Revival Meetings: ANYTHING GOES, HAIR, and FOLLIES

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Revival Meetings: Anything Goes, Hair, and Follies

A slightly shorter version of this piece appeared in the Winter 2012 issue of The Hopkins Review (New Series 5.1)

           Viewed as something of a genre unto itself, the Broadway stage, more than most art forms, persists through recycling, especially these days.  On a recent August weekend, I set out to sample the purest form of this recycling with what is arguably the purest product of the American stage: revivals of great American musicals, in this instance from three decades: Anything Goes, from the 1930s, Hair, from the 1960s, and Follies, from the 1970s.

The Recycling Bin

            On that recent August weekend, there were 24 shows on Broadway, and of those, only three were neither revivals nor jukebox musicals based on existing pop songbooks nor adaptations from other genres.  This represents a huge change from the way things used to be.  Although August once was much more fallow than it is today on Broadway, it bears note in that same August weekend in 1934, the year of Anything Goes, six of the seven Broadway shows playing were original productions.  In the same weekend in 1968, the year Hair came to Broadway, 8 of 16 shows were original.  And in August 1971, the year of Follies, 9 of 16 were original.  Based on these four datapoints, it would seem that the tide of derivativeness has been generally rising for at least the last 80 years.

            If Broadway is the pinnacle of American theater, and is a limited resource (40 stages), we are demonstrably devoting the bulk of our efforts at that pinnacle to works that started life in other genres and/or bygone times, and that we are largely crowding out new ones conceived (as my three exemplars once were) directly for the stage.

Issues for Revivals

            I come to anatomize this trend, not to praise it or dispraise it.  And in particular I come to consider issues unique to the quintessential form of recycling, viz. revivals.  They do, after all, pose a unique set of challenges to those who stage them, and a unique set of questions to be considered by a contemporary audience.  How does a show from one era fare in front of the audiences from a later one?  One has to assume that the work is viewed as having something to offer, or it would not be re-presented.  Yet audience sensibilities inevitably will have changed.  Does the contemporary production team tailor the work to those sensibilities, or does it count on the audience to make allowances and enjoy the work as more or less originally presented?

            These are difficult questions.  To confront the artifacts of another time can sometimes provoke shock and reflection, at others, ennui.  In any event, total anachronism is unachievable.  Even a producer who wishes to do so cannot actually provide the exact same experience an audience would have had 40, 50, or 70 years ago.  The performers will be different, the technicalities of stagecraft are not the same, and the business structure of Broadway has markedly changed over the years.

            Seeing these three revivals as I did, one on top of the other, emphasized the workings of all these dynamics.  Anything Goes took a highly revisionist approach.  The other two were far less willing to meddle.  They exemplified the strengths and weaknesses of each line of attack.

Anything Goes: Unsinkable

            Anything Goes can only be described as having started life as a rewrite, and then to have become more so over the years.  Songwriter Cole Porter began by collaborating with book-writers P.G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton to do a musical about a shipwrecked ocean liner; then, just before rehearsals, came the Morro Castle disaster, leaving shipwreck no joking matter.  Wodehouse and Bolton having become unavailable to do the required salvage, Porter turned to the director Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse to change the script to keep the ship afloat.  Their rewrite was in turn rewritten in two movies made of the show, with very different song lineups, characters given different names and different characteristics.  And then there was a 1962 off-Broadway revival, which largely nailed down the new list of songs evolved through the movie process and reduced the action to a single set (the original had reportedly ended with a couple of scenes off shipboard).  In 1987, Russel Crouse’s son Timothy and John Weidman were brought in to do yet another major rewrite.  Characters changed, the song lineup changed again, and songs were assigned to different characters once more.  The current production is based on the 1987 one.

            Given all this history, one can hardly grow indignant that we are not getting the “pure” 1934 production.  1934 was of mongrel breed itself.  Certainly it’s hard to image that Cole Porter would have cared.  He was given to doing the same thing when he enjoyed artistic control.  From his perspective, and probably that of the audiences of his era and ours, the show, like all Cole Porter shows, is fundamentally a delivery vehicle for his songs.  If they come across well, almost any flaw in the book, whether attributable to the revisers’’ hands or another’s, will be forgiven.

