Thursday, July 25, 2024
How dueling ‘Great Gatsby’ musicals got the green light

How dueling ‘Great Gatsby’ musicals got the green light

Entertainment


NEW YORK and CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Chunsoo Shin has backed numerous Broadway productions, including one based on the film “Rocky” and another inspired by the life of entertainer Charlie Chaplin. But the Korean-born theater impresario had longed to make a musical based on a popular literary work. After assessing various titles’ stage potential, he settled on a personal favorite: “The Great Gatsby,” F. Scott Fitzgerald’s seminal novel about an eccentric playboy’s relentless pursuit of a previous flame.

“It is a classic that South Koreans read from the time they’re young,” Shin said in Korean as interpreted into English for The Washington Post. “For me, it felt a little different every time I read it.”

But other producers had a similar idea. Even after Shin opened “The Great Gatsby” in Manhattan’s theater district this year, another musical based on the book has been chasing a Broadway green light. “Gatsby,” directed by Tony Award winner Rachel Chavkin with music by Florence Welch of Florence + the Machine and Thomas Bartlett, made its official opening this month at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass. The A.R.T. show initially billed itself as “Pre-Broadway,” according to an archive of its website. A representative for the show declined to comment on its Broadway ambitions and said the creative team was unavailable for interviews.

The great “Gatsby” bake-off has involved a level of full-throttle determination that surprises even the most seasoned producers. Basing shows on known intellectual property is a popular practice in show business, but the possibility of two Gatsbys singing on Broadway reveals the theater industry’s desperation to mine popular titles and lure audiences to their stages. So will this new adaptation dare to make it happen?

So far, the current Broadway production has grossed more than $1 million every week since opening despite receiving mixed reviews. The show, which stars Jeremy Jordan in the title role and Eva Noblezada as Daisy Buchanan, only snagged one Tony Award nomination (and win), for costume design, making its prospects of maintaining its early success less certain.

The A.R.T. show, with a book penned by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Martyna Majok, received positive reviews from the Boston Globe and Variety, with many theatergoers flocking to Cambridge to hear Welch’s first musical score. One Tony Award-winning producer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to preserve relationships in the industry, said some theater observers have labeled the Broadway version “The Good Gatsby,” while the A.R.T. show promises to be “The Great Gatsby.”

The two shows differ in tone and approach. “Gatsby” is a much moodier, grittier production, with a slender set adorned by piles of squished-up, silver-coated cars. Welch’s gloomy music is a mix of heart-wrenching piano and string ballads, with thumping melodies reminiscent of Florence + the Machine tunes.

Broadway’s “The Great Gatsby” is punctuated by pyrotechnics, realistic video projections and sets such as an onstage orchestra platform and Gatsby’s bedroom closet, which resembles a Brooks Brothers retail wall. The show’s music, scored by Jason Howland and Nathan Tysen, infuses 1920s-era jazz with modern pop, giving the production a more upbeat energy.

The Broadway ensemble dons colorful outfits, including loud headgear and sparkly flapper-style get-ups, while the A.R.T. ensemble wears more muted, sensual garb. Perhaps no scene stresses the difference between the two productions more than when Gatsby reconnects with Daisy after years apart. On Broadway, the ensemble helps trim the foliage on a lavish set featuring Gatsby’s cottage and prepares food ahead of her visit, whereas the A.R.T. scene is filled with a few main characters and a small tea set.

Chavkin, the director of the A.R.T. version, told the Boston Globe that her show intends to lean into the novel’s critique of society. “To believe in [self-made Jay] Gatsby is to believe in America, to believe in this promise of ascension and the idea that we’re all created equal, but that’s not really the case,” Chavkin said. “The idea of equality is a myth that people fight to make real every day. I think the show is trying to hold both the beauty of the myth and the painfulness that it is a myth in equal measure.”

Her version also delves more into Daisy and Gatsby’s backstory, including the titular character’s pre-socialite days as James Gatz, whereas the Broadway version avoids much time-capsule exploration. The A.R.T. show also offers fuller dimensions to characters such as Myrtle Wilson, a working-class woman who has an affair with Daisy’s husband, by offering a glimpse of her home life and motivations through two solo songs, and Nick Carraway, the work’s narrator. On Broadway, Carraway is heterosexual, while in the A.R.T. version it’s more complicated, which many readers have claimed is suggested in the novel.

Chris Williams, an environmental engineer based in Somerville, Mass., who has seen both “Gatsby” musicals, said, “It’s hard for them to be more different.”

“The Broadway version looks very much like the [Leonardo] DiCaprio movie version,” Williams, 48, added after a recent performance in Cambridge. “This version is a lot more abstract, much different characterization, much bigger role for mostly the women.”

Matthew Segalla, 25, said the A.R.T. show felt like a direct commentary on today’s world.

“This one obviously takes a less conventional approach to the ‘Gatsby’ story. The other one is very much the story in musical form,” he said. “This one was a little bit more about actual struggle in general.”

The dual “Gatsby” musicals underscore the love story’s timeless appeal. This fall, New York’s Public Theater is planning on reviving “Gatz,” which features performers reading Fitzgerald’s text word for word for more than six hours on the set of a drab, cluttered office while acting out scenarios of co-workers trading their office tasks for roles in the book. Last year, the Park Central Hotel in Midtown Manhattan hosted an immersive adaptation, inviting audience members to take part in one of the book’s raucous parties and witness pivotal scenes up close.

