Revive This Musical: PLEASE!
It’s a big season for Broadway revivals with Spring Awakening having opened and Fiddler on the Roof, Dames at Sea, and She Loves Me on their way to us in the next few months. Certain shows get revived again and again (Gypsy, anyone?) while others take their sweet time getting back to Broadway. Today’s blog entry is a plea to producers, as I go decade by decade (starting with the 1930s), making the case for the musicals most-deserving of revival in each ten-year span.
1930s: Babes in Arms
This comes with certain provisos, including a reworking of a flimsy book, but Rodgers and Hart’s Babes in Arms is loaded, I say LOADED, with great songs that could rival any Gershwin compilation. “Where or When”, “The Lady is a Tramp”, “Johnny One Note”, “I Wish I Were In Love Again”, “My Funny Valentine” and the title tune are all show tune standards. The plot has been done-to-death, but that has mostly to do with the fact that people love the basic premise. A bunch of teenagers come together and put on a show. A little tinkering by a clever librettist and Babes in Arms would be a lot of fun.
Honorable Mention: Of Thee I Sing – Speaking of the Gershwins, this political satire about a presidential election still packs a powerful wallop. With all of the election nonsense inundating our lives these days, a musical that pokes fun is sure to help cleanse our palate.
1940s: Lady in the Dark
Lady in the Dark features composer Kurt Weill at his absolute best, paired with lyricist Ira Gershwin at his most profoundly intelligent. The book by Moss Hart is sharp and clever. The musical wends its way through the psychotherapy sessions of a depressed fashion editor named Liza. The show is broken into clever musicals sequences or “dreams” that reveal the inner workings of Liza as she gets to the bottom of her problems. The musical is a tour de force for a great musical actress with acting chops: Donna Murphy, Joanna Gleason or Betty Buckley would be great!
Honorable Mention: Bloomer Girl – a modest hit in its day, Bloomer Girl has never been revived despite having a completely enchanting score and a book that is chocked full of important messages about feminism and racism.
Harold Rome’s last great musical theatre score came in the form of the haunting Fanny (Some will argue its I Can Get It For You Wholesale, but I will stick by my original comment). Beautifully atmospheric, Fanny tells the epic love story of a small town girl in coastal France and her love affair with the sailor Marius. Fanny ran 888 performances in 1954, one of the few hits of decade that has never been revived. The musical is based on Marcel Pagnol's trilogy of plays: Marius, Fanny and César. Fanny is also remembered as Florence Henderson’s big starring lead on Broadway.
Honorable Mention: The Golden Apple – Jerome Moross and John Latouche created a thoroughly delightful score to retell the story of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey set turn-of-the-century Washington State.
Possibly the most egregiously overlooked title in this article, Carnival is a musical that is something special and, frankly, deserves better than what is has gotten. Bob Merrill wrote the sumptuous music and lyrics for this delicate confection, and Michael Stewart gave us one of his most heartfelt books. The story about a young orphan girl who runs away with a traveling carnival and her interactions with an egocentric magician, a lonely puppeteer, and a lecherous souvenir salesman makes for a very compelling story. If any producer out there is worth their salt, they will fight for the opportunity to revive this magical little bijou of a show.
Honorable Mention: Anyone Can Whistle – It may have its problems, but how many Sondheim fans out there would give their left leg for a chance to see a full production of this caustic and edgy musical comedy?
I have never held back about my deep affection for Purlie, a musical based on Ossie Davis’s play Purlie Victorious. Gary Geld and Peter Udell fashioned a score that sounded like nothing that has ever played Broadway before: equals parts gospel, rhythm and blues, traditional church music, country, folk, and show tune. The story of an African-American traveling preacher in the Jim Crow laden south, who returns to his hometown to save the local church, is as exciting and energizing as ever. It is the score, however, that is screaming for a second-life.
Honorable Mention: The Wiz – I know that this is supposedly happening, but it will remain on my list until it does. The Motown-inspired retelling of L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz is simply inspired and full of terrific music. Do not judge this piece by the film version. Just don’t do it.
1980s: The Rink
The Rink is special. I will also go so far as to name The Rink Kander and Ebb’s finest score. The story of an estranged mother and daughter and the possibilities posed by exploring forgiveness make it their most human – less commentary and more character driven. “Colored Lights”, “Chief Cook and Bottle Washer” and “All the Children in a Row” are standouts in a score that has no duds. My only request: wait until Circle in the Square is available so that The Rink can be the intimate piece of theatre that it deserves to be.
Honorable Mention: City of Angels – Though it feels more like a 90s musical, City of Angels opened in 1989. It’s time to revisit this terrific Cy Coleman/David Zippel score and Larry Gelbart’s ingenious book. It’s the best musical murder mystery (With all due respect to Drood).
1990s: The Secret Garden
Of all of the musicals that opened in the 1990s, this is the one that most personally touched me. Lucy Simon’s and Marsha Norman’s score feels like a magical spell, an invocation of ghostly spirits that transport us to Edwardian England via India to be a part of a resurrection. The story is that of an orphaned girl who is sent to live with her morose widower uncle and who eventually brings her family back from the darkness through the metaphoric and literal reawakening of a garden. It will have you sobbing by the end and uplifted to the heavens.
Honorable Mention: Kiss of the Spider Woman – Kander and Ebb’s edgiest piece of musical theatre was an astounding feat of theatre in its original 1993 production. Time to climb into the web again and see the world through the eyes of an optimistic, gay window dresser who dances with the angel of death for the chance at true love.
So rarely does satire work in musical theatre, but Urinetown is a case where an off-putting title and a darkly comedic (and prescient) take on corporations running our government delighted audiences nonetheless. Urine Good Company takes over the nation’s water supply and regulates bathroom usage by charging citizens to use pay toilets. With Gestapo-type tactics, the corporation rules everyone with an iron fist and brutally executes the opposition. I know, it sounds heavy, but it is all done with so much fun and sophisticated wit that you find yourself grinning from ear to ear for most of the show. Mark Hollman’s and Greg Kotis’s score is also snappy, wry and atmospheric, conjuring a dystopian future that is equal parts Dickensian London and The Hunger Games.
Honorable Mention: The Light in the Piazza – Adam Guettel’s score for this musical is startling, and Craig Lucas’s book captures every ounce of pain, regret and hope found in Elizabeth Spencer’s novel.
What musicals do you think are ripe for revival? Have I left an important one off of the list? I’m glad to accept all answers and suggestions (except for Funny Girl, which I prefer to save for another entry).