As a film geek, one of the things I hear film fans deride out of hand in recent years is the major studios' obsession with remaking films in their vaults. Before seeing even a frame of the finished film, geeks just dismiss remakes, often with the familiar and quite frankly tired hyperbole about their childhoods being raped.
The Hollywood remake thing is an interesting phenomenon, because it happens in the world of Broadway theater all the time, not to mention regional and community theaters around the US. Plays and musicals get remade almost constantly. To be fair, on Broadway they have a much cooler name for it. On Broadway, it’s called a “revival.” That word implies a rebirth, or having fresh life being pumped into something. But, there’s no denying that every Broadway season is packed with remakes of old plays and musicals.
If you were in New York this instant and looking to see one of the big tourist-attracting musicals, you could see, among other things, Chicago, Annie, or Cinderella, all revivals. If you want to wait a few weeks, you can see the revival of Les Miserables. After Tom Hooper’s occasionally great but frequently disastrous movie version, people might need to see the stage version again and be reminded how good the material is. Even the Matthew Broderick-starring Nice Work If You Can Get It is a new book musical loaded with old Gershwin songs.
As the 2013-14 season opens this spring, the number of play revivals is huge. There’s been a lot of press on the revival of Orphans. Alec Baldwin toplines the show, but it was the recent departure of Shia LaBeouf from the cast that made the news. You can also see Scarlet Johansson in Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Trip to Bountiful, The Big Knife, Al Pacino in the umpteenth revival of Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross and Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing.
This is hardly a complete list of revivals in the New York theater scene. Hell, I haven’t even mentioned Shakespeare. Wanna see Alan Cumming in a one-man version of Macbeth? It’s currently running on Broadway. And, keep in mind these are just the revivals set for this season. The Tony Awards even give out prizes for Best Revival of a Play and Best Revival of a Musical.
So, why is it that Broadway and Off Broadway revivals aren’t met with a collective eye roll from their fan base? I’d go so far as to say the news of some revivals is actually exciting news.
In 2009, The Los Angeles Times ran a story that was deeply troubling, if you’re a fan of movies. The story was about how the film industry was seeking out pre-existing brand names on which to base films. No longer were the studios interested in hiring A-list stars to topline their productions. They weren’t interested in finding new, exciting scripts to produce. The overlying philosophy is it’s easier for studio marketers to sell a brand name the public was already familiar with.
“Brands are the new stars,” then Universal Pictures Chairman Marc Shumger ominously said. “That’s what you used to pay the star, although, fortunately, they’re not as expensive.”
This sort of creatively bankrupt thinking led to the current phenomena of basing movies on things like board games and toy lines. This lazy stance on marketing led to movies like Battleship, a huge financial disaster last year for Universal. Next spring we’re getting a LEGO movie.
And, it’s led to the current crop of remakes. Pre-existing movie titles are brand names. Why take the risk on a new property when you can just dust off a pre-existing film and just slap a fresh coat of digital paint on it? You already own the rights to said property, so it saves a lot of money. This sort of creative indifference led to movies like last year’s unnecessary Total Recall remake, a huge financial disaster for Sony.
It wouldn’t be quite as bad if the titles being selected for arbitrary retooling were flawed movies with a great central idea but flawed execution that could actually be improved on. But no, the movies being remade are often genre classics. Why remake something that was great to begin with and actually holds up really well? The effects work in Paul Verhoeven’s original Total Recall may look a little dated, but the movie still works. Does anybody not regard John Carpenter’s Halloween as a modern genre classic? There was nowhere Rob Zombie and his white trash, trailer park goop could go but down with it. Same with Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street, one of my all-time favorite horror films which was horribly remade by Michael Bay’s company. Or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which has more of less been remade twice in the past six years, badly both times.
To be totally fair, Broadway theater producers are businessmen, just like the aforementioned Mr. Shmuger. They are in business to make money. They are trying to make money for their investors. They just don’t seem quite as craven about it. Usually when plays get revived, there’s also serious thematic or artistic reasons for it and not just fiscal concerns.
Last year, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Andrew Garfield starred in a Mike Nichols-directed revival of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, arguably the greatest American play ever written. It had been a while since the show ran in New York. But, it was the current events (the fight for workers’ rights in Wisconsin, the Occupy movement, the 47%) that made Death of a Salesman very, very relevant again. First staged in 1949, Death of a Salesman was still thematically vital. There were more than financial reasons for reviving it, but the show had a sold-out run and made money for its investors.
Another thing in the Broadway revival’s favor is there aren’t films of classic performances. There’s no way to go back and see it again. Once it closes, it’s gone. I wasn’t alive when Lee J. Cobb first played Willy Loman. My mom had just been born. There’s no video account of that production, and when Broadway shows do get filmed PBS-style, the end result usually sucks. Plays weren’t meant to be shot like movies. Acting that was modulated for the stage doesn’t play correctly when it’s shot in tight close-up.
For people who’ve never seen Death of a Salesman or Orphans or Glengarry Glen Ross on stage, now’s their chance; owever, I can download the original Total Recall on a digital service like Netflix or Hulu or Amazon any time I’d like. The original film exists, and it always will. It doesn’t need to be remade so an audience who’s never seen it can have the experience. In our digital world, that experience is available 24/7. Once a theatrical production shuts its doors, it’s gone for good. Even a long-running show rotates cast members over time, and that drastically changes things. If you see The Book of Mormon in New York, now you’re no longer watching the original cast.
Studio producers have a lot they could learn form their Broadway counterparts. It’s not inherently evil to remake a movie. There just needs to a good reason besides cash-grabbing to do it. Remake a film that could have been great but instead didn’t work. How about starting with The Last Airbender? Great source material, terrible execution. Just don’t ruin the reputation of a great film that’s easily available to the public.