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How director Leigh Silverman reinvented a classic musical for our complicated age
When the all-female band starts wailing the iconic vamp to "Big Spender," murmurs of recognition erupt throughout the house. It's Sweet Charity's famous, sexy showstopper -- but within seconds it becomes clear that this version has a darkness to it. The orchestration (by Broadway vet Mary-Mitchell Campbell) is heavy on electric guitar. Though they're selling companionship, the taxi dancers crooning it look awfully lonely. And our sweet heroine, Charity (played by two-time Tony Award winner Sutton Foster) is at the center of the seedy action when, traditionally, her character sits this song out.
"As far as I know, this is the first production that puts Charity into that number, and we gave her a whole verse," says Leigh Silverman, director of The New Group's much-buzzed-about Off-Broadway revival which opens this weekend. "We're not trying to hide what she does for work; we're making it very clear in terms of telling the truth about who Charity is. 'Big Spender' is important to me: I wanted to hold on to the fun of the number and the amazing music, but also walk a tonal line. You should feel that these women are simultaneously empowered and disempowered."
That paradox is apparent throughout this interpretation of the 50-year-old musical, which chronicles the (mostly) wacky adventures of Charity Hope Valentine, a kindhearted, unambitious, perpetually optimistic '60s dancehall hostess who desperately wants to be loved. Staged in an intimate theatre with walkways extending into the audience, the production emphasizes emotional truth over razzle-dazzle. That's something frequent collaborators Foster and Silverman (the Tony-nominated revival of Violet; The Wild Party at Encores!) felt strongly about from the get-go.
"It was really clear for Sutton and me that we didn't want to do it the way it had been done before," Silverman says. "It was made by masters [songs by Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields, and a book by Neil Simon]. If we were going to do it, our take had to be contemporary and with our point of view. I did a lot of research about various revivals. I knew there was no ending that everybody was happy with -- there are three different published versions. They never could quite figure out where we should leave Charity. So one of my first tasks was to figure out how to tell her story; to take the material and -- without actually changing a word, just reordering it -- give Charity a different journey than she's had before, one that felt more real, deeper."
Not to imply that this Charity is devoid of fun. There are still many exuberant dance sequences, choreographed by Joshua Bergasse with a few nods to Bob Fosse's original moves. There are also farcical sequences punctuated by physical comedy, like Charity hiding out in an Italian movie star's closet. And, of course, Charity has a romance with lovable neurotic Oscar Lindquist, played by Tony Award winner Shuler Hensley.
But there's an undercurrent of uncertainty throughout. The characters don't seem to know where they're going, and that's especially true for Charity. For instance, even though she's a liberated, sexually active, independent woman, her sole aspiration is to settle down with a husband, house, and kids. She's both attracted to and trapped by binary gender norms. So while it's certainly a period piece, strip away the '60s getups, space-age furnishings, and groovy lingo, and the heart of Sweet Charity remains achingly relevant.
"When we were starting on the show, I had no idea how it would reflect a cultural moment," Silverman says. "To be working on a musical about women who are rattling around in the patriarchy, beginning and ending the show with a woman being humiliated… There are things about Sweet Charity that for me feel shockingly current. I couldn't anticipate that. That uncertainty that Charity's feeling, we as a country are looking down that road, too. We're all looking and searching and trying to be honest with ourselves about where we are. I think that's an interesting byproduct of what's happened."
Photos by Monique Carboni. Top image: Emily Padgett, Sutton Foster, and Asmeret Ghebremichael.