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How Do You Make an Old Stage Musical Fresh? It's Essense!!!

Updated on August 1, 2017
Charlie LeSueur profile image

AZ Western Film Historian. Fellow of Arts @ Scottsdale's Museum of the West. Apacheland Wall of Fame & Spirit of the West Alive recipient.

Clockwise: Harv Presnell as Daddy Warbucks, the original Daddy Warbucks in the "Sunday funny papers" and Jamie Foxx as latest incarnation, Benjamin Stacks.

Changing established stage musical concepts

As tastes and culture change is it alright to alter an established musical like "Annie" or should it stay true to the original concept?

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Albert Finney and Aileen Quinn, "Annie" (1982)

To see the real musical you must see it on stage.

When it comes to your favorite stage musical that's exactly what I mean, as seen on stage. To watch the movie version and say you've seen the show is clearly not the case. For example, If you saw John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John in the film Grease then you saw a screenplay that was altered to conform to the two leads rather than maintaining the characters as created on stage.

Another difference, no matter how many times you see the film it will always be the same film, but a musical stage production will always be a bit different. However, both can bring something into your life if they're presented just right for you. Travolta and Newton-John will forever be the definitive Danny and Sandy to a generation of movie-goers. But for live theatre patrons it will be a different story.

There's one thing that will always remain the same, the "essence" of the show. The "essence" that comes from every performer involved, stage or film. It took me a while to find that word and, to be honest, that conclusion. To be totally honest, I was pretty much finished with this article before I totally realized what I was trying to put across. Now that you know this, keep it in mind as we cover a lot of territory.

So just what is your favorite stage musical and why? I would have to say Annie is my all-time favorite stage musical for a number of reasons. I did it on stage a couple of times and then there's the traveling professional stage version I saw many years ago in Phoenix, Arizona. Everything that goes into a live show causes the impression you walk away with.

Now…before you go crazy on me, let me plead my case for Annie. While shows like Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserable, Lion King, Hamilton, Aladdin, Kinky Boots or the perennial Wicked, are much more spectacular, wondrous and touching as far as story and presentation any one of these shows can be spoiled by one actor giving 75% or even 90%. On the other hand, an actor who gives it their all can turn any show into a magical three hours that you vividly remember almost 30 years later.

Now to the question of change. Many things have been visibly and audibly updated for the latest film version of Annie. After all, the original story is based on the Great Depression and Franklin Roosevelt as president? Would you complain if they did the same to Les Miserable, and what about the big hit, Hamilton, now how would you alter that time period? Although I'm sure someday it will happen, Hamilton would be dramatically altered if the chemistry changed in any way. Granted West Side Story is an updating of Romeo and Juliet but that's the gimmick of the whole musical to begin with.

Now the first issue you may think I'm talking about in Hamilton is a race change? On the contrary, Hamilton would be dramatically altered if they changed any denominator of the show it's so well crafted. However a great actor can make you enjoy the show no matter what. All I care about is the talent of the person, do they make me believe. I'm talking about the time frame, the basis of the story. I can't see Showboat with the whole story about relationships on a post Civil War Riverboat being updated. It wouldn't be Showboat or have the same impact. Would Cats still be Cats if the characters were changed to Dogs? Would Annie Get Your Gun be that particular show if they updated it to the 1920's? It might be entertaining, but Irving Berlin would be rolling over in his grave and it would be a stretch to explain why Annie Oakley, who died in 1926 at the age of 66, was still prime and ready for "Doin' What Comes Naturally." You get the point.

Granted, the classic Carol Burnette, Albert Finney film version of Annie took huge liberties with the show that I thought weakened the film drastically. The fantastic Bernadette Peters and absolutely incredible Tim Curry's rendition of "Easy Street" had the potential to be outstanding. The original concept for the number was more in line before re-shoots were ordered by director John Huston. I won't even make comment on the bungled job on the generally touching "Tomorrow" number with Roosevelt and his cabinet being totally ruined or the stories time of year changing due to the film's release schedule. But I am clearly in the minority. Most people I talk to love the film, even though the huge number "N.Y.C." is replaced by the so-so "We Got Annie." Okay, I know, enough already.

Victor Garber played Daddy Warbucks in 1999 television version. Garber is a great musical talent, however right now he's one of the stars of "Legends of Tomorro

One Actor Can Ruin the Illusion

If you’re a theatre patron just think about it. A production of My Fair Lady can be outstanding, but if the actor playing Alfred P. Doolittle doesn’t give 100% in "Get Me to the Church on Time" that’s what you’ll remember going home. A show can be the most breathtaking production in the world as far as execution, but without believing in just one single performer your illusion can be completely spoiled. The one production of Wicked I saw for example was spectacular but it lacked heart. Being a thespian myself, I found the actors on stage were simply going through the motions, especially the one playing Glinda. Now if that particular actor is not giving their all just think what the show stopping number "Popular" might sound like? You guessed it.

