Who Needs Revivals?

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Jane Krakowski, formerly the un-inhibited secretary on TV's Ally McBeal, makes one of the more spectacular entrances in recent stage history in the Broadway musical Nine. Playing the mistress of a movie director, she arrives in Act I on a satin-bedsheet swing lowered from the rafters. Flaunting her slim but curvy body and looking like Barbarella in '60s-style layered hair and industrial-strength eye makeup, she gives the show a jolt of wit and sex.

It's the only pleasurable jolt in this revival of Maury Yeston and Arthur Kopit's 1982 musical, based on Fellini's 8 1/2. Sure, there's film star Antonio Banderas making his Broadway debut as the director, and Chita Rivera, in a supporting role, drawing the obligatory cheers for still being able to lift her leg onto his shoulder at age 70. But the show prompts the same question it did 20 years ago: Why turn a movie with one of the greatest film scores ever written (by Nino Rota) into a Broadway musical with mediocre songs?

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Nine is just the latest unnecessary revival in a Broadway season overflowing with them. Sixteen of the 35 shows that opened, or will open, this season for Tony consideration were revivals, up from 15 last season and 11 (out of 27 shows) in 2000-01. Some of these retreads are hard to begrudge, like the Our Town that brought Paul Newman back to Broadway for the first time since 1964 and the upcoming production of Long Day's Journey Into Night, starring Vanessa Redgrave, Brian Dennehy and Philip Seymour Hoffman, which is the hottest ticket of the spring. Moreover, in an era when mounting a new musical is a huge gamble and no one seems to bring straight plays to Broadway anymore unless they have had a tryout in London, revivals at least keep the lights on.

What's less defensible is the number of shows that are being brought back prematurely or without much point. Nine, despite winning five Tonys in 1982, was a dull show then, and it's a dull show now. The main achievement of Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, a revival of Terrence McNally's sentimental two-hander starring Stanley Tucci and Edie Falco, seems to have been to break up Tucci's marriage. (The show is closed, but he and Falco, who played a nude scene together, are now tabloid fodder.) Ma Rainey's Black Bottom was the first play, and still one of the best, in August Wilson's projected 10-play cycle on the African-American experience in the 20th century. But couldn't we at least have waited until he finished the project (No. 9 opens in Chicago this week) before starting all over again — with Charles Dutton playing the same part he created in 1984?

Much of this, of course, has to do with stars. Man of La Mancha got a lavish new production this season largely to give Brian Stokes Mitchell a role worthy of his baritone. Gypsy, last revived in 1989 with Tyne Daly, is about to return once again, primarily so that leading Broadway baby Bernadette Peters can continue to have gainful employment. Expect some critical carping about whether she's right for the brassy role of Mama Rose — but is there a more risk-free idea on all of Broadway?

A few revivals seem worth the effort. It was probably too soon to bring back A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, Peter Nichols' 1967 play about a couple with a severely retarded child (it had a perfectly good revival in 1985 starring Stockard Channing and Jim Dale), but its brutally unsentimental treatment of a touchy subject, the experiments in narrative and a galvanizing performance by comedian Eddie Izzard give it the immediacy of a spring thunderstorm. And a revival of Flower Drum Song earlier this season gave that politically incorrect Rodgers and Hammerstein musical about Chinese Americans a smart and satisfying rewrite (not the way people remembered it; the show closed).

It would be nice if future revivals could at least abide by a few rules. Shows shouldn't come back unless 1) they have been away so long that few theatergoers remember them; 2) they are ripe for the fresh perspective of a new era; or 3) they're being given a bold new interpretation. For the first, how about putting together a couple of the terrific one-acts that Israel Horovitz and Terrence McNally were turning out in the 1960s and '70s (The Indian Wants the Bronx; Next)? For the second, with Susan Stroman and Twyla Tharp reinvigorating Broadway dance, what better time for a new West Side Story? For the third, well, let's just say if anybody is thinking of bringing back Death of a Salesman, it had damned well better star Eminem.