Any Broadway season that offers three stunning major American musicals of the likes of Gypsy, Sunday in the Park with George and South Pacific has got to be considered a great year for revivals. It's no knock on the musicals new to Broadway this year to say that they will take second place to the revivals when the history of this season is written. And that's saying a lot, when you consider that Passing Strange and In the Heights are two very important shows that may mark a genuine turning point in the future of the Broadway musical. More on that in a future column. In the meantime, let's explore what these three musical revivals have accomplished on Broadway this season.
One show has the definitive cast: Gypsy. One show has the definitive production: South Pacific. One show would have cleaned up at the Tonys had the other two not shown up this year: Sunday in the Park with George. So let's start with Sunday in the Park With George, which happens to be among the most impressive, sophisticated and artistically successful British versions of an American musical classic to ricochet back to New York after playing in England. This show merged a keenly re-imagined staging with a fully faithful rendering of the original material. In addition, the production was blessed with two strong leading players, Daniel Evans and Jenna Russell, who managed the Herculean task of essaying roles made famous by Bernadette Peters and Mandy Patinkin, and did so with verve. This revival's contributions to Broadway are three fold. First, it continues the successful streak of critically acclaimed Stephen Sondheim revivals on Broadway. Second, it confirms with its extensions that there is an audience for quality revivals without famous American stars with their names above the title, and third, that the American musical continues to be an inspiration to artists beyond our own shores.
Gypsy is significant this season beyond the confines of its own reputation as one of the greatest of all American musicals. From a pure marketing perspective, its launch as a strictly limited summer star vehicle for Patti LuPone from Encores! at City Center was brilliant from the get-go. If it had gone no further than that, we would have to heap huge huzzahs upon the production because it provided us the opportunity of seeing one of our greatest divas scale the Matterhorn of musical theater roles - and plant her flag at the top by the final curtain. The critical acclaim - not to mention the ticket demand - that was part and parcel of that summer production and led to the current revival provided a further deepening of not only Ms. LuPone's soul-stirring performance but a continued enrichment of the relationships between her Rose and the other iconic characters played by Boyd Gaines and Laura Benanti. We should add that the performances by Gaines and Benanti could hardly be improved upon. This is, like the Encores! production, a stripped down production of Gypsy that has far less to do with sets and costumes and far more to do with its performances. And there are no complaints here. This show, without any doubt, establishes Patti LuPone as a Broadway star with a heroic arc to her illustrious career.
Looking at Lincoln Center's sumptuous production of South Pacific, it seems impossible that this could be the first major New York City revival of the show since this Rodgers & Hammerstein classic opened on Broadway in 1949. The meticulous care taken in all aspects of this production, from the set design through the casting, has turned this revival from a mere show into an event. Though Kelli O'Hara is likely to come away from the Tony Awards without the statuette, losing to Ms. LuPone, her performance as Nellie, following her starring roles in The Pajama Game and Light in the Piazza, have firmly established her as today's great new Broadway star. And this production does something else: it reminds us of the fact that there once was a time when musical theater had a major influence on American culture.
When looking at this season's great musical revivals, one must also look at the work of Encores!. The last two productions at City Center, Juno and No, No Nanette, epitomize the dual nature of the Encores! programming. The former was a lovingly realized concert version of a musical one might rightly assume will never be re-mounted for Broadway again. That, of course, has always been the mission of Encores!, to give us a glimpse of musicals that we might not otherwise ever get a chance to experience. Then they closed their season with No, No Nanette, a 1925 musical that had already been successfully revived in our modern era - and could be again, if the buzz we're hearing about this frothy re-staging has any merit.
Encores! generally gives its audience two popular and potentially transferable productions for every one production of a fascinating failure. It's also fair to surmise that the ticket sales are considerably higher for the more popular shows and bit of a struggle for the one show that was never a hit in the first place. Then consider that it's probably easier to draw star names to shows that might move to Broadway than it is to shows everyone understands, walking in the door, will go no further than five performances. That said, and having often written in the past that Encores! is not fulfilling its mission when it puts on productions like No, No Nanette, we have decided to reconsider our position ...
If the economics require the safety net of two popular shows for every one less popular entry, then perhaps its time we embraced that reality and stopped complaining. While we'd still contend that there is no reason to remount shows like Follies that had been so recently revived on Broadway, for the most part Encores! brings us concert versions of shows that, while potentially revivable, have nonetheless not been around for a while. No, No Nanette, to use the current example, might have been revived several decades ago, but it's hardly what you'd call an obvious choice these days for a revival. If it does get picked up, more power to Encores! for sensing the time was right. It certainly provided great roles for Michael Berresse and Beth Leavel, and why complain about that instead of cheering it? It may very well be that, because of No, No Nanette, Encores! was able to say Yes, Yes, to Juno, giving us the opportunity to applaud the rich performances of Victoria Clark and Celia Keenan-Bolger as well as the extraordinary choreography by Warren Carlyle. As trade-offs go, that is, by any measure, certainly a win-win proposition for musical theater fans.