Broadway openings are like yellow-rumped warblers. They avoid the city in winter and summer, come swooping back at the start of spring—and they feather their nests with debris. Putting an ear to this theatrical season, one hears—over the occasional chirp of a distinctive voice—the producers' incessant call to revise, revive, recycle. Thirty or so productions are looking to land on New York stages before May. Most are based on old material. In preparation, it's only fitting to look back at the season so far. We'll see how the clutter of the past can either stifle life or, like our flying friends' housekeeping habits, help sustain it.
The best of the fall offerings was Follies, which moves to Los Angeles next month. The third revival in a decade proved the charm by lucidly exposing the derangement of, ironically enough, revivalism. Eric Schaeffer's production, like star Bernadette Peters's performance, lacked buoyancy. But their laser-like focus cut to the quick of the show's hard truths.
The setting is the farewell party for an old theater palace on the eve of its demolition. From her entrance, Peters's former chorus girl Sally makes it clear she's come to win back her old flame, Ben (the hearty Ron Raines), and she doesn't care who knows it—not his wife, fellow ex-chorine, Phyllis (a blistering Jan Maxwell), nor Sally's husband, Buddy (Danny Burstein, so ingratiating you want to bring him home to mama). The blinding obviousness of her mania—“I'm going to live forever with the man I love”—spotlights the insanity in every character's illusions.
Stephen Sondheim's 1971 score recycles song styles from the period between the World Wars—paying homage, deconstructing them, then boomeranging us back to the present blissed-out and wised-up. Director Schaeffer takes his cue from one of its most obscure songs “One More Kiss”: “Dreams are a sweet mistake/All dreamers must awake/Never look back/All things beautiful must die/One more kiss and goodbye.” No wonder this masterwork keeps flopping financially. It tells us we're staring at the stage because we refuse to examine our own lives. And we're doing that because we can't face the fact we're going to die. Bring on the chorus girls!
Follies's first revival flatlined with musical numbers as deflating as the characters' lives. Regional productions, like the famed Paper Mill edition with Ann Miller, usually swaddle the misery in nostalgia. Schaeffer's revival works because its leads can land a musical number as well as an emotional punch to the gut.
He builds the show beautifully. The final sequence's fantasy follies revue offers catharsis to most of the leads. Peters's Sally, though, sings the classic 11 o'clock number “Losing My Mind” as if trapped. Only in the coda's final moments does she exhale, for what seems like the first time all night. “There's no Ben for me.” Even then, we're left without any false illusions. When Burstein reaches his hand out in comfort, she tenses and he retracts it. Schaeffer's exhilarating staging binds the material's twin polarities in a transfixing surrealism—and then slaps us with the cold light of day.
The show's companion piece, the 1981 Merrily We Roll Along, played an expanded run at City Center's Encores series just weeks after Follies put its set in storage. Featuring many of Sondheim's most hummable melodies, Merrily We Roll Along looks back by its very structure. Each scene moves farther back in time than the one prior. The central trio of Frank, Mary, and Charlie move from being a middle-aged sell-out, drunk, and scold to young idealists. Dashed dreams are its subject and, alas, its effect.
The musical's book still tickles the mind by tackling the biggest challenges to audience identification. It fumbles, not necessarily by introducing characters at their most unlikeable, but by making them initially uninteresting. On its third major New York production, Merrily We Roll Along is becoming more and more like its central figure. Frank's friends spend most of their lives pushing him, in vain, to live up to his enormous potential. James Lapine, Sondheim's frequent collaborator, has reworked George Furth's book and directed, first in 1985 and again here. And like Mary and Charley, he hasn't entirely succeeded.
Lapine's revisions provide new moments that seize the heart and choke the throat. But he ignores what the original showed with stunning subtlety; the biggest turning points are often in the most casual exchanges. As with the revised Follies, the dialogue now leans on ham-fisted plot points and pronouncements. Even Sondheim's own revisions cloud the issues. He's changed the title number's insistently repeated refrain “Never look back” to “Better look back” before returning to “Never look back.”
Still, it's a show that bears repeating. In “Old Friends,” their first song together, Frank complains that Charley keeps making lofty demands of him that can't be met. Charley thinks aiming for something unachievable helps you grow: “Well what's the point of demands you can meet?” Sondheim and his cohorts set the bar unreachably high for themselves with Merrily We Roll Along. True to its structure, it gets the crashing out of the way first and leaves you with the heartbreaking high of watching their glorious ascent.
The season's most popular revisal, The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess, calls to mind one of Merrily We Roll Along's most pungent exchanges: “Which comes first generally, the words or the music?” “Generally, the contract.” The Gershwin estate has added the family name to the title while overseeing a reduction in the amount of Gershwin actually in the show. The goal here is a version that can sustain a long commercial run on Broadway and on tour—plus create a property they can license to other theater companies and schools.
The result is neither a devil's bargain nor heaven-sent. An hour of material has been removed, to their credit, judiciously. The unkind cut is the replacement of George's own orchestrations. They could have been reduced if the issue were just economics. The producers and the estate want a more contemporary “Broadway” sound. What they've drummed up is maddeningly mediocre. The most satisfying group number is sung a cappella.
The problem here isn't the very concept of streamlining. For example, a highlight of this season's Lincoln Center Festival was director Peter Brook's lovely distillation of Mozart's The Magic Flute, respectfully retitled A Magic Flute. Like other master interpreters, Brook immerses himself in the work so he can better speak its language. The Porgy and Bess team have instead sounded out the original, decided it doesn't work, then translated it into their own language. In program notes, musical adapter Diedre Murray discusses listening to Clara's lullaby “Summertime” and asking herself, “'Why is she singing so high? That would wake the baby up.' So I took the whole thing down.” She also made it a duet with Clara's husband, Jake. Nowhere does she express any interest in what the Gershwins had in mind.