Does The Musical Revival Need…Reviving?

Kelli O'Hara and Will Chase in the Roundabout Theatre Company production of "Kiss Me, Kate" at Studio 54 (Joan Marcus)

Kelli O'Hara and Will Chase in the Roundabout Theatre Company production of "Kiss Me, Kate" at Studio 54 (Joan Marcus)

  • William Cortez Statham

In just less than a month, the end of the theatrical season in NYC will once again be upon us. New victors will be crowned and heralded the cremé de la cremé of the Broadway stage. Every year the Tony Awards categories for such categories as Best New Play and Best New Musical remain relatively consistent in quantity. But this year, for the first time in several years, (2011 and prior to that 1995, to be exact), one category is dangerously diminishing in number of nominated shows: best revival of a musical. Merely two in 2019. This year, the offerings are Roundabout Theatre Company's classy and chic Shakespearean musical comedy, Kiss Me, Kate by Cole Porter. The other sole competitor is St. Ann Warehouse’s runaway Off-Broadway hit transfer of that most iconic treasures of the musical theatre canon, Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma!

Both shows are solid stalwarts of Broadway musical theatre history. Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate was the first musical to take home the coveted Best Musical Tony Award of 1949, the first year that the category was implemented into the awards ceremony. With a romantic score by Cole Porter and book by husband-and-wife team Sam and Bella Spewack, the musical has always been a crowd favorite with it’s backstage showbiz glitz and anecdotes, feisty marital discord, odes to Shakespeare (the show is lightly anchored in Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew), and onstage singing and dancing gangsters. A successful revival in 1999 starred Brian Stokes Mitchell, who won a Tony for his portrayal of Fred and the late Marin Mazzie as Lilli. For the 2019 revival, Roundabout opted to update the 1949 book slightly with changes from Amanda Green (Broadway's Hands On A Hardbody). With a cast led by Tony Award-winner Kelli O’Hara (The King & I) and Will Chase (ABC's Nashville), and a top-notch chorus of true super triple threats to execute Tony Award-winner Warren Carlyle's pulsating choreography, the show more than stands the test of theatrical time.

Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! took a sharply different approach in its third revival on Broadway this year. A somewhat unexpected, unabashed hit at St. Anne's Warehouse in Brooklyn last season, this new, vibrant Oklahoma! gives us something previous productions of the R&H classic lacked:

Diversity. An African American “Laurey.” A Latino “Curly.” An “Ado Annie” played by an actress in a wheelchair. The waves of optimistic cultural hope swelling inside the intimate Circle in the Square Theatre are enough to make any audience member yell “Yow!” at curtain call. And there's Aunt Eller's famous chili served to members of the audience who purchase onstage seating. Who could resist?

But despite both musicals' lasting legacy and box office bravura, it’s hard not to notice in this slightly pedantic award season that the best revival of a musical category is becoming leaner and leaner with each passing season. In the past, the average number of nominated shows in this field would be doubled. So why the sudden dynamic drop off? Both shows have limited runs (Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! just having extended into January 2020). Both shows are holding steadily at the box office with decent grosses. The answer lies less in each show's reputation and more so in an ever-increasing competitive commercial climate.

There are, of course, two schools of thought when it comes to musical revivals. The first generally evokes one question: do we really need to see this show again? The second idea being that these, at times repetitive revivals, can often leave less room for new, original works on Broadway.

The musical landscape on Broadway has shifted significantly within the past decade, moving away from the classic book musical of the golden age and more and more towards movie adaptations and biomusicals of world-famous recording artists. Cher, Carole King, Elvis, you name it. Producers, no doubt, are more eager to back musicals with a recognizable face and/or name attached than a musical that’s already been seen before. The Broadway game is one that is primarily dominated by tourists, and while long-running hits like Phantom of the Opera and Disney’s The Lion King are standards for most visitors to NYC, Broadway has always had to compete with its current counterparts in the film, television, and recording industries.

Take, for instance, the newest brand on Broadway from the Nederlander Organization: In Residence On Broadway. The commercially lucrative idea fills theaters that would otherwise remain empty and lose money and employs solo and group acts from the music industry for limited engagements. Even The Boss himself, Bruce Springsteen, broke box office records and even managed to garner a special Tony Award last year with his solo show.

But there is also a historic and artistic responsibility that producers owe to not just the theatregoing public of NYC, but also the national theatrical conscious as a whole: keeping classics like Oklahoma! Kiss Me, Kate and others alive. Lest we forget, the musical theatre is the only performing arts genre that is uniquely American and, just like any museum masterpiece, its art deserves to be showcased on stages as such.

Once referred to as the Great Invalid, Broadway still continues to flourish financially year after year. However, some theatregoers who enjoy the classics of Porter, Rodgers and Hammerstein, and the like, would appreciate that the same attention be paid to revivals of musicals as well. The musical revival is by no means dead, but it certainly could use some much-needed rehabilitative resuscitation.