Whereas a straight play can always somehow be approached anew in revival—because a new creative team need expose themselves to nothing but the play’s printed text—every major revival of a musical is a conversation with the original production. Even if none of the current creative team has seen the original, via live or archived electronic presentation, in whole or in part, there’s always the gestalt of past-period sensibility communicated by the script, score, cast album, orchestrations, vocal performances on the album, style of acting recorded…all those artifacts of complex, balanced collaboration essential to learning the material well enough to work with it. No director approaching a standard or a classic with a presumably fresh take gets to be entirely a virgin.
And this is why revivals are subject to SUCH scrutiny, analysis and, frankly, rabid word of mouth. A great musical’s stature can belie a surprising internal delicacy, and in revival, a miscalculation of tone, focus, or emphasis can—and usually will—resonate throughout the entire show. Subsequently, a production that looks to do more than just recreate or approximate its antecedent is really out to rebuild something that’s already been built. The most successful revivals triumph by finding implicit qualities in the material that the original production didn’t exploit, often because of its era of authorship (i.e. the recent trend toward infusing classic Rodgers & Hammerstein shows with nuanced, “realistic” acting to bring out the subtler psychological, humanist values that older, broader techniques didn’t sufficiently communicate.)
And I can’t think of a better recent example, nor of an easier one to parse, than director-choreographer Marcia Milgrim Dodge’s production of Ragtime, newly imported to Broadway from the Kennedy Center.
Ragtime, set at the turn of the 20th century and a little after, is a difficult show to pull off: In keeping with the E.L. Doctorow’s novel it’s based on, Terrence McNally’s libretto (in league with Stephen Flaherty’s music and Lynn Ahrens’ lyrics) fashions a historical potboiler, not following one larger-than-life character’s journey but rather numerous characters whose stories eventually merge—who start as almost prosaic archetypes, some even referred to by their archetype (i.e. Mother, Father, Tateh) from different social, economical and geographical points, who at times even narrate their own stories in the third person. While they each in time gain unique dimension, the storytelling technique can keep the audience at a cool remove. In both the intricately designed and staged original Broadway production (directed by Frank Galati) and a subsequent nearly black-box concert production using chairs and panels (directed by Stafford Arima) that transferred to London’s West End and later on, New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse, Ragtime’s peculiar diction made it seem intimate and personal when you sat up close (because you got the sense of being included in a storytelling circle); yet more emotionally distant the further back you sat (because the sense of panorama and wide canvas overshadowed personality nuance).
Ms. Dodge’s production preserves an impression of the original’s size, as the design presents a set with numerous levels; yet also of the black box version’s suggestiveness, as all the important set pieces (the family house, Coalhouse Walker’s car, etc.) are rendered in minimalist, abstract fashion. Straddling the two extremes helps enormously, but it’s not wholly the reason why the intimacy of Ragtime, at long last, reaches to the back of the house.
The key seems to be that she has both cast and directed it younger. I don’t necessarily mean that the actors are chronologically younger than their predecessors (and certainly not in the case of Quentin Earl Darrington’s charismatic and thrilling Coalhouse, as he played the role at Paper Mill under Arima’s direction too); but the adult ones seem as if they are, by about a five or ten year generation (depending upon the role), and Ms. Dodge has used that to make everything play at hotter pitch. It costs the show a little of its art house grandeur, but likewise divests it of distancing stateliness, and buys a quicker entry into the characters’ roiling passions. Something as simple as casting Father—an unenlightened and increasingly confused man, unable to keep up with changing social roles and mores—not with an actor who tries to find the nuance in reserve, but with Ron Bohmer, who plays him with the energy and conviction of an action hero (Father is, after all, an explorer too), makes his internal struggle more dynamic and more easily conveyed. A similar chemical fusion happens in almost all the principal roles, with some additional standouts being Robert Petkoff (Tateh), Christiane Noll (Mother), Stephanie Umoh (Sarah) and Bobby Steggert (Brother).
as we righteously sing Ms. Dodge’s praises, let’s not take anything away from
those who have come before her either. As I say, every musical revival is,
somehow, a reaction to what came previously. Which is why it’s often so hard
(at first) to predict if a director making his or her Broadway debut on a
brilliant revival can eventually carry the assignment of developing new
material. Of being the first. Because in a revival, you can’t get here without somebody having been there…
A whole different conversation happens between a new musical production and its original incarnation if the source is not a stage piece, but a movie musical, created specifically for the screen. Putting aside animated films (a whole different discussion), it’s generally a bad idea to create a live action stage musical out of a live action film musical, because film musicals speak a different language, one reportorial more than poetic. Consequently, they're not built like stage musicals: the characters tend to be prosaic rather than large and iconic, and the audience’s imagination is never solicited to conspire in creating the illusion. Plus it's impossible on a proscenium to duplicate the particular, magnifying intimacy of the camera, which is what allows star persona to add dimension to formulaic characterization. Generally, putting cinema tuners onstage (think Footloose, Saturday Night Fever, Meet Me in St. Louis, Singin’ in the Rain) tends to bloat them out of proportion, flatten the emotional qualities, and minimize the personae of the unfortunate actors who aren’t the iconic movie stars for whom they’re standing in.
Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, in its first annual reappearance (at the Marquis) falls into all the usual traps—
—but it has its proponents in people who don’t know the film well enough to be distracted by the changes; and perhaps rates leniency for being a sentimental Christmas story with Irving Berlin songs. Though some purists have railed against this adaptation (book by David Ives and Paul Blake, based on the screenplay by uncredited writers Norman Panama & Melvin Frank), I, not having seen the flick since I was a kid, had to take the stage show (which I missed last year) on its own terms. And so doing, I thought it was the ultimate “Let’s get a barn and put on a show” experience in seeming to have been assembled as quickly, efficiently and (to coin a word) cornily as possible (the barn thing actually happens in the story, by the way).
Subsequently the production turns its “missing” elements into a perverse asset, because no one’s aiming for, or pretending, elegance. Under the direction of Walter Bobbie, there’s an antiquated (but appropriate) boulevard broadness to the performance style; the curtains-drops-flats presentation mode is right out of the 1950s how-to textbook; and sweet, silly innocence (even when the comic is ogling the ladies) is the order of the day.
This year’s lead players are new: James Clow & Melissa Errico are the “serious” romantic couple, Tony Yazbeck & Mara Davi are the comic one, David Ogden Stiers is the grand old retired general they’re hoping to help out and Ruth Williamson is the General’s trusty and devoted assistant. They and the ensemble give it their significant best, “my” audience seemed to be getting exactly what they hoped for, and beyond that I didn’t have the heart to be picayune.