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Rodgers & Hammerstein on the Purple Circuit
How Do You Solve a Problem Like Revision?

by Steven LaVigne
© August 2009, Steven LaVigne

A colleague of mine was looking for something to do as a fundraiser with his young adult theater group recently. Because their venue is part of a church, he selected “The Odd Couple,” knowing he had the talent and that it was right for his audience. When he applied for licensing, however, he received a rather stern letter from Neil Simon, stating that not one word of the script could be altered.

Simon is the most commercially successful playwright in the history of the American theater, and he didn’t get rich by making stupid choices. However, because of some language issues within the script, my friend had a dilemma on his hands.

This got me to thinking about changes being made in modern classics, and in particular, recent encounters with the work of Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein and Lorenz Hart. I started questioning the choices their organization is making for revivals of their work. Let me preface this by saying that I regard Oscar Hammerstein’s wordsmith abilities among the most accomplished in the musical theater, and that their works are among the greatest musicals of all time.

I witnessed how gay playwright Richard Greenberg, gay director Joe Montello, and gay actor Matthew Risch (who was simply wrong for the part) ruined “Pal Joey.” [see: Steven’s “Minneapolis Scene” February 2009] The new libretto, based on John O’Hara’s original, may have added a gay relationship, but it also rendered the role of Linda English, the shop girl in love with Joey Evans, thankless.

The revival by New York’s Roundabout Theatre Company, with the exception of a fine performance from Martha Plimpton, was a ghastly, horrifying experience. Fortunately, as of this writing, the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization hasn’t licensed this version for production.

This wasn’t the first time the Roundabout commissioned a Rodgers and Hart work for revision. Gay playwright Nicky Silver wrote a new book for their revival of “The Boys from Syracuse” a few years ago, which was generally well-received.

I was excited to learn that Theatre Mu would present a two-week engagement of “Flower Drum Song” at the McKnight Theatre in St. Paul this summer. I’ve waited almost a half-century to see this minor classic, featuring a superb score as it explores the changes between the generations of Asian-American culture in 1950s San Francisco. It was made into a marvelous film starring Nancy Kwan, Jack Soo, and, from its original Broadway cast, Myoshi Umeki, Keye Luke, and Juanita Hall.

Imagine my disappointment with David Henry Hwang’s new libretto, which updates the plot, and does nothing to honor C.L. Lee’s original novel. Hwang is the renowned author of M. Butterfly, based on the true story of a French diplomat and the cross-dressing performer who betrays him after obtaining information over a period of years. (The real M. Butterfly passed on recently.)

Hwang kept the basic premise: Mei-Li has escaped Communist China and arrives in San Francisco. She seeks out her late father’s friend, Wang Chi-Yang, who runs the Golden Pearl Theatre, dedicated to keeping the works of the Chinese theater alive. The theater’s only profits are made when Wang Ta, Chi-Yang’s son, uses it as a nightclub featuring Linda Low, the ambitious performer he loves.

Among the changes: Madame Liang is no longer the matriarch. She’s a pushy agent who reinvents Wang Chi-Yang as Uncle Sammy Fong and sends Linda Low off to Hollywood. Ta seeing the wisdom of his father, begins building acts based on the classics. Of course, the show has a happy ending.

Hwang tried making the story relevant to the times, and added a centered, positive gay character, Harvard. However, what little real conflict is retained, it’s not worthy of a Rodgers and Hammerstein show. There are moments when the plot seems removed from the songs.

Why don’t producers trust the original material? Rodgers and Hammerstein were innovators of the musical theater form. Their work is perfectly good without tampering from anyone else.

For the record, Theatre Mu, gave it their best shot, however, because of the show’s casting demands, this isn’t likely to become a community theater staple.

This script, as well as the Greenberg revision of “Pal Joey,” questions the integrity of the licensing organization. Why do the works of Rodgers, Hammerstein and Hart, which have entertained audiences since the 1930s, need revision? Evidently, thinking revision will equal sold out houses, producers and directors are revealing that they don’t trust the material, which is ridiculous. They are also thinking they can bring something new to the material. More often than not, they’re wrong.

Consider, for example, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s adventurous 1947 musical “Allegro.” Following the successes of “Oklahoma,” “Carousel” and the film musical “State Fair,” Hammerstein chose to a simple story, to be presented in the style of “Our Town.” Using a Greek chorus to comment on the action, “Allegro” is the story of Joseph Taylor, Jr., a country doctor who discovers that the idyllic life his parents planned for him is in sharp contrast to reality.

The musical wasn’t a major success, playing only 315 performances, and given a mediocre original cast recording. Hammerstein always felt that the second act was rushed, and he planned to revise it following the success of “The Sound of Music,” but he succumbed to cancer, so it was left untouched and has rarely been produced.

“Allegro” was the first presentation by City Center’s Encores. That same year, gay librettist, Joe DiPietro, a protégé of Hammerstein’s son, James, revised the script. Like Hwang, DiPietro eliminated characters and plot, but, because audiences are unfamiliar with it, there’s not much chance of comparison. This year, the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization, along with Masterworks Broadway released a double disc recording of the score with a cast that includes Laura Benanti, Norbert Leo Butz, Nathan Gunn, Audra McDonald, Marnie Nixon and Patrick Wilson. This magnificent complete recording features Robert Russell Bennett’s original orchestrations and the richness of this score is more than evident, including its standout numbers, “So Far,” “The Gentleman is a Dope,” and “A Fellow Needs a Girl.” Those who hear this recording may wonder why the show isn’t produced more often, and with all good luck, revivals are in its future.

Neither Silver’s revision of “The Boys from Syracuse,” Greenberg’s rewrite of “Pal Joey,” or DiPietro’s version of “Allegro” have, at this writing, been licensed for production. This returns us to the purpose of revision in the first place. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s five major works have all seen new productions within the past 20 years, (a stage version of State Fair has also surfaced). With the exception of adding musical numbers from the film to “The Sound of Music,” there hasn’t been a revision to the scores or libretti for these productions. It’s possible that both “Allegro” and another minor work, “Me and Juliet” will appear on professional stages within the next two decades, presumably with revisions.

By the way, my friend decided not to give Neil Simon’s bank account a boost, and decided to direct “Greater Tuna” instead. This trailer trash comedy requires a versatile cast, and it is lots of fun. In this economy, it’s probably the wisest decision he could make.


© 2009, Steven LaVigne

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