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This column by Simon Saltzman was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on September 15, 1999. All rights reserved.
Simon Saltzman on Drama
An impressive group of America’s most celebrated playwrights,
composers, and lyricists will be at New Jersey’s professional stages
this season to rewrite, improve, or — to quote one theater’s artistic
director — "tweak" old versions of their plays and musicals.
Expect such notables as Sam Shepard, David Mamet, Arthur Laurents,
and Stephen Schwartz, among them. While we have all become used to
the liberties taken with the classics of dramatic literature and the
musical theater by directors who are eager to bring their revisionist
dreams to the fore, we are less accustomed to having living playwrights
return to work on their presumably finished texts.
That some are plays that are in constant circulation makes one wonder
when it is time to leave it alone, and how valuable or essential is
changing an old text or score to suit the author’s whims, the public’s
tastes, and a theater’s needs. And might it not distort the original
vision? Certainly, one can only make a judgement call after the revised
work is seen.
There can be no doubt that political correctness prompted both healthy
changes, as well as questionable altering, to once unthreatening musicals
such as "Peter Pan," and "Annie Get Your Gun." The
trend to embrace revisionism reached a peak with the British imports
of two American musicals "Carousel," and "Cabaret."
But the contemporary straight play has remained relatively free of
tampering. For the audiences that are no longer shocked to see Shakespeare
shaken up, Moliere molested, and Chekhov chopped, the playwrights
and the writers of contemporary musical theater are obviously eager
to have another go at the same thing, only, they hope, to make it
Each season New Jersey’s professional stages are charged with the
expectancy of something new, but the promise of making something old
new again. Which is why we extend a welcome to musical versions of
Shakespeare, Molnar, and even Louisa May Alcott. New works and world
premieres are always an essential part of every theater season. Two
of the most eagerly awaited are "Down The Garden Path" by
actress and playwright Anne Meara, and the musical "Night Governess"
by Polly Pen.
"Rewrites are standard procedure," says Joseph Megel, artistic
director at Madison’s Playwrights Theater of New Jersey, the state’s
only theater dedicated solely to the development of new plays. It
is courageously embarking on its first subscription season in its
14-year history with three plays: AT&T will sponsor "Southern
Christmas" by Guillermo Reyes, and the National Endowment of the
Arts will sponsor both "Fathers and Sons" by J. Rufus Caleb,
and "Radium Girls" by Dolores Whiskeyman.
Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Sam Shepard has been personally
involved in the revised "Fool for Love," at Princeton’s McCarter
Theater, where artistic director Emily Mann is currently celebrating
her 10th season. "He has been at the rehearsals and is part of
Emily’s process," says McCarter associate producer Mara Isaacs.
"Tweaking" is the word she uses to describe the playwright’s
role. She expects the same sort of involvement from David Mamet, who
will be hanging around for the first major staging in 15 years of
his "Glengarry Glen Ross."
Perhaps the most eagerly awaited production of the year
is "Night Governess," a new musical by McCarter’s artist-in-residence
composer Polly Pen. Pen ("Goblin Market," "Bed and Sofa"),
has found her inspiration in Louisa May Alcott’s 19th-century thriller
"Behind a Mask." She is also busy composing the incidental
music for both "Fool for Love," and "The Importance of
Being Earnest." On October 18, Pen will receive $25,000 as one
of the two winners (the other is composer Douglas Cohen) of the Gilman
& Gonzales-Falla Theater Foundation’s Eighth annual Musical Theater
Aside from the three new plays on its schedule, New Brunswick’s Crossroads
Theater Company, winner of the 1999 regional theater Tony Award, will
be celebrating the Duke Ellington centennial by presenting "Play
On," the 1997 Broadway musical with music by Ellington, inspired
by Shakespeare’s "Twelfth Night." Tony Award winner Andre
De Shield, who appeared in the Broadway production, will be putting
a new spin on the musical, this time as its director. Kim Coles, known
for her role in the TV series "Living Single," and as host
of Lifetime TV’s "New Attitudes," may become better known
as a playwright if her new play "Homework" makes the grade.
Coles also stars in the play co-written and directed by Charles Randolph-Wright.
It opens, to use Ricardo Khan’s words, "a season of celebration."
David Saint, artistic director at the George Street Playhouse, sounds
like he just discovered Santa Claus as he talks about the up-coming
new production of the 1965 musical "Do I Hear A Waltz." Both
the original author Arthur Laurents, and original lyricist Stephen
Sondheim, are busy collaborating on an almost completely overhauled
version of the musical that was based on Laurents’ 1952 romantic comedy
"The Time of the Cuckoo." Saint feels George Street can take
the credit for making this happen.
