Revive It, Revise It, Contextualize It
Updated: Feb 8
There’s a New York Magazine article entitled “The Greatest Musical: ‘I Can’t Live With ‘West Side Story’ Not Being Amongst the Finalists’” in which several New York theatre titans (Nora Ephron, Jesse Green, George C. Wolfe, Jonathan Tunick and Frank Rich) got together to discuss what they considered to be the greatest musical of all time. They were able to come up with a top ten list, and of that top ten the most recent musical had its premiere in 1984. The majority of them were originally produced between 1927 and 1960. The list they came up with truly is some of the best musical theatre out there, but when you look at it you realize how each of these shows has aspects of them that might not sit well with today’s audiences. However, these shows, and others like Shuffle Along, Oklahoma, My Fair Lady and other shows from that era are considered revolutionary for the art-form of musical theatre. The question though is, have we gotten to a point in our society where the only thing we can mine from these shows currently is for academic use and we should no longer produce them? Or is there still reason enough within these shows to show them to audiences today.
The short answer is it depends. I think there is still merit in some of these shows and the way they had originally told these stories that can still be showcased for today. Before we get started, does this apply to every musical written in these times? No, I think you can easily make the arguments for certain shows to not be produced due to their racism, sexism, homophobia, or just for not being all that entertaining or applicable to a modern audience. But I think the answer to how to make these shows relevant to today’s audiences doesn’t always lie in rewriting the scripts, but in how they are handled and who handles them. The way a cis white male director would stage a revival of Shuffle Along is vastly different than how it would be handled by a black male director, or especially a black female director. That’s not to say that shows that have certain elements that are harmful or misguided shouldn’t be re-written. However, when they are being reworked there needs to be help from dramaturgs and theatre historians to help contextualize the time periods in which these shows were written, and not just replaced with new scripts or lyrics that don’t really solve the original issues in question.
There are a few roads here that I think are valid to take in order to present these shows in today’s climate. The first, had its framework set in 2018 by Daniel Fish and his revival of Oklahoma! The show was widely praised when it premiered at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn and quickly transferred to Broadway where it won the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical. While this production was set in a contemporary time, Oklahoma! is originally set at the turn of the 20th Century, they actually did not change many lines in the script. This way of approaching the material ended up adding a layer of depth that had been lacking from previous productions of this show. It seemed to highlight the original intentions of the authors of the show, navigating the complex class discrepancies of rural Oklahomans, while making it relevant today with ideals of fragile masculinity and societal norms. The show was groundbreaking again, only this time for its ordinariness and the way it let the original material from 1943 shine, but was presented in a way that was new and captivating for contemporary audiences.
The second way I think to approach these shows is to acknowledge the time when the show was written, educate your cast/crew on any issues within the show and utilize your dramaturg to contextualize any issues within the script. These shows are important in the theatrical canon for a reason, find what that reason is and highlight it. For example, West Side Story. Often hailed as one of the most celebrated musical scores in history, it has a lot of book issues, primarily stemming from the fact that it was written by a white man about the Puerto Rican experience. Recent productions and adaptations have tried to remedy this to varying degrees of success, with inclusions of changing lyrics to Spanish (as those Puerto Rican characters would speak in Spanish in their own homes), as well as utilizing a cultural consultant for the most recent film adaptation and shockingly casting actual Latine performers to play Latine characters. These are all steps forward, and need to be built upon for these shows to stay as relevant as they once were.
There are also many examples of shows being reworked for revivals. This practice is in theory an admirable one. There are plenty of shows that have great scores but the stories they are trying to tell don’t work for contemporary audiences. I think this is a good idea, but I’ve not seen it done yet with the level of attention that I think it deserves. It too often feels that these rewrites just try to pander to a false sense of progressiveness instead of actually taking the time, breaking down what made the original piece work and expanding on that with historical context for the piece and the original author's intentions.
Whenever one talks about the relevancy of shows and whether we should continue to produce ones that have problematic aspects of them the inevitable argument comes up that we should be focusing more on producing new works. That train of thought is completely correct. Theaters should focus on presenting new works and fostering those writers and theatre artists who can bring that work to life, especially from marginalized communities. But that work requires a major overhaul of how most theaters operate today, and it's not going to happen overnight.
My proposition is that theaters should focus on both. Present new works, talk and showcase those new voices. But also leave space for the rich history of theatre. Leave space for the shows that inspired you to inspire the next generation. Add to the canon so that in 50 years time authors can be debating the best ways to re-conceptualize your work. These shows exist and have withstood the test of time for reasons, they deserve to be seen, produced and highlighted for their strengths, and have their weaknesses acknowledged or fixed.