Putting Up Revivals
The hilariously sharp off-Broadway revue ‘Forbidden Broadway’ has always prided itself on being the strong critical voice of the theatre industry, saying (or belting) those things that everyone within the industry is thinking. Part of its genius is knowing where the line is, and teetering just on the edge between sharp satire and rudeness. Its 2008 incarnation ‘Forbidden Broadway Goes to Rehab’ included a particularly relevant number, ‘Putting Up Revivals’ in which Sondheim ‘himself’ talked about the necessity to revive works of art to feed a modern day audience. Expertly put to Sondheim’s own ‘Putting it Together’ from Sunday in the Park with George, a song that discusses the challenges facing a new writer in financing, producing and creating new work, it captured the industry’s obsession with reviving Sondheim’s work in both the UK and USA over the past decade. It’s a well known fact that whilst his rich catalog of musicals each enjoyed an extended life after the original production, revivals of his shows became not only fashionable but also financially and critically successful.
Whilst that parody neatly commented on that particular movement, the satire could now easily be shifted to another theatre impresario, producer Cameron Mackintosh. After changing the face of both British and American musical theatre in the 1980s-90s, he was the driving force behind brand new productions such as Les Miserables, Martin Guerre and The Witches of Eastwick as well as revivals of classics such as My Fair Lady and Oliver! Delfont Mackintosh, as it later came to be known, remains as one of the main theatrical powerhouses in the West End, with an impressive catalog of theatre venues, hosting a wide and varied range of both musicals and plays.
The Heat is On
The news that Miss Saigon is to be revived at the Prince Edward Theatre from May 2014 will no doubt delight the legions of fans around the country who either enjoyed the historic 10 year run at the Drury Lane or wished they did. The original production was one of the most commercially successful musicals of the time, opening with a record advance on Broadway (thankfully saved after the Jonathan Pryce vs Actors Equity scandal). It seems like history is set to repeat itself, as here in London the 2014 revival has broken West End records for the most sales in one day, with over £4.5million in advance sales.
Whilst this is obviously fantastic news for both the production and the industry as a whole, is it good news for creativity, or a sign to future producers of the ‘not-broke-don’t-fix-it’ philosophy that will actually hinder the growth and development of new musicals in the West End? Despite being 15 years since the original production closed, is it actually ripe for revival? This question is one that haunts each new production of Gypsy on Broadway or Oliver! in the UK, but one that should indeed be asked by audience members. Whilst there is a great deal of nostalgia in revisiting a musical such as Miss Saigon, is there anything that can be artistically achieved by seeing it back in London? As someone who loves the show and has fond memories of the original production, (and lesser ones of the UK tour), I look at the looming posters with its iconic Dewynters artwork and clever mix of face/helicopter calligraphy and wonder how much will actually be revived and how much will be simply repeated?
My excitement for the show may be greater if I was wholly confident that this would be a ‘brand new’ production. The details of this have been kept somewhat under wraps, but has been said by the man himself to be based on the European touring version, which was a down-sized version of the Drury Lane production, complete with floating beds and 3D helicopters. In putting up this revival, will Miss Saigon just be a trip down memory lane and a chance to remember the glorious 80s when Britain dominated musical theatre around the world?
Whilst I’m not necessarily suggesting the need to reinvent the wheel, I for one cannot be the only person who would love seeing a brand new production of this fantastic epic musical. Surely the main criteria for a revival, from an artistic point of view, comes from a creative team wanting to explore something new, and progress the show in a different direction rather than just imitate.
Keep Dreaming the Dream
Perhaps I would feel differently about this if it were a one off, but it seems that Mackintosh is doing the very same with the jewel in his crown, Les Miserables which will be revived for the second time on Broadway, also in 2014. Whilst this production is said to reflect the current US touring version, which again is a step away from the iconic John Caird/Trevor Nunn original, to what degree can we call this a true revival? With Les Miserables the benefits to a producer are obvious. Following the success of the 2012 film the show has found a new audience. All it will take is for a clever bit of stunt casting, Samantha Barks as Eponine for example, and it’s a sure fire Broadway hit.
