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The Product as Advertised (Again): The Question of Revivals

By FRANK BEHRENS
March 2003

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 last year 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"— or as is the current "Flower Drum Song" which is less stereotypical of the Oriental characters (they claim), these cannot be called "revivals" as much as "adaptations."

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.

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.

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 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?

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