Unfortunately, William Shakespeare and his Old Globe gang were not available for comment on Broadway’s 2003-04 productions of “Henry IV” and “King Lear.”
Fortunately, the other six Tony-nominated revivals are of more recent vintage. The original creatives and thesps have lived to remember, make comparisons and otherwise applaud their initial good fortune.
“The play is the play,” says Tom Stoppard.
Despite three decades, the playwright’s take on his existential comedy “Jumpers” hasn’t changed radically over the years. In fact, things are radically unchanged. Brian Bedford and Jill Clayburgh starred in the 1973-74 American premiere; today’s Broadway cast headlines Simon Russell Beale and Essie Davis.
“We went through the same anxiety with some of the English phrases in 1973 that came up again in 2004,” says the playwright. The words “home counties” and a few other English-isms stick in Stoppard’s head. Back then, the play tried out in Washington, D.C. Harold Pinter happened to be in town, and the two Brits had dinner. Stoppard worried about all the English references that wouldn’t work in America. “What do I do with ‘home counties’?,” he asked.
“There is nothing you can do,” said Pinter. “The play is the play.”
For the 2004 revival, Stoppard thought back to his D.C. dinner. “Let’s just not change anything,” he told director David Leveaux.
‘Fiddler on the Roof’
The original creative team of “Fiddler on the Roof” never lost sight of what it was doing back in 1964. “We’re writing a story about old Jews in Russia who are threatened with a pogrom,” says book writer Joseph Stein. “Not a typical musical subject. It was our big concern before the show opened.”
One of the “Fiddler” producers expressed his own personal concern to Stein, composer Jerry Bock and lyricist Sheldon Harnick. “I like the show,” he said, “but what do I do when we’ve run out of Hadassah benefits?”
There were big discussions about using Hebrew or Yiddish words. “We made a conscious decision, yes, we would use three or four for flavor,” says Harnick. “But if anybody laughs, then they come out.”
From there, Harnick and Stein’s memories of opening night diverge. The book writer recalls a great success Sept. 22, 1964.
The lyricist, for his part, found the first-nighters’ reaction terribly subdued. “We were worried, the preview audience had been so enthusiastic,” says Harnick. He recalls a rave review from the Daily News. Others weren’t as positive. Four decades later he can still paraphrase one unkind line: “It could have been such a good show if they hadn’t spoiled it with that pogrom.”
Before there was a “Wonderful Town,” there was Joseph A. Fields and Jerome Chodorov’s 1940 play “My Sister Eileen,” which is based on Ruth McKenney’s New Yorker stories about life in Depression-era Greenwich Village.
“Those stories were perfect for a play,” says Chodorov. “I couldn’t see a problem, except for us to write them funny.”
When the George S. Kaufman came aboard to direct, “We knew we had a hit,” says Chodorov. “Kaufman knew what was funny and what would work.”
Surprisingly, Kaufman offered only one joke, but it was such a good one that Fields and Chodorov recycled it for the musical version, “Wonderful Town.” Anyone who knows the show knows the exchange: “It’s good for you, it’s roughage,” says Eileen. Sister Ruth shoots back, “I’d like to have some smoothage, like a steak!”
Over the years, the joke has turned into a mixed blessing. “Wouldn’t you know?” says Chodorov. “Whenever anyone mentions a funny line from the show, they have to bring up that one!”
“Wonderful Town” preemed in 1953 and it had the gestation of a gnat. Betty Comden and Adolph Green wrote the lyrics to Leonard Bernstein’s songs in a mere three weeks. Adding to that crunch, the show’s original Ruth, Rosalind Russell, possessed a very limited vocal range. “I have a voice with only four notes,” said the actress. “And you’ve got to write for those four notes.”
Despite all the restrictions, Comden remembers it as a happy working experience. Good shows usually are, she claims. ” ‘Subways Are for Sleeping’ was a difficult project,” Comden recalls. “It shouldn’t be revived.”
Daniel H. Jenkins performed in the original 1985 production of “Big River,” as well as the recent revival. Thinking back, “I do remember a feeling that we were the new kids on the block,” Jenkins says of the world premiere. “There was quite an underdog feeling. Ben Vereen was down the street in ‘Grind,’ and what we were doing seemed very innocent by comparison. I wasn’t sure how a New York crowd would take to this rural world and music.”
“Grind” played 71 perfs; “Big River” went on to win the Tony for musical, and Jenkins received a featured actor nom for his perf as Huckleberry Finn.
For Jeff Calhoun’s sign-language revival, Jenkins essayed Mark Twain, and was the voice of Huck for Tyrone Giordano’s portrayal. Certain themes were more pronounced the second time around.
“That was the inspiration for the production: cultural isolation,” says Jenkins. “Huck and Jim always liked each other growing up, but what bonded them was their being outside the mainstream. Using a deaf actor to play Huck, as well as other members of the stage community, pointed up that theme and made it immediate for modern audiences.”
Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s “Assassins” took 13 years to make it from Playwrights Horizons to Broadway. It marks the span from one Gulf War to the next.
“The show is more upsetting now,” says Weidman. “There were unbelievably low casualties during the first Gulf War. It was easier for audiences to be comfortable and complacent. After 9/11, we’re all potential victims and in a sense potential combatants.” For the 1992 London production, Sondheim and Weidman added a song, “Something Just Broke,” which expresses the reactions of ordinary citizens to a presidential assassination. For the Broadway production, Weidman credits director Joe Mantello with a small flourish that has an enormous impact. “Joe starts the show with those same ordinary, optimistic citizens at a parade.”
From there, the guns come out with “Everybody’s Got the Right.”
“Thirteen years ago it was easy, if you were jolted by Steve’s lyrics, to think, ‘This is irritating and it has nothing to do with me,’ ” says Weidman. “Now it has something to do with all of us.”
‘A Raisin in the Sun’
Ruby Dee originated the role of the young mother Ruth in Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun.” If Broadway audiences circa 1959 felt threatened by an African-American family moving into an all-white neighborhood, Dee never sensed the resistance.
“The audience cheered for the family,” she recalls. “This is a country of immigrants, and Americans are proud of the country’s great documents, even if we have yet to really live up to them.”
Dee’s real-life husband, Ossie Davis, replaced Sidney Poitier in the role of Ruth’s spouse, Walter Lee, in the original production. The actor recalled “debates” among the cast members regarding the Broadway audience’s needs and hungers and demands to have a creative hand in what is presented up onstage.
Hansberry wrote one play, but “the white-middle class audiences and ladies from Queens” experienced another drama, says Davis. “Sidney Poitier and I and others in the cast talked about it.”
Topic No. 1 backstage was the character of the mother, Lena, who teaches her son, Walter Lee, a lesson in responsibility. “The American white community found in Momma an agent that spoke for them, that they could depend on,” says Davis. “No matter how explosive her son might be, Americans knew that Momma could be depend on to make things right. And that’s not what Lorraine set out to write. But that’s what the play had to accept.”
More than 40 years later, Davis voices no disapproval. “For Lorraine, ‘Raisin’ was a half-victory. If she had lived longer, we would have called her to task: What about that explosive young black man? What’s going to happen to him now?”