NEW YORK — George C. Wolfe, the brilliant and voluble producer of the Joseph Papp Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival, likes to tell friends that, in a past life, he was aboard the Titanic's doomed maiden voyage.
It would be understandable for the onetime steerage passenger to be feeling "deja vu all over again," to borrow the famous phrase of Yogi Berra. As director of the Broadway revival opening this weekend of "On the Town," the 1944 Leonard Bernstein-Jerome Robbins classic about three sailors at liberty in New York City, the peppery Wolfe has been battling reports that the show is in trouble. Word of mouth during previews has been poor, and the opening at the Gershwin Theatre was recently postponed from Thursday to Saturday to allow time for choreographer Joey McKneely ("The Life") to supplement the work of Keith Young, the Los Angeles-based modern dancer and choreographer (Madonna's "Girlie Show") who is making his Broadway debut with this show.
In fact, Young is the third choreographer connected with the production since Wolfe chose to jettison Robbins' seminal work for the 1944 production. First on board was Elliot Feld, who departed after receiving mostly negative notices for his work when the productionpremiered in Central Park's Delacorte Theatre in the summer of 1997. He was replaced by Christopher d'Amboise, who quit even before the show went into rehearsals for its Broadway move, citing "artistic differences" with the director.
The mixed notices coming out of the park also accounted for a withdrawal from the production of a group of Broadway producers who had forked over $1.5 million in enhancement money. The Public returned the funds and is financing the entire $5-million-plus budget for the Broadway musical revival.
Wolfe, the Tony-winning producer-director of such Broadway phenomena as "Angels in America" and "Bring In 'Da Noise, Bring In 'Da Funk," may yet pull the show out of harm's way. He's been underestimated before--Broadway insiders gave him little chance of success with "Noise/Funk" on Broadway and on the road, yet his collaboration with Savion Glover on that kinetic tap-funk review of African American history has been a huge moneymaker for the Public, the profits of which are now capitalizing "On the Town." But whether or not the new revival hits a critical iceberg on Monday, when the first print reviews appear, the Public has an aggressive marketing campaign in place that it hopes will buy the show some time to catch on. The question, however, is whether the formulas that have attracted relatively young, multicultural audiences to the Public's cutting-edge productions will be equally effective when applied to a show perceived to be old-fashioned and, well, a little white-bread. Most people who know the show know it from the 1949 film adaptation starring Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra.
While Wolfe acknowledges that World War II, the time in which "On the Town" is set, may be "ancient history" to some of the audience the Public hopes to attract, the director says he's relying on the show's "brilliant score," its multicultural cast and its "foolish, silly and very playful" tone to draw the widest possible cross section. "Fundamentally, the youthful energy of the show and the way it is cast is a reflection of New York, and that is consistent with the sort of outreach that we have always done at the Public," says Wolfe.
"It may take a while, but I think 'On the Town' has the potential for us to break down the boundaries between the traditional theatergoer who may have fond memories of the musical and those with a 'Broadway-is-not-for-me' agenda."
Wolfe says that his first goal was to come up with a way of retelling the familiar story "visually and rhythmically" so that it would move like a contemporary show. That accounts for why he chose to forgo a mere re-creation of the Robbins dances and why he has had so much trouble finding the right choreographic elements. That has also meant working on revisions with Betty Comden and Adolph Green, who wrote the original book and lyrics. For their part, the writers say they are grateful to Wolfe for the chance to update the work. "We hate nostalgia," says Green.
The hip, edgy graphics for the show reflect the freshness of the young and largely unknown cast (though Lea DeLaria, an in-your-face lesbian comic, scored big with the critics and audiences during the Central Park run). Unlike past takes on the show, including a 1971 flop revival and the 1949 film, which featured the image of three sailors on the town, this campaign highlights the three couples and the glittering Manhattan skyline that is the backdrop for their romantic escapades.