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Lyn Gardner: Classic musicals, like classic plays, need reinvention

Scene from Oklahoma! at St Ann's Warehouse. New York. Photo: Teddy Wolff Scene from Oklahoma! at St Ann's Warehouse. New York. Photo: Teddy Wolff
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Theatre critic Kenneth Tynan once described Guys and Dolls as the greatest work of American drama after Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Whether you agree, it is undoubtedly the case that the mid-20th-century musical was one of the crowning glories of theatre from the past 100 years. A great musical is as much an achievement as a great play. Perhaps more so – there is so much more to get right and so many more elements that can go wrong.

Last year, columnist Stuart Heritage, undoubtedly being facetious and chasing clicks, welcomed the BBC’s non-musical version of Les Misérables by announcing that “musicals are the lowest form of entertainment”. More fool him. Because as anyone who has seen Guys and Dolls, or Company or Hamilton or London Road could have told him, the musical can be as dramatically, emotionally and aesthetically rewarding as any play.

But just as any great play needs to be kept alive through constant reinvention, so great musicals need to be re-imagined if they are not to become dusty museum pieces. All plays and musicals are products of their time, but it is up to those making theatre today to ensure that classics become for all time.

So, I find myself in disagreement with Richard Jordan’s opinion piece about Daniel Fish’s New York staging of Oklahoma!, which won the Tony Award for best musical revival on Sunday night. Jordan argues that caution needs to be exercised in the re-imagining of classic musicals, arguing that Fish’s makeover of Oklahoma! is extreme and that “deconstruction has become the new rock’n’roll in commercial theatre”. He fears it may start a trend.

Richard Jordan: With Oklahoma!, ‘director’s theatre’ has come to musicals – should we be worried?

This has echoes of David Hare’s misconceived intervention in 2017 when he railed against the influence on British theatre of what he perceived as being a European tradition in which “you camp up classic plays, cut them and prune them around”.    

The implication of what Hare and Jordan are saying is that the approaches of directors such as Fish or Ivo van Hove (who will shortly direct West Side Story on Broadway) or Simon Stone (think the Billie Piper Yerma and his astonishing Medea recently at the Barbican) are somehow disrespecting the original. But I say they are demonstrating their love for the originals by keeping them alive for new audiences.

As Stephen Sondheim discovered when approving Marianne Elliott’s gender-swapped Company, it is a wise artist (or indeed a wise artist’s estate) who appreciates that a director may be able to re-imagine a show, that was so of its time that it no longer seems relevant, in a way that makes it seem newly minted.

‘If what Fish has done to Oklahoma! is treachery, then I am all for it. It doesn’t mean that more traditional revivals can’t thrive’

It’s not about a director imposing their ideas or choosing a piece to show off their directorial prowess, but excavating what is hidden and has previously passed unnoticed. Jordan makes the point that the score and book of Oklahoma! are “robust enough to withstand any deconstruction”. They are, but like all the greatest plays and musicals, robustness is tempered not with rigidity but plasticity.

The danger for all classic works – whether a musical or a play text – is that we end up admiring it out of duty rather than because it still has something to say. Some of Shakespeare’s most problematic plays, from The Merchant of Venice to The Taming of the Shrew, might simply go unproduced if it were not for the creativity and imagination of directors who have found ways to stage them that make them seem pertinent to modern audiences. Audiences, who inevitably view anti-Semitism or gender roles in very different ways to Shakespeare, who was a product of his time.

Oklahoma! review at St Ann’s Warehouse, New York – ‘a startling reimagining of a classic musical’

The staging by Touretteshero of Beckett’s Not I with Jess Thom, which came complete with involuntary interjections of the words “hedgehog” and “biscuit”, certainly didn’t disrespect Beckett’s text but illuminated the character and her torrential rain of words.

To a large degree every revival of a classic is a kind of translation of what appears on the page or score, transposed to the stage and turned into something three-dimensional. As the academic Simon Goldhill has observed: all adaptations or translations are a form of treachery and we might indeed see Fish’s Oklahoma! or Stone’s The Wild Duck as  traitorous. But as Goldhill also suggests, very often it is the traitors who also “turn out to be liberators” allowing us to see the work and the world “from a startling new perspective”.

If what Fish has done to Oklahoma! is treachery, then I am all for it. It doesn’t mean that more traditional revivals can’t thrive and find an audience, but it does mean the show is opened up to a new audience and, almost 80 years after it was written, remains en pointe. If I were Rodgers or Hammerstein I’d prefer a little treachery than to see my work being pickled in its own production history.

Lyn Gardner is associate editor of The Stage. Read her latest column every Monday at: thestage.co.uk/columns/gardner

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