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B’way recycles its hits

Revivals boom due to economic caution, embracing the recognizable

Broadway is on a particularly cautious kick. While there are 16 new works this season, there will be a whopping 14 revivals — a 25% jump from last season.

But these are not straightforward revivals; every one has a spin. Audiences are promised a darker “Morning’s at Seven”; a darker “Private Lives”; a darker, more macho “Oklahoma!”; and an absolutely definitive “The Crucible.” (That one, it seems, can’t get too much darker).

But things aren’t bleak everywhere. So, for example, the new “Elephant Man” is promised to be much sexier.

Add in a trio of still-running revivals from prior seasons (“Cabaret,” “Chicago,” “42nd Street”), and it’s clearly a case of oldies and goodies that are taking over the Great White Way.

The reason for the boom in revivals is, of course, economic caution and a need to embrace the recognizable. “In bad economic times, audiences still want entertainment, and what they want is stars and familiar titles,” says producer David Richenthal.

But the number of musical revivals is down to only three. Why so few?

With the bad economy, it’s easier to raise the $1.5 million-$2 million needed to put on a play than it is to find $7 million-$10 million to put on a big tuner.

And there’s another factor. When it was announced that “Oklahoma!” was coming in from London, it scared off some of the competition. They assumed the show would get the Tony for revival of a musical (and a prize like that can be the key to boffo box office).

But now “Into the Woods” has been enthusiastically received in Los Angeles, and “One Mo’ Time” bows this week, so who knows what could happen?

Not surprisingly, the producers and creative teams behind most of the latest crop are at pains to stress that each production will be taking a new look at an old show.

“Most of my work has been doing revivals in a reinvented way,” says “Elephant Man” director Sean Mathias, who has one Broadway revival to his credit so far this season, “Dance of Death.” “But I never embark with (the concept) that it’s going to be this way or that. It always turns out different from what you conceptualize in the first place.”

This much is clear: “With Billy Crudup and Rupert Graves, I have definitely cast in a younger, sexier way, which is what I’m going for,” opines Mathias.

Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine have tinkered with “Into the Woods.” The song “Our Little World” from the London production has been added and lyrics to another, “Last Midnight,” have been reportedly darkened.

Lincoln Center Theater’s Andre Bishop insists the company’s revival of “Morning’s at Seven” is very much a comedy.

“But this will be a darker version,” he confirms, as compared to the much-lauded 1980 Broadway version. “That production was set in the 1920s, which was a very optimistic period.”

Under Daniel Sullivan’s direction, the new production goes back to the year writer Paul Osborn set his play, 1939. “The country is coming out of the Depression but going into a war. It’s not mentioned, but it’s there,” Bishop says.

Theatergoers also may find that British director Trevor Nunn delivers a harder edge to “Oklahoma!”

“A lot of Americans view the Old West romantically, with petunias on the porch and polka dots on the dresses,” says the show’s choreographer, Susan Stroman. “But we have dirt on the stage and mud on the costumes.”

As for her contribution to the show, “The theme of fighting for your territory is in the choreography, which is very masculine,” says Stroman, who eschewed the original, more romantic Agnes de Mille dances.

In another switch from tradition, Stroman won’t have dancers take over for the actors who play Jud, Curly and Laurey in the act one-finale dream sequence. “It doesn’t appeal to contemporary audiences to invest emotionally in characters and then have them replaced by other performers,” Stroman says, adding that her Jud, Curly and Laurey — Shuler Hensley, Patrick Wilson and Josefina Gabrielle — are in no need of substitutes.

Nothing’s sacred

Even Arthur Miller’s first play, “The Man Who Had All the Luck” — even though it ran only four performances back in 1944 — will get tweaked.

“Originally, they approached it much more realistically, much more kitchen-sink drama,” says director Scott Ellis. “But Miller calls it a fable. And we need to find a way to embrace that quality.”

With no rewrites, only one major element of the script has been rethought: Originally set in 1944, the drama now unfolds in 1937.

“When Miller was thinking about the play, it was closer to that time,” Ellis says. “Although the play doesn’t deal with the Depression, the feeling of need and desperation are what’s going on.”

Sometimes getting it right (at long last) is all the difference anyone could ask for.

As Richenthal puts it, “There has never been a Broadway production of ‘The Crucible’ that Arthur Miller feels has done justice to the play.”

On March 7, Liam Neeson, Laura Linney and helmer Richard Eyre get their shot to be different.

Even before Sept. 11, with the stock market way down last spring, Richenthal predicted to Variety, “This is not a season to expect audiences to buy tickets to a marginal production. In some ways starry projects become even more valuable. Those kinds of premier packages with tested talent and drawing power will not suffer.”

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