often does Cinderella get a crack at the prince?'' ''We want to see his highness married to your lowness.'') Satire, schmatire. The song is impossible. They were wise to cut it.
It has been replaced by a feminist reprise of the title song, sung by an ensemble of secretaries with newly written lyrics offering tips on how to trap a tycoon and even fantasies of owning a company. Such heavy rewriting puts the lie to the creative teams avowals of faith in the original material.
The clear triumph of this production is the Finch of Matthew Broderick, making his debut in a musical. Technically, Broderick is superb. He boasts a nice, light-yet-warm baritone voice; his pitch is right on the money; his diction is clear, enunciated with just a touch of trying-to-impress crispness. Even his dancing is agile. He's a great physical comedian. His Finch is filled with funny ticks and quirks.
Broderick couldn't be more loose and relaxed in the role. He uses his natural charm to great advantage. There's a bit of Ferris Bueller in this J. Pierrepont Finch. Yes, he's a schemer. But so is everybody else. He's just playing by the book, literally. Even the secretaries start rooting for him.
As long as musicals have entertainment value, the problem of catering to audience prejudices is likely to continue.
After all the discussion, ''How to Succeed'' is at heart an entertainment. Reviving such shows will always be problematic. With Broderick heading the cast, this production comes close to salvaging the trap-plagued but clever musical.