            We can add that the book was never flawed.  The Timothy Crouse/John Weidman adaptation is about as good a delivery vehicle as the Wodehouse/Bolton/Lindsay/Russel Crouse one.  We know that the plot, whoever scripts it, is a tissue, less significant or serious even than the plots in Gilbert & Sullivan, a nonsensical pastiche involving mistaken identities, an unsuitable marriage to be prevented, and two suitable ones to be achieved, some slapstick and some farce.  All that the script has to do is be funny.  The first version I saw in 1962[1] was funny.  The 1987-2011 one is funny.  Case closed.

Tap-Dance Explosion

            For 2011, the show has been “opened up” again, to use a phrase more associated with movies than the stage.  It has about 20 more performers than 1987, and conforms to modern big-Broadway expectations, making the song-and-dance last longer, giving the stars (when I saw it, Joel Grey and Sutton Foster were headlining) more opportunities to show off for the audience, even to give the technical marvels in the sets a fuller workout.  You can get a very clear illustration of the difference I’m talking about by comparing the 1962 Eileen Rodgers or the 1935 Jeanne Aubert London cast rendition of the title song, ANYTHING GOES (downloadable on Amazon or iTunes), with the video of the Sutton Foster tap dance explosion crafted from the same song and captured at the 2011 Tonys show (viewable on YouTube).  This seems to be about giving the theatergoer a thorough value for the $140 or so he or she will likely have plunked down for the experience. 

            This hypertrophy of razzmatazz does emphasize the original large scale of the show, but may detract from other Porter strengths.  There is something powerfully simple at the heart of Porter’s appeal.  He has a very complex musical sensibility, a fiendish facility with words, but a very uncomplicated outlook for all that.  Porter believes that sex is great fun, that love is a powerful, if not irresistible force, and that all else is humbug, including taking either sex or love too seriously.  For example, the character of Reno Sweeney, a revivalist/nightclub singer based on Aimee Semple McPherson could have been done “straight,” like the Salvation Army lass in Guys and Dolls, or done as an exposé (and by 1934 there was an air of scandal about McPherson).  But in Porter’s hands she comes across as neither seriously religious nor hypocritical.  Her revival meeting in the ship’s lounge is barely about good conduct, let alone religion, even though the religious trope of Gabriel blowing a horn of course is the title phrase in the song.  It’s simply a fun way of blowing off steam.

            Notwithstanding the great artistry of his music and lyrics, then, Porter’s songs deliberately cultivate an air of being trifles, facetious off-the-cuff improvisations sitting at a keyboard at a cocktail party.  1962 emphasized the small scale pleasures.  The economics of contemporary Broadway musicals dictate small orchestras but big singing and big dancing.  So that will be the emphasis for the moment, even if it undercuts that cocktail party dynamic.  If that’s what it takes to see Cole walk in our midst again, it is worth it.

No More Hair-y Guys

            In contrast, the reviser’s hands lie lightly on the current revival of Hair.  So far as I could tell, the intent was to recreate the experience of the original production, in a world to which in a strange way it seems less relevant than does Anything Goes.  We still have Cole Porter’s topics: love and sex, celebrity criminals and the thrill of travel, after all.  We do not have hippies, their hair, their fashions, the Draft, or the Vietnam War. 

Is This Trip Necessary?

            But let me ask a rude question: when the surrounding culture and politics have vanished, is it worthwhile to preserve and re-present Hair, either to a new generation, or to anyone?  

            The short answer might be that there must be something worth preserving in a show whose every lyric and every tune was so familiar to almost everyone I knew growing up.  If you weren’t there, you may find it hard to grasp how profoundly the show struck a chord with young theatergoers (and record-buyers) when it came out.  It was deliberately transgressive and provocative in its lyrics, which spoke of drugs in a completely positive way, put expletives in Broadway music in a then just-about-unheard-of way, and fiercely condemned the War and the Draft.  It limned the Generation Gap.  It glorified flowing locks on males, utterly anathema to the crew-cut generation of our parents who had won World War II.  And it was positive about sex — any sex.  The lyrics to SODOMY, for instance:

 Sodomy, fellatio, cunnilingus, pederasty:
Father, why do these words sound so nasty?
Masturbation can be fun.
Join the holy orgy Kama Sutra, everyone.