Five Minute Bow at Beginning of Show? No, No

I was excited to see a legendary screen idol of mine on stage in a professional traveling company of The Wizard of Oz. This particular star had been number one box office for three years running during the golden age of film. In this production he was playing the same roles Frank Morgan played in the Judy Garland film version. The show was going along fine until his first appearance. The audience went wild, cheering and applauding, as well they should have. The “star” immediately broke character stepped downstage just above the orchestra pit and started taking bows. This went on for a good five minutes. It changed my opinion of this actor. My wife leaned over and whispered in my ear, “I don’t like him.” From then on, no matter how good that particular show was, it had been ruined to a certain extent. I’m sure my wife and I weren’t the only ones thinking, “Caution! Pompous ass on stage.” I later had the opportunity to interview this gentleman for a celebrity Q & A and found him to be every bit as insufferable as my wife and I imagined.

Many tried and true musicals are having a revival in 2017 such as the much anticipated, "Hello Dolly," with Bette Midler. But there are so many new productions

If you had the opportunity to see a new show such as "Hamilton," on Broadway or the revival of "Hello Dolly with the fantastic Bete Midler, which would you chose?

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We Now Return to Our Regularly Scheduled Article

I saw Annie at the Orpheum Theatre in Phoenix with my little sister in the early 1980's, so you can tell the show has stayed with me a long time. The actor giving me this lasting impression was the late Harv Presnell as “Daddy Warbucks.” Before we arrived at the theatre I remember thinking, “How can Harv Presnell play Warbucks?” The character of Warbucks is husky and imposing while Presnell is tall but lean. I’ll admit we had great seats down front where we could see every little expression on an actor’s face, but I have no doubt that even those in the nose bleed section could feel his power and concentration. I was simply spellbound. I’m sure his fellow actors on stage appreciated the energy as well.

Creating Good or Bad Memories is Up to the Actor

While the once upon a time number one box office star’s performance will linger with me for all the wrong reasons in what was most likely an otherwise outstanding production of The Wizard of Oz, Harv Presnell’s performance as “Daddy Warbucks,” shows what a truly great stage actor can do to sell a part to a Doubting Thomas, or in my case a Doubting Charlie.

Harv Presnell, "Paint Your Wagon"

It All Boils Down to One Word . . . read on

Mr. Presnell can be seen in the films, The Unsinkable Molly Brown, as 'Leadville' Johnny J. Brown and Paint Your Wagon, as Rotten Luck Willie singing an unforgettable rendition of "They Call the Wind Maria." These are just two of his many acting credits, but they are the two that show off his musical skills.

Now while going on a diatribe about updates and alterations, I'm going to make another point, which may seem to contradict some of what I've said up until now. It's not always how faithful a production is but what does the essence of the production, stage or film, bring to the viewer? Finney and Burnette had the "essence" in their film which carried it into a classic realm. I actually preferred the television version Disney produced in 1999 with Kathy Bates and Victor Garber. Both films have changes I've never been able to comprehend, especially the most famous song to come from the show, "Tomorrow." Both strangely place the song into the events awkwardly as if it's simply a throwaway number to keep the story moving along.

And then there's Jamie Foxx as Daddy, I mean Benjamin Stacks. Get it? - slang for the $100.00 bill with Benjamin Franklin's adorable mug on it. And then the last name "Stacks" as in stacks of "Benjamins." A far more P.C term today than "Warbucks," which refers to one of the ways Oliver "Daddy" Warbucks makes his money during the time period of the the original.

Surprisingly, now don't faint, I enjoyed the 2014 version with Foxx, Quvenzhané Wallise and Cameron Diaz more than the other two films. The story couldn't be any more different. The songs couldn't be any more updated, or the character of Miss Hannigan given more of a make-over, literally and figuratively, and where is Rooster? He's kinda there...sorta. The one thing it has plenty of is "essence." The "essence," the energy, besides if you're going to really commit to change then for heck sake go with it; which they certainly do in every way they can.

There’s so many eye-catching musicals today that make Annie look very dated, but sometimes there’s just one performance that makes you remember a show long after the stage lights have dimmed, everyone has gone home and the star has passed away, God Bless you, Mr. Presnell.

I suppose this whole article has been leading up to one thing, most importantly on constantly changing live stage productions which is in constant influx. I guess no matter what you want to call the magic, it boils down to the intangible thing called "Essence."


© 2016 Charlie LeSueur

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