Let’s not bash musical comebacks

Miss Saigon: revisited
Miss Saigon at the Prince Edward Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Richard Jordan is an award-winning UK and international theatre producer. He has been a regular contributor to The Stage since 2005.
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Last June, my colleague Mark Shenton wrote a blog about the return of the new production of Les Miserables to Broadway.

One reader responded to his article:

How sad that with all of the resources at his disposal, Cameron Mackintosh can only revisit his triumphs of the past. It’s his money so he can do with it what he wishes, but to deprive a new musical (or two or three) of a prime Broadway theatre is simply stifling other artists’ careers and continuing the ongoing development of Broadway as a theme park and not as a street of dreams.

It is an interesting statement to consider for were this to be a revival of a play, I doubt the same criticism would be directed towards the producer or work itself.

Take, for example, Private Lives, a classic Noel Coward play where each of its last three West End productions all presented over the last twelve years have been produced with Duncan C Weldon. Yet no criticism is directed towards the producer; nor are disapprovals expressed that the play has been regularly revived in new productions. As a classic play, one might criticise that it is blocking a West End playhouse and depriving it from instead hosting a new work.

Why, then, do we look at this in such a different way when it comes to musicals? The new production of Les Miserables on Broadway, like the new West End production of Miss Saigon, boast new creative teams and are not remounted productions of the originals. It is incomprehensible that in another genre we would criticise their return to the stage in a new production but because of the length these particular musicals have previously played, it makes them appear iconic and more difficult to visualise them in another productions. Although as Howard Sherman recently reported in his American Stages column at Dallas Theater Center a radical new version of Les Miserables has just opened.

Even so, the musical’s book dictates the action, and there are only going to be so many ways you can stage waving a flag during One Day More, or land a helicopter in Miss Saigon, just as there are only so many ways Hamlet and Laertes can duel with each other. Revivals of many classic musicals are often rare events and if we do not give them the status they deserve they will always be unfairly treated as the lesser art form.

Perhaps we need to pose the question: what is it that makes a work become classic? Should it not be that new theatregoing and industry audiences have the opportunity to experience and learn from the craft of these and classic musical works in the same way they do a classic play?

Balance is needed: we should encourage both new musical work and the art form’s survival; meanwhile, we should relish the opportunity to see how a new director presents his or her own take on a particular work. It is the latter – along with casting choices – that also encourages audience members to revisit productions with a sense of discovery.

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