A student drew a picture of me. And you knew it was me because of the caption, “I Hate Revivals!” Rather than railing against revivals here today, I thought I’d think back to the origins of my antipathy.
It couldn’t be from pre-adolescence, because revivals were relatively rare in those days. But an experience from high school and an experience from college come to mind.
A delightful and headstrong girl drew me into a quixotic quest when I was 16 or so. She wanted to collaborate on an original musical and get the high school’s estimable drama department to do it. It was a long shot, but not without precedent. The summer prior, Jodi appeared in a revival of a show-for-kids created by students at our high school several years before. The powers-that-were wanted to continue presenting an annual children’s show. Our Through the Wardrobe was fashioned to the specific needs of the department we knew so well. And then came the day all interested parties gathered to hear the big announcement of the summer season: the play- The Madwoman of Chaillot; the grown-up musical- 110 in the Shade; the children’s show … (drumroll, please) … But, at this point, the handwriting was on the wall. With two obscure titles for the grown, the season would need a famous title sure to sell tickets: You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.
Well, that’s a good show, too, we thought. And we got over our disappointment by being cast in roles in all of them. (My genial encounter with 110 in the Shade lyricist Tom Jones is stuff for Another Hot Day.) Jodi took a few years, but got our musical produced, one night, in England. And a couple of years after that, I finally got to witness my American debut – in my hometown, New York, New York.
Now, Noel, you’re going to say, that wasn’t a revival. Every high school does shows that previously were produced in New York. I was barking up an unclimbable tree. But I’m just bringing this up as a tiny blip on a long continuum, a time when a choice was made to do a pre-existing play rather than a premiere.
Clark Gesner created You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown in a time and place where new musicals were treasured, or eagerly anticipated, and revivals were few and far between. Eventually, the world turned over: revivals were the big events of the Broadway season, and new shows anticipated in the manner of dentist visits. And Gesner practically never got a musical produced again.
But enough about him, it’s time I get to college.
I chose to go to the college I went to partly because students created an annual Varsity Show, and the roster of contributors reads like a Who’s Who of writing: Oscar Hammerstein, Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart, Herman Wouk, Terrance McNally, et al. While turbulent times had suspended the tradition, various school representatives personally assured me the Varsity Show would rise again. And I kept waiting. One day, I was playing in a class room and in walked that formidable gentleman-of-the-arts, Schuyler Chapin. He asked whether I was planning of getting involved with the Varsity Show and detailed plans to revive the 1920 edition, Rodgers and Hart’s Fly With Me with a full orchestra, full sets (and, it turned out, a cast recording). There was every reason, then and there, to get my Irish up (obligatory St. Patrick’s Day reference). Rather than providing an opportunity to future Rodgers and Harts, the University expended a great deal of resources and money on reminding the world Rodgers and Hart were among its student creatives many decades before. Fly With Me generated a good deal of press, but, the following year, there was still no student-written show. Having blown its wad reviving a 1920 spoof of student life, the school had nothing left over to do something for the students now attending (and living).
As if to add further insult to those in the student body with an itch to write musicals (not just me: the phenomenally successful composer Jeanine Tesori was then there. If you missed her Fun Home off-Broadway last fall, be sure to catch her Violet on Broadway starting next week – one of the great shows of our time), they decided to do a revue, A College On Broadway, of various songs from Varsity Shows long past. That production got a theatre and a budget and turned my stomach. I was not alone. Similarly queasy were my friends Adam Belanoff and Stephen Gee, but they had the fire in their bellies to do something about it.
Unlike me, Belanoff and Gee knew how to noodge. Whatever entreaties needed to be made, to whatever administrator, they made, and somehow were allowed to have access to a hallway in the student center. They cajoled their way into a few dozen chairs, some floodlights, and a keyboard, and for a few nights that spring, original musical theatre was heard in the halls (well, one) of Columbia. Emboldened by the ecstatic response, they next assembled a revue they called “the Junior Varsity Show,” and this was so wonderful, they then got access to a no-longer-used cafeteria for an actual Varsity Show. I’ll write more about that next week.
Just saw a Facebook status from a younger friend in our business: “I would have liked to have moved to New York as a 22 year old in 1981, and stayed until 1989, when I would have left, disappointed at how it had all changed.” I’ve no idea what he means by that, really, but I do know he’s all about original musicals. And when you look at Broadway in the 80s, you see more and more revivals booked into theatres that might otherwise have been used for original shows. The decade started with some promise – Barnum, Nine, Dream Girls, Drood, La cage aux folles, Sunday in the Park With George, Baby, Big River, and then, as the remountings of old shows proliferated, there came a ten year period in which no new American musical passed the 1,000 performance mark. Now, Broadway isn’t really a single entity like a high school or university, but the transformation of the Main Stem from a place where audiences and producers eagerly greeted new musicals with new scores to one in which folks flock to what they’ve heard before, well, it’s enough to make you want to say “folks flock” five times fast to possibly misspeak.