It would seem that after years of advancing the musical theatre industry, Mackintosh is now enjoying living in the past. Whilst to many this may not necessarily be a bad thing, these shows are extremely popular and constantly feature in the run-downs of the nation’s favourite musicals (For the most current list, check out Jemm3 Radio’s listeners poll) . Like many people, I grew up watching Cameron’s Gala ‘Hey, Mr Producer!’ on repeat, so much so that I’ve had to upgrade my worn out VHS to DVD. This concert remains the greatest celebration of musical theatre shows/people/performers in one room, and celebrates the wealth of Mackintosh’s work over his career to that point. I always wonder to myself, usually whilst pretending I’m Julia McKenzie singing ‘Broadway Baby’ if a follow-up concert would ever happen, and exactly which shows would feature. Looking at, shall we call ‘the second act’ of Mackintosh’s career, it’s clear to see that he has favoured revivals over new shows, even going so far as reviving the revivals. Since ‘Hey, Mr Producer!’ in 1998, My Fair Lady, Oliver!, Les Miserables and now Miss Saigon have all been revived, but exactly how many new productions could be added to the list? The fantastic thing about the concert was that it showcased some smaller shows the Producer was involved with, for example John Dempsy and Dana P Rowe’s production of The Fix which played at the Donmar Warehouse. It also featured guest spots from the new Boublil and Schoenberg musical Martin Guerre, which sadly failed to live up to the success of their previous efforts. As a producer, he has had a hand in both Avenue Q and Mary Poppins – shows that have certainly enjoyed international success, but there seems to be a distinct lack of new shows, with an overall reliance on the revivals.
Hey, Mr Producer…!
Betty Blue Eyes was Mackintosh’s most recent original musical, and was one that perhaps has put him off launching similar projects in the current climate. Despite positive notices after opening at the Novello Theatre in 2011, it failed to find an audience and closed after barely six months. All the elements were in place for it to be a success – an exciting song writing team of Stiles and Drewe, source material by national treasure Alan Bennett and a stellar cast including Sarah Lancashire and Reece Shearsmith. Kylie Minogue even made a cameo appearance as the voice of the pig. The exact reason for its failure is hard to pin down, but it does beg the question that sometimes Producers give with one hand and take with the other. For every revival of a classic that takes over the West End, a smaller, newer and more unknown musical suffers. Giving audiences the option of two ‘brands’ in which to invest their money, one being a tried and tested show they already know the score to and something completely unknown, the masses will always spend their £65 on the former.
Mackintosh has also been involved with revivals of ‘Hair’ and ‘Barnum’; shows that actually showed that revivals can also flop. He is currently in talks to bring his very early flop ‘Moby Dick the Musical’, (which happens to be one of the worst musicals ever written) back to the West End, along with a third attempt at making Martin Guerre work commercially. The Gielgud Theatre which was lined up to be taken by the Mackintosh-Chichester co-production of Barnum is now being eyed up by a new production of The Witches of Eastwick showing once again the cyclical nature of his work in the commercial West End.
From a business point of view, it is glaringly obvious when looking at the benefits of a revival vs a new musical. After a rather stagnant few years the 2013/14 West End season is looking the healthiest it has done in a long while for new musicals, meaning that next years Olivier Awards shouldn’t be as embarrassing as this year’s scraping the barrel efforts, which saw Soul Sister bag a nomination.
Revivals by their very nature involve revisiting something that has been previously enjoyed, with the hope of bringing it to a new audience. Whilst I am one of those who is happy to see Miss Saigon back in the West End, I hope it isn’t at the expense of new work. I thoroughly respect the work of Cameron Mackintosh, and he is one of the most influential and powerful people within the theatre industry, but I hope he manages to break through this mould and continue to progress the genre instead of celebrating and lingering in the past. Perhaps he has passed on the baton to the younger generation, as it is wonderful to see his niece take on the challenges that face a producer of a new musical, as Between Empires which was a huge hit at the Edinburgh Fringe is looking for a new life in London. I for one however am still living in hope of the second part of ‘Hey, Mr Producer!’, and hope that it will be more than just a re-run of the first with just a few more wrinkles. And that’s just Bernadette Peters.