MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm MELISSA BLOCK.
The ads are plastered on buses all over New York City. The image of a waif emerging from a swirl of smoke, with the words - she's back. No, it's not an ad for a horror movie. It's an ad for a revival of the musical blockbuster Les Miserables. It reopened on Broadway last night just three years after it closed.
Les Miserables joins A Chorus Line and The Fantasticks as three record breaking musicals which have returned to the New York Stage this fall. And they are all carefully crafted replicas of their original productions.
Jeff Lunden has this report.
(Soundbite of music)
Unidentified Man: (Singing) Try to remember the kind of September when life was slow and oh so mellow. Try to remember -
Mr. TOM JONES (Author, The Fantasticks): Revival has been part of the theater always, always, always.
JEFF LUNDEN: Tom Jones is author of the Fantasticks and has directed its current revival. He says while he and other creators of these popular revivals are reaping the benefits, the trend isn't necessarily in the long term interests of the art form.
Mr. JONES: Shows are so expensive, that people want some guarantee, first of all, that some degree of name recognition, if possible, and some guarantee that it pleases an audience, because the people are afraid to venture too far, which is a shame.
But on the other hand, it's very good to have revivals. It's to launch or having new things, too.
LUNDEN: This season of high profile revivals of some of the musical theater's best loved and longest running works seem to be dominating the landscape, both on and off Broadway.
While several new musicals are set to open this fall, much of the buzz and much of the box office has been taken by A Chorus Line, Les Miserablès, and The Fanstasticks, all of which have been presented in almost exact recreations of their original staging.
Mr. BEN BRANTLEY (Theater Critic, New York Times): It's not revival, they're resuscitations.
LUNDEN: New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley isn't sure bringing back shows as they were originally produced is such a good idea.
Mr. BRANTLEY: I think when you try to replicate with such archival exactitude what the original Chorus Line was, or what the original Fantasticks was, perversely, you wind up diluting the original impact.
(Soundbite of song "One")
Unidentified Chorus: (Singing) One singular sensation, every little step he takes -
LUNDEN: Baayork Lee was in the original cast of director/choreographer Michael Bennett's groundbreaking 1975 musical, A Chorus Line. She has restaged the dances for this revival.
Ms. BAAYORK LEE (Choreographer, A Chorus Line): It's different, but it's the same. And it's in the same framework - the choreography, the dialogue, costumes - minor changes and things like that. It's different because the people are different.
Unidentified Group: (Singing) One moment in his presence and you can forget the rest.
LUNDEN: For Lee, recreating Michael Bennett's original choreography is something of a mission. She was Bennett's assistant and after she left A Chorus Line as a performer, she was one of the people whose job was to keep the show on Broadway and on tour in top shape.
Bennett died of AIDS in 1987. And Baayork Lee feels it's important for contemporary audiences to experience The Chorus Line as Michael Bennett conceived it.
Ms. LEE: I've waited for this for 30 years. And I've been there and directed all those companies and, you know, spread the word, keeping Michael's legacy alive. And that was important because his style is just so unique.
Unidentified Woman #1: (Singing) On Broadway -
LUNDEN: In an age where many of the biggest musical hits on Broadway rely on elaborate scenery, A Chorus Line is simplicity itself - sixteen dancers on a bare stage, auditioning for a Broadway musical and telling their life stories.
While choreographer Baayork Lee expected audiences to embrace the show, she says she's surprised by how vociferously they're responding.
Ms. LEE: They're screaming. They love the characters. They love the stories and they love the music.
(Soundbite of song, "At the Ballet")
Unidentified Woman #2 (Singing): At the ballet -
(Sounbite of song, "One Day More!")
Unidentified Man #2 (Singing): One day more. Another day, another destiny -
LUNDEN: Les Miserables, the epic musical adaptation of Victor Hugo's novel which for ran for 16 years, will live one day more when it opens tonight on Broadway for a limited run of six months.
John Caird, one of the show's original directors, is restaging it. He says like A Chorus Line, fans of Les Miserablès approached the show with an almost religious fervor.
Mr. JOHN CAIRD (Director, Les Miserablès): We seem to be facing something that is so immensely audience pleasing. People feel that they have a relationship to it, sort of, they belong to it or it belongs to them. And there's something beyond theater about that somehow.
Unidentified Man #2: Will we ever meet again?
Unidentified Woman #3: Will we ever meet again? One more day -
LUNDEN: Still, Caird says his challenge as a director is to find new ways to make the show feel fresh.
Mr. CAIRD: I hope what audiences will see is something that feels like it just had its first night - that would be my dream. And if it still has strong similarities to what we did before, so be it. The last thing I want to do is to recreate something that was successful 20 years ago in all its loving detail. I think that's a recipe for museum, not theatre.
(Soundbite of music)
LUNDEN: Ben Brantley of the New York Times thinks revivals have a rightful place on Broadway, especially if their productions reexamine the original material.
Mr. BRANTLEY: The last season that we had two very different sorts of warhorses in the Pajama Game and Sweeney Todd revived on Broadway. But both of them were reconceived without violating the show's essential natures.
LUNDEN: Brantley says the 1950s show The Pajama Game looked at female sexuality in a very contemporary way, while Sweeney Todd brought out the psychological claustrophobia of its bloody tale by having the very tiny cast play its own instruments.
(Soundbite of music)
LUNDEN: Still, author and director Tom Jones says audiences take great comfort in seeing a show like The Fantasticks presented, in effect, similarly of its original product.
(Soundbite of song)
LUNDEN: The musical, a tender love story presented in a minimalist theatrical framework, ran in a tiny theater in Greenwich Village for an unprecedented 42 years. It closed in January 2002 and recently reopened in a new 200 seat theater near Times Square. Jones says the show attracts a lot of repeat business.
Mr. JONES: We have a lot of people come, who have seen the show and came as children and will bring in their children or even their grandchildren.
LUNDEN: Tom Jones, now in his 70s, is also appearing in the revival. And while New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley gave the Fantasticks a mix review. He says he was taken by the authenticity of Jones's performance.
Mr. BEN BRANTLEY (Theater Critic, New York Times): I was thrilled to see Tom Jones in it as the old actor, a part he created when he was young a man. Now he is the age of the old actor and that for me is the precious thing about The Fantasticks, is actually the one actor from the original cast.
LUNDEN: For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.