One concept in the arts that has been bothering me recently is that of remakes: the desire to refilm old classics instead of writing anew. But what is so bothersome about these new versions of old movies? Why do these popular, classic stories frequently disappoint critics and fans when remade?
In terms of less-than-successful movie remakes, I can’t help but think of Disney’s many recent attempts: “The Lion King,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “Mary Poppins Returns” perhaps the most prominent among them. These were also three films that I loved growing up, films that I felt compelled to watch when remade despite the negative critical views.
This, of course, is the reason that movie studios continue to produce remakes: Audience members are obliged to see the remake and thus provide production companies and investors with a reliable revenue stream. It is the relationship that I already have with these stories and the famous casts that are miraculously assembled for each remake that almost force me to buy a ticket despite my reservations.
These new remakes, after all, remain ultra-faithful to their eponymous predecessors. They duplicate every song, every dance scene and every unique filmographic technique. They represent a studied aversion to new artistic thought, a fear that new interpretations might risk upsetting old audiences.
But the result is a failure to attract any new audiences. Besides Beyonce’s new song in “The Lion King,” for example, there was nothing about the new film that was decidedly better than the original. If anything, the only major innovation, the use of photo-realistic animated animals instead of hand drawn cartoons, did more bad than it did good — the bug-eating scene in “Hakuna Matata” was particularly hard to watch, the cute bugs in the original film replaced with realistic bugs being eaten by realistic animals.
There’s something almost fundamentally wrong with believing that these stories should be perennially reproduced with little artistic change but lots of change in artists. Are John Oliver, Beyonce and Donald Glover really going to justify an entirely new production? Do Lin-Manuel Miranda and fancy BMX-bike-based choreography really justify a new version of an already-classic movie?
But when it comes to Broadway revivals many productions in recent years have been tremendously successful. These remakes, however, take great pains to offer new artistic and interpretive thought to already-classic stories, ensuring that risks are taken and new fans gained. Two productions I saw this summer, in particular, epitomized the different successes of Broadway revivals.
The first, the Lincoln Center Theater’s production of “My Fair Lady,” was conservatively faithful in many regards to its original. Save for a few adjustments in orchestration and dance breaks, the music was entirely identical to that of the original. While this might seem the ideal place for innovation, it ended up being the least innovative point in the production.
The most obvious point of departure for this production was the set and staging. The set was a modern and minimal take on 18th-century London: a circular, multi-story revolving townhouse and a few lampposts and facades standing in for more grand representations of historical British life. Besides the opulent staircase and onstage orchestra of the ball scene, this was far from the huge, decadent setting of the eponymous movie.
I found this to be just enough variation for the production to be new and interesting, allowing me to lose myself to the music and plot that I already knew I would like. Unlike the movie remakes with their famous casts, the selling point of this production seemed to be the subtle artistry.
A few key changes in plot and characters — suffragettes picketing in a couple of scenes and some semblance of feminine independence at the end — brought the plot into modern times. These were the changes that were necessary to make many of the “jokes” palatable for contemporary audiences in our post-#MeToo era.
At the end of the original production, after all, the main character chose to stay with a man who has demonstrated nothing but disregard and contempt for her. In this production, she chooses to walk out on the man that has abused her so, offering a final moment of resistance after she passively takes his many derogatory comments throughout the show.
The second production that I saw this summer was the critically-acclaimed revival of “Oklahoma!” currently playing in the Circle In the Round Theatre. Unlike “My Fair Lady,” it was a radical departure from the original 1940s production. This saw the addition of night-vision cameras, theater-in-the-round-esque seating, minimal staging and radical changes in orchestration.
To me, this almost felt like an entirely new show based on the plot of an older show, a “West Side Story,” if you will, in which a classic plot like “Romeo and Juliet” is brought into a modern, accessible idiom. The entr’acte, in particular, was unexpectedly and flabbergastingly modern, with contemporary dance and distorted guitars momentarily replacing the bluegrass/country-esque music aesthetic of the first act.
At the end of the day, this was a thought-provokingly different take on the original. I’m not sure if I prefer this to the original — I might even argue that they are too different to compare.
Though this production differed so much from its original, and though “My Fair Lady” made critical plot changes that completely reversed the message of the show, they managed to interest me in ways that movie remakes never have. They took risks and reaped the rewards. And that, I learned, is the marker of great art. Anyone can replicate already-successful works of arts; the best productions find something new in these classics to set their versions apart.