It all started last season during technical rehearsals for Laurents’
play "Jolson Sings Again," explains Saint. "Laurents turned
to me and said, `What about doing `Do I Hear A Waltz’ here? I always
wanted it to be an intimate musical and was disappointed when it was
blown up for the Broadway stage.’"
"That’s a terrific idea," was Saint’s response, and now he
expresses his pleasure at the way Laurents has beefed up the roles
and made them more complex than they were before. In Saint’s own inimitable
style, he sings for me an entire chorus number that has been cut for
this production to transform it into a more intimate musical. Saint
then offers an equally stirring impersonation of the view of the scaled-down
version taken by Theoni Aldredge, the show’s costume designer: "Oh,
please dahling, it’s a wonderful show about three-and-a-half people."
The score by Richard Rodgers will remain largely intact, and one song
dropped by the Broadway production has been restored, and Sondheim
is contributing some additional lyrics. Now, do I hear a hit?
A major reconstruction of the 1986 musical "Rags"
will be one of the highlights of the season at Paper Mill Playhouse.
Although there were many reasons for the musical only lasting four
performances on Broadway, this critic has always been a champion of
Stephen Schwartz’s thrilling score, the intelligence of Charles Strauss’
lyrics, and the poignancy of Joseph Stein’s book. "The team began
to rework the musical practically from the day the musical closed
on Broadway," says Paper Mill’s executive producer Angelo Del
Rossi, who traveled down to the Coconut Grove Playhouse in Florida
last season to see the scaled-down new version. He undoubtedly was
pleased with what he saw.
Grove director Jeffrey Moss will be restaging this more intimate version
of Jewish immigrants in New York. A new song by Schwartz will close
the first act. With the musical "Pippin" also on the schedule,
to be directed by Robert Johanson, this marks the first time in Paper
Mill’s history that the season includes two musicals by the same composer.
About the thriller "Deathtrap" and the farce "Noises Off,"
Del Rossi reassures me there won’t be any changes. But he adds, "Just
don’t be surprised if Johanson doesn’t do a little rewriting of the
ageless operetta "The Student Prince."
The early 20th century Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnar isn’t around
to assist in the re-writes that has turned his original play "The
Guardsman," into the musical "Enter The Guardsman," now
at the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival. But the adaptation of the
original by director Scott Wentworth and the score by Craig Bohmier
(music) and Marion Adler (lyrics) are attempting a respectful homage
to the playwright’s light romantic style. Artistic director Bonnie
J. Monte says that the production will have many changes and be a
very different show from the one that opened at the Donmar Warehouse
in London, in 1997. Monte, who is directing her first "Romeo and
Juliet" this season, says this greatest of all romantic tragedies
won’t get any rewrites but it is not above some judicious pruning.
And she says, "As successful as `A Child’s Christmas in Wales’ was
last season, there will be some improvements made." Now, isn’t
that what all these playwrights are hoping for?
battle with polio, September 17 to October 3. Greater Tuna,
two actors play most of the very funny citizens, men and women, of
Tuna, Texas, October 15 to October 31. The Devil’s Disciple,
George Bernard Shaw’s play about the American Revolution, November
12 to 28. Happy Holidays, a short original play and a holiday
musical revue, December 17 and 18.
Inspecting Carol, Daniel Sullivan’s comedy about a tired Midwestern
theater company’s annual "Christmas Carol," November 30 to
December 19. Clarence Darrow, March 28 to April 16. A Funny
Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum , May 16 to June 4.
732-249-5560. Website: www.crossroadstheatre.org.
Randolph-Wright about three best girlfriends (all played by Coles),
September 23 to October 31. Play On!, a jazz musical that blends
Duke Ellington with Shakespeare, November 18 to January 2. Yellow
Eyes , world premiere of a play by Migdalia Cruz about a woman growing
up at the end of the Civil Rights era, January 27 to February 27.
Venice, a new play by Kathleen McGhee Anderson about two families,
one black, one white, drawn together by unexpected circumstances,
March 9 to April 9.
732-246-7717. Website: www.georgestplayhouse.org.
musical, directed by David Saint, with music by Richard Rodgers and
lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, October 9 to November 14. Down the
Garden Path , world premiere by actress and writer Anne Meara, November
20 to December 19. Syncopation, Mark Nelson stars in the world
premiere of Alan Knee’s play about two mismatched immigrants who dream
of becoming professional ballroom dancers, January 8 to February 6.
Master Class, Rita Moreno stars in Terrence McNally’s 1996 Tony-winning
character study of diva Maria Callas, February 12 to March 19. Loot,
Joe Orton’s classic English comedy about a bank robber and a family
funeral, March 25 to April 23. Final offering of the season TBA, April
29 to May 28.
