Musical Theatre Revivals

I have a problem with revivals in musical theatre … they are never as good as the original run. It is human nature to compare a revival with the original production and, one by one, this is where all the problems creep in. Perhaps no matter how good a revival may be, nothing can compare to the excitement and hype of seeing a show’s premiere. After recently seeing revivals of Wicked and Les Miserables in Melbourne, I am disappointed to write that neither show came close to being as fabulous as the original.

Wicked took nearly five years after its Broadway debut to arrive in Australia in 2008. After seeing it at the Gershwin Theatre on Broadway that year, then only a handful of months later at its Australian premiere in Melbourne’s Regent Theatre, I welcomed Wicked with open arms. The acting and singing by the cast was strong, the massive replica of Eugene Lee’s original scenic design was jaw-dropping, and the hundreds of fabulous costumes kept me happily entertained in the stalls. From a directing perspective, this production was tight. It was, in my humble opinion, every ounce as good as the Broadway version I had recently seen. This show reminded me of the depth of talent we have in musical theatre here in Australia.

But I was frustrated with the current Australian revival of Wicked. This time around much of the acting and singing were pedestrian, the amazing set and costumes were all there in their glory once more, but the show lacked any sense of oomph. The intensity and crispness that impressed me so much with the original run was now absent. This revival was somewhat subdued. The passion and energy needed on stage simply wasn’t there.

Les Miserables arrived in Australia at the end of 1989. Twenty five years later, I can vividly recall the now famous turntable set being a sight to behold at the time. And as many readers of The Drama Teacher will attest, the image of the barricade in Les Miserables just stays in your memory for years. It was a spectacular production and I knew at the time that I may never again see a show as special as this. Les Miserables demands (near) perfection in acting and singing from the entire cast and its Australian premiere did not disappoint.

The current revival of Les Miserables in Australia is the same version presently being played on Broadway and the West End. The missing turntable set and introduced projection imagery have been well publicised in the theatre media. I can live without the revolving stage, but projection is often a hit and miss concept, even in musical theatre for the masses. The problem is no matter how good the projection may be, it can often look a bit cheap and nasty. It was effective at times as a suitable setting, clever at other moments (the sewers), but on the whole it just reminded me of a primary school play where most of the set is projected onto the back wall.

Multimedia is today a staple part of our musical theatre diet. But simply put, it suits some shows, but not others. The crazy, massive LED screens of an Australian version of Hairspray perfectly suited this upbeat and colourful show. However, projection in the recent King Kong Live On Stage was more an unnecessary distraction than anything else, while in this Les Miserables revival the audience deserved and expected more than projected scenery accompanying traditional sets (even if they were inspired by the paintings of Victor Hugo).

Technically, the lighting in the current Les Miserables revival was spectacular. But this in itself may be a problem because the old adage ‘lighting is doing its job best when you don’t notice it’ applies to musical theatre as well. From an acting and singing perspective, performing in a commercial production of Les Miserables is a huge responsibility, partly because much of your audience has high standards before they even arrive at the theatre. Many people place Les Miserables on the very top shelf of their musical theatre favourites because of the robust plot, gorgeous score and stirring songs. Thankfully, Simon Gleeson (Jean Valjean) and Hayden Tee (Javert) were outstanding. For me, anyway, these two actors carried the show.

This revival also consisted of a young-looking cast, some of whom I suspect were not born when Les Miserables premiered in the late 80s. No doubt prompted by the success of the most recent film adaptation released in late 2012, this musical theatre revival of Les Miserables has been variously touted as both a karaoke remake and an American Idol interpretation (The New York Times) of what most consider a musical theatre masterpiece. Sadly, I have to agree.

Which brings me back to where I started. Musical theatre revivals are never as good as the original run.

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