             Well, o-kay.  Today most of it lacks shock value.  But pederasty?  The generation that embraced Sexual Liberation is also the generation that brought a far more serious appreciation to the ravages of child sexual abuse.  It is not just another way of having fun, opposed only by fussy fools (as, arguably, are all the other things in the verse).  And the revivalists bringing it back to us must have known that.

            In short, if there was any effort going on to prettify Hair, I missed it.  What was already pretty stays that way, of course, like the curtain call where the audience is welcomed to throng the stage and help sing LET THE SUN SHINE IN.  The song is a deliberately uplifting and crowd-pleasing bit of power pop that would raise pulses anywhere.  But I think it seems less dramatically justified than it once did by its context, the tragic moment that has just preceded it: a vision of Claude, the young protagonist, inducted against his will into the armed services and slain in action.  One can interpret the song, whose lyrics are simply the phrase “let the sun shine in” repeated endlessly, as a prayer for the killing of the young Claudes of the nation to stop.  But in 1968 there was very little reason to think it would stop anytime soon, or to wax uplifting about the hope that it might.  The logic of the show gives us little to be upbeat about, even if we know that the Draft and the War both ultimately came to an end.

What Still Works

            And this, it seems to me, exactly typifies what still works and what does not.  The pop-iest songs, e.g. AQUARIUS, MANCHESTER, ENGLAND, HAIR, WHERE DO I GO, still pack a punch.  The politics, the characters, the plot and much of the lyrics do not.

            As to the politics, much of it seems now like an exercise in stating the obvious, and not very cogently.  Our parents mostly want us to go to war, and we don’t wanna; we’re repelled and we’re scared.  Long hair feels cool.  Why shouldn’t we have sex with whomever we feel like?  How are we (especially if we happen to be black) supposed to feel patriotic about a country that once held slaves?  Isn’t militarism just a form of insanity?  And the like — all lessons mostly learned (or thoughtfully rejected) by now.

            What’s was ugly seems uglier.  Hair was perhaps unintentionally frank about the shortcomings of the characters.  Progressive politics could coexist with sexism and personal cruelty; EASY TO BE HARD sums it up well: “Do you only care about the bleeding crowd?/ How about a needing friend?”  Sexual liberation leads to the impregnation of Sheila “by some crazy speed freak” with no prospect of providing parenthood for the child or love for Sheila, and Sheila barely has the tools to process or recognize the fix she and the child are in.  And the “off the grid” quality of the Tribe’s lives, without jobs or accountability, seems to modern eyes less liberated than parasitical.

What Were We Thinking?

            It begs the question: What exactly are we supposed to like or admire about these kids? In 1967, we would probably have admired how free they were.  Now we tend to ask what that freedom is in aid of.  The explanation provided: “In this dive we rediscover sensation.”  I suspect that that rediscovery is no longer so highly prized, and would not have made Hair a hit today, had it not been one already.

            The plot and the songs contain much incoherence, even for a show that is more a revue than a musical drama.  About those songs, it’s been commented that they often seem not to end so much as peter out.  INITIALS, for instance, consists in its entirety of playing around with the acronyms LBJ, IRT, CIA and LSD.  It’s mildly transgressive to juxtapose authority figures President Johnson and the Central Intelligence Agency with LSD, but pointless.  The Claude’s Nightmare sequence which takes up a good deal of Act Two is similarly incoherent.  To choose one example from many, it may be a piquant image to show a passel of Catholic nuns strangling Buddhist monks with rosaries, but so what?  What does it tell us other than that Claude is stoned?

            In short, Hair works now, to the extent it does, mostly because it worked once.  The songs are firmly lodged in the musical memory of everyone of a certain age.  But without updating, the show may leave many of that age wondering what we were all thinking.  And its original audience will not be around forever.

An Archival Follies

            The problem is far less pronounced with Follies, which is nearly as old.  Arguably Stephen Sondheim’s most ambitious work, it is to some degree inoculated against aging by taking as its central preoccupation the passing of time, and the verdict rendered on youth by age (and perhaps vice versa).

