Monday, February 16, 2009
Reviving Broadway: Pal Joey Flops; South Pacific Sails On: Will the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization Ever Learn?
The triumphant revival of South Pacific, which closely follows the original 1949 script, is nearing the end of its hugely successful first year at Lincoln Center.
Meanwhile, in the land of make-believe makeovers, the recent revival of yet another rewritten Pal Joey stumbles prematurely towards an early closing at Studio 54. It will have lasted less than three months.
The Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization, it appears, refuses ever to learn from its many failed attempts to rewrite the shows that charmed the critics and public when they first opened --- to rewrite them into more sophisticated treatments aimed at pandering to modern audiences.
The late Richard Rodgers once wrote, “We’ve found from experience, some of it painful, that the best way to project these things and to get a response from a live audience is to do them the way they were done originally, after we got finished correcting them ourselves.”
This latest effort to breathe new life into Pal Joey in the form of a revised book by Richard Greenberg, met with generally downbeat reviews. Ben Brantley in The New York Times called it, among other things, “joyless.”
Was it the fault of yet another dubious libretto overhaul? Or, had it adhered faithfully to John O'Hara's original script, might Joey still have fizzled? Some of the critics pounced hard on the direction and certain cast members.
R&H seem never to have realized that revivals, no matter how good, usually have a much shorter life on the boards the second and third times around. For example, A Chorus Line, played 15 years when first produced; recently in its first return to Broadway, it lasted not quote two years. One aberrational exception to this general reality is Chicago, which enjoyed a modest 2 year run when first staged, but has turned itself into a revival phenomenon -- over 12 years and still a survivor on the Great White Way!
I believe that R&H have an artistic (one could argue moral) obligation to respect these ground-breaking musicals and the gifted artists who created them in the first place, and to let audiences enjoy them, as Richard Rodgers said, "the way they were done originally."
After months of playing to full houses, South Pacific’s box office may be slipping a bit. I suspect that once serious New York theatregoers have their chance to enjoy this fabulous production, it’s ticket sales will naturally wane, and that it can’t count on tourists to fill up the seats. It’s an old fashioned love story that is not going to have widespread appeal to the younger generations who flock to see shows like Wicked and Hairspray.
Ironically, Pal Joey is the cynical musical — the one whose amoral pulse (gigolo uses rich woman to open night club) you’d think might make it a hot sell. Evidently, Greenberg's script, or the direction, has somehow managed to make the play even “seamier,” according to one critic, while making the show itself far less engaging.
And that’s not entertainment.
[photos, above: Matthew Morrison and Li Jun Li in the current revival of South Pacific; Gene Kelly in the original 1940 production of Pal Joey]