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Shaw’s Brigadoon just the latest darker reinterpretation of a classic musical

Shaw’s Brigadoon just the latest darker reinterpretation of a classic musical
Entertainment
At this year’s Tony Awards, theatre lovers outside of the Big Apple got a glimpse at the current revival of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! running on Broadway by director Daniel Fish, and what they saw was likely a mighty wallop of a surprise for anyone from that state or any of its neighbours. Ado Annie used a wheelchair (later that night, performer Ali Stroker would go on to win an award for this performance), Curley sang the signature song in a stripped-down modern community-centre set, ensemble revellers sprayed beer cans into the onstage-seated audience members, and the entire cast delivered the final “OK!” from the lip of the stage with intense, angry stares.

Rebecca Naomi Jones, who plays Laurey, snarled directly into the camera. This was a version of the show that’s significantly toned down for mass-TV audiences — the real thing, according to reviews, is much darker, much odder, and it confronts the violent racial and gendered tensions in rural America head-on, all while leaving the original script untouched. It won the award for Best Revival of a Musical that night.

Daniel Fish’s Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! premiered Off-Broadway in 2018, earning rave reviews for its radical treatment of the ultimate Golden Age musical — as Frank Rich writes in New York Magazine, the musical’s debut in 1943 was just like Hamilton’s arrival in 2016 — while taking absolute care to stay true to the source material (it’s right there in the full title, this is not Daniel Fish’s Oklahoma!). A transfer to Broadway was thought unlikely, given the provocative and intimate in-the-round style of the Off-Broadway production in Brooklyn’s St. Ann’s Warehouse, but in less than six months it was starting previews on the Great White Way for a limited run that closes next January.

But perhaps it’s not so surprising; Oklahoma! might be the most extreme example of a classic musical getting a makeover for the 2010s, or maybe the better word is make-darker. In 2016, director Leigh Silverman shifted the central character’s search for love in Sweet Charity from a innocently buoyant to one that’s mired in insecurity and desperation. New York Times critic Ben Brantley described Jessie Mueller’s line “It is possible, dear, for someone to hit you — hit you hard — and not hurt at all,” in Jack O’Brien’s well-received 2018 revival of Carousel as “delivered quietly and unconvincingly, almost as if hoping to pass unnoticed.” Bartlett Sher’s production of My Fair Lady that same year amped up Henry Higgins’s desire for control over Eliza so that “you do not wish for Eliza and Higgins to be together; you want her to get the hell away from him,” writes The Daily Beast’s Tim Teeman.

And currently on at the Shaw Festival in a production directed by Glynis Leyshon, the 1947 Lerner and Loewe musical Brigadoon gets a revision that’s even more 2019 — with a new book by Kitchener-born, New York City-based writer and director Brian Hill, this story about an invisible Scottish town that appears to the world for one day every 100 years touches on colonialism, war, feminism, and even … Brexit?

“We haven’t consciously explored those parallels,” Hill says. “But this piece in particular is about people escaping into their own private bubble and frankly today you see that all over the world. We’re trying to find that tribe that keeps us safe from the others and that’s a little bit of what breaks my heart.”

In the original story, the town of Brigadoon receives its divine miracle in order to hide from witches — in Hill’s version, it’s an act of mercy after British forces killed Scottish highlanders in the 1746 Battle of Culloden, bringing on a period of Gaelic cultural suppression and British assimilation of the highlands. To save themselves from further persecution, and to protect their cultural heritage, the citizens of Brigadoon literally remove themselves from the world.

Hill says that he knew he had found the right path to take his adapted book of Brigadoon when he realized that the post-battle trauma of the townspeople echoed that of the two American interlopers who discover Brigadoon, Tommy Albright (George Krissa) and Jeff Douglas (Mike Nadajewski), who have recently returned from the Second World War.

“Realizing that these two worlds were going (through) exactly the same thing 200 years apart, that was the moment when the penny dropped,” he says. “When it was first written right after the war, it was pure escapism. There was no mention of the war for obvious reasons, people didn’t want to talk about it at the time. And yet it struck me that an audience today would wonder why that wasn’t a part of the piece. They’ve been affected by world events, which I think a contemporary audience is more open to seeing in a musical now.”

This new context, Hill says, provides an explanation for the psychologies in all of Brigadoon’s characters: Tommy’s restlessness and newly awakened yearning for true love, Jeff’s cynical and nihilistic humour and rejection of affection or intimacy, and Fiona’s (Alexis Gordon) strength as a woman in Brigadoon, a leader in the community when others didn’t come home from battle.

“And Harry Beaton (Travis Seetoo) who messes everything up, he’s one of the people who realizes that one man’s heaven is another man’s hell, and to be trapped in this dome of Brigadoon’s safety is absolute hell to him,” Hill says, and Harry’s decision to threaten the town he comes from is evident of the emotional and mental stress of being so isolated.

But Oklahoma! this isn’t. Hill acknowledges that his script doesn’t go as dark as it could. “The score doesn’t support that, it’s not what the piece wants to be,” he says. And in the full production, director Leyshon, whose mother was born in Scotland, pairs the lavish score of Brigadoon with a more traditional staging, using Linda Garneau’s choreography (inspired by the original dances by Agnes de Mille) and Sue Lepage’s tartan-covered costumes to dig into the culture that the Brigadoonians are so ardently protecting.

“Once you step back, it’s a very odd path for survival, only emerging once every hundred years, but it resonated with the whole idea of cultural genocide in the Highlands, that taking away of pride and clan and language and culture,” she says. “The wearing of tartan is an act of enormous pride and defiance. The actors of the company, knowing from their own experience, they feel the fierceness of it. I find that very moving as a daughter of a Highlander.”
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