Revivals are alive on Broadway

New versions of oldies crowd season

There’s a revival on Broadway this season — a revival of musical revivals.

Whereas legiters last season spent the spring chattering about an avalanche of new tuners that included everything from “The Book of Mormon” to “Priscilla Queen of the Desert” to “Sister Act” to “Catch Me if You Can” — and only two tuner revivals — this season boasts a roster of returning musicals that already includes “Follies” in September, “Godspell” in November, “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever” in December and “Porgy and Bess” in January.

Plus, “Evita” and “Funny Girl” target spring — and industry types keep buzzing about a Canuck staging of “Jesus Christ Superstar” as a potential addition to the lineup as well.

Any producer will tell you it’s always easier to sell a title that auds already recognize, especially when it’s combined with a strong production and star casting. But as the offerings this season illustrate, producers and creatives must carefully balance a number of potential approaches, from bold reinvention to reverent remounting, in an effort to attract fans old and new.

And in a crowded season, a production’s timing and its angle on the material can help a show stand out.

“It’s a question of what else is on Broadway right now,” says Michael Kaiser, prexy of the Kennedy Center, the D.C. producer and presenter bringing 1971 Stephen Sondheim musical “Follies” to the Main Stem. “And at the moment, there’s not a lot that’s competing for the ‘Follies’ audience, the audience with an appetite for serious, challenging musicals.”

Little can be read into the season-to-season vagaries of Broadway’s timing, since so much of it is based on the scheduling logistics of individual productions, including talent commitments and theater availability.

The latest incarnation of “Follies” opens Sept. 12 at the Marquis Theater after a spring run at the Kennedy Center. The show will likely prove among the more traditional revivals of the season, aiming to appeal to devoted Sondheim fans. The Eric Schaeffer-helmed staging comes to the Rialto with a hefty orchestra of 28, and a 41-person cast led by Bernadette Peters, Jan Maxwell and Elaine Paige.

“Godspell” is next to bow in November. That one looks to incorporate old and new — as lead producer Ken Davenport points out, he’s joined above-the-title by Edgar Lansbury, who produced the original 1976 production. “Together Edgar and I will produce a new production of ‘Godspell’ for the next generation, while at the same time honoring the classic show.”

On the other hand, the upcoming stagings of “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever” and “Porgy and Bess” will see more radical re-imaginings of their respective properties.

The Harry Connick Jr.-toplined “On a Clear Day,” for one, will feature what amounts to an entirely new book, telling a reconceived version of the story from helmer Michael Mayer and co-book writer Peter Parnell. Both creatives have used a free hand in crafting a narrative that nods to the reincarnation-themed setup of the 1965 original but also makes a number of changes. Plus, the original score by Alan Jay Lerner and Burton Lane has been augmented with tunes from another Lerner-Lane collaboration, “Royal Wedding,” as well as songs written for the movie version.

Such revisions required the approval of the Lerner estate, which aims to safeguard the composer’s legacy. “It’s been a long process, and an evolving relationship with the estate,” says Mayer. (The tunesmith’s daughter, Liza Lerner, has proven so enthusiastic about the project that she’s signed on as a lead producer.)

Since the original book of “On a Clear Day” is generally considered problematic, aud expectations were less of a concern. Besides, it’s not a title in constant rotation, despite a 1970 movie version that starred Barbra Streisand.

“Nobody knows the show, except for a handful of show queens and Streisand fanatics,” Mayer says.

“Porgy and Bess,” the 1935 Gershwin classic that has in recent years become more of a staple in opera houses than theater venues, also is less well-known among legiters. The Broadway version, helmed by Diane Paulus and starring Audra McDonald and Norm Lewis, arrives in a more musical-theater-friendly adaptation from Suzan-Lori Parks and Diedre Murray.

Here, too, the exact storyline of the original show isn’t considered sacred. “People know the score, but not so much the particulars of the book,” says producer Jeffrey Richards.

“Evita” also opts for a fresh approach. First staged by helmer Michael Grandage in the West End in 2006, the revival concentrated on incorporating the flavor of Latin music, movement and culture to a much greater extent than was seen in the premiere of the Andrew Lloyd Webber tuner, which bowed in London in 1978 and opened on Broadway in 1979.

The latest Rialto incarnation, to be toplined by Argentine thesp Elena Roger (whose breakout role was the 2006 London version of “Evita”) and Ricky Martin, aims to push the Latin influence further — while maintaining the touchstone moments people associate with the musical tale of Argentinian political lightning rod Eva Peron.

“It’s really a complete overhaul,” Grandage says. “But we were very aware that we needed to take on some of the iconography of that original production, not least of which is the scene with Eva in the dress on the balcony.”

The revival of another Lloyd Webber tuner, “Jesus Christ Superstar,” playing at Ontario’s Stratford Shakespeare Festival also tries a fresh approach to the material, in this case aiming to reinvigorate the biblical tale with contempo flourishes. That show remains far from a definite addition to the New York season, but a fall move to California’s La Jolla Playhouse could grease the wheels for a spring stint on Broadway.

It’d be another revival to add to the pileup. For the moment, at least, the sked is active but not clumped. “The revivals are pretty well spread out,” Richards says. “They’re not opening all at once.”

And some producers maintain the flexibility to push back the timeline if necessary. Take “Funny Girl,” which recently booked Lauren Ambrose in the title role immortalized by Streisand. That show’s tryout at Los Angeles’ Ahmanson Theater runs Jan. 15-Feb. 26 — plenty of time to make it into Gotham prior to the Tony eligibility cutoff in late April.

Still, considering the revival-heavy sked, theater availability isn’t guaranteed, so Boyett’s willing to delay an opening until the summer or the fall if need be.

“There are a lot of people vying for the musical houses,” he says.

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