Opera has its ABCs (“Aida,” “La Boheme,” “Carmen), and the repertoire for classical ballet doesn’t include many works beyond “Swan Lake,” “Giselle” and “Sleeping Beauty.” Broadway has developed a similar case of repertoire ossification when it comes to staging a classic play from the 20th century that can turn a profit.
In the past decade, commercial legit producers have made money staging two — and on rare occasions three — familiar titles by master playwrights Eugene O’Neill (“Moon for the Misbegotten,” “Long Day’s Journey Into Night”), Arthur Miller (“All My Sons,” “Death of a Salesman,” “A View From the Bridge”), Tennessee Williams (“Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” “A Streetcar Named Desire”), Noel Coward (“Private Lives,” “Blithe Spirit”) and David Mamet (“Speed-the-Plow,” “Glengarry Glen Ross”).
The string of money-losing revivals, however, is staggering — and oddly illustrious for its inclusion of so many Pulitzer Prize- and Tony-winning dramas: “Amadeus,” “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” “The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial,” “The Country Girl,” “Desire Under the Elms,” “The Elephant Man,” “Exit the King,” “Equus,” “Inherit the Wind,” ” ‘night, Mother,” “On Golden Pond,” “A Thousand Clowns” and … well, you get the picture.
Their collective B.O. failure is especially significant this winter/spring since the first Broadway revival of “The Miracle Worker,” now struggling at Circle in the Square, looks ready to join this list. Also, at L.A.’s Mark Taper Forum, “The Subject Was Roses,” starring Martin Sheen and Frances Conroy, appears unlikely to make it back to Broadway for its inaugural revival there.
Casting problems? Lackluster direction? Perhaps.
But what really unifies these revivals is that too many critics, upon taking a second look, didn’t really like the plays themselves despite their award-winning history. Legit marketers will tell you that crix don’t really mean much anymore when it comes to musicals. Plays, however, are another story, and it doesn’t help when the work at hand is called “lackluster,” “overrated,” “minor,” “slight” and, that old standard, “dated.”
Lincoln Center artistic director Andre Bishop says of the critical response, “Some of these plays suddenly seem reminiscent of what has become TV — topical domestic dramas that were well told.”
“Subject Was Roses” director Neil Pepe agrees: “The plays, when they were written, might have been groundbreaking, but the ground they broke has been tread upon so much.”
Not that Pepe thinks the Frank Gilroy drama fails to resonate.
“Timing is very important,” he says. “Today, ‘Subject Was Roses’ feels very alive in terms of a son coming back from war and his trying to fix a marriage gone wrong.”
Although 40, 50 years is a long time to wait to revive a play on Broadway, Bishop thinks that sometimes even that is too soon.
“There are plays that go through a period of being considered old-fashioned in a bad way, and then they become old-fashioned in a good way,” he says. “One accepts the conventions of 70 years ago but not 30 years ago — unless they’re really great plays.”
Clifford Odets, for example, had completely fallen out of favor until LTC revived his 1935 drama, “Awake and Sing!” to much acclaim four seasons ago.
It flatters critics’ vanity to discover either a new work or some relic. Take “Morning’s at Seven,” a forgotten play that hadn’t been revived in more than 40 years when it came back to Broadway in 1980. Crix proclaimed it a masterpiece, only to treat the same play as no great shakes 20 years later in an LTC restaging.
Sometimes a brand-new play, if graced with enough critical raves, can have what producer Jeffrey Richards calls the “WTSF,” as in “want-to-see factor.” Stars also help to create WTSF, but they may be an even more essential ingredient for revivals. In recent seasons “August: Osage County” and “The History Boys” soared sans stars. Twenty or 30 years hence, however, these vehicles might need big names, especially if crix re-evaluate them downward, as they’ve done with several previous Tony winners.
But it must be the right star put together with the right vehicle. Daniel Radcliffe’s “Harry Potter” fans were too young to afford tix to bolster his money-losing “Equus” redux.
“Even though he gave a great performance, audiences didn’t come to see David Schwimmer, coming off ‘Friends,’ play a lawyer in ‘Caine Mutiny,’?” Richards says. “They did want to see Jeremy Piven play that (movie exec) character in ‘Speed-the-Plow,’ which is not that far from the milieu of ‘Entourage.’?”
This season, the combo of Denzel Washington and August Wilson’s “Fences,” not seen on Broadway in more than two decades, has WTSF written all over it, regardless of what the crix say. And next season, Richards attempts to expand the Mamet repertory of bankable titles with the first Broadway revival of “A Life in the Theater,” a two-hander that will require just the right starry casting.
Producer Randall L. Wreghitt looks to stage the first Broadway revival of a Lanford Wilson play, in this case, “Talley’s Folly.”
“It has been over 30 years since it last appeared on Broadway,” Wreghitt says. “Producers have tried over the years and optioned it but not been able to put it together in a way that they thought would work. It’s finding that correct mix that will spell artistic and commercial success.”
Wreghitt thinks he has the right casting with Richard Schiff and Robin Wright in their Broadway debuts. Marshall W. Mason, who staged the original, will do honors on the revival.
“Talley’s Folly” and “A Life in the Theater” might have the advantage of not having been turned into successful movies.
As one old-timer critic puts it, “Most of today’s reviewers grew up on the movie versions of plays like ‘Amadeus’ and ‘The Miracle Worker,’ not the original Broadway productions. And there’s nothing like the first time, even if it is video.”