Resurrection Story

Drama Desk filled Sardi’s for a panel moderated by Robin Milling discussing the triumphs and tribulations of “Reviving the Revival.” John Istel reports.

Like a comic superhero in a blockbuster film franchise, new productions of beloved musicals and classic plays never die. Why?

That was the central question percolating throughout a Drama Desk-sponsored luncheon panel called “Reviving the Revival” at Sardi’s on May 24th, moderated by member Robin Milling. The panel included representatives from three of this season’s most acclaimed re-mountings: She Loves Me  (actor Gavin Creel and choreographer Warren Carlyle); The Robber Bridegroom (actor Steven Pasquale and director Alex Timbers); and Fiddler on the Roof (actress Jessica Vosk).

As Milling pointed out, one of the challenges of re-creating a musical is that often directors and performers are thrust into the position of following in hallowed footsteps. Does a theater artist embrace the choices made in previous productions or ignore them? For Roundabout Theatre Company’s revival of Robber Bridegroom, Steven Pasquale’s task was to make his role, originated by three-time Drama Desk Award winner Kevin Kline, his own. Luckily, “I was completely unfamiliar with the show. I just wanted to be in a rehearsal room with Alex Timbers,” he confessed. In Pasquale’s opinion, there are three solid reasons to remount a show: “It has great material, like Fiddler; or two, you have a visionary director like Alex, or you have a gem of a cast, someone who wants to take on a classic role.”

Timbers, however, was honored to build on the work of Gerald Freedman who initially staged Robber Bridegroom in 1975. “I tried to learn everything that he did because he was kind of a hero to me. And this was the first revival I ever directed.” Fortunately, Timbers’ cast was game to collaborate. “When we came to a problem, I’d ask the actors, ‘How should we handle this?’ and they’d go off and create something.” In addition, Timbers noted, creators Bob Waldman and Alfred Uhry were often on hand to tweak and touch up their work from the mid-1970s.

Maybe a revival could be more aptly called a “revision.” Sheldon Harnick, who will be honored with a special Drama Desk Award at this year’s ceremony, frequently attended rehearsals for Fiddler and She Loves Me. His goal wasn’t to ensure undue fidelity to the past but, as Gavin Creel remembered, to make the show as strong as possible in the present. “When Sheldon noticed that three perfume shop girls trilled the same line three times in a row when a customer exited, he spent the weekend in his wife’s makeup drawer looking through products to use in new rhyming lyrics. Imagine the thrill these ensemble members had when this 92-year-old legend presented them with handwritten revisions.”

When Milling asked the panelists what they most liked about the opportunity to work on a revival, Carlyle, who has choreographed On the 20th Century, …Edwin Drood, and Follies, among others, waxed enthusiastically about his love of researching and resurrecting a historic piece. He’ll watch tapes of previous productions, email any original creators he can find for advice: “It’s like going to school—I’m not going to work. Whenever I can follow in the footsteps of Gower Champion, Michael Bennett, Rob Marshall, Bob Fosse I’m so happy and I learn so much.”

Others had simpler answers. As Timbers admitted sheepishly, “The musical nerd inside you gets excited,” while Creel offered the most practical response: “I just like the trend because it employs a lot of us.”

How do you make a revival of a show that’s about a half a century old relevant for today’s much-changed world? Vosk said, “Everything in Fiddler—the world of refugees, their struggle to keep traditions amid oppression—is still really relevant today.” Notably, both Bartlett Sher, who staged the current revival, and Robber Bridegroom’s director Alex Timbers, added framing devices to their productions to re-contextualize the material for present-day audiences.

For Carlyle, however, relevancy relies primarily on the characters’ relationships—if the material is well written, it’s relevant. “I don’t mind nostalgia… in doses,” he added. “For She Loves Me, there’s literally perfume in the air—and that’s so romantic.”

Jessica Vosk found ample evidence of a revivals’ relevancy every time she looked out over audiences attending the oft-revived and much beloved Fiddler. “I’d see whole families standing and clapping.” Remounting important work serves a unifying cultural function: “It’s about educating a whole new generation of theatergoers. Every show, I see so many young people having a great experience—just like their parents… and their grandparents did.”