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Dallas and the Musical Revisal

by Jerome Weeks 25 Jun 2010 4:18 PM

Revival? Revisals? People have been acting like the Dallas Theater Center’s ‘It’s a Bird … It’s a Plane … It’s Superman’ musical is some sort of strange bird. But we’ve been down this particular path before.


A number of the advance features that have been written about the Dallas Theater Center’s It’s a Bird … It’s a Plane … It’s Superman have stumbled over whether the show — opening tonight — is a ‘revival’ of the 1966 original that flopped on Broadway. And they settle uncomfortably on ‘revisal’ as if the word were strange to them or they’d just invented it.

Actually, ‘revisal’ is not some freshly coined word, despite the fact that my computer’s stupid Microsoft spell checker keeps highlighting it. It appears, for instance, in my antique 1941 Merriam-Webster. Nor is it a rare phenom. An April WSJ feature considered briefly the recent tradition of Broadway revisals, specifically several new examples of tinkered classics (Promises, Promises, Grease,  South Pacific). And it asked the question, when does a revival become a revisal? In those instances, what mostly concerned author Joanne Kaufman was the addition or removal of a number or two.

But what about major book re-writes? The fabrication of entire scenes? Four or five new tunes? Well, Ken Mandelbaum has argued that the “revisal was the dominant form of musical revival in the ’90s.” So much for its supposed oddball or only semi-legit status. For him, the most successful revisal, believe it or not, has been Chicago. I was taken aback by the claim but he argues that because the stripped-down staging of the 1996 City Center Encores! presentation and the fact that the book was trimmed for it made the Kander-and-Ebb 1975 tuner seem like a “radical rewrite” — and that’s what lead to the Oscar-winning film version. I’m not fully convinced that a re-staging, however radical, amounts to a revisal. Many people seem to think ‘revival’ means a note-for-note, stage-prop-for-stage-prop recreation of an original. But many revivals — the majority, I think — are actually ‘re-stagings.’ (Mandelbaum argues the same revisal status, more or less, for the Donmar Warehouse-Roundabout Theater nightclub version of Cabaret — but that did have significant changes.)

Several years ago, Michael Dale made a convincing case that the 1973 version of Irene was the world’s first Broadway musical revisal:

Sure, there had been revivals featuring book revisions and added and deleted songs before producer Harry Rigby, spurred by the success of the 1971 revival of No, No, Nanette, thought of presenting [Irene,] the long-running hit from 1919 (Broadway’s longest running book musical before Oklahoma!) as a vehicle for the Broadway debut of Debbie Reynolds. But never before had there been such a drastic overhauling of a successful show for its return to New York.  …  Hugh Wheeler was brought in to write a new book (with Joseph Stein added to the mix during previews) with new songs, and lyric revisions to old songs, penned by Charles Gaynor, Otis Clements, Wally Harper and Jack Lloyd.  Only five of the original Tierney/McCarthy tunes remained, including the big hit “Alice Blue Gown”, but a couple of popular numbers McCarthy wrote with other composers, “You Made Me Love You” and “They Go Wild, Simply Wild, Over Me” found their way into the new Irene.  “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows” was sung by Reynolds during previews, but was cut before the Broadway opening.  It was added again when Jane Powell came in as her replacement.

The Irene revisal was successful (a year-and-a-half run) although mostly because of Debbie Reynolds’ celebrity draw.

I can’t find anything that might be considered a revisal after 1973’s Irene – although there certainly could have been some, I’m not claiming the most thorough search through everything in the period loosely termed a ‘revival’ — but it’s plain the show didn’t exactly spark a trend. Instead, I would maintain that the contemporary movement to revisals — and by that I mean re-vamping Golden Age musicals with updated yucks or plots, more contemporary sensibilities and at least a couple new tunes — that kind of revisal actually began with Dallasite Roger Horchow’s wholesale re-working of the Gershwins’ Girl Crazy into 1991’s Broadway smash, Crazy for You. It was like Irene in how heavily it re-worked its original source. But unlike Irene, not only was it a full-fledged, long-running, international hit, it won three Tonys, including best musical.

Mandelbaum highlights and extols the 1992 revival of Guys and Dolls and Lincoln Center’s later Carousel — justly —  for their beauty and newfound emotional impact. And then he slips in a single reference to Crazy for You as if it barely mattered in this discussion.  But although the Guys and Dolls and Carousel revivals freshened up and re-thought the originals,they didn’t change them fundamentally.

Horchow and his creative team, in contrast, essentially invented a new show. He hired Ken Ludwig (Lend Me a Tenor) to craft a new book, which retained only the basic storyline: rich Easterner heads out west to run a defunct something or other (in the original, it was a lodge; for the new version, it’s a theater, natch). But that’s all that remains. Then, after getting permission to rummage through the Gershwin songbook, the team grafted on a whole slew of previously unrelated standards, including “Nice Work If You Can Get It” (from A Damsel in Distress), “Someone to Watch Over Me” (from Oh, Kay) and “They Can’t Take That Away from Me” (from Shall We Dance). Thus, a show that had already been known as the ‘musical with the most Gershwin classics’ in it became thoroughly stuffed with sure-fire hits.

Horchow tried out Crazy for You in 1991 in Washington, D.C., so it’s not like we can actually claim Dallas as the originating point of the current trend in revisals. But he did start the successful nationwide tour here.

So Superman should not be treated as something utterly foreign to us. Searching for ways to update shows that have goldmine music but badly flawed books or misguided stagings has become a minor industry on Broadway — thanks, in part, to Roger Horchow.