It has happened to Mozart, it has happened to Verdi, and God knows it has happened to Wagner. But who would have dreamed it could happen to the Broadway musical?
I refer to the total makeover of a stage work at the hands of the psycho director. Last fall, I was visiting family in Basel, Switzerland's second-largest city and an ancient seat of learning. (Erasmus died here.) And what had just opened at Theater Basel but a brand-new production of Hair, a show I feel like I've known line-by-line forever. Back in 1968, my Titian-haired great aunt Pat (Mame to two generations of nieces and nephews) scandalized the clan by spiriting me off to see the show on Broadway, full frontal nudity and all. (If only I could have returned the favor last summer, when the New York Public Theater brought Hair to Central Park, to universal huzzahs, paving the way for its triumphant return to Broadway.)
The reviews in Basel were mixed, but no one seemed to care.
Talk about cognitive dissonance! Taking our seats early, my sister and I were puzzled by the sight of a suburban living room complete with Christmas tree. When the conductor arrived, things only got stranger. "When the moon is in the seventh house/ And Jupiter aligns with Mars…"? Not on your life. Rather than chanting "Aquarius" front and center, the chorus hid behind a backdrop wailing the opening of the St. Matthew Passion, by J. S. Bach — not exactly Christmas fare. I laughed out loud.
Director Tom Ryser revisited the Summer of Love in the rear-view mirror. Claude and Sheila, two hippies of yore, have been vegetating in humdrum suburbia almost as long as they can remember. Streaming, flaxen, waxen hair that was once worn down to there (shoulder-length or longer) is worn in a comb-over. The two have a granddaughter now — or do they? For all Sheila knows, the girl's bloodlines may go back to Berger, an old flame who bit the bullet, shipped out to Nam and came home in a box.
Once they had gotten Bach out of their systems, the performers switched to the familiar score — lyrics by Gerome Ragni and James Rado, music by Galt MacDermot — which was presented out of sequence in the original English. The book scenes, played in German, were credited to Rado and Ragni, who would have recognized precious little. The cue for "Easy to Be Hard" ("How can people be so heartless…") was a nice girl's discovery that pranksters had snatched her clothes while she and a new hippie boyfriend were out skinny-dipping in the dark. The tragedy of it! But for absurdity, it was the love tribe's invasion of Berger's boot camp that took the cake.
As for the men of the chorus — keep your shirts on, guys. Not one would have made it past the door at a Broadway casting call, and there they were, lining up for their physicals in a scene at the draft board, 4-F to a man. Still, the international cast of principals was personable, and the two guest break dancers were fantastic.
Theater Basel runs what the German-speaking world knows as a Dreispartenbetrieb — a three-track operation, juggling opera, straight plays and ballet. Musicals came into the mix here with the arrival of the new general director, Georges Delnon, in 2006–07. Audiences approve, and the company likes the change of pace. Programming them falls to the director of the opera wing, Dietmar Schwarz. With just one slot for "popular entertainment" per season, he alternates the American product with classic European operetta.
In his office, Schwarz had illuminating things to say about the musical — American, British or homegrown — in a broader European context. "Since Cats, a quarter-century ago, cities all over the continent, even quite minor cities, started building 'musical houses' as tourist magnets," he said. "Shows were offered as parts of extended packages. Japanese tourists went to Neuschwanstein for the King Ludwig musical and the castle en route to the Swiss Alps, where they saw James Bond's glacier. Except in cities that are magnets in their own right, that model isn't working anymore."
On visits to New York, Schwarz said, he may attend the Metropolitan Opera out of professional obligation, but on his own time, he sees musicals. Such as? "Spring Awakening, Spamalot, The Producers…. I couldn't bring those here. What works for us are the classics."
Hair a classic? In Europe? It seems the Milos Forman film of 1979 made it one. But mostly, we are talking the dinner-theater, summer-stock repertoire — "Composers people know," Schwarz explained, "composers like Cole Porter, Leonard Bernstein and George Gershwin." How about Stephen Sondheim? "I'm a big fan. But as director of opera in Mannheim, I put on Sweeney Todd, and no one came. I do think we could do Chicago."
It begins to seem that whatever may distinguish the classic American musicals from the standard repertoire of Europe, they are alike in this: some examples transcend their origins, some do not. If those that do keep changing — sometimes beyond recognition — as they travel through space and time, perhaps we should not wonder. According to a Norwegian friend, she and her compatriots never understand foreign productions of Ibsen. "Too slavish," she explains. "Too literal." There is much to be said for tradition, and much for an open mind.