In the springtime scramble for best advantage in the Tony Award nominations, the producers of the musical Shuffle Along, currently running at the Music Box Theatre, insisted that it compete as a revival rather than a new musical. Their undisguised motive for seeking this designation for a show derived from a nearly century-old revue was to avoid going head-to-head with that jubilant Broadway juggernaut known as Hamilton. Who can blame them? But the ploy didn’t work: Officials for the Tonys (which Hamilton swept on June 12) denied the request, reasoning that while the new musical incorporates some of the 1921 songs by Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake, the show’s current director, George C. Wolfe, jettisoned the original book about a mayoral election (an expansion of a long-standing comedy routine by the vaudeville duo Aubrey Lyles and F.E. Miller, appended to an operetta-style love story) and created a wholly new one.
Wolfe’s own subtitle concedes that the Tony panel was right. He calls his show Shuffle Along, or The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed—and, indeed, it buoyantly tells the backstage story of the show’s creation, success, and aftermath with an astonishing all-star cast. But the Tony judges were also at least a little bit wrong: Rather than a new musical in the typical sense, Wolfe’s Shuffle Along belongs to an as-yet-unnamed but growing and revelatory category of theatrical works that investigate contemporary issues by reconfiguring old hits, now largely forgotten or deemed no longer stage-worthy. The writers who refashion them seem to work from a profound love for, even infatuation with, their source material—and also with some discomfort issuing from the material’s historical context.
Another such work, Indecent, by playwright Paula Vogel and director Rebecca Taichman (currently running Off-Broadway at the Vineyard Theatre), is woven around Sholem Asch’s 1906 Yiddish domestic tragedy God of Vengeance. These plays are far different from straight-up revivals, or even from the adventurous reboots that, say, set Richard III amid 1930s fascism or place South Pacific in a war veterans’ rehab center. With their freshly written scripts, they are distinct, too, from adaptations that offer a new spin on a core plot and set of characters. Rather, they are plays about the plays that are partially embedded within them. They present some elements of the source material, but they also step outside it to comment on its genealogy, process, reception, performance style, impact—and, perhaps most of all, on the issues it raised that still make our culture itch. Though these are new plays, the old ones inhabit them like dybbuks. Call them repossessions.
To some degree, these plays share a sensibility with recent archival fiction by writers like Danielle Dutton and Marlon James that, as Lucy Ives recently wrote, are set in the past, yet deviate from historical novels because they don’t give readers “the imagined experience of an event,” but instead “offer the ambiguous traces that such events leave behind.” As Ives notes, such novels unfold from competing perspectives, often delivered in multiple voices.
In the theater, where a single narrative voice is usually already absent, or at least contested (there’s no such thing as a reliable narrator onstage), point of view isn’t so much the question for these repossessive plays—though they, too, don’t simply depict the past, but address how our sense of it has been fashioned. Instead, logically enough, representation itself is at issue here: who and what can be shown onstage, live and in person. In the American context, because it involves bodies, this often means the ways in which racial and sexual difference can be displayed and asserted.