The Many Faces of Broadway Revivals

One of the most talked-about pieces of theatre related news in recent weeks was the announcement that Spring Awakening was going to be revived on Broadway by Deaf West Theatre. Some people around me asked, “Why revive something that closed so recently?” but I, for one, am thrilled that it’s coming back in a new production. This difference in opinion led me to think about the topic of revivals and their place in the landscape of Broadway today. What makes a good revival? What are the different methods of reviving a musical? And why do some revivals take off, while others leave audiences scratching their heads?

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Every year, there’s a fresh crop of revivals of that pop up on Broadway. One of my favorite parts of any Broadway season is seeing how shows that I know and love are revived. In general, a show is considered a revival if it’s having its 2nd (or more) Broadway production. There’s no limit as to how long must pass between productions: it could be as little as two years or as many as fifty. There are no guidelines as to how the show must be produced; it simply must be a new production of previously existing material. And that’s where the fun really begins.

There are a variety of different approaches that can be taken when producing a revival, but they primarily fall into two categories: the “traditional” revival and those that are “reimagined.” Traditional revivals remain mostly faithful to the original material and to the productions that have come before them. These are usually solid productions that are well respected in the theatre community, but they are sometimes criticized for being too safe.

The other end of the spectrum is reimagining. These are productions that choose to take a different, sometimes more radical approach to the material, whether that is through the physical design of the production, the casting, adding new material to the show, or any of a variety of other choices. As these types of revivals have more variables and depart from the well-known aspects of the shows, they can be polarizing, and therefore more hit and miss in terms of success, both critical and with audiences.

An excellent example of the first category is the current revival of The King and I being produced by Lincoln Center. As revivals go, it is a very traditional production, very faithful in design and overall style to the productions that have come before it. There is nothing extremely different or shocking about it. Director Bartlett Sher breathes new life into the material and brings a contemporary sensibility to the themes of the show, but it remains a fairly traditional production. And that is why it is so popular with critics and audiences alike: it retains enough of the traditional elements, but brings a new sensibility to the material through subtle changes.

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On the other hand, you have productions like Spring Awakening, set to come to Broadway this fall. The original production closed a mere 6 years ago and is still fresh in the minds of many theatergoers. This new production, brought to Broadway by Deaf West Theatre, has taken a completely new approach by performing the musical in both English and American Sign Language, and by featuring a cast of deaf and hearing actors. This production of Spring Awakening received rave reviews when it opened in Los Angeles this past fall, and that buzz is following it to Broadway. With a larger cast and completely reimagined concept for the production, it remains to be seen if it will resonate the same way with New York audiences as it has on the West Coast, but the prospects look very hopeful.

So which approach is better? The tried and true, or the new and different? There’s no way to judge. A lot depends on personal taste and on the unique chemistry a production creates. Because revivals are reworkings of previously produced material, many audiences have preconceived notions of what they want to see, and that can potentially work against a production that tries to reimagine the it. A big part of how any production is received is whether the audience is ready for something new – and there’s no way to predict that. Personally, I’m excited to see how audiences will receive this new take on Spring Awakening. I hope they’re ready, as I am, for something new and different.

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