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How Classic Musicals Are Being Reimagined Off-Broadway

Date: Jun 28, 2018

See fresh takes on Fiddler on the Roof, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever and Carmen Jones


Off-Broadway is often a destination for adventurous theatre, free from the commercial constraints of keeping a production running on the Great White Way. So it's intriguing that this summer, three nonprofit companies have chosen to revive classic Broadway musicals. Make that revitalize, since these shows certainly don't play the way they did on the Main Stem, and that's exactly why these theatres wanted to resurrect them.

"My job as an artist is not to put on a copy of the original production, and the fortunate thing about Carmen Jones is that nobody remembers the original production," says John Doyle, the artistic director of Classic Stage Company. Celebrated for his stripped-down mountings of musicals on Broadway (Company, The Color Purple, his Tony-winning Sweeney Todd), Doyle uses that same signature approach for Carmen Jones, Oscar Hammerstein II's 1943 adaptation of Georges Bizet's opera set in an African-American community during World War II. The two-act original featured a large cast and spectacular set pieces, as did the 1954 film version with Dorothy Dandridge. Classic Stage's production is streamlined to one intense act with spare design elements, so the spotlight is on the performers, notably Tony winner Anika Noni Rose as the titular femme fatale who sets the romantic tragedy in motion.

"It's about going back and looking at the material in a fresh way," explains Doyle. "I'm doing this piece in the round, with the audience on four sides. Most classic musicals were made for the proscenium arch, so it's been freeing and interesting to explore it in a different spatial way that affects how it's told. I'm also using a company of ten. I'm sure it was 40 or so when it was originally done. We only have dressing rooms that seat ten so you have to rethink the way the work is made."

Irish Repertory Theatre artistic director Charlotte Moore used a similar less-is-more philosophy when adapting On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, Alan Jay Lerner and Burton Lane's 1965 musical about a psychiatrist who falls for his reincarnated patient's 18th-century self. Unlike Carmen Jones, which hasn't been seen in New York City since the '40s, On a Clear Day was revived by City Center's Encores! series in 2000 with Kristin Chenoweth, and had a 2011 Broadway revisal with a drastically rewritten book. In revisiting the show, Moore researched its many iterations, including the 1970 movie starring Barbra Streisand. She ended up pulling songs from various versions and streamlining the script, editing out some supporting characters and subplots.


"I absolutely love the music in this show," says Moore, who became a fan of the score when she heard original On a Clear Day star John Cullum singing a few of the tunes back in the '80s. "We were acting in Private Lives together and he used to sing 'Come Back to Me' in his dressing room. And I said, 'John, that's just the best music!'"

The songs are definitely the main attraction, and they're beautifully sung by the 11-member cast, including leads Stephen Bogardus and Melissa Errico. "I've never seen the show onstage myself, so I'm starting fresh," says Moore. "It's so rarely done and I'm dying for people to hear this score. I met Lane once at a fancy party. He sat down at the piano and started playing 'Look to the Rainbow' from Finian's Rainbow. I was new in New York City and I didn't know who he was and I sat down beside this gentleman and said, 'I love this song!' And he said, 'Well thanks, I wrote it!' So I have always felt a tiny connection to him and his work."

Mounting relatively obscure musicals for limited Off-Broadway runs makes sense, as you're practically guaranteed to attract audiences who've been longing to catch the shows live on stage. It's much riskier to produce a beloved musical that's been widely seen, such as Fiddler on the Roof, which ran from 1964 to 1972 and has had five Broadway revivals, the last of which closed in 2016. But National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene promises its Fiddler is one New Yorkers have never experienced. Not only is it in Yiddish with English supertitles, it's got markedly different lyrics to some of its most famous songs. "If I Were a Rich Man" is "If I Were a Rothschild," and "Tradition" frequently name-checks the Torah.


"Translator Shraga Friedman collaborated with composer Jerry Bock and lyricist Sheldon Harnick and book writer Joseph Stein on the Yiddish version back in the '60s," explains Christopher Massimine, the chief executive officer of Folksbiene, the oldest Yiddish theatre company in the world. "Our Fiddler is not a literal translation, it's an adaptation. There were themes the writers were not so confident bringing to a commercialized America but they thought were more suited for the piece in Israel in Yiddish."

Sadly, the Yiddish Fiddler didn't last long there (the Hebrew version was a much bigger hit), and it never played in the U.S. until now. "This is the ultimate musical to bring back in Yiddish," says Massimine. "It's authentic to the stories of Sholom Aleichem [upon which Fiddler was based]. This is the language the characters would have spoken" in a small village in Russia in 1905.

Folksbiene has put together an impressive cast and creative team for its Fiddler, including Broadway funny lady Jackie Hoffman as Yente, Tony winner Joel Grey as director and legendary producer Hal Prince as a consultant. The company also tripled its usual show budget. Yet Massimine insists this production "is not in competition" with the Fiddlers that came before. "It's not meant to be a commercial piece," he says. "That's the beautiful thing about working at a nonprofit: we can take a chance on work that wouldn't survive in a commercial environment. There's great acting and singing and dancing, but because it's done so intimately, it doesn't have need for the same spectacle."

That can also be said for Carmen Jones and On a Clear Day. In all these cases, financial and space constraints inspired the directors to focus on what made these shows so popular in the first place: their scores and stories. "I think it's interesting that more of these musicals are being done Off-Broadway," Doyle says. "We're relaunching the lives of these shows. And who knows what will happen? Take my production of Sweeney Todd: that started in Britain in a theatre that's smaller than Classic Stage. The Color Purple started at the Chocolate Factory in London. This is how you incubate new work."

Read about students' experiences at Carmen Jones and On a Clear Day You Can See Forever on TDF's sister site SEEN.


TDF MEMBERS: At press time, discount tickets were available for On a Clear Day You Can See Forever and Fiddler on the Roof. Go here to browse our current offers.

Raven Snook is the Editor of TDF Stages. Follow her at @RavenSnook. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.

Top image: Anika Noni Rose and Tramell Tillman in Carmen Jones. Photo by Joan Marcus.