            As the world knows, Follies takes place in 1971 in an old theater about to be demolished, where during the Depression, a series of Ziegfeld-like follies were presented.  The occasion is a reunion of people associated with those productions, principally female dancers and their beaux and husbands.  The principal characters are shadowed by the ghosts of their younger selves.  So through a kind of mirror play we watch the men and women they have become describing the past (that description tellingly characterized as “ly[ing] about ourselves – a little”), and then, through the interplay of the ghosts, seeing what the truth was, and thence, by a roundabout path, getting to the truth of the present.

            The show is also a chance for actors and actresses of a certain age to show that they still have the stuff, and the audience will be “pulling for them” in the present, 2011, quite irrespective of how it would otherwise feel about the characters they portray either in 1971 or 1931 for that matter.  A show that demands consideration of the same story from so many temporal viewpoints is likely to draw audiences immune to what C.S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery,” i.e. the sense that because something no longer suits modern tastes, it must be unworthy of regard.  That being the case, the kinds of issues we have been considering that revivals provoke should be largely mooted out.

            Indeed, this is an audience likely to be approaching the piece with the anticipation of finally seeing it done at all.  It’s not that they necessarily either quarreled with or exalted the 1971 production (which only ran for 522 ill-attended performances) – I suspect that most of us sitting there, like me, hadn’t seen it before.  Worse, by common consent the original cast album was a butchered abomination, so, having missed the show itself, we had never were able to use the album as a chance to catch up.  The show is far too expensive for casual staging, unlike Company, its companion-piece from the previous year, so it is just not so well-known.  There was a great concert staging in 1985, which was recorded.  But that still does not add up to audience familiarity.  There was also a stripped-down Broadway revival in 2001.  Through the process of regional and West End revivals, the James Goldman script was quite significantly altered, and three songs dropped out and were replaced by three others.

            This production, which premiered at the Kennedy Center before moving to a limited Broadway run, is ponderous and visibly expensive (reportedly the most costly production ever premiered at Kennedy Center).  From a synopsis of the original and a synopsis of the changes Goldman later made, this seems to be the original script.  And the earlier song substitutions have been reversed. The word archival has been used to describe this production, and that seems right.

Too Much Superstructure?

            So what stands out?  There are a number of images out there in the publicity for this production of the ghostly showgirls with monstrous headpieces; that seems an apt icon for the musical.  The four intertwined personal stories at the heart of the enterprise have to support a similar superstructure: ghosts, a humungous three-level set, a 41-person cast, a full orchestra, and a ton of portentousness.  Critics have differed as to whether the burden crushes the stories or not.

            I think in part the answer one gravitates to depends on whether one buys Sondheim’s visions of marriage and of success.  There is a persistent theme in a number of his musicals, persistent enough so one must discount the hypothesis that it comes concurrently and independently from the various book authors with whom Sondheim has collaborated, the theme of marriage as at best a funhouse, at worst a house of horrors, from which, astonishingly, almost no resident actually chooses to escape.  Think of the married couples in Company (1970).  And he entertains a parallel vision of success as of something relatively easy to achieve, but very difficult to enjoy.  Consider quasi-autobiographical protagonist Franklin Shepard in Merrily We Roll Along (1981).  

            In short, Sondheim depicts people whose restlessness never gives them the ability to say of a career or a marriage: this is enough.  They may, and usually do, stay with the job and the marriage.  But this can only occur at the cost of constant wondering what might have been had those shackles never been laid on, and by dint of inflicting pain on those around them as they wonder.  Perhaps the reason Sondheim’s A Little Night Music (1973) seems such a dramatic success is that Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night, Sondheim’s source, gave the unhappy characters an out: the miserable marriage actually ends and a presumably happy one ensues.  Where Bergman led, Sondheim had to follow.