Produced by area companies, shows play Fridays through Sundays. Website:
September 24 to October 3. Some Like It Hot, October 8 to 17.
Poe’s House of Usher, world premiere of an adaptation of Edgar
Allan Poe’s classic tale, October 29 to 31. 42nd Street, based
on the 1933 Busby Berkeley film about the chorus girl who saves a
Broadway show, November 26 to December 5. Pippin, based on the
Bob Fosse classic about the oldest son and heir of Holy Roman Emperor
Charlemagne, January 8 to 16.
cartoon series, February 11 to 13. The Importance of Being Earnest,
the Oscar Wilde classic that pokes fun at the social elite, March
11 to 19. Funny Girl, based on the life of Fanny Brice, an ugly
duckling chorus girl who rises to stardom, April 8 to 16. $9 to $18.
A Chorus Line, Michael Bennett’s hit musical, April 28 to May
streets, Trenton, 609-392-5589. $12 & $15.
Paul Zindel’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama about a bitter widow and
her daughters, October 14 to 31. Frankie and Johnny in the Clair
de Lune , Terrence McNallys ribald comedy about a jaded waitress
and a sentimental cook, January 27 to February 13. The Foreigner,
Larry Shue’s farce set in rural Georgia, April 27 to May 14.
directing Sam Shepard’s searing drama about two childhood sweethearts
confronting both their enduring passion and a mutually haunted past,
September 14 to October 3. The Importance of Being Earnest,
the Oscar Wilde comic masterpiece, October 19 to November 7. Glengarry
Glen Ross , the dark comedy by David Mamet about a group of small-time
real estate salesmen competing for a share of the American dream,
February 15 to March 3.
of a Kentucky African-American family struggling to maintain their
ties to the land and each other, March 28 to April 16. Night Governess,
world premiere of Polly Pen’s comic thriller about a genteel governess
who craftily manipulates her employers for her own mysterious aims,
May 2 to 21.
University, Madison, 973-408-5600. $20 to $38.
premiere of a musical based on a frothy comedy by Ferenc Molnar, continues
to October 3. Romeo and Juliet, the Shakespeare tragedy directed
by Bonnie Monte, October 26 to November 21. A Child’s Christmas
in Wales , for the holidays, a stage adaptation of the beloved Dylan
Thomas story, November 30 to December 23.
609-466-2766. Dessert theater, Fridays through Sundays. $20.50 & $22.
who become roommates, September 10 through October 16. Cheatin’
Hearts, Country musical about three women who try their wings as
the singing group, Daddy’s Girls, October 22, through December 4.
Abie’s Irish Rose, a Jewish son brings home an Irish bride and
a comic war ensues, December 10 through January 22. Triumph of
Love, a musical adaptation of the classic Marivaux comedy about
a princess who disguises herself as a young man to enter the palace
of an exiled prince she has admired from afar, January 29 through
March 11. Finger Painting In A Murphy Bed, romantic comedy about
a secretarial temp torn between caring for her young brother and accepting
a date with a young executive, March 17 to April 22.
Ebersole as the madcap aunt, September 8 to October 24. Rags,
a new version of the musical sequel to Fiddler on the Roof, with book
by Joseph Stein, music by Charles Strouse, and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz,
November 3 to December 12. Noises Off, the comedy about a troupe
of fifth-rate actors, January 7 to February 13. Deathtrap, the
comedy thriller about a playwright so desperate for a hit that he’ll
kill for it, February 23 to April 2. The Student Prince, American
light opera about a forbidden romance, featuring love songs, waltzes,
moonlight serenades, and a classic drinking song, April 12 to May
27. Pippin, an updated edition of the razzmatazz musical that
has magic, vaudeville, music hall, and Mardi Gras, June 7 to July
& Montgomery streets, Trenton, and at the War Memorial, 609-392-0766.
run on the Ballroom Stage of the Trenton War Memorial. Zora Neale
Hurston , Mill Hill Playhouse, begins February 17. Blinding Light,
Mill Hill Playhouse, world premiere of William Mastrosimone’s touching
and funny look at the push and pull between people caught up in life’s
and love’s snares, begins June 9
or toll-free 877-STATE 11. Website: www.statetheatrenj.org.
Touring productions of drama, musicals, opera, and dance in the restored
Thursday, November 18. Annie, Saturday, November 20. Porgy
and Bess , Saturday, December 4. 1775, Saturday, January 22.
King Lear, by the Aquila Theater Company, Sunday, February 6.
Smokey Joe’s Cafe, Saturday, February 12. The Irish and How
They Got That Way, Thursday, March 16. Camelot, Saturday,
March 18. Victor/Victoria, Saturday, April 29. Show Boat,
Friday, June 9, and Saturday, June 10.
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