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When Shows Refuse to Repeat History

Musicals that reflect the outdated sensibilities of their era aren't easily 'fixed,' as revivals of 'Annie Get Your Gun' and 'Thoroughly Modern Millie' reveal.

November 19, 2000|MICHAEL PHILLIPS | Michael Phillips is The Times' theater critic

We make American history--momentous, racist, imperfect, loaded with opportunities for show tunes.

We remake that history as musical theater.

And then we remake the musicals.

At the moment, Southern California is playing host to a couple of familiar-sounding titles. Both refashion existing material--encoded, to varying degrees, with the prejudices of their time--for a new audience.

Both raise a tricky question: Must the custodians of our musical theater heritage redo shows belonging to another era to more comfortably suit our own? Or do we risk leaving an old chestnut with lovely songs "as is," sensitivities be damned?

If easy answers existed, every Broadway musical revival would run like a thoroughbred, entrancing one and all. But this particular genre, so full of joy and danger and double-edged swords disguised as nonwhite characters, never had time for easy answers.

The 1946 Irving Berlin standard "Annie Get Your Gun," starring Marilu Henner and Tom Wopat, arrives in Costa Mesa Nov. 21-26. (It plays the Wilshire Theatre in Beverly Hills Feb. 27-March 18.) Like the Broadway revival, the tour features the show's original libretto by Herbert and Dorothy Fields, as revised by Peter Stone.

Among other tasks, Stone and his collaborators felt they really had to do something about all those "scalping" gags. They were typical of the free-floating, jokey patronization found in the Annie Oakley tuner. So were the Berlin lyrics referring to "very notable, cut-your-throatable Indians" or, in "I'm an Indian Too," the line about "Hatchet-Face" and "Eagle Nose." The song's no longer in the show, to the consternation of many purists. It is, in effect, the Tin Pan Alley equivalent of the Atlanta Braves tomahawk chop.

In a hugely popular run that has been extended through Dec. 10 at the La Jolla Playhouse, "Thoroughly Modern Millie" is freely based on the 1967 film, a heavy slice of camp spoofing '20s silent-movie cliches, white slavery chief among them. Among the theatrical version's most notable departures: the treatment of the comic Chinese henchmen, originally played by Pat Morita and Jack Soo.

Speaking of Jack Soo--I've been waiting a lifetime for that transition--"Flower Drum Song" is coming back in a major revival, to the surprise of many. In the 1958 premiere production, Soo did a nightclub routine. With that incomparable dry touch, well known to "Barney Miller" fans, Soo made hay on such questionable retorts as "Back to the laundry!" No less a playwright than David Henry Hwang (one of the librettists on Disney's new hit "Aida") has been hired to overhaul the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical about Chinese Americans in San Francisco.

The results, which may or may not carry the original title "Flower Drum Song," open at the Ahmanson Theatre in April.

There is more, far more, to these musicals than their deployment of racial stereotype. Even with its flaws, the racially sensitized "Thoroughly Modern Millie" works, mainly because it has found a way to be pretty funny about it.

Even with its virtues, the racially sensitized "Annie Get Your Gun" fares less well.

The plot of this big postwar hit required sharpshooter Annie Oakley to play "second best" so she could nab the easily threatened Frank Butler. Librettist Stone (who has lately done a make-over on another problematic postwar Broadway favorite, "Finian's Rainbow") has monkeyed with the gender relations throughout. The revival hands the battling lovers a climactic skeet-shooting tie, rather than giving Butler the win over Oakley.

Elsewhere, Stone has weeded out casual references to "squaws" and "firewater." He has swapped the original text's generalized attitudes for the specific attitudes of his least sympathetic character, Butler's ex-squeeze, Dolly. She has been provided lots of dialogue ("They're nothing but a bunch of savages!") not in the original.

But it's all very self-conscious and rather clunky. This doctoring job is more like a game of three-card monte. In place of racial condescension, circa 1946, we get topical gags about Sitting Bull opening up a casino on his reservation. And Stone has actually coarsened the original, particularly with antagonist Dolly, now a walking, talking "middle-aged man-hungry hag" joke more so than in '46. My memory of the recent Broadway revival is that of waiting for Berlin's most wonderful songs, "I Got Lost in His Arms," "I Got the Sun in the Morning" and "Anything You Can Do," and more or less Zenning through everything else.

"Thoroughly Modern Millie" had it easier going in. The original never had the reputation of a classic. It did, however, have that snappy title tune and a skeleton of a story.

On screen, utilized painfully as stooges, "Oriental No. 1" and "Oriental No. 2" bumbled around, got beat up by Carol Channing and generally wasted the talents of Morita and Soo. The stage musical gives these characters more to do, largely for the better.

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