I've decided upon the unusual move of reviewing the mainstream revivals of both South Pacific (at Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont) and Gypsy (at the St. James) in the same essay for two reasons: (1) with all the accolades heaped upon both productions, no one really needs another couple of raves (not even ones written from the POV of a musical theatre insider) as encouragement to attend (yes, you should); and (2) I was struck by something much more interesting, that I found common to both evenings. And strikingly so.
We all take for granted the notion that a play, by simple dint of its live-ness, is—sometimes metaphorically, sometimes literally—a conversation with the audience, each performance molding itself in subtle ways to audience response.
We also understand that revivals are often—in a more metaphysical sense—conversations with the eras in which they are produced, taking into account new audience sensibilities, new popular culture references, faster speeds of perception, deeper understanding of human psychology, more refined playing styles where once something broader and more simplistic—and now no longer acceptable—would have sufficed.
But as I was watching the particular innovations of these two productions, it struck me that, in many cases, the mainstream revival of a musical is not merely a conversation with the audience and with the present era...it's also a conversation with past productions!
Now, to create a hard line where really only a VERY blurry one exists (if at all), I'm not talking as much about reactionary reinterpretations (i.e. John Doyle's surreal and—for those new to the material—incomprehensible Sweeney Todd) —though of course even a reactionary production must have something to react against—as I am about straightforward stagings. Because to me the real conversation is less apparent in re-inventing the wheel than in maturing nuances of convention. Which tend to be made manifest in casting and performance. To wit:
Where The Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization, which licenses the musicals of the legendary team for production, at one time provided (and perhaps in some cases still provides) an instructional video on how to perform and stage South Pacific—Rodgers liked, whenever possible, to have his actors plant themselves and face forward—now those techniques are unacceptable except for some amateur groups in need of guidance. Aside from listening to the evidence of the very original cast albums, watch the archived clips (a great online source is www.bluegobo.com) from televised broadcasts that featured excerpts, and some of the film adaptations. I don't remotely mean to suggest that those older performances aren't or couldn't be thrilling in their way (and by "in their way" I don't mean to be patronizing or backhandedly diminish them), but do note that there is absolutely a style of musical theatre acting. More formal, more broad, more stiff at times (depending upon the performer), with appropriate and recognizable performance gesticulation. At times, if the singer is also an expert actor, all this stylization is internalized and has a certain spontaneity. But there are still incongruous details that audiences of the time were conditioned to ignore—such as the actor being a little too old for the part, excused if star wattage and/or billing were sufficient—and certain conventions they were conditioned to accept—like the supporting tenor being a good-looking romantic hunk who wasn't required to act all that well, so long as he could put over the songs.
Ah, but now check out what's going on in Bartlet Sher's new staging. Insofar as a Broadway belter-soprano can sing out with Actors' Studio verisimilitude, that's precisely what Kelli O'Hara is doing. Her slightest gesture is welded to the deeper emotion of each lyric, as if each musical solo were a signature soliloquy of stage literature (which, after a fashion, it is), and not even for a moment, even when she is in flat-out "performance" mode (such as when her character Nellie Forbush is performing a show for the Navy guys and gals), does she drop Nellie in favor of Kelli. Similarly Paolo Szot as Emile DeBeque is perhaps the first guy to play the part in any mainstream venue (that I'm aware of) who looks like the 44-year-old man described, not a fellow well past 50 and staring 60 squarely in the face (even by the standards of decades past). And Matthew Morrison as the tortured lieutenant Cable has enough brooding intensity to hold his own with any new-age leading man from Tom Cruise to Brad Pitt to Mark Wahlberg. Even the non-speaking roles have been cast to—if you'll allow me to coin a word—verisimilitudinous perfection. Such as having the naval base second in command is played by Sean Cullen (the American one who played George Clooney's cop brother in Michael Clayton, not the comic Canadian one who starred in the Toronto incarnation of The Producers). And speaking of comedy: Danny Burstein's inspired turn as the wheeler-dealer Luther ("There is Nothing Like a Dame") Billis not only has a sly toughness I've never seen in the role before (not really, not like this), but also slyly comments on the cinematic history of tough guy character players. If this sounds like a contradiction—a comment within "reality"—all I can say is, you have to see it to appreciate the equally sly balance. We love his Billis because Burstein finds a way to make him instantly familiar, yet always surprising.
