Often called the “Golden Age” of Broadway, the 1940s and ’50s marked a period of significant growth for musical theater. This era saw the creation of famous classics including “Oklahoma!,” “West Side Story” and “The Sound of Music.” However, these decades-old musicals can come with decades-old sentiments that are better left behind — what does this mean for the future of these sometimes problematic yet immensely influential works?
Working together on 42nd Street Moon’s production of “The Pajama Game,” sisters Annie and Becky Potter are exercising a possible solution. In an interview with The Daily Californian, the siblings explained their philosophy behind updating the show as well as the creative paths leading them to their latest project.
“(We’re) attempting to salvage the things we like about the Golden Age musical but making sure (they’re) not perpetuating the harm that those shows do in how they structure racism and sexism,” Annie said.
As many professionals in theater often do, Becky and Annie discovered their love for the creative space at a young age. “I was one of those kids who loved Disney musicals,” elder sister Becky said.
Her mother recognized this fascination and placed Becky in a performing arts program in their hometown of Benicia, where her desire to learn more about theater only grew. “I came to this because Becky started performing when I was two,” Annie explained.
Since then, the sisters have both studied drama as undergraduates at the University of California, Irvine. Now, Becky is active in the Bay Area theater scene and has taught theater at the Oakland School for the Arts, and Annie is pursuing a PhD in theater performance at Columbia University. They shared local stages as children, and their latest project brings them together again.
“When we’re talking, it’s generally about theater, so our whole life is a collaboration,” Becky said. “But this is probably our largest scale collaboration.”
After Annie published a piece in American Theatre about potential ways to reimagine the Golden Age musical “Kiss Me, Kate,” she was approached by Daren A.C. Carollo, childhood friend and producing artistic director at 42nd Street Moon, to help bring similar visions to life for “The Pajama Game.” With revisions by Annie and direction by Becky, the Potters hope to bring new life and perspective to the dated show.
Working so closely as revisor and director also allowed for the Potters to effectively use perspectives of the cast members to influence how the production is adapted. The sisters welcomed input from actors during rehearsals, who were able to test not only how the lines read, but how they felt when performed.
“We have one perspective, but my cast has another one,” Becky explained. “We were able to open up at the beginning of the rehearsal process and say, if you’re finding things that didn’t work for you, we have Annie here, and we have me and we can talk through things.”
Becky and Annie found that working on set as sisters streamlined and enhanced their creative process.
“It’s great,” Annie said about their collaboration. “Becky is like having part of my brain outside of my body. She has all this knowledge and information and will remember things that I’ve said, or I will remember things that she’s said.”
Due to various scheduling conflicts and postponements amid the pandemic, the production tried working with a couple directors before timing worked perfectly with Becky — who, through Annie, already understood the new vision for the show.
“It was very fun when the opportunity arose, because I (was) actually very familiar with what the intention of this particular production is,” Becky shared. “It ended up being really, really nice for us. If we’ve got questions in rehearsal, I’m like, ‘It’s cool. I’ve got the adapter on speed dial. Let me just call my sister and check it out.’ ”
The Potters aimed to maintain the score and valuable themes in their rework of the musical while adjusting moments of questionable power dynamics. “The labor movement and union being very central to ‘The Pajama Game’ is one of the things we wanted to keep,” Annie explained. “Also, the women are sexually liberated in a way that is not the case in most Golden Age musicals.”
Rather than trying to revolutionize “The Pajama Game,” the Potters are simply trying to make it suitable for contemporary audiences. This entailed cutting some lines and scenes, swapping the delivery of some lyrics and making minor changes to the existing book. Even with these necessary changes, the Potters aimed to preserve the core of the production and keep the adjustments as natural and minimal as possible.
“If you loved the movie, or if you knew the original production “Pajama Game,” this isn’t gonna look like a totally drastic, different thing,” Becky said. “This is still the heart of what was on stage in 1954.”