You don't often read about theatre designers in The New York Post, but that's just what happened in August. According to Michael Riedel, the paper's theatre columnist, a controversy has erupted over the new Broadway revival of 42nd Street. Lawyers for Robin Wagner, who designed the scenery for the show's original 1980 production, have filed a letter with United Scenic Artists, suggesting that Douglas Schmidt, the revival's set designer, may have borrowed too heavily from Wagner's originals.
Riedel quotes Wagner as citing three sets, the “three-tiered dressing room used in the number ‘Sunny Side to Every Situation’; a train station that is the setting for ‘Lullaby of Broadway,’ and a sleeping car that is the setting for ‘Shuffle Off to Buffalo.’” He also notes that Clive Barnes, reviewing the production in the Post, wrote that Schmidt's scenery “echoes” Wagner's work, and Ben Brantley, in his Times review, wrote Schmidt “appears to have borrowed liberally from Robin Wagner's designs.”
As we go to press, nothing more has happened publicly. Although Wagner was planning to see the show, he appeared ambivalent about litigation, adding, “If I think there is a problem, I would hope the producers would come forth in some way and acknowledge my contribution.”
I don't pretend to know the truth of this situation, since I know very little about the original 42nd Street. But it's easy to see how this controversy got started. The new 42nd Street is not a museum-piece revival of the sort we used to get in which the original designs and staging were preserved as much as humanly possible. Nor is it a complete rethinking of a classic musical, like the current Annie Get Your Gun or Cabaret. This 42nd Street is a kind of clone, created out of the original show's DNA.
Thus the program credits original direction and dances by Gower Champion, with “musical staging and new choreography” by Randy Skinner, who was one of Champion's dance assistants on the original. The direction is by Mark Bramble, who cowrote the show's book with Michael Stewart. It's significant, I think, that the opening moment of the revival reproduces the original's celebrated opening, in which the curtain rises partway to reveal a long, horizontal line of dancing feet.
On the other hand, critic Ken Mandelbaum of the website Broadway.com, who saw the original production several times, noted in his mixed-to-negative review that there are many instances where the design and the staging have been changed, to their detriment. On the musical number, “Dames,” he wrote, “Gone is the revolving, multi-tiered ‘castle’ surrounded by mirrors and the breathtaking kaleidoscopic effect for the costume parade that now ends the number rather wanly.” Mandelbaum also notes that Schmidt's designs are “lavish, more vividly hued, and gaudier that Robin Wagner's handsomer, more subdued, Art Deco originals.”
There's another factor at play here. 42nd Street opened in 1980, but ran until 1989, making it once of the most recent shows ever to rate a large-scale revival. (The revival's producers correctly saw that, with the redevelopment of Times Square, the opportunity to stage 42nd Street on 42nd Street would prove to be an irresistible lure for tourists.) But the time lag between original productions and revivals is getting shorter and shorter. This season, we're scheduled to get revivals of Noises Off (1983) and Into the Woods (1987). The past two seasons have featured revivals of The Real Thing (1983) and The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe (1983). Each of these shows ran a year or more, so they're even more recent than they seem.
The Real Thing revival looked nothing like the Broadway version. We don't know about this season's revivals, though my guess is that the script requirements of Noises Off pretty much locks a designer into a certain style of set design. But 42nd Street appears to be a new phenomenon, a show that blurs the line between revival and reproduction.
I find all of this a little sad. As an unabashed lover of musical theatre, I want to see new shows that challenge the form, push it in new directions. Of course, most of the new shows that have done that in recent years have failed at the box office.
To me, the real problem isn't derivative design, it's derivative writing, staging, and direction. Ideas are a natural resource, too, just like clean water and air, and it looks like we're running out of them. If you take a chance on new writing, I can assure you, designers will respond in kind. And who knows, maybe audiences will too. That's my personal Lullaby of Broadway.