(Re)imagine That! Beloved Musicals Given New Gloss For New Age

The new production of ‘Guys and Dolls’ at London’s Bridge Theatre places the audience around a central stage. (Production photos by Manuel Harlan)

LONDON — The Victoria and Albert Museum recently put together an exhibition it called Re:Imagining Musicals. The idea was to “explore how some of the best-loved musicals have been adapted, revised and retold.” It was a provocative presentation. Even more thought-provoking were some current London productions of older musicals with contemporary treatments.

Guys and Dolls provided a stunning example at the Bridge Theatre. And it was not only musicals in the narrow sense that were updated, but also operas such as L’elisir d’amore at the Royal Opera House in a fresh and sparkling staging by Laurent Pelly, and a stellar Iolanthe made new and vibrant again by the English National Opera at the Coliseum.

Hardly a week passes without a new operatic production provoking outrage from audiences and critics alike. In fact, there is a German expression which has been developed to describe just this kind of directorial experimentation: Regietheater. The most fervent hostility to this approach usually comes from those who believe that the director’s foremost obligation in staging a repertory opera is to honor what the composer and librettist intended. This historically informed approach also applies to classical music generally, and not only to opera or musical theater. A good example in opera would be the cycle of all of the Verdi operas that was presented by Sarasota Opera from 1989 to 2016, staged as Verdi and his librettists conceived them.

Opera companies today often feel compelled to make these repertory pieces more “relevant” to modern audiences. The plots in classic operas are often threadbare and silly, and the sets and costumes can seem dated. Many directors argue that by using modern dress instead of period costumes, for example, they can create a stronger connectedness with modern audiences. Sometimes they alter the music and twist the plots, too, to make a contemporary statement.

In ‘Guys and Dolls,’ Cedric Neal as Nicely-Nicely Johnson nearly stole the show in leading ‘Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat.’

Guys and Dolls is based on stories by Damon Runyon. Music and lyrics were written by Frank Loesser with a book by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows. Originally directed by George S. Kaufman, it opened on Broadway in 1950, ran for 1,200 performances, and won five Tony awards. In short, it was a smash hit with a slew of memorable songs, among them “A Bushel and a Peck,” “If I Were a Bell,” “Take Back Your Mink,” “Luck Be a Lady,” and “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat.” For the 2023 London production, the director was Nicholas Hytner, a former director of the National Theatre. The choreographer was Arlene Phillips.

Last year, also in the Bridge Theatre, I saw Hytner’s production of David Hare’s Straight Line Crazy starring Ralph Fiennes. For that play, a thrust stage was used, with the audience seated on three sides. Guys and Dolls has no fixed stage at all. Instead, there is a large playing area on floor level with the audience of about 900 in bleachers on all four sides. The 14-piece band sits in a balcony at one end. In addition, for this production the Bridge Theatre is selling what they call “Immersive Tickets Standing Stage Area.” Several hundred such tickets are available, and they allow audience members to be almost intermingled with the performers.

The Guys and Dolls staging is ingenious. Large, rectangular boxes rise up from the floor to a height of about three feet, and all the singing and dancing takes place on top of them. But these boxes are not permanently in place. They are raised and lowered according to a plan. As they rise and fall, the “immersive” audience closes in around them. It is an astonishing demonstration of stagecraft that was not only clever but practical, too. Both boxes and performers moved smoothly and effortlessly from scene to scene.

And the Guys and Dolls performance? Stunning from beginning to end. Cedric Neal as Nicely-Nicely Johnson nearly stole the show in leading “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat,” but Owain Arthur as Nathan Detroit, Andrew Richardson as Sky Masterson, and Marisha Wallace as Miss Adelaide all had their moments. The band conducted by Tom Brady provided plenty of razzle-dazzle. The production provided a brilliant example of how to stage a musical that is more than 70 years old and make it fresh again. The inimitable world of Damon Runyon’s New York hustlers and gangsters is recreated with love and imagination. The costumes are just what one expects from the period, and the music is rendered much as Frank Loesser must have conceived it.

