“The Life,” a racy 1997 musical about sex workers and hustlers in Times Square during its pre-Disney days in the early 1980s (as also recently depicted in the HBO series “The Deuce”), was not a flop show. It ran just over a year, had music by the great Cy Coleman (“Sweet Charity,” “Little Me”), and featured Tony-winning performances from stage veterans Lillias White and Chuck Cooper – which makes it all the more surprising that “The Life” has been so rarely performed since then.
This week, “The Life” will receive its first high-profile New York revival as the second installment of this year’s Encores! series at City Center. Tony-winning actor Billy Porter, who is making his directorial debut, has created a new concert adaptation (with the consent of the estates of the show’s writers) that is framed as a musical drama rather than a musical comedy, more fully develops the characters, and incorporates new orchestrations and vocal arrangements. (“The Life” also marks the first show from the 1990s to receive an Encores! production.)
According to Encores! artistic director Lear deBessonet, when she and producing creative director Clint Ramos first considered presenting “The Life,” they immediately thought of Porter. “It was one of those moments of a project and an artist really coming together in a way that felt so organic and powerful,” deBessonet said.
Porter, who auditioned for the original production when he first arrived in New York, agreed to direct on the condition that he was permitted to make changes to the show. “The music is genius,” Porter said in an “Inside the Revival” video created by City Center for YouTube. “The thing that stuck out to me the most is it’s white people writing about Black people…The people who were in charge didn’t know how to tell that story…They saw us, but the business was not ready for our story at that time to be told from us.”
deBessonet, who is making her debut as the new artistic director of Encores!, intends to organize Encores! seasons around three themes: little-known gems (the traditional Encores! mission, as demonstrated by last month’s production of “The Tap Dance Kid”), an artist bringing his or her individual perspective to a show (such as Porter’s take on “The Life”), and community engagement (“Into the Woods” in May, which will incorporate middle school and high school students into the cast).
This new vision for Encores! has provoked strong opinions from many theatergoers who believe the series (which is beloved for the fact that it has produced high-quality revivals of rarely-seen musicals with full orchestras and Broadway-caliber casts since 1994) should stick exclusively to its original mission, especially after “The Tap Dance Kid” created controversy for making substantive changes to the characters and original setting. With that in mind, Porter’s changes to “The Life” may also receive divided reactions from audience members.
deBessonet acknowledged the debate over making changes to older shows. “This not just limited to theater,” deBessonet said. “It is the culture at large having a conversation about the past. How we look at works of art from the past and how we deal with the repertoire is so much bigger than Encores! You could see it in the conversation about other Broadway revivals this season. Do you change the lyrics to ‘Shipoopi’ (in ‘The Music Man’)? None of this can be viewed in isolation.”
Following “The Life,” deBessonet will direct Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s fairy tale mashup musical “Into the Woods” with a mighty impressive cast that includes Sara Bareilles, Christian Borle, and Heather Hedley. deBessonet was able to discuss the production and casting with Sondheim before his death at age 91 in November.
“Steve and James Lapine gave their blessing for the production,” deBessonet said. “We brought this particular idea of doing it at Encores! coming out of COVID, and doing it in a way that embraces community, and they were supportive of that idea.”
“The Life” runs from Wednesday to Sunday at City Center, 131 W. 55th St., nycitycenter.org. “Into the Woods” will run from May 4 to 15.