Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Today in Theatre History: Re-Imagining the Past

In the “Today in Theatre History” series, we take a specific event in theatre history and use it as a starting point for discussion about aspects of theatre – past, present, and future.

By Irene Casey, Education Intern 

On June 12th, 1977 the original Broadway production of Pippin closed after 1,944 performances
The cast of the 1972 Broadway production of Pippin.Source: 
Broadway today is filled with "revivals." But what do people mean when they say that something is a revival? That the show has already been produced somewhere? Or that it has already been on Broadway? How different are revivals from the original production? Typically, a revival means a new production of an old show, which brings us to what happened today in theatre history: the original Broadway production of Pippin closing in 1977.

The original Broadway production of Pippin opened on October 13, 1972 (after a try out in D.C.). Pippin's book was written by Roger O. Hirson, with music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, and was originally directed by Bob Fosse. Fosse saw the musical, which follows a medieval prince as he becomes embroiled with a troupe of players on his quest to find his place in the word, as a surreal experience and wanted his production to disturb audiences.
Since its first production, Pippin has been performed all over the country and the world. This year, for the first time, Pippin returned to Broadway. The revival was developed at the American Repertory Theater (A.R.T.) and directed by Diane Paulus. Just this week, it won four Tony Awards including Best Revival of a Musical and Best Direction of a Musical. While the A.R.T. revival differed from the original production by trimming the first musical number and using an alternate ending, the biggest change was the way that Paulus envisioned the players. Instead of a troupe of actors, they became a troupe of circus performers, filling the musical with wild, bold spectacle. 

Paulus's revival of Pippin departs from the original in several ways. Major re-imaginings of shows are not out of the ordinary today. Whenever directors approach scripts, they think about how they want the story to be told. Each production is different because each production has different directors, designers and actors developing it. It's true that some productions stick fairly closely to the interpretation of the original production, while others take the musical or play in an entirely different direction, choosing to highlight or introduce different elements in the show. More and more productions of classic musicals and plays are closer to being adaptations than simply revivals, with directors re-imagining them to bring them into the modern day. 

Signature is know for taking big musicals and performing them in our black box theatres, creating intimate original stagings of shows that were often originally seen in giant proscenium theatres.

Signature's production of Les Miserables transformed the musical. Trevor Nunn's internationally acclaimed original production, relied heavily upon a turntable in its design. But director Eric Schaeffer used a 3/4 thrust stage that pushed the action into the middle of the audience, creating a grittier production happening just feet away from the audience. Chairs hung from the ceiling and set pieces moved on and off from the stage, entering as one thing only to re-enter a scene later as something completely different.

In 2006, the Washington Post described Signature's Assassins as a "startling new staging." Director Joe Calarco (a Signature regular) went beyond merely placing the piece in a black box and onto a way that had never been seen before. The set was a literal mirror image of the audience: rows and rows of chairs on risers, all identical to what the audience was sitting in. This brought the idea that these disenfranchised assassins and would-be assassins 
are just like the rest of us home in frightening and unsettling ways.

What dramatic re-imaginings of blockbuster musicals will be seen on Signature's stages next season? First up, will be an environmental production of Miss Saigon, meaning the entire theatre will become part of the set. As soon as the audience enters the theatre, they will enter the broken world of 1970s Vietnam. Check it out here.



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