The Lord Chancellor and members of the House of Lords arrive in a train pulled by a full-size steam locomotive belching smoke in the English National opera production of ‘Iolanthe.’ (Production photos courtesy of English National Opera)

Over at the Coliseum, the English National Opera finished its season with Britten’s Peter Grimes and Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe. The ENO is hanging by a thread these days with drastic cuts already announced by Arts Council England (ACE) and recommendations that the company move most of its operations to Manchester. The ENO itself has already announced a reduction in the size of its orchestra. But at the performance of Iolanthe I attended, the house was full, and the performance was by far the finest G&S I have ever seen. Cal McCrystal’s production preserved the essence of G&S while making full use of modern technology to make it more entertaining than ever.

Iolanthe was first produced in 1882 and, like many of the G&S operettas, pokes fun at a particular aspect of British society. In this case, it is the House of Lords. Iolanthe is a fairy who committed a capital offense under fairy law: She married a mortal. The play concerns her son Stephon, who is half fairy and half mortal, and who wishes to marry Phyllis, the Lord Chancellor’s ward of court. But the Lord Chancellor wishes to marry Phyllis himself. The ENO makes extensive use of fairies flying through the air, but the most spectacular stage effect is the arrival of the Lord Chancellor and members of the House of Lords in a train pulled by a full-size steam locomotive belching smoke. Musically, this scene is wonderful, too, with the peers of the realm strutting up and down with nauseating pomposity. The ENO chorus demonstrated impeccable diction and impressive musicality.

The Iolanthe cast was strong from top to bottom, with John Savournin a thoroughly ridiculous Lord Chancellor, Ellie Laugharne a lovely Phyllis, and Marcus Farnsworth an ardent Stephon. Adam Brown as the Page had few lines but provided endless laughs with his pratfalls and other physical gags. Perhaps not surprising in a show that features fairies, Cal McCrystal did not hesitate to make the implicit very explicit. In 1882, homosexuality would have been a no-no on the English stage. Not so in 2023. Same-sex affection was very much to the fore. But for all its use of modern stage technology and recognition of contemporary mores, this was also a historically informed production. It made use of a performing edition prepared especially for the ENO by Timothy Henty, who points out that many errors have crept into the G&S scores over the years. He went back to Sullivan’s autograph score and tried to get as close as possible to the composer’s original intentions. All in all, a very satisfying rendering of a Gilbert and Sullivan classic.

A scene from the English National Opera production of ‘Iolanthe’

Laurent Pelly is a French opera and theater director who has demonstrated many times over how to stage comic operas in a way that is true to the composer’s intentions but also fresh and imaginative. He did a superb production of Offenbach’s Orphée aux Enfers for Opéra Lyon in 1997 — it can be seen on Medici.tv — and an equally fine La fille du régiment at Covent Garden in 2007. Then came his charming realization of Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore, also at Covent Garden. Pelly is scrupulously faithful to the composer’s intentions but takes some artistic license with the staging. So in the current Royal Opera House production, we are surprised and delighted to see the opening scene set as an enormous pile of hay bales.

Pelly has a lot of fun making his singers climb up on them and hide behind them as suits the plot developments. And instead of having the elixir salesman Dulcamara make his entrance with a horse pulling a cart, he arrives in an old truck. Pelly has a gift for finding humor in every scene but never descends into slapstick. In the current production, Nadine Sierra, as Adina, sang beautifully, and tenor Liparit Avetisyan, as Nemorino, offered a touchingly nuanced performance of the much beloved “Una furtiva lagrima.” Bryn Terfel was announced as Dulcamara but had to withdraw due to illness. The veteran Ambrogio Maestri filled in as Dulcamara, and he was terrific. Sesto Quatrini conducted a sparkling performance.

The Victoria and Albert Museum’s Re:Imagining Musicals exhibition featured set models, costumes, original cast albums, and hundreds of graphics relating to popular musicals. An especially interesting section showed how the Wizard of Oz story evolved from the 1900 L. Frank Baum children’s fantasy novel through the 1939 Judy Garland film to the 1974 musical The Wiz and finally the 2003 Broadway musical Wicked, which has become one of the highest-grossing musicals of all time. What the exhibition showed, and what the three current London productions also demonstrated, was that musical theater is a constantly evolving art form, and that gifted directors can make familiar favorites fresh again without compromising the intentions of the original creators.