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Golden Age musicals

Are we running out of golden age musicals to revive?

Mark Shenton
Mark Shenton

The great canon of Broadway musicals from its golden age - roughly the 1920s to the 1960s - produced a great trench of enduring classics, some of them certainly the amongst the greatest musicals ever written, like Guys and Dolls (forever at the top of my own personal list of favourite shows), My Fair Lady and West Side Story. I absolutely never tire of seeing any of these: last Christmas there was a smashing revival of Guys and Dolls at the Mill at Sonning in Berkshire. I've also seen the current thrilling Broadway revival of My Fair Lady twice at Lincoln Center and I recently saw West Side Story sensationally revived at Manchester's Royal Exchange (in a production that has already been announced will return next year).

With shows this deep and musically rich, there's something new to be enjoyed every single time you see them, as new creative teams and actors bring their talents to them. Right now the West End also has a new production of another forever-classic, Fiddler on the Roof (while a separate revival is also playing off-Broadway, performed in Yiddish with English surtitles, that gives it a special authenticity).

But could it be that the well is running dry on shows from this period that are actually worthy of revival or haven't already been revived to death? The Tony nominations announced this week in New York featured just two shows in the best musical revival category: Oklahoma! (from 1943) and Kiss Me, Kate (1948). In each case, they've already had multiple previous revivals on Broadway already: these are respectively their 5th and 3rd revivals since their original productions.

Of course, they are both welcome back to town - especially in productions like Oklahoma! that see the show through a completely fresh (and darker) lens, or Kiss Me, Kate that revels in both its glorious melodies and high comedy. As well as old-timers who want to see the shows again (and I reckon I've now seen Kiss Me, Kate in four different productions since 2015, from Opera North in Leeds to Kilworth House in Leicestershire and at Sheffield Crucible last Christmas), there's also an entirely new generation ready to experience them for the first time.  

But I've always said that unless producers keep faith with new shows and keep expanding the repertoire, there'll be no old shows to revive in the future. So it's actually a sign of progress that Broadway has taken it to heart this year and mainly produced a slew of brand-new musicals over revivals.

New shows, of course, are much higher risk, in the sense that there's no guarantee they'll actually work - whereas you know with a beloved revival that the show itself works. But the rewards of a new show are also greater: revivals typically run out of audiences after two or three years (unless they're Chicago, which is now the longest-running American musical in Broadway history in its revival, now in its 23rd year whereas the original ran for just over two years).

Recent history bears this out: the original Broadway transfer of Miss Saigon ran for a decade at the Broadway Theatre; when it was revived there in 2017, it ran for less than two years. Ditto Cats, which during its original run at the Winter Garden overtook A Chorus Line to become the longest-running musical in Broadway history until then, finally closing in 2000; but a 2016 Broadway revival, by comparison, chalked up only 17 months.

Another producing model for revivals is to simply turn them into prestige, star-driven events that aren't meant to run forever. Producer Scott Rudin mastered this approach with Hello, Dolly!, which he revived at the Shubert Theatre in 2017 with a cast led by Bette Midler, who was succeeded by Bernadette Peters; it is now on the touring road with Betty Buckley. Next up: he's bringing The Music Man back to Broadway next year, with Hugh Jackman in the title role.

Here in London, seasons are even shorter at the London Coliseum for the classic musicals that commercial producers Michael Grade and Michael Linnit are partnering with English National Opera on producing. Last night the latest of these opened, London's first ever-revival of the 1965 musical Man of La Mancha since it was originally seen here in 1968. In a review for The Stage, Tim Bano commented, "Long may Grade and Linnit continue to stage these expensive oddities - after all they're the only chance we'll ever get to see them." Though it's gorgeous to hear a score like this accompanied by a 35-piece orchestra, I'm not certain that I actually needed confirmation of how essentially unstageable it now is. Sometimes the best revival a show can have is on your CD player.

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