The recent openings of two musicals—one adapted from a movie (that tiresome trend) and one the sort-of-revival of a movie adaptation—has focused a harsh spotlight on a huge problem: the updating of musical comedies that are assumed to be dated.
These Broadway productions—which their eyes-on-the-dollar-sign producers no doubt believed to be marquee titles–dealt not a glancing blow but a heavyweight punch to the work of the original writer of both the sumptuous films: Alan Jay Lerner.
What did Lerner, who died in 1986, do to deserve such treatment? Known to be a zealous partisan of the stage and screen, Lerner was painstaking at his work. In some ways, he lived his life as if he were on stage. Once, when I interviewed him in a drawing room at the top of his Upper East Side townhouse, he suddenly rose and shut the door to the room, declaring, “You must never have an open door on stage.”
For An American in Paris, he wrote a screenplay reflecting the hopeful attitude of the city following its post-war liberation, while for Gigi, he hewed closely to Colette’s representation of fin-de-siècle French mores.
But we’re living in a cultural period when context isn’t honored and political correctness reigns supreme — which means Lerner’s babies are vulnerable to being thrown out with the eau de parfum. For Gigi, among other emendations, British writer Heidi Thomas not only added lyrics to at least one song by Lerner and composer Frederick Loewe (“Say a Prayer”), but she also transformed young Gigi into one of today’s proactive heroines. For An American in Paris, respected playwright Craig Lucas plumbed the more shadowy side of Paris by making Lise, the heroine, a Jewish woman who survived World War II because she was hidden by a family involved with the Resistance.
Thomas and Lucas are hardly the first ones roped into making older musicals viable, at least as producers and estates see it. The practice (there’s even a name for it: “revisal”) has operated for decades now, and I don’t condemn it reflexively. I admit that revising musical books might, in certain instances, be a boon.
Musical lovers know that in the 1910s and 1920s — starting with the Princess Theatre shows by P.G. Wodehouse and Jerome Kern — the score was the thing, not the book. (Performers were also the thing.) It didn’t matter how flimsy the book if the songs were peppy and pretty or if the reasons for the songs were at all motivated by the strict dictates of the scenes.
The formula was so prevalent that many of the musicals from that era are correctly considered unsalvageable. Check out something like 1923’s Helen of Troy, New York, which has a charming Bert Kalmar-Harry Ruby score but a book by George Abbott and Marc Connelly that’s nearly impenetrable. Good luck to any deep-pocketed producer who’d want to revive that piece of work.
As the decades slipped by, however, musical comedy books slowly improved. Oscar Hammerstein II’s book for Show Boat is generally considered the watershed. Yet, even the serious-minded Hammerstein revised his own script for the landmark 1946 revival. Today, if it’s unlikely that the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization will be calling in a future Lucas to freshen that script, even R&H folks don’t look askance at tampering with success.
Quite the opposite. R&H has approached playwrights, particularly those with recently acquired good reputations, to put new blusher on aging musical comedy cheeks. For the 2002 revival of the Rodgers-Lorenz Hart The Boys From Syracuse, Nicky Silver, tapped to revise George Abbott’s original book, made it worse. (Didn’t they all realize that the script for the 1963 Off-Broadway revival was perfectly fine?)
Other R&H-sponsored rewrites have been equally problematic. In 2002, David Henry Hwang poked enough holes in the Hammerstein-Joseph Fields book for the 2002 Flower Drum Song revival to make it cheesy. When Richard Greenberg was asked to reconstruct (not deconstruct) John O’Hara for the 2008 Pal Joey (score by Rodgers and Hart), he couldn’t solve whatever problems his employers perceived. Most egregiously of all was the hack-job Douglas Carter Beane did to the show that was billed as Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella. But the show, which opened in 2013, was not Cinderella by Rodgers and Hammerstein. That’s despite Beane sharing book credit with Hammerstein and also being credited as one of the lyricists — Hammerstein, Beane and David Chase.
To turn Cinderella into another of today’s “You go, Girl!” types, Beane’s Cinderella doesn’t inadvertently stop out of her glass slipper while fleeing the palace at midnight. She deliberately removes it for this Prince Charming — hip-ly rechristened as Topher. Think of it: little girls introduced to Cinderella like this are left to think Beane’s stalk is the actual plot of the enduring fairy tale.
Maybe musicals do require some discreet measure of care from time to time, particularly if their books have been a comparatively weak element (like Flower Drum Song). Perhaps the assigned repairers aren’t the right ones for the task.
Or maybe the individuals choosing the script doctors aren’t delving sufficiently into those chosen. Maybe they aren’t asking about affinity with the material under scrutiny. Were they advised to give thought to how Lerner might have reimagined An American in Paris or Gigi were he alive to do so? Or were they given carte blanche to do almost whatever they wanted with the basics — just as long as they incorporate the score (and any scattered inclusions) into their narratives?
Maybe what’s needed is someone like David Ives, who’s done the redacting for many of the Encores! revivals. Maybe what‘s needed is someone like Neil Simon — also known as Doc Simon for his script doctoring acumen. In Andy Propst’s just published You Fascinate Me So — a biography of revered Broadway composer Cy Coleman, he includes a quote from Simon, who wrote the books for the Coleman tuners Sweet Charity and Little Me. Referring to his work on the TV musicals produced by the late Max Liebman, Simon said:
[W]e would adapt a Broadway book show—Best Foot Forward, A Connecticut Yankee, Dearest Enemy—all Rodgers and Hart shows. Some Gershwin shows. The books were dated, so we got permission from the estates of those properties to update them.
So this updating business — and make no mistake, it’s a business — isn’t new. Too often, though, the results are unsatisfactory, if not downright insulting.