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Boys from Syracus - Ken Mandelbum
Preview #3: He Had Twins
by Ken Mandelbaum
While Rodgers and Hart's 1938 success The Boys from Syracuse has never before been revived on Broadway, it had an acclaimed, delightful off-Broadway mounting at Theatre Four in 1963 that lasted over 500 performances (more than twice the run of the original) in the days when off-Broadway could afford a cast of more than 20. It's possible to imagine that librettist George Abbott did some rewriting to adjust the show to the more intimate venue. And while the songs were the same as in the original, "Oh, Diogenes" was taken from Luce and reassigned to the Courtesan, probably to give the always wonderful Cathryn Damon a full number. A comparison of the '38 tunestack to that of the '63 production also indicates that the first act finale went from "Let Antipholus In" (preserved on the Encores! recording of Syracuse) to a "Ladies Choice" ballet. (Four years after the off-Broadway Syracuse, the final Rodgers and Hart show, By Jupiter, was revived at Theatre Four, directed by Syracuse stager Christopher Hewett; the production wasn't a success, but the RCA cast recording merits CD reissue.)
But the changes to the material for the '63 revival are obviously minor compared to the radically altered Syracuse Broadway is getting beginning tonight, with a new book by Nicky Silver based on Abbott's; the songs "You Took Advantage of Me" (Present Arms), "A Lady Must Live" (America's Sweetheart) and "Ev'rything I've Got" (By Jupiter) interpolated from other Rodgers and Hart shows; and apparently a couple of numbers at least partly reassigned.
True, Rodgers and Hart theatre songs tend to be less profoundly allied to the characters for which they were written than, say, those of Rodgers and Hammerstein, so shifting some of them around from show to show isn't out of the question. I've always considered The Boys from Syracuse to feature one of Rodgers and Hart's strongest scores, the sort of collection not in need of outside assistance. But with a new book, the need for interpolated material no doubt become more pronounced.
Some observers are appalled at the rewrites now regularly in evidence in musical revivals, alterations extending even to classics like My Fair Lady and South Pacific. Such changes can be disconcerting, making one sometimes wonder why producers or directors would wish to mount a show they consider so imperfect as to require extensive revision. But if one is to continue to attend revivals, one must make the best of it, keeping an open mind and hoping that what has been done to the piece is at least in the spirit of the original and plays well.
And it must be admitted that The Boys from Syracuse is no My Fair Lady: The original Abbott book is a professionally assembled, high quality collection of low-comedy gags fashioned around the plot of The Comedy of Errors and created for a pair of stage clowns: As the textbooks will tell you, the impetus for the show was the fact that Lorenz Hart's brother, Teddy, bore a strong resemblance to another comic performer, Jimmy Savo, thus suggesting Shakespeare's play about twins.
What has always given Syracuse its distinction is, of course, its score, with songs like "Falling in Love With Love," "The Shortest Day of the Year," and "You Have Cast Your Shadow on the Sea" punctuating the farcical antics with an unexpected emotional depth. While Encores!' 1997 Syracuse mounting featured a book adaptation by David Ives (co-librettist of the forthcoming Dance of the Vampires), it was carried by the music, presented in its original orchestration and without cuts or interpolations. It was one of the best of the Encores! series, which might pose a problem for the Broadway revival (the Times's Ben Brantley loved it, and he hasn't loved such Roundabout musical revivals as Company and Follies).
Staging the revised Syracuse is Scott Ellis, who hasn't had luck with new Broadway musicals (Steel Pier, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer), but who made his reputation with revivals before going on to such recent straight plays as The Waverly Gallery and The Man Who Had All the Luck. While Ellis's musical revivals (Company, She Loves Me, and 1776 for Roundabout, A Little Night Music and 110 in the Shade for New York City Opera) have tended to feature at least some alteration to the material, most of them haven't been radical revisals, with the exception of the show that first brought him to local attention, the Vineyard's 1987 Flora, the Red Menace, with a new book by David Thompson.
Rob Ashford, the unexpected winner of the 2002 Tony for his Thoroughly Modern Millie choreography, is staging the dances for the new Syracuse, and thus working again with Erin Dilly, who plays Luciana, and almost got to play Millie at La Jolla. It will be interesting to see if much of an attempt is made to make the two Antipholuses (Tom Hewitt and Jonathan Dokuchitz) and the two Dromios (Lee Wilkof and Chip Zien) look like sets of twins. Also noteworthy is that one of the leading ladies, Lauren Mitchell, is co-producer of two other current Broadway productions, Urinetown and Into the Woods (Mitchell was in the original 1987 cast of the latter).
As of now, this Syracuse is a subscription run scheduled only through October 20 at the American Airlines Theatre. With all of the alterations and new material, it's hard to predict how it will play; the show's previous New York returns were happy occasions, and one hopes the same will be true of the latest incarnation. Still ahead, of course, is the new Flower Drum Song, an even more radical Rodgers revisal.