Broadway Revivals: Maybe You Can Teach an Old Show New Tricks

Liz Chirico

I want to offer a rebuttal to the piece submitted on this site regarding three upcoming musical revivals, Kiss Me Kate, My Fair Lady and Carousel. Upon first glance they all seem horribly outdated, misogynistic and not conducive to the landscape that is 2018. I argue that with the right direction and treatment, they can be very timely and have important lessons to share.

First up Kiss Me Kate, which my colleague acknowledged to be the least offensive of the trio as most of the worst behaviors occur within the show’s, show within a show. I always viewed Kiss Me Kate as portraying strong, confident, independent women who take charge of their own life. Lilli divorces Fred which in the late 40’s was largely unheard of, and chose to move to L.A. to begin a new life. She doesn’t become a huge star but does well enough for herself and seemingly she does as well or better than her ex-husband during their years apart. Again- huge in the 1940s (and frankly today) to portray a woman controlling her own life and doing just as well on her own as she did with any man or any man could do on his own.

The secondary character of Lois Lane is another strong, independent woman. Bill chases after her, begging her to marry him; quite the role reversal for many shows set even in contemporary times. Yes, Lois uses her beauty and sexuality to accomplish much of what she does, however she is doing that because she wants to and it’s on her terms. To me that’s akin to running your own business- she’s the boss and she sets rules.

I hope the revival plays up the aspect that these women exercised control over their lives. They didn’t merely submit to a man, they chose to be with that man because there was mutual love and respect for each other. I hope it focuses on the fact that the men who learn to change their behavior and honor women (Fred and Bill) get the girls while the mobsters don’t. No, not everyone wants the girl (in fact how great would it be if the two mobsters end up a couple!) but it does show that good behavior is rewarded.

Next up, My Fair Lady. Another story about a strong woman who teaches the men in her life a thing or two. Talk about your modern woman- Eliza isn’t focused on marriage, she wants a career. And she knows education is the key out of her life of poverty. So she chooses to go to school so to speak and she took Henry’s crap and gave it right back to him. Eliza went to Henry’s mother when she was finished with him to start to make her own way. She doesn’t simply run off with Freddy, who is the one with the puppy-dog eyes, begging Eliza to love him. Instead she walks away from him and to her own life. Yes, she does return to Henry but it’s on her terms not his.

 Harry Hadden-Paton as Henry Higgins, Allan Corduner as Colonel Pickering and Ms. Ambrose during a spirited rehearsal. CreditSara Krulwich/The New York Times

Harry Hadden-Paton as Henry Higgins, Allan Corduner as Colonel Pickering and Ms. Ambrose during a spirited rehearsal. CreditSara Krulwich/The New York Times

Again, I hope Bartlett Shear focuses on the strength, stubbornness and intelligence of Eliza rather than making it all about Henry. He did wonders for the recent revival of “The King and I”, delving into that show’s 3 main female characters, so I have high hopes for his direction of “My Fair Lady.”

Last up is Carousel. This one is far trickier given that the themes of submission, physical and emotional abuse are far more prevalent and overt. Plus it’s been a long while since I’ve seen the show or movie so forgive me if I skip something. The only way I can make sense of Carousel’s revival is to discuss what I think the revival should focus on and go from there. In my mind, for this revival to work we almost need more backstory to Julie- to show how and why perhaps she’s more prone to loving and forgiving Bill. Some additional backstory to Bill would be good as well because while the past doesn’t excuse the present, having context does help.

There are two distinct female archetypes in this show, Julie and Carrie. Julie, to me, is the more independent and headstrong of the two. She’s the one willing to take a leap and marry Billy though they only just met. She’s the one willing to raise their daughter alone, knowing the entire town judges and looks down upon her for her past. Carrie conforms to what is expected of a woman, marry and produce lots of babies. Julie makes her own path and raises and equally independent, headstrong daughter. Play up the strength of Julie, her ability to persevere and triumph through her adversity and maybe you have a revival worth seeing in 2018.

There’s a part of me too that wants to see Billy receive his punishment in the end. Perhaps it’s my rose-colored glasses clouding my memories of the show but it seemed to me that because Billy helps Julie and his daughter, he just might end up in heaven after all. While it’s a wonderful thought and I certainly don’t want Billy suffering for all eternity that glosses over all the horrible things he did while alive. I would prefer to see Billy help those he loves, yet we know and clearly see that one good deed does not undo a lifetime of bad.

I think a part of us will always hanker for the nostalgia of the good ol’days which is why I think there will always be a market for revivals. However, attitudes, values, people and the world is too different to simply move the past into the present. For these and future revivals to be successful, they must be viewed through the lens of now and adaptations to a degree must be made. You can put a modern spin on the classics to make them relevant to us today and still give us the warm, fuzzy feelings of nostalgia we crave.