Thursday, August 5, 2010

Best of the Decade: The Best Revivals of Musicals, Part I

Before I get to my top two new musicals, both of which, I think, point toward an exciting future for Broadway, I thought I'd start my final list in this summer long look back at the first ten years of this new century.  And what better way to end things than with a look back at the shows that we looked even further back with - musical revivals.

I have chosen 10 revivals for my "best of" list.  Each in retrospect represents their time in history and many of them, having been re-worked, point out that a classic can be looked at in an entirely new way.  Others represent their time by being recreated with the sensibility that informed them in the first place.  I think it speaks volumes for those revivals of that type that, while being re-created, still have the fresh, urgent feel of a newer work.  And these ten really show the span of the decades from the 40's through the 90's and pretty much anytime in between.  And let me predict now, that ten years from now, there will be many revivals to look back upon that cover the one decade not in my top 10 - the 1980's.

10.  Assassins (101 performances at Studio 54, winner Best Revival of a Musical 2004)  Directed by Joe Mantello, and starring Michael Cerveris, Denis O'Hare, James Barbour, Neil Patrick Harris, Mario Cantone and Alexander Gemignani.

The newest of the revivals isn't really a revival in the strictest sense, as this limited run production was the first time the show played a Broadway house.  But a revival is what they called and so here it is.  Featuring one of Stephen Sondheim's greatest scores, and even with a problematic (themes and pastiches start and stop or go nowhere) book by John Weidman, this show is provocative, challenging and perversely entertaining.  Leave it to Sondheim to make us like a bunch of killers.  Considering our rough and tumble history, I doubt there will ever be a time when Assassins won't feel a little wrong for the time it is being produced.  But it was, and we are all a little better for the effort.

"Everybody's Got the Right"

"Go ahead, Lee.  You'll make history."

9.  Hair (519 performances at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, winner Best Revival of a Musical 2009)  Directed by Diane Paulus, and starring Gavin Creel, Will Swenson, Bryce Ryness, Sasha Allen, Caissie Levy, Megan Lawrence and Theo Stockman.

I left this show feeling higher than a kite, and no, it wasn't the influence of drugs.  It was the exhilaration of watching a young cast completely in solidarity with the material, the message and with each other.  I'll never forget Will Swenson, the song "Hair" or the beyond moving finale.  Yes, when I left the show I was floating and ready to change the world.  But like a good buzz, I came down eventually, and came to appreciate the effort, but didn't feel the staying power or the freshness the critics raved about.  In its way Hair will always be timeless as every generation seeks to find itself and leave its mark.  But what made the show so relevant in the Park lost some of its steam by the time the show got to Broadway.  We weren't rallying against an unpopular president or having the courage to bring an African-American into the White House.  We weren't fresh off a round of ugly in not one but two wars anymore.  As fast as the sound bites change in CNN, this Hair's much heralded relevance was yesterday's news, as we came quickly to realize that even with sweeping change, things still haven't changed much and just might have gotten worse.  Down goes the economy, record numbers of troops are dying each month, and our new President isn't quite the fast savior he promised to be.  And neither is Hair.  Still, a great production of a decent musical and better than a lot of the stuff that has made it and continues to run.

"Give me a head with hair..."

"This is the dawning..."

8.  A Little Night Music  (241 performances as of August 1.  Still running at the Walter Kerr Theatre, Tony nominee for Best Revival of a Musical 2010)  Directed by Trevor Nunn, and starring Catherine Zeta-Jones, Angela Lansbury, Alexander Hanson, Aaron Lazar, Erin Davie, Leigh Ann Larkin, Hunter Ryan Herdlika and Ramona Mallory.

Realizing fully that I am in the minority, I found this revival to be one of the best of the season.  I loved the spare, Chekovian staging, costumes and set pieces.  It really clarified the piece for me (even if it did expose that the act one book is heavy on plot, less on action), and I loved most of the characterizations.  Also realizing that it has become fashionable to take swipes at Ms. Zeta-Jones after her odd Tony performance, but on stage and in the context of the show, I loved her Desiree.  And with Mr. Hanson, the entire "Send in the Clowns" sequence was revelatory.  A huge Sondheim fan, I've seen this show many times and never felt as satisfied after the show as I did at this revival.  The show that beat it for the Tony is one of my all-time, sentimental favorites, and I enjoyed a lot about it, but as far as artistic achievement goes, this production has it all over the others.

Desiree and her lovers

The Armfeldt Ladies

7.  Promises, Promises  (113 performances as of August 1.  Still running at the Broadway Theatre)  Directed by Rob Ashford, and starring Kristin Chenoweth, Sean Hayes, Tony Goldwyn, Dick Latessa and Katie Finneran.

This 2010 revival wasn't even nominated for a best Revival Tony, but of the revivals this past season, I found it the most funny, touching and just plain entertaining of them all.  You simply cannot beat the Bacharach-David score, and while some may disagree, adding "A House is Not a Home" and "I Say a Little Prayer" not only gave Ms. Chenoweth more to sing, but it also added some depth to her already challenging character.  Like Ms. Zeta-Jones, it seems fashionable to slam this Broadway favorite.  I for one continue to applaud her bravery to bring audiences another aspect of her talents.  Sure she is cute and perky, but she is a damn fine actress that brings pathos, sadness and heartbreak to life each night.  And you can't beat the charm and wit of a Neil Simon book, especially when the material is delivered by such accomplished comedians as Hayes, Latessa and Finneran.  A slick reminder of a New York that no longer exists, these executives and secretaries danced with abandon, harassed with finesse, and out styled everyone on Broadway in 2009-2010.

"You should be happy!"

"A Fact Can Be a Beautiful Thing"

6.  A Chorus Line  (759 performances at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, Tony nominee for Best Revival of a Musical 2007)  Michael Bennett's direction and choreography recreated by Baayork Lee and Bob Avian.  Starring Charlotte d'Amboise, Michael Berresse, Diedre Goodwin, Natalie Cortez, Jessica Goldyn, Jason Tam, Jeffrey Schecter and Tony Yazbeck.

One of those revivals that were 99.9% faithful recreation, the creatives behind this revival were smart.  You don't toy with a classic like this one, where every move, every light, every costume and every lack of scenery is as calculated a part of the show as the script and the intricate dance numbers.  Easily my favorite show of all time, I was transported back to my first time seeing the original.  It was a show that changed my life forever, and the revival solidified both my memories and my opinion of the show.  Quite simply, it is one of the greatest musicals ever written.  Its songs continue to thrill and sound both of then and now.  "At the Ballet" is a triumph of spare, deliberate wording, and equally spare yet evocative staging.  And the finale "One" is still the very best musical finale of all time.  I am reduced to tears throughout and the opening notes still make me catch my breath in anticipation.  So why is it only number 6?  I did not love the entire cast, and some of the offstage drama and re-casting hurt a perfect thing.

The Line

One Singular Sensation

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1 comment:

  1. 'A Chorus Line' is AMAZING! I am currently in the show with a local theatre company, and it is the best to do :)

    check out my blog at: :)

    cheers :D


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