The Question of Revivals

 The Question of Revivals

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Recording of 1999 “revival” with many changes from original

While two writers were taking me to task for calling Glenn Gould a vandal, which I never did, one of the responses to my article brought up the question of revivals. He said that when any work of (theatrical) art is “revived,” it should have “new life breathed into it” even if that means changes to the original. Now this gentleman is a professor of music at St. John’s University in New York City and knows of what he speaks. But while I agreed with all the rest he wrote, I cannot agree with his attitude towards revivals. This is, of course, not a question of right and wrong, but one of definition..

To “re-vive” is to “live again.” That is the denotation. Unhappily there are many connotations. To me, a pure revival should be done in the same form in which it was done in the past. No, I am not claiming it should be PRODUCED as a clone of the original, but it should at least follow the original script. I also feel that the acting style should be appropriate to the period of the original, but that is treading on dangerous ground.

So if a play is “revived”–as was (say) “Annie Get Your Gun” at Lincoln Center back in 1966 –with a subplot removed and a song along with it, a new song added, and its treatment of the American Indians totally “PC’d”–and again in 1999 with even more “improvements” or as is the revival of “Flower Drum Song” which is less stereotypical of the Oriental characters (they claim), these cannot be called “revivals” as much as “adaptations.”

Hey, how about a “Richard III” in which he is the kindest man in England and kills only in self defence to avoid showing a handicapped person being evil because he is handicapped? And then call it a revival? (Or did I just give some lunatic director an idea?)

1994 recording of “revival”

When “Damn Yankees” was revived, the only real change was to give “Two lost souls” to Lola and Applegate rather than to Lola and Joe. This was merely a sop to the actor playing Applegate, despite the fact that the Devil would certainly not sing those lyrics while Joe certainly would. But all else remained untouched and we can safely call it a revival. When “Bye, Bye, Birdie” was redone on television, the title song from the film version was used and a very good song was given to the Mother. All else was left intact and we had a revival with additions.

Faithful to the original with two extra songs

Very often, the complete score will be kept but the book will be rewritten. This happens mostly with operettas in which the original books and most of the dialogue are truly poor. But if one went to see “The Merry Widow” revival and found it was about a rich woman who has become a Marxist and is trying desperately to give away her fortune to the masses while her government is trying to get it for themselves, even if every song is left intact one could still complain the audience was not getting the product as advertised.

When one goes to see a film version of “Hamlet,” one really does not expect to hear every word of the play as it has come down to us. Olivier gave us about half of the dialogue with the scenes pretty much in the order Shakespeare put them. The Mel Gibson vehicle gives us considerably fewer lines spoken in some sort of random order. The Branagh epic gives us every single line (which many found stultifying). I say nothing about the production values because they have no bearing on my main thesis.

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A “Gondoliers” with Gilbert’s words and lyrics held in disdain

But a musical is something else again, and Gilbert & Sullivan is something special. Let me repeat an example from a previous essay in this paper. A Canadian and later an Australian production (borrowed from the former) of “The Gondoliers” changed a good deal of the lyrics and some of the dialogue to make references to contemporary situations in those countries. Now since the action is set in the Venice of 1750–and these productions kept the costumes in that period–of what point were the references to things that did not yet exist for the characters? Of course, they caused some cheap laughs, but none of this had anything to do with the work being performed. Gilbert is funny enough on his own and does not need help.

Now there is a case of “vandalism” in the true sense of the word. “Breathing new life into the work” can be done by better acting, livelier singing, imaginative staging. References to “safe sex” and Australian politics in “The Gondoliers” is sophmoronic nonsense.

Now I must be honest and yield to the arguments of with those with a more liberal definition of “revival.” But do you not agree that at least the advertising should warn the ticket-buying public which of the three– revival, adaptation, desecration–their money is going to bring?

