Revivals, Revisals: “The Unsinkable Molly Brown”

Christian Lewis
6 min readFeb 27, 2020

A review of the newly revised production of “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” in light of “Mack & Mabel” at City Center Encores! and Ivo van Hove’s “West Side Story.” In our current theatrical moment, what degree of nostalgia should go into a revival?

As a critic, some weeks you see Lucas Hnath, Young Jean Lee, and Alice Birch question the forms that theatre can take. Other weeks you see back to back revivals of Jerry Herman, Leonard Bernstein, and Meredith Wilson. After having consecutive viewings of three Golden Age musicals, it made me stop and think about nostalgia and about what we are actually doing when we mount revivals.

Each of these productions take a very different approach to the idea of fidelity. “Mack & Mabel” at City Center Encores! is almost the definition of a museum piece revival. The production is just an excuse to hear Herman’s luscious score with a large orchestra; nothing shocking happens in the staging, it is about as straightfoward as possible. Ivo van Hove’s “West Side Story” is the exact antithesis, here an iconoclast director has cut material, condensed it into one act, eliminated Jerome Robbins’ iconic choreography, set the piece in modern day, and integrated video footage. While “Mack & Mabel” feels like a bit of time travel, this “West Side Story” seems unfathomably far from the original production.

Somewhere in between is The Transport Group’s heavily revised “The Unsinkable Molly Brown,” which has perhaps found the sweet spot of Golden Age period vibe and modern sensibility. While Daniel Fish’s “Oklahoma!,” for example, radically reimagined the piece without changing the text, this version of “Molly Brown” is “completely” different and “revitalized” — a textbook example of a revisal. Other than Molly, none of the characters are the same, there are only reportedly three lines of dialogue that have remained from Richard Morris’s original book, and almost the whole of Act II is different.

The changes are the result of a team effort: Dick Scalan did the new book and all the new/additional lyrics, Michael Rafter adapted some of the songs, and at the helm is director and choreographer Kathleen Marshall. The song list for this production itself is a hodge-podge of Wilson: some songs from “Molly Brown” are left in tact, some have added lyrics, and…

Christian Lewis

Theater Critic. Vassar College alum, current PhD candidate at the CUNY Graduate Center.