SOUTHBURY, Conn. — A couple of millennia after its debut, Aristophanes’ “Lysistrata” is still proving controversial.
A musical version of the raunchy 41 B.C. comedy will be Robert Brustein’s final American Repertory Theater production prior to his retirement as the ART’s founding artistic director — but it’s not the version originally planned, an adaptation by Larry Gelbart with songs by composer Alan Menken and lyricist David Zippel.
Instead, the company has substituted a version with a book by Brustein himself, songs by composer Galt MacDermot (“Hair”) and lyrics by Matty Selman. Remaining aboard for the May 10-June 9 run are star Cherry Jones and director Andrei Serban.
Apparently Brustein and others at the ART felt that the adaptation by Gelbart (“MASH”) strayed too far from the Aristophanes original and was too obscene and too Broadway for the ART, and that the songs by Menken (“The Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast”) were Disneyfied.
But all is not lost for this spurned “Lysistrata.” New York’s Manhattan Theater Club is showing serious interest, to the point of having a private reading of it this coming Monday, with Christine Baranski scheduled for the title role.
Details of the flap have been reported in the Boston Globe and the New York Observer, and Brustein has been quoted as saying that “I have great respect for (Gelbart’s) version — he produced a very engaging, very funny play,” albeit a “ferociously obscene” one. Brustein added it is “almost a play of its own. It comes out of a tradition of American burlesque.”
Given that Gelbart wrote “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” the latter comment would seem to be based on fact. And, indeed, Brustein has said it “will have a long and happy life somewhere, probably on Broadway.”
Brustein plans to write a more serious book for the ART’s musical “Lysistrata” that is “funny, satirical and not puritanical,” but “is not concerned exclusively with sex — that’s the difference.”
Gelbart has responded to the ART situation by saying that he finds “arrogant and elitist … the notion that something that was moving in the direction of a Broadway play isn’t worthy of their attention.” According to Gelbart, Brustein originally praised his script when he read parts of it early on and that “he loved the songs.”