Rinse and Repeat…

Manon Lescaut

When the days get shorter and the weather drives us indoors, many of us feel a corresponding pull to the personal interior as well. Productivity increases and it’s somehow easier to sit down and attack that stack of bills or start the book that’s been sitting on the bedside table all summer. It’s also the beginning of theater season as local companies try to lure the audience back inside. When the skies are dark and the windows are streaked with rain it’s easier to get lost in a novel or let the characters on stage transport us to a different place.

Except for “Summer Theater” most live theater companies plan a schedule that starts in the fall and ends in the spring. Seattle has a particularly active theater community, 26 companies at last count, and I rely on live performances as a major component of my Surviving Seattle strategy.

Though I’ve always enjoyed live theater it wasn’t until 10 years ago that I started paying closer attention to musical theater. Until then I thought of it as a kind of second tier entertainment – not current, not classic, just entertaining – but M is a big fan and knows a lot about it. She refers to it as America’s opera and that perspective has helped me see it with different eyes too. It’s also interesting to me that this 10 year period corresponds to Peter Gelb’s innovative Met Opera in HD initiative in which live performances of the Metropolitan Opera are broadcast to theaters around the world. Mr. Gelb has made it easy for us to see and hear the world’s greatest artists perform in an up close and personal relationship with the audience.

My guitar teacher, George, has a favorite phrase – Rinse and Repeat – when the chorus of a song comes around for the second or third time. He means play it again the same way. He’s pointing out that the chord progressions are the same and though there’s room for some innovation the musical line is a repeat. Rinse and Repeat

Last week I looked at upcoming productions for Seattle’s musical theater season, and here’s what I found: Matilda, Amadeus, How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, A Night with Janis Joplin, Paint Your Wagon, The Assassins, Kinky Boots, and A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder. What’s the significance that five of the eight are revivals? It sounds a lot like the theatrical version of Rinse and repeat.

Over the years it’s become apparent that revivals are the bread and butter of performing companies. It’s always been true of ballet and opera, but more than ever it’s true of American musical theater. The stories are familiar. Audiences  pretty much know what they are getting and the box office knows it can count on a certain level of revenue. The traditional repertoire is rinsed and repeated countless times every year, but opera and musical theater directors have recently turned to re-crafting their traditional material to reflect the times.

These are not your mother’s revivals, stale reproductions of the old repertoire. The stories are restaged and retold in ways that engage today’s audiences. Last year the Met set its version of Rigoletto in Las Vegas with the Count and his friends as a Rat Pack-like ensemble, and on March 5th Puccini’s Manon Lescaut will be set in Nazi occupied Paris in the 1940’s rather than the original 18th Century.

Artistic directors everywhere are seeing the substance and value of older work and on the lookout for ways to present it in new and different ways. Last week we saw a brilliant production of Amadeus in a small venue directed by the astonishingly talented Shana Bestock of Seattle Public Theater. Amadeus, Peter Schaffer’s fictionalized story about Mozart’s rivalry with Antonio Salieri, was first performed in 1979 and later made into a film by Milos Forman. The revival at The Bathhouse took a fresh look at a modern classic and downsized it to its 150-seat home.

Bathhouse Theater

Speaking of updated revivals, last night M and I saw a 5th Avenue production of the 1961 musical How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. I’m not a theater critic but I thought the producers did a credible job with material that at times seemed dated. This is a period piece. Like “mid-century” furniture that has enjoyed a recent renaissance of interest though most of us who were there in the 50’s and 60’s couldn’t wait to get rid of it, How to Succeed relies on the energy of the cast to keep it fresh. In that regard this cast delivered a polished performance and the Piet Mondrian inspired sets were perfect reflections of the art currency of the 1950’s.

How to Succeed

Nevertheless, as I watched the play proceed, the success of Mad Men was ever present in my consciousness. I was disappointed that as the lead character ascended to the position of Sr. Vice President for Advertising, the producers didn’t inject some tongue in cheek references to Robert Morse, the lead character in the original  and 50 years later the dotty senior partner in Mad Men. There were spots in the dialogue where a reference to Morse, Don Draper, Jon Hamm, or Christina Hendricks would have provided a few contemporary notes to freshen it for today’s audience. All in all, the evening was entertaining and the second act better than the first, and the audience stayed in their seats to the end.

Live theater is a tough business. Arts funding follows economic cycles and relies more on loyal philanthropic individuals and entities than ticket sales, but filling the theaters is what drives the philanthropy. Revivals play a big part in keeping a company viable, but they need to be freshened to keep things interesting. What Bartlett Sher has done in the last five years with Tony Award winning revivals of South Pacific, The King and I, and Fiddler on the Roof shows that creativity extends beyond the original production of these classic musicals. It’s a tribute to the Seattle arts community that it has been a leader along with New York in maintaining the breadth and diversity of its live theater.

If you’re in Seattle this month you can see How to Succeed at the 5th Avenue through February 21st, and wherever you are on March 5th you can catch the very updated, modernized version of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut at a Met Opera Live in HD performance in a theater somewhere near you. (Check it out at https://www.metopera.org/Season/In-Cinemas/Theater-Finder )

Enjoy! There is nothing like live theater!



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