Sondheim on Marriage

            So back to the two couples: Ben and Phyllis, and Buddy and Sally.  Their relationship goes back to the years of the Follies, when Ben and Buddy were young men at the bottom of the fire escape waiting to take showgirls Phyllis and Sally out on dates.  Ben has become a man of affairs, Buddy a salesman, and their two wives terminally bored and frustrated.  Sally, self-deluded, comes to the reunion believing she has a chance to rekindle a relationship with Ben.  Ben, Phyllis, and maybe Buddy have had affairs, and Sally has been fixated on memories of Ben.  So their marriages are hellish, as outlined in a couple of coruscating songs: COULD I LEAVE YOU? and BUDDY’S FOLLY, and especially Sally’s LOSING MY MIND (and it is a treat to hear Bernadette Peters’ treatment of this in the current version).

            Ben’s infidelity and coldness just seem to be givens, necessary to embody the Sondheim outlook on wedlock.  Phyllis’ coldness seems to be a response to Ben’s rebuffs.  And after the show-stopping COULD I LEAVE YOU? in which Phyllis tells off Ben, a volcanic eruption of hatred in which for three minutes she says unforgiveable, marriage-ending things, in response to him very emphatically asking for a divorce, the conclusion, which sees them still a couple, just does not follow.  The fight is over but not in any way walked back from.  Buddy, meanwhile, ought to be able to find a more desirable life companion than the sloppy, preoccupied Sally, and yet he is so conflicted that his staying with Sally is a foregone conclusion.

            The unveiling of this unhappiness proceeds concurrently with the reunion.  And despite the genuine piquancy of the notion of time’s passage at a gathering of superannuated showgirls and the men who surround them, it does not resemble the horror show of the two failed marriages.  Mostly the reunion is fun for the characters, the audience, and, presumably the cast.  This edition includes not only Bernadette Peters but Jan Maxwell and the grande dame of the British musical, Elaine Page.  They remain luminous and physically fit and it is a happy thing to see them.

A Gap Not Closed

            Apart from the four protagonists, the showgirls have had good lives, they are happy to see each other, and they retain the qualities that made them stars.  Even with notes of ruefulness injected, the song by Carlotta (Elaine Page), I’M STILL HERE, is about a kind of fulfillment and a great degree of honest, not to say triumphant insight. Is this depiction of private misery amidst rejoicing really a good fit?  It might be if the one compelled the other dramatically.  But the only causation I can see is that the reunion gives Sally a chance to find Ben and make a desperate attempt to win him back.  Everything else in their predicaments predates their arrival at the theater.  The setting does give the ghosts of their youthful selves a place to show how the two couples evolved out of a circle of friends, and perhaps how the seeds of their unhappiness were sown at the beginning.  And the Loveland sequence, a follies-style pastiche that degenerates into emotional grand guignol, which takes up much of the second act (the same way Claude’s nightmare does the second act of Hair, come to think of it), basically suspends depiction of the reunion.  It’s still got nothing to do with the reunion as a plot device.

            I would submit that Sondheim and his book author never quite closed this gap.  Follies remains more like two shows than one.  For comparison, think of how the happy romance and the tragic romance interplayed in South Pacific – a musical whose book was, incidentally, co-written by Oscar Hammerstein, well-known to have served as Sondheim’s mentor.  Because these romances were depicted in the same dramatic frame, and each had to do with cross-cultural romance, they cross-fertilized each other.

            James Goldman, the author of the book, kept tinkering with it up till his death in 1996.  But to my mind the show cannot be rewritten or updated to solve the problem

            That said, of course, Follies remains great art, slightly failed, but still richly deserving of this sumptuous re-creation.  We aren’t deterred from seeing revivals of Shakespeare’s “problem comedies” because they are imperfect; there’s far too much greatness there.  So it is with Follies.

What Will We Be Reviving In 2111?

            Looking forward, I would propose the following rules for predicting which shows will still be revived in 2111.  Great shows get invited back: Anything Goes will still be around – with, undoubtedly, fresh revisions. Great but flawed shows get invited back too: Follies will be back, and controversial then as now, with, probably, few revisions.  Shows that, taken out of their historical moment, are mediocre will probably disappear: Hair, I suspect, will suffer that fate, though some of the songs might persist.  And, whether my principles or my predictions based on them be right or wrong, I am confident about this: audiences a century hence will still be attending revivals.

___________

[1]  I’ve written about that revival elsewhere in this blog.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn

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