Music and the Legend of Faust, 7

This entry is part 7 of 7 in the series Music and the Legend of Faust

IMG_20150603_0001_NEWFaust: a Version for the Fifties 

   Every important myth or legend (and there is a difference between them) is adaptable to meet the Worldoutlook of every new generation. So the Faust of Marlowe’s Elizabethan world is not that of Goethe’s, nor is Goethe’s that of Gounod’s. In fact, the Faust of Thomas Mann in the novel is not the Faust of the version with which we shall end this series.

Just as James Joyce made his Ulysses into the universal Everyman, Leopold Bloom, this last Faust of ours is an aging middleclass American named Joe. As his wife laments at the start of this work, six months out of every year he sits by the television set and cheers on his beloved but always-defeated Washington Senators. Yes, this is the Faust for the 1950s, the Faust of “Damn Yankees.” Based on the novel “The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant” by Douglass Wallop, this musical (with music and lyrics by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross and book by George Abbott, Douglas Wallop and Richard Bissell) opened on May 5, 1955 with the powerhouse Gwen Verdon as the temptress Lola.

Returning to the touring company practice of the Middle Ages, the Devil–here called Mr. Applegate–is played for laughs, right down to his flaming red socks and long solo about “the Good Old Days” in which murder and chaos was rife all around. This must have struck deep chords in the audiences, considering the events of 1955 that had taken, were taking, and were to be taking place outside of the theater.

Soviet MIGs shot at US aircraft, Red China released 11 of our airmen, Eisenhower had a heart attack, a bomb exploded, “Connie” and “Diane” lashed out at the Caribbean area, and life went on as usual as if some real Applegate was having a good time. Even the books on the best seller lists included stories of death and suffering: “Andersonville” and “The Day Lincoln Was Shot.” And to cap this all off, the much admired and finally much attacked Quiz Shows started their four-year journey from fame to shame.

On the other hand, the American public in the mid 1950s was above all complacent; and the cozy audiences in the darkened theater did not want any deeply philosophical Mephisto making them think too much. So the Lola character is expanded from the rather pallid character in the novel, not only to suit the talents of Gwen Verdon but also to show how all the evils of this world can be overthrown by Love. So we have the endless repetition of “Heart” (as in You Gotta Have); but this is not really the theme of this play (so much for the Faust legend if it were). I have always thought the theme of this version lay in “A man doesn’t know what he wants until he loses it.” In short, this is more Ibsen than Goethe.

Consider. The faithful wife (read Solveig) awaits her missing husband (read Peer Gynt), who is off on wild adventures (playing for his beloved ball team) and finding himself under the spell of a seductress (read the Troll King’s Daughter), and so on. But is not “Peer Gynt” a retelling of the Faust story in Norwegian terms? The Button Molder, the Troll King, and all the other negative personalities Peer meets are merely aspects of one Great Evil One. Ibsen tells us that being true to only oneself is to be a troll, an inhuman. In “Damn Yankees,” Joe is true to his team. Big deal, say some; Good for him, say others. But that is not enough to risk one’s soul for–although some “professionals” have already done that many times over for better contracts or mob payoffs.

(Of course, even “Gypsy” is arguably a Faust variant, with Rose as her own Mephisto, ever willing to sacrifice her children for the sake of her own ambition. But as much fun as it might be to force any plot into a legendary mold, it is somewhat profitless except as a party game.)

Yes, this a Faust for the 50s. It is not, again, the Faust of the 1750s or of the 1850s or even of the 2050s to come. It reflects, as all good legends must, the values of the people for which it is recast. Marlowe used it to remind us that progressing too far will have its fatal consequences. Goethe used it to help end the so-called Age of Reason that condemned man to factories and mines. Gounod saw it as an excuse for exquisite love duets, Boito for powerful arias and choruses. Liszt, Mahler, Wagner, Schumann and others felt it in musical terms, while my correspondent in Germany fitted it for a special musical audience in this decade.

“Damn Yankees” actually brings the American Musical back to its reputed origin when a terrible play named “The Black Crook” (a Faust story!) boosted sales by adding dancers in tights and ran for years, setting the pattern for so many musicals to follow. And who knows what the next century will bring.