The ‘revisals’ bow on B’way

NEW YORK — Remember that crack, “Bizet cut that out of ‘Carmen,’ baby!” from “Damn Yankees”? Oh, no you don’t — not unless you’ve seen the show’s newest incarnation. It comes after Devil’s seductress fails to get an, um, rise out of Joe Hardy with the slinky “Whatever Lola Wants (Lola Gets).” In 1955, the Devil’s put-down was the considerably tamer, “Your methods are old-fashioned.”

Welcome to the era of the revisal. “Damn Yankees” is the latest entry in a full-scale revisionist onslaught: Faced with a paucity of new material — and particularly new musical material — the theater’s most gifted practitioners are turning to established works. But while some of these productions do little more than attempt to re-create (and cash in on) familiar images and themes, the great majority of them are being reconsidered from top to bottom, from set to score — sometimes for artistic reasons, sometimes for political reasons, often for some combination of the two.

Radical retoolings

But this season alone has already seen radical retoolings of “My Fair Lady, “”Damn Yankees” and “Show Boat,” now in Toronto and due on Broadway in the fall. Still in the wings are “Carousel” and “Grease” among the musicals, as well as the plays “An Inspector Calls” and “Picnic”– all of them reworked to a greater or lesser degree. Take, for example, “Damn Yankees,” which opened March 4 at the Marquis after trying out at the Old Globe Theater in San Diego. Director Jack O’Brien wanted to put a ’90s wrapper around the ’50s hit without altering its essential Eisenhower-era simple-mindedness. The director, who is also credited with the book revisions, was lucky enough to have an assist from George Abbott, the show’s 106-year-old co-librettist and original stager.

“To change or not to change, it’s such a personal decision,” O’Brien says. “It depends on the time you live in, the sociopolitical ramifications. Sometimes a piece wants to be revived. This isn’t some old dirigible we have to pump up. With ‘Damn Yankees,’ it was not so much change as build a construct around it.”

To that end, O’Brien worked a lot of political and pop-culture references into the book and also doused the dialog with a lot more attitude, as in the “Carmen” put-down. Lola, a role written for Gwen Verdon, also comes in for retooling.

“This role delivered Gwen in a big way,” O’Brien recalls. “But on the road they threw in a mambo for her; now I have to justify it, because audiences are too sophisticated. Lola — does she have any consciousness-raising moments or is she just a delicious idiot? You can present anything on stage as long as you’re honest — you can’t just put a bimbo on stage.”

Expect even more tinkering with “Grease,” which arrives April 23 at the Eugene O’Neill and which, under Tommy Tune’s supervision and with Rosie O’Donnell as the top draw, has been significantly reworked: Watch, for example, for the nerdy kids to get nearly equal time with the greasers, and listen for the language to be much more respectful of women.

When producer Cameron Mackintosh and director Nicholas Hytner were considering a revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Carousel,” their first order of business was to be freed of any artistic encumbrance from the past — including the Agnes de Mille dances at a time when she was still alive.

Hytner had in mind the equally legendary Sir Kenneth MacMillan; informed of the plan, the frail but never reticent de Mille sniffed, “He is temperamentally unsuited to the material.” Nevertheless, the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization gave its blessing; the production at the Royal National Theater rocked London’s theater world last year and is previewing at the Vivian Beaumont.

Sometimes, what’s missing from a revival is as revealing as what’s there. Take the recent City Center concert staging of “Fiorello!” The New York mayor’s aide-de-camp, Marie, declares that she will marry the very next man to walk through the door. She sings:

When he proposes, I’ll have him send me tons of roses

Sweet scented blossoms I’ll enjoy by the hour

Why should I wait around for one little flower?

That’s what Faith Prince’s Marie sang at City Center. Here’s what Patricia Wilson sang in the 1959 original:

And if he likes me, who cares how frequently he strikes me?

I’ll fetch his slippers with my arm in a sling

Just for the privilege of wearing his ring.

Lyricist Sheldon Harnick rewrote it when audiences at a 1986 Yale Repertory Theater revival booed the song.

“The line was meant to be sardonic, but things had changed in the world,” Harnick says. “Now it had an unpleasant ring to it.”

For the Roundabout Theater’s revival of William Inge’s “Picnic,” rehearsing now for a March 30 first Broadway preview, director Scott Ellis wanted to get away from the ’50s milieu of the original play, about a handsome stranger’s effect on several generations of women in a rural Kansas town. So the director set the play 20 years earlier.

“I wanted the piece itself to have a little more sense of their world falling apart,” Ellis said during rehearsals last week. “The whole play is really about quiet desperation, and I liked putting in that tone of coming out of the Depression.”

Fortuitously, during a week of research in the playwright’s hometown of Independence, Kan., Ellis found an early “Picnic” script that set the play in the ’30s and got permission to incorporate elements of that script in the Roundabout production.

One could hardly argue that a score or script is inviolable, especially when it’s the original writer making the changes. It’s trickier business, however, when changes reflect not the sensibilities of the creators, but of the interpreters. Broadway got a taste of that kind of changing in December, with Howard Davies’ tough-hearted “My Fair Lady,” with its Magritte-inspired settings and generally anti-romantic tone.

More upheavals

And more upheavals are on the way. Stephen Daldry, the newly installed artistic director of London’s Royal Court Theater, blew the dust off J.B. Priestley’s “An Inspector Calls” at the Royal National Theater last year. With designer Ian MacNeil, he reinvented a WWII-era morality tale as a surreal thriller existing almost out of time or place, freeing the play of its specificity and accenting its heartfelt, clarion call for human compassion.

In the case of both Hal Prince’s monumental “Show Boat” production and Hytner’s acclaimed “Carousel,” two of the most beloved scores in the musical-theater canon have been rethought by directors with distinct points of view.

Prince faced up to the charges of racial stereotyping that have plagued “Show Boat” off and on for decades not by toning down the differences between the Mississippi River blacks and whites, but by heightening them, particularly through visuals on Eugene Lee’s sets. And though Prince incorporates the long-accepted substitute of “colored folks” for “niggers” in “Ol’ Man River,” he purposefully kept the word in the script.

O’Brien of “Damn Yankees” says fidelity to an original can be as rewarding as doing a revisal, and context is everything. “A few years back I did ‘Holiday,’ straight down to the bone buttons; you learn great things when you do that.

“But look, if Peter Sellars can put ‘Cosi Fan Tutte’ in a deli, well, we don’t have to be afraid of change. We just have to figure out why we’re changing.”

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