The current passion for reinventing ‘classics’ to fit today is replete with both good intentions and overbearing ego. The core idea of a ‘classic’ is that it has something significant to convey over time. Updating ideas of significance for contemporary audiences can work wonderfully, but there are also huge opportunities to create flops.
The movie Little Women opened to popular and critical cheers this past Christmas. Director Greta Gerwig has explained that she loved the Louisa May Alcott classic as a child, but that it conveyed such new relevance when she re-read it in her 30s that she had to make it into a film. There have been earlier movie versions—notably the 1933 movie directed by George Cukor and starring Katharine Hepburn as Jo—but Gerwig thought a new movie could beautifully encapsulate the book’s core ideas intersecting women with ambition, art, and money. Meryl Streep’s Auntie March gives an iron-fisted definition of how women in the 19th century had to marry unless they had their own economic independence—unless, as Auntie chortles, they were rich like she was.
Gerwig interprets Little Women as Alcott’s own life story, with Jo as a portrait of Louisa May. In a superb late scene in the movie, Jo submits her manuscript to her publisher and then fights to retain the book’s copyright—just as Alcott did in real life. The book’s success, and her ownership of the copyright, gave Alcott the economic independence to keep writing and to support her family. As Wall Street Journal critic Joe Morgenstern has written, “Ms. Gerwig’s reimagining—and provocative restructuring—of the American classic is all ablaze with ferocious purpose, urgent passion, boisterous humor and the nourishing essence of family life in good times and bad.” (WSJ, 12/24/19, p. A11)
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Another current “update” is the Lincoln Center production of My Fair Lady, which has just launched its national tour at Washington’s Kennedy Center. This show was born as an “update” when Lerner & Lowe transformed Bernard Shaw’s classic 1913 Pygmalion into a smash hit musical that took Broadway by storm in 1956.
The Lincoln Center production largely follows the Lerner & Lowe creation, although Professor Higgins (Laird Mackintosh) now actually sings rather than talks his songs as the unforgettable Rex Harrison did, and there’s a contemporary flourish when the saloon cohort that joins Alfred P. Doolittle singing “Get Me to the Church on Time” includes male dancers dressed a la Ballet de Trockadero chorines. But the ending, unlike Lerner & Lowe’s 1950s insistence on Eliza remaining obsequious to Higgins, reverts back to Shaw’s feminism of a century ago: Eliza now does not “fetch” Higgins’ slippers, but “sweeps out” and leaves him to fend for himself.
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Washington’s Shakespeare Theatre has joined the revisionist fray this winter with a new production of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan and Wendy. Barrie first presented his play in London in 1904, and brought it to New York the following year, with Peter played by popular Broadway star Maude Adams. The actors were mentored in “flying” by the Flying Ballet Company, and the show was a smashing success.
Boomer generations grew up with two endearing versions of Peter Pan—the 1953 Disney cartoon, and the 1955 Broadway version starring Mary Martin. The latter was so popular that NBC broadcast it live and in color for several years. Both the Disney and the Mary Martin shows were kinder and gentler than Barrie’s original play and its follow-up 1911 book, Peter Pan and Wendy, which were darker in spirit; the book actually had Peter killing off Lost Boys when they had the audacity to grow up.
The new Shakespeare Theater version, written by Lauren Gundersen, has embraced Barrie’s grittier sensibility. Peter, a role traditionally played by a woman, is now an athletic young man, and Tinkerbell—a magical presence in the Disney cartoon—is played by a sturdy woman costumed in gold and driven by violent jealousy over Peter. Actors portraying both Peter and Wendy seem too old in reality and in attitude, and there’s an unfortunate lack of chemistry amongst the cast. Captain Hook (Derek Smith) is actually the one actor who seems to relish his role.
A greater problem with this production is spelled out by director Alan Paul in the Playbill when he argues that “the original play has been one of the most harmful propagators of stereotypes against indigenous people” so that they have rewritten Tiger Lily to be less a racial stereotype–though he reminds his viewers that “we are still dealing with the lasting effects of colonialism, even today.” Alas, this kind of finger-wagging clutters and greatly detracts from the Shakespeare production.
Shaw’s Pygmalion wove a magical story about a statue coming to life, and his message in that classic play is equally relevant today. However laudable the intention to present books, plays, and movies for new generations, the life-giving force is still about magic.
By Amy Henderson, Contributing Writer
My Fair Lady will be at the Kennedy Center through January 19, 2020; Peter Pan and Wendy appeared at the Shakespeare Theatre through January 12. Little Women is currently in movie theaters, and has been nominated for several Academy Awards, but significantly, NOT for its female director, Greta Gerwig.