When the stage turns to reruns
"The King and I," "Man of La Mancha," "Peter Pan," "Oklahoma," "Music Man," "West Side Story," "Camelot," and other such "classic" musicals are dominating the American commercial stage of our day. Theater producers and audiences in New York and around the nation are showing a marked preference for revival, instead of original creative product. Involved are simple commercial logic and, more significantly, the theater manifestation of a national malaise of cultural resignation.
The commercialism is rather straightforward. In an era of exponential rise in production costs, coupled with substantial profits for successfull shows, the cost of failure has become too great. On Broadway, since the 1977 opening of "Annie," no original musical has been a major financial hit.
At the same time, from the spring of 1977 to the spring of 1979, almost $13 million was lost on 11 Broadway flops. Even the critically acclaimed "Sweeney Todd" closed a respectable run without making a profit for its investors. In touring revival productions, though, significant profits are to be made without enormous risk, and thus the attraction to producers and investors.
This attraction alone does not explain the proliferation of revivals. Revivals are so numerous and popular because they meet the institutional needs of the commercial theater as part of the mass culture industry and taste wants of the theater audiences. They are neatly packageable on the mass market and highly attractive: consumer products at that. But buyer beware. There is less than meets the eye.
"Broadway" investors and producers increasingly are turning to the techniques of Madison Avenue in selling theater products. "The Wiz" was a success despite negative reviews. Twentieth Century-Fox heavily advertised in mass media, capitalizing on the one extraordinary production number in the show. Thus, the show turned a profit and a grand film project survived.
With 20 percent of the total production investment in advertising, "Sarava," produced and composed by Mitch Leigh, a former advertising man, was one of the longer running musicals in recent years, even before it officially opened. Heavy use of television advertising, capitalizing on the catchy title tune, made it a popular success, by-passing the powerful, newspaper critics. Such marketing innovation has become recognized as a key to a production's success, replacing, or at least significantly supplementing, the quotable favorable comment by daily newspaper reviewers.
The revival musical is particularly adaptable to this form of marketing. It presents to its audience a pre-existing sucessful package. Book, music, lyrics, and choreography are identical to the past hit. Technically, this is what makes it a revival and not a new production of an older work. A 30-or 60-second television commercial evokes the success of the past hit and its nostalgic connotations. The audience comes not so much for new cultural experience, but for a reliving of a pseudo-experience.
Today, Burton in "Camelot" recalls our hope of the '60s, and gives us the melodramatic pleasure to witness his excellence before it was corrupted. "West Side Story" awakens our sense of past innocence. "Bye Bye Birdie" rekindles a sweetened view of our personal and national adolescence. We approach each of these and other such revivals with nostalgic longings, not for things past, but for easily digested renditions of things past.
When we wish to recall the political, cultural and personal innocence of the '50s and '60s, we do not recall the anxiety of nuclear consciousness, the cold war, political purges ("McCarthyism"), and the civil rights struggles, nor our inability to confront any of these major problems which characterize the long for ignorance of these problems. The revival musicals give us such ignorance, as do, more powerfully, such television programs as
"Happy Days" and "Laverne and Shirley," the contemporary versions of the situation comedies of the '50s and '60s.
When first produced, the classics of the American musical tradition were optimistic celebrations. Because of the fundamentally optimistic frame of mind of the American public then, a fine craft was observed and appreciated. Unique music, dance, and theater forms developed which correctly have been recognized as the distinctively American contribution to world theater.
Package revivals debase this contribution. They freeze the development of theater form and focus upon its transitory rather than universal quality. They are easily marketable, because their recurring "happy end" or sentimentalism, not their cultural accomplishment, appeals to a public racked with doubt and hopelessness, an American public which for the first time looks backward for its golden age.
Revivals are sellable commodities, even when shoddily produced. These are not new productions of classics, involving reinterpretation and innovative approach. Rather, they celebrate manners of the past, purposely without the creative hand and consciousness of the present.