Broadway Revivals Unlimited
New treatments of classic musicals are still coming fast and furious in New York. Rodgers and Hart’s Pal Joey and a new production of Frank Loesser’s Guys and Dolls are running now, and the much-anticipated new production of Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story is about to open. The musical, with lyrics by the young Stephen Sondheim, is directed by the original book writer Arthur Laurents, 90, who’s finally doing it the way he’s wanted to for years, with Spanish dialogue spoken by the Puerto Rican characters.
Today, according to conventional wisdom, there are two kinds of Broadway audiences: the diehard Manhattan theatregoer (jaded and contemptuous of the traditional) and the out-of-towner — the unsophisticated tourist who wants to see only spectacle, the familiar, and more Disney. Broadway embraces and is sustained morally by the dedicated diehard but, naturally, can’t survive without the tourists with their crude, unwashed, and now dwindling dollars.
In reality there are more mindsets on the street of dreams. I belong to the group (an obviously dedicated group) that enjoys looking back at where our best jazz standards came from and understanding the vast distances some of these songs traveled from stage to screen to studio to a timeless space in our collective cultural consciousness. Most of my lifelong musician friends grew up on rock and have no intention of visiting lands they long ago consigned to the square past. My jazz-playing colleagues know better; you can’t play Gershwin, Kern, Rodgers, Porter and the other great 20th century composers (if you play them well) without understanding the heights they achieved in rhythmic and harmonic inventiveness as well as popularity in their time.
Although their time passed long ago, their music, rightfully and thankfully, lives on, thanks primarily to the great archive of recordings to which we now have access. But more recent developments have helped keep the old songs alive — the steady, determined release of restored musical films on DVD and the embrace of theatrical concert versions of shows, as well as fully mounted revivals of classic musicals such as South Pacific.
In December I managed to see three productions carrying the torch for standards, and, I might add, doing a brisk business, although in those most limited of runs: an Encores! concert staging of Bernstein, Comden, and Green’s On the Town, and two holidays-only productions—the annual Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular and a first-time hopeful, the stage version of Irving Berlin’s White Christmas.
In February, I saw the Encores! presentation of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s Music in the Air, a treat I’d been waiting for since it was first announced. I got an extra bonus when Kristin Chenowith stepped into one of the lead roles at the last minute, which made up for the absence of Kelly O’Hara at the production of South Pacific I saw last summer.
To be able to see such classics revived — from the fluff (White Christmas) to the forgotten (Music in the Air) to the fabulous (West Side Story) — is to see history come alive and broaden one’s musical horizons at the same time. With live theatre more and more the province of the well-heeled and -educated, it’s an enormous thrill to experience the days when our best and brightest songs came from the stage. Maybe more people will appreciate it one day — when it’s gone.