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Revivals: Everything Old Is New Again

Emily Anne Gibson considers a number of questions regarding stage revivals. logo

(CC-BY-SA-3.0 / Matt H. Wade at Wikipedia)

"Everything old is new again." -- Peter Allen

Anything Goes. Godspell. Chicago. How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. What do these shows have in common?

They're being revived on Broadway right now.

I've got a few questions about revivals in general, questions that I don't have hard answers for. I certainly have opinions, and I'm hoping that some of you, my readers, do too. Q. What gets classified as a "revival"?

A. There are revivals, and there are productions. I think most people would agree that a high school production of Evita doesn't count as a revival. But the production currently on Broadway certainly does. Is it about the venue? The size? The expense? The term revival also suggests that the show was dead -- that it required someone giving it mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. When I think about it like that, the term revival seems to suggest putting a show back on its feet as it was in the past, but, of course, many revivals re-imagine the staging or even add to the text. And then, we've got straight plays to think about. It's not often you hear about a revival of A Streetcar Named Desire, but there is a production of it about to start previews on Broadway. In the end, I've come out with this blurry description of a revival: it's a piece of theater (often a musical) that is re-produced, large-scale, typically in the same theater scene in which it gained its fame.

Q. Are revivals the same as the originals? If not, what's the point?

A. They're never exactly the same. They can't be. And that's a good thing. However, I think that too often the people reviving a show try to recreate what the show used to be, to literally revive it from its slumber, and that's a mistake. Take How to Succeed, for example. The production can be as classical and old-timey as it wants, but that doesn't change the fact that the audience in 2011 is not the audience of 1961, when it was first produced, or even the audience of 1995, the last Broadway revival. We have changed, even though the music and book of How to Succeed have not.

We can't forget that theater is incomplete until the audience sees it, ingests it, and interprets it. And that interpretation changes over time. Revivals can be really interesting ways of examining how we've changed, too. You can bet there'd be feminist discontent at a period-style revival of Guys and Dolls. But also, people are craving different things from their theater. Musicals with darker tones (like Next to Normal) or controversial stories (like Book of Mormon) are gaining on the escapist musicals of the last century. I'd like to believe we're continuing to move in that direction. Which brings me to my last question:

Q. Why are we doing revivals instead of new work?

A. It's true. Have you noticed how few productions can put "A New Musical" on the end of their titles? So why is it that producers chose to put Les Miserables back up six months after it closed instead of offering that spot to an up-and-coming playwright? Is it fear of failure? That's probably a part of it. Everyone knows Les Miz will sell (especially if you put a celebrity in the cast), and The Mysterious New Musical by Ms. Unknown Writer and Mr. Obscure Composer is a risk. It is especially a risk because Broadway ticket prices are high - at over $500 for a family of four to see a show, people want to know what they're getting. I find it difficult to believe there are no new musicals that could grace the Great White Way. Just in the past week, I've seen four student-written and composed musicals as part of my School of Drama's student work festival. These new works are out there! And as we move through our college years and enter the work of theater, what gets produced will soon be up to us. Revivals can be wonderful, and sometimes necessary, but let's avoid the trap of getting stuck trying to give CPR to Porgy and Bess yet again. Let's take the risk to find out what composers and lyricist and writers are saying today.


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