The transaction is an investment in theater futures — even if, in some cases, you might feel this year as if it’s a bit more like theater past.
The uptick on the rosters of several big companies in and around town is in the category of titles you’d generously have to call extremely tried-and-true. For Signature Theatre, musicals on offer in 2012-13 include, from 1978, “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” (1,584 Broadway performances); the 1981 “Dreamgirls” (1,521 performances); and, in a co-production with Ford’s Theatre, that schmaltzy standby from 1964, “Hello, Dolly!,” whose original incarnation resided on Broadway for 2,844 performances.
At the Kennedy Center, where the crop of productions is mostly tours, the lineup features a visit by the 1997 musical “Jekyll & Hyde” (1,543 Broadway performances). And over at Arena Stage, the new season will see the region’s third revival in six years of “My Fair Lady” (2,717 performances), in a version that artistic director Molly Smith staged last year at Canada’s Shaw Festival.
Who knows? Any of these might prove to be a rousing entertainment or a surprising confection. Still, the shuffling of so much old baggage onto so many of Washington’s distinguished stages in one season is not only unusual — it is also a little, well, let me say it, cringe-worthy.
This trend is not confined to one city: Harvard University’s American Repertory Theater, founded and formerly run by director and theater critic Robert Brustein, disclosed this month that it will be reviving the fondly remembered 1972 Stephen Schwartz musical “Pippin” (1,944 Broadway performances).
Without doubt, companies devoting ample resources to chestnuts — musicals are far more expensive to mount than most plays — have their rationales. Signature describes its 2012-13 menu as “a season of reinvention,” and Smith, whose smash “Oklahoma!” revival rechristened Arena’s refurbished, renamed Mead Center for American Theater, has long demonstrated a soft spot for American musical “classics”: her “Music Man” begins performances there in May.
But let’s be real about these retreads, and one wishes that theaters would be more candid about them, too. Revivals of commercial hits are also-rans of theatrical imagination. Although they are not lazy efforts — one had only to see Signature’s recent, polished revival of “Hairspray” for proof of this — they are expedient selections. Sure, there’s a slight risk that in choosing a show that may have been last year’s featured production at (insert your local high school’s name here), you run up against cases of OFSTF: Overly Familiar Show Tune Fatigue. Yet the clear bet theaters are making is that these shows will be far easier to market, and thus their auditoriums will be easier to fill.
The paradox of nonprofit institutions building their seasons on well-known or money-making Broadway hits of yore should not be lost. Many of these organizations were founded as alternatives to what was viewed as the popular commercial fare of the time. And it could be argued that a rerun of an old show is one less slot for the nonprofit sheltering of a composer or writer trying to make his or her mark today.
Administrators at various Washington companies paint a stark picture of the particularly brutal fiscal hurdles they’re facing; just this season, Arena, citing a big cutback in anticipated government funding, put off for a year the staging of a new play (and not, it should be noted, the more expensive — and potentially more lucrative — “Music Man”). The risks inherent in developing and presenting new work can exacerbate a theater’s difficulties.
For its part, Signature has over the past several years been boldly and commendably producing one new musical after another: The company has yet another one formally opening this weekend, “Brother Russia,” by the team responsible for the musical version at Signature of “The Witches of Eastwick.”
This season, in fact, Signature offered five world premieres, four of them musicals; the fifth is its current hit play, “Really Really.” The upcoming season, with no new works, may be a reflection of an overreaching this year. None of the new musicals to open there thus far, “The Hollow,” “The Boy Detective Fails” and “A Second Chance,” proved to be a fully realized piece, and the box office results were disappointing.
So maybe in 2012-13, the parade of war horses will simply give Signature a chance to catch its breath.
One certainly doesn’t want to paint the entire season as a professional caving in: The Kennedy Center, Arena and even Signature (with Christopher Shinn’s Pulitzer finalist “Dying City”) have some other interesting items on their menus. And companies such as Woolly Mammoth and the Shakespeare Theatre Company have announced plans for world-premiere monologues, plays and adaptations.
If, however, the oldies are going to be a growth industry at nonprofit theaters, anything that doesn’t look as if it might also be staged on a cruise ship will feel like an act of courage.