In Hollywood, the tale has been adapted numerous times into movies, including Alan Ladd’s 1949 take as Gatsby, Robert Redford’s version in 1974, Baz Luhrmann’s 2013 adaptation featuring DiCaprio and even a 2000 TV version starring Paul Rudd as Carraway.

Back in April, standing on the mezzanine level of the Broadway Theatre just before “Great Gatsby” cast members Noah J. Ricketts and Samantha Pauly rehearsed the snazzy Act I song “New Money,” director Marc Bruni said he saw similarities between the country’s current circumstances and the backdrop of Fitzgerald’s work.

“This was a society that was coming out of a pandemic and was in the middle of experiencing new technology,” Bruni said. “When you look at where we are with AI and with technology that seems to be spiraling ahead of our ability to keep up with it, it feels very much like there is a direct parallel with what we are all going through as a society right now and what they were feeling in the ’20s.”

Unlike past “Great Gatsby” adaptations, creatives no longer have to worry about the rights. On Jan. 1, 2021, copyrighted works from 1925, including “The Great Gatsby,” entered public domain. (U.S. law generally protects copyrighted works for 95 years after their first publication.)

Shin said he accepted the prospect of multiple shows based on the Great American Novel because the story can now be adapted by any theater producer. “I think that every team enjoys the same opportunity to be inspired by this great work and then work on their own productions,” he said.

Blake Hazard, Fitzgerald’s great-granddaughter and a trustee of his estate, said she is excited to see creatives share their take on the work now that the copyright has expired. Although the productions now aren’t required to enlist the support of the estate, Hazard said the estate had heard from the A.R.T. production but not from the current Broadway show. Hazard explained that some adapters seek out the estate for creative advice, as well as the family’s blessing.

“It may be for a time that there are two Broadway Gatsbys,” she said. “This kind of a jumble may also be a result of not consulting with or not even really communicating with the estate. The production that’s on Broadway now was a surprise to us.”

Hazard clarified that the current Broadway production had made contact with Scribner’s, the novel’s original publisher. During the show’s first preview performance, audience members received a copy of the novel published by Scribner.

Could dueling “Gatsby” musicals running concurrently on Broadway somehow boost both productions’ prospects, creating buzz and making Midtown Manhattan the place to be for “Gatsby” fans from across the world? It’s more likely that they could confuse audiences, according to Andrew Lippa, a Broadway composer-lyricist. In 2000, Lippa’s off-Broadway musical “The Wild Party” ran at the same time as the Broadway musical “The Wild Party,” both based on Joseph Moncure March’s 1928 epic poem.

“From a marketing perspective, it’s a problem,” he explained. “A friend says, ‘You should see “The Wild Party,”’ and somebody says ‘I’ll go buy tickets,’ and then you go look for tickets and you’re like, ‘Wait a minute. There are two?’”

“We never had to deal with that issue because our show did not transfer to Broadway,” he added.

Jockeying to release similar projects isn’t unheard of in Hollywood. Two films about Truman Capote’s life arrived about a year apart in the mid-2000s, with the version starring Toby Jones as the famous author delaying its opening to separate itself from Philip Seymour Hoffman’s turn, for which he won a best actor Oscar. The latter film garnered significantly more praise from critics.

Last year, HBO released the film “Reality,” about former National Security Agency contractor Reality Winner, who was jailed for leaking classified government material, while Emilia Jones recently starred as the same woman in a film titled “Winner.” And in 1983, two films based on the James Bond spy character were released — one starring Roger Moore, the other starring Sean Connery — each scoring over $100 million at the box office.

Shin’s production of “The Great Gatsby,” which had a tryout at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse before trekking across the Hudson, is only the second time Fitzgerald’s most popular title has lit up a Broadway marquee. In 1926, Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist Owen Davis brought the work to Broadway’s Ambassador Theatre and, eventually, Chicago, where many Americans familiarized themselves with the work. Before Fitzgerald’s death in 1940, the novel had only sold about 20,000 copies.

“A lot more people would have been exposed to [Davis’s dramatization] than would have been exposed to the novel itself,” said Kirk Curnutt, the executive director of the F. Scott Fitzgerald Society.

In the mid-aughts, and millions of book sales later, two productions inspired by “The Great Gatsby” toured the country at the same time: “Gatz” and a more traditional staging from playwright Simon Levy.

“We experienced a sort of competitiveness, but the two productions were so completely different that we weren’t competing really for the same venues or even the same audience,” said “Gatz” director John Collins.

Unlike “Gatz,” Levy’s production had struck a deal with Fitzgerald’s estate, giving Levy a veto power of sorts to prevent “Gatz” from playing in various cities, Collins said. “Gatz” had to wait five years to come to New York because Levy’s production had hoped to come to Broadway. (It never did.)

While financing any musical is a multimillion-dollar high-wire act (the current Broadway show is capitalized at $25 million), the current predicament of the A.R.T. “Gatsby” comes at a time when nearly two dozen new shows have opened in recent months on Broadway, adding to already-challenged economic realities.

The battle of the greatest “Gatsby” adaptation might not be the only duel over a public domain work this year. “West Side Story” star Rachel Zegler is set to star in a Broadway production of “Romeo + Juliet” this fall. Across the pond, reports have surfaced that the West End’s “Romeo & Juliet” starring Tom Holland is eyeing a Broadway run as well. Perhaps the producers behind the ampersand and plus-sign versions of the Shakespeare classic will wait and see whether two Jay Gatsbys bring the adaptation-happy party to a screeching halt.



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