New work is the lifeblood of theatre, pushing our perceptions of the world in new directions and telling us fresh stories. But theatre’s bedrock is the legacy of old stories that have been passed down from generation to generation – and the new ways these can be told.
Just as plays are not preserved in aspic, with directors such as Robert Icke finding ways to reinterpret Hamlet, The Oresteia, Mary Stuart and Ibsen’s The Wild Duck, so classic Broadway musicals are finding ways to speak to us afresh through a more modern lens.
This is strikingly on view in London with the revival of Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s 1970 masterpiece Company – a musical about modern Manhattan angst and relationships that has gained new texture and tensions by a simple gender swap. It is no longer the tale of a 35-year-old single male avoiding commitment but a woman – one whose biological clock is ticking, which gives her choices a greater sense of urgency.
Director Marianne Elliott, who has made a commitment with her producing company Elliott Harper Productions to tell female stories, has also said of Bobbie (as she has been renamed): “The character is a people-pleaser. [She] wants to help and provide for all of her friends and try to make everything work for them all the time, to the negation of herself, which feels like kind of a feminine trait.”
Elliott also told the New York Times: “I know a lot of women – and I remember being in that situation myself – who have a very nice career, have friends, have partners, but their biological clock is ticking. Everybody starts to think when they’re heading towards 40: ‘Mmm, that’s a shame they’re not with anyone.’ ”
This bold revision also includes a gay couple who are about to get married, in which one partner experiences a sudden attack of the jitters and threatens to call the ceremony off. It helps to thrust the show into the here and now.
In New York, I’ve seen three more classic revivals, all from the golden age of Broadway musicals, that have similarly blown away any cobwebs away that may stuck to them.
This has been accomplished in strikingly different ways. In a startling revival of the old Rodgers and Hammerstein 1943 warhorse Oklahoma! at St Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, this tale of the emergence of the new state in the union has been turned by director Daniel Fish and his designer Laura Jellinek into a festive, contemporary hoedown. There are scintillating choices: Ado Annie is played by the vivacious Ali Stroker, who made history as the first actor in a wheelchair to appear in a Broadway musical when she was in the 2015 revival of Spring Awakening.
For National Yiddish Theatre Folksbeine’s production of Fiddler on the Roof, about the Russian-Jewish diaspora of the early 20th century, the transformation is achieved by being performed in Yiddish with English surtitles. Suddenly, a yearning tale of a community about to be torn apart gains an added sense of urgency and authenticity. The simple but sincerely staged production feels truthfully like a community staging of which we are part. The cultural resonance is also amplified by being staged at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, within view of Ellis Island, where many of those who relocated to America arrived.
In the otherwise traditional revival of My Fair Lady at Lincoln Center Theatre, the potentially problematic relationship of Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle is redrawn: not only does this Covent Garden flower seller go to him of her own volition to better herself, but she also demonstrates her own agency by walking out on this petulant man-child at the end – up the aisle and out of the theatre. So after getting what she wants, she dumps him.
It will be interesting to see what Roundabout Theatre Company makes of Kiss Me, Kate, the 1948 Cole Porter musical based on The Taming of the Shrew, when it’s revived at Broadway’s Studio 54 in February. As Kate will be played by Kelli O’Hara, an actor who has asserted her own sense of independence and agency in classic shows South Pacific and, most recently, The King and I, it is unlikely she will take things lying down.
It plays Broadway at the same time as Glenda Jackson reprises the title role of King Lear in a new production by director Sam Gold, and a stage version of the 1982 film Tootsie opens, in which Dustin Hoffman starred as a volatile actor whose reputation forced him to assume the identity of a woman to get a job. As Variety reported of its Chicago premiere last month, authors Robert Horn (book) and David Yazbek (score) are presenting it not “as some kind of look-what-women-go-through, pseudo-empowerment feminist lesson” but instead as “a nearly full-on satirical take on the narcissistic male ego. It’s that perspective that lifts the story’s farcical spirit into the contemporary.”