An impressive group of America's most celebrated playwrights, composers, and lyricists will be at New Jersey's professional stages this season to rewrite, improve, or -- to quote one theater's artistic director -- "tweak" old versions of their plays and musicals. Expect such notables as Sam Shepard, David Mamet, Arthur Laurents, and Stephen Schwartz, among them.

While we have all become used to the liberties taken with the classics of dramatic literature and the musical theater by directors who are eager to bring their revisionist dreams to the fore, we are less accustomed to having living playwrights return to work on their presumably finished texts.

Since some are plays still in constant circulation, one wonders when it is time to leave things alone, and how valuable or essential is changing an old text or score to suit the author's whims, the public's tastes, and a theater's needs. And might it not distort the original vision? Certainly, one can only make a judgement call after the revised work is seen.

No question, political correctness has prompted both healthy changes and questionable altering to once unthreatening musicals such as Peter Pan and Annie Get Your Gun. The trend to embrace revisionism reached a peak with the British imports of two American musicals Carousel and Cabaret. But the contemporary straight play has remained relatively free of tampering. For the audiences that are no longer shocked to see Shakespeare shaken up, Moliere molested, and Chekhov chopped, the playwrights and the writers of contemporary musical theater are obviously eager to have another go at the same thing, only, they hope, to make it better.

Each season New Jersey's professional stages are charged with the expectancy of something new, but the promise of making something old new again. Which is why we extend a welcome to musical versions of Shakespeare, Molnar, and even Louisa May Alcott. New works and world premieres are always an essential part of every theater season. Two of the most eagerly awaited are Down The Garden Path by actress and playwright Anne Meara, and the musical Night Governess by Polly Pen.

"Rewrites are standard procedure," says Joseph Megel, artistic director at Madison's Playwrights Theater of New Jersey, the state's only theater dedicated solely to the development of new plays. It is courageously embarking on its first subscription season in its 14-year history with three plays: AT&T will sponsor Southern Christmas by Guillermo Reyes, and the National Endowment of the Arts will sponsor both Fathers and Sons by J. Rufus Caleb, and Radium Girls by Dolores Whiskeyman.

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Sam Shepard has been personally involved in the revised Fool for Love, at Princeton's McCarter Theater, where artistic director Emily Mann is currently celebrating her tenth season. "He has been at the rehearsals and is part of Emily's process," says McCarter associate producer Mara Isaacs. "Tweaking" is the word she uses to describe the playwright's role. She expects the same sort of involvement from David Mamet, who will be hanging around for the first major staging in 15 years of his Glengarry Glen Ross.

Perhaps the most eagerly awaited production of the year is Night Governess, a new musical by McCarter's artist-in-residence composer Polly Pen. Pen (Goblin Market, Bed and Sofa), has found her inspiration in Louisa May Alcott's 19th-century thriller, "Behind a Mask." She is also busy composing the incidental music for both Fool for Love and The Importance of Being Earnest. On October 18 (1999), Pen will receive $25,000 as one of the two winners (the other is composer Douglas Cohen) of the Gilman & Gonzales-Falla Theater Foundation's Eighth annual Musical Theater Award.

Aside from the three new plays on its schedule, New Brunswick's Crossroads Theater Company, winner of the 1999 regional theater Tony Award, will be celebrating the Duke Ellington centennial by presenting Play On, the 1997 Broadway musical with music by Ellington, inspired by Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. Tony Award winner Andre De Shield, who appeared in the Broadway production, will be putting a new spin on the musical, this time as its director. Kim Coles, known for her role in the TV series, "Living Single," and as host of Lifetime TV's "New Attitudes," may become better known as a playwright if her new play, Homework makes the grade. Coles also stars in the play co-written and directed by Charles Randolph-Wright. It opens, to use Ricardo Khan's words, "a season of celebration."

David Saint, artistic director at the George Street Playhouse, sounds like he just discovered Santa Claus as he talks about the up-coming new production of the 1965 musical, Do I Hear A Waltz. Both the original author Arthur Laurents, and original lyricist Stephen Sondheim, are busy collaborating on an almost completely overhauled version of the musical that was based on Laurents' 1952 romantic comedy The Time of the Cuckoo. Saint feels George Street can take the credit for making this happen.

It all started last season during technical rehearsals for Laurents' play Jolson Sings Again, explains Saint. "Laurents turned to me and said, `What about doing Do I Hear A Waltz here? I always wanted it to be an intimate musical and was disappointed when it was blown up for the Broadway stage.'"

"That's a terrific idea," was Saint's response, and now he expresses his pleasure at the way Laurents has beefed up the roles and made them more complex than they were before. In Saint's own inimitable style, he sings for me an entire chorus number that has been cut for this production to transform it into a more intimate musical. Saint then offers an equally stirring impersonation of the view of the scaled-down version taken by Theoni Aldredge, the show's costume designer: "Oh, please dahling, it's a wonderful show about three-and-a-half people."
The score by Richard Rodgers will remain largely intact, and one song dropped by the Broadway production has been restored, and Sondheim is contributing some additional lyrics. Now, do we hear a hit?

A major reconstruction of the 1986 musical Rags will be one of the highlights of the season at Paper Mill Playhouse. Although there were many reasons for the musical only lasting four performances on Broadway, this critic has always been a champion of Stephen Schwartz's thrilling score, the intelligence of Charles Strauss' lyrics, and the poignancy of Joseph Stein's book. "The team began to rework the musical practically from the day the musical closed on Broadway," says Paper Mill's executive producer Angelo Del Rossi, who traveled down to the Coconut Grove Playhouse in Florida last season to see the scaled-down new version. He undoubtedly was pleased with what he saw. Grove director Jeffrey Moss restage this more intimate version of Jewish immigrants in New York. A new song by Schwartz will close the first act.

With the musical Pippin also on the schedule, to be directed by Robert Johanson, this marks the first time in Paper Mill's history that the season includes two musicals by the same composer. About the thriller Deathtrap and the farce Noises Off, Del Rossi reassures me there won't be any changes. But he adds, "Just don't be surprised if Johanson doesn't do a little rewriting of the ageless operetta, The Student Prince.

The early 20th century Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnar isn't around to assist in the re-writes that has turned his original play The Guardsman, into the musical, Enter The Guardsman, now at the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival. But the adaptation of the original by director Scott Wentworth and the score by Craig Bohmier (music) and Marion Adler (lyrics) are attempting a respectful homage to the playwright's light romantic style.

Artistic director Bonnie J. Monte says that the production will have many changes and be a very different show from the one that opened at the Donmar Warehouse in London, in 1997. Monte, who is directing her first Romeo and Juliet this season, says this greatest of all romantic tragedies won't get any rewrites but is not above some judicious pruning. And she says, "As successful as A Child's Christmas in Wales was last season, there will be some improvements made." Now, isn't that what all these playwrights are hoping for?



Key Subjects: 
Revisions, New Jersey, David Saint, Joseph Megel, Polly Pen, Fool For Love, Night Governess, Do I Hear A Waltz?
Simon Saltzman
Writer Bio: 
Simon Saltzman has written dozens of New York theater reviews for This Month ON STAGE magazine. His interviews have appeared in TMOS and on Playbill On-Line.
September 1999
The 1999 New Jersey Season Makes the Old New Again