Musicals can be shotgun weddings, their authors joined by necessity, not love. But in most cases, they’re at least both breathing.
Not so this fall. On Broadway, Off Broadway, in special events and out of town, living authors are collaborating with dead ones. Amber Ruffin is revamping the book of “The Wiz,” the 1975 musical that is itself a revamp of “The Wizard of Oz” with Black characters. Richard LaGravenese and Daniel Koa Beaty are overhauling John O’Hara’s 1940 script for “Pal Joey” while keeping the classic songs Rodgers and Hart wrote for it — along with a bunch borrowed from the duo’s other shows. And John Weidman’s revisal of the 1962 musical “I Can Get It for You Wholesale” finds him working intimately with an unexpected yet familiar old name.
Tinkering with the books of revivals is of course nothing new. Some otherwise viable shows, like “Annie Get Your Gun,” need surgery because their racial or gender assumptions are now unacceptable. Others, from a time when musicals were not meant to be models of dramaturgical cohesion or gravitas, have plot holes the size of canyons, or a general air of silliness no longer in style. (Pretty much anything before 1943.) Others, like “Show Boat,” are merely falling out of copyright, with heirs eager to find a way to remonetize their property.
And some — well one — are “Here We Are,” the musical Stephen Sondheim was working on when he died in November 2021. News from the Sondheim batcave is sparse, and we don’t know who or what has completed the work that the songwriter, five days before his death, told my colleague Michael Paulson was unfinished. Still, something by Sondheim, and presumably still based on the Luis Buñuel films “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” and “The Exterminating Angel,” is scheduled to show up at the Shed starting Sept. 28. Directed by Joe Mantello and with a book by the comic playwright David Ives, it will reflect a very unusual collaboration indeed.
But most of the post-mortem collaborations this season are of a different sort. Weidman, who wrote the books for Sondheim’s “Pacific Overtures” and “Assassins,” says his work on Classic Stage Company’s revival of “I Can Get It for You Wholesale,” which opens in October, isn’t a collaboration at all, but a conversation. And the person on the other end of the conversation is his father.
That would be Jerome Weidman, whose novel of the same name, about a garment industry embezzler named Harry Bogen, started his career with a bang in 1937. But the musical, despite piquant songs by Harold Rome, one of which earned the 19-year-old Barbra Streisand a Tony nomination, was only a moderate success 25 years later. Even toned down, its “unfiltered portrait of a bad guy behaving badly and getting away with it,” John Weidman said, may have been too dark for its day.
Because Broadway is now “a more hospitable landing place” for that kind of material, John has been adjusting Jerome’s script to restore the novel’s first-person narration and “raw no-holds-barred feeling.” Restored too are three cut songs found in Yale’s Harold Rome archive, now repurposed to enhance the point of view of the women Harry (Santino Fontana) tramples on the way. A “gesture toward redemption” at the end has also been excised.
When I asked Weidman whether reframing his father’s work for a new era was itself a gesture toward redemption, he laughed and said no, even if there was something “complicating” about it. “But I think I’ve had enough therapy to propel myself through the process,” he said.
Few shows have sought redemption as much as “Pal Joey,” based on O’Hara’s short stories about a two-bit hoofer with dreams of stardom and the morals of, well, Harry Bogen. Like “Wholesale,” the musical was probably too cynical for its time; Brooks Atkinson, in his 1940 Times review, asked, “Can you draw sweet water from a foul well?”
By “sweet water” he meant the astonishing songs, including “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,” “I Could Write a Book” and “Zip.” In the new version running in November as part of City Center’s annual gala — and presumably, if it’s a success, on Broadway at some point thereafter — they will be joined by “My Funny Valentine,” “Where or When,” “The Lady Is a Tramp” and others from the Rodgers and Hart catalog.
Classic though they are, these songs may sound unfamiliar in new arrangements tied to the new story.
To create a “definitive ‘Pal Joey’ that can exist in the world moving forward,” as Beaty put it, he and LaGravenese have turned Joey (Ephraim Sykes) into a Black jazz singer, moving the setting to the dawn of the bebop era in the early 1940s. Because he hears “a sound no one is vibing with yet,” LaGravenese said, their Joey is a misunderstood genius, not a heel.
“The challenge is to give this character a full journey that’s very specific to his being a Black man in that time,” Beaty said, “without losing his edge.”
The women, too, are given a “fuller humanity,” Beaty added. (In their adaptation, the socialite Vera Simpson, who finances Joey’s nightclub in exchange for sex, now has more complicated motives.) And O’Hara’s book, which in the struggle to be both “foul” and “sweet” landed on “incoherent,” needed to be better integrated, in all senses of the word.
Though some may protest that such changes can destroy the conditions that make a show work, LaGravenese maintains that “Pal Joey” never did. For him and Beaty, collaborating with the past means fundamentally fixing it.
“The Wiz,” which begins a national tour in Baltimore this month and is expected to arrive on Broadway in April, didn’t need fixing exactly. Its book, by William F. Brown, was already “frankly exactly what it should be,” Ruffin said: “a means by which you could consume those songs.” With music and lyrics mostly by Charlie Smalls, numbers like “Be a Lion” and “No Bad News” “are little murderers,” she added, “and I’m 100 percent there for that.”
Still, looking at the story details — especially considering that Brown, who died in 2019, was white — “you got some questions,” she said. “It’s not like it has zero holes. Not only has theater changed but the place of Black people in America has changed in ways that we cannot ignore if we’re going to put on a completely Black show.”
“Oh, well, the lion doing so many drugs that the police mice come and take him away? That is not going to fly,” Ruffin said. “Not that we’re trying to update it; the ’70s were a really fun renaissance for Black creativity. Calling this the 2024 version of ‘The Wiz’ makes you think everyone’s got an iPad. But no: We want to make it as timeless as possible.”
All latter-day collaborators share that goal. Reaching it requires different strategies. Short of hiring a medium, there’s no way to know whether the original writers would accept the wholesale remake of “Pal Joey” or prefer the delicate tinkering of “I Can Get It for You Wholesale.” For Ruffin, “The Wiz” lies somewhere in between, though when I noted that she wasn’t making radical changes, she objected.
“You don’t know that I’m not turning Dorothy into a robot,” she said.