Much the same kind of thing is happening in Gypsy, but with another interesting layer added. Librettist Arthur Laurents has directed three of the four Broadway revivals and could well be phoning it in now; but in adapting the show for last summer's limited run as a City Center Encores! production—which may well have been an undeclared tryout, as it was not a staged concert reading with script books in hand, but rather the first full (if limited also in the physical sense), officially off-book presentation in the series history—he has widened its theatrical potential. In accommodating a narrower playing space, with the orchestra onstage (albeit masked behind cycs once the play begins in earnest), as well as a narrower budget, and the Encores! audience expectation of austerity as an invitation for their imaginations to pitch in, Laurents has emphasized even further the subtitle "a musical fable," allowing for an even freer poetry of expression than just putting the story of Mama Rose, the kids and Herbie in a vaudeville picture frame: With small liberties such as the cameo animals (Rose's dog and Louise's goat) being puppets, he has also created “permission” to indulge a much more important liberty: casting daughter Louise with an actress easily too old for the childhood and teenage scenes in any literal sense, but who has the deftness of skill, technique and inspiration to pull them off in an equally poetic context. Laura Benanti is just so damn good that the audience simply makes the leap with her to adolescence; so long as she can imagine it that vividly, so can we.
This has the miraculous effect of finally, finally, finally taking the curse off the role, which is traditionally cast with an actress too young and inexperienced to fully make a convincing transition from Louise to Gypsy Rose Lee in that final third of the show. (On rare occasion—Debbie Gibson in the Paper Mill staging of about a decade ago comes to mind—the role has been cast with a somewhat more mature actress, but in those cases the curse has worked in reverse, owing to the environment being too literal and the actress herself not quite convincing as a kid.) The alchemy of consciously acknowledged theatrical metaphor and a perfectly brilliant actress elevates the role of Louise so that in all the important ways, the show is a real seesaw between her and her mother. And this is, of course, vital, when you have someone with the star wattage of Patti Lupone as Mama Rose. And I won't go on and on about Ms. Lupone, she is absolutely as slambang as you've heard—really, what did you expect?—but this is a Rose whose supporting cast is slambang too, from the doggedly loyal Herbie of Boyd Gaines through Tony Yazbeck's hopeful hoofer Tulsa.
But it isn't merely casting that extends the dialogue between present and past productions, nor merely more internally justified stagings of musical numbers: In Gypsy there's even a conversation with the gestalt of familiarity. In the staging, for example, of "Together, Wherever We Go"—which serves to lightly dramatize the re-bonding of the abridged and revised family unit that is now Rose, Herbie and Louise—there's a free-wheeling, sometimes rough-and-tumble playfulness to the number that simply would not have been possible without the number having been staged more straightforwardly in earlier productions, where you couldn’t risk the lyrics being fodder for any horsing around that might obscure them. In all kinds of undeclared but absolutely unmistakable ways, this staging is one in which all involved seem to be saying, hey, what if we did it this way instead of that way, or let's riff on the camaraderie a bit more, since everybody knows the song backwards and forwards. (That said, for the Broadway run, perhaps not everybody will know the lyrics, but remember that this staging was originally intended for Encores! audiences, most of whom would indeed almost certainly know the score, if not the show, by heart. And that has carried over.)
It's all quite fascinating.
And goes a long way toward illustrating why, though you can gripe about "too many revivals" at times, you really can't help but understand why they persist, why certain shows reappear at regular, irregular intervals.
The work on them, you see, is never quite finished...