Saturday, August 20, 2016

Benny, Björn and I

I just realised something. I have a post highlighting my number one love-to-hate musical composer, but haven't ever really written about my real favourite musical composer/lyricist duo.

Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus.

You might have heard of them. Of the ABBA fame, you know.

I've been a fan of ABBA pretty much ever since I can remember, and the world tour of Mamma Mia! that stopped in Helsinki in 2008 was my first ever live musical. Indeed, I think I will always have a soft spot for Mamma Mia!, the mother of all jukebox musicals... But Andersson and Ulvaeus have also written three musicals from scratch. Two of those shows are especially important to me – and the very reason I adore Andersson and Ulvaeus so much.

So in this post, I'm going to shamelessly fangirl them!

Kristina från Duvemåla, Svenska Teatern, 2012–2013. Photo by Cata Portin.

If I had to pick a single favourite musical score, I think I would go for Kristina från Duvemåla, music by Andersson and lyrics by Ulvaeus.

Based on Swedish author Vilhelm Moberg's The Emigrants novels, Kristina från Duvemåla (premiered in Malmö, Sweden, in 1995) tells the story of a 19th century Swedish woman moving to America with her husband and children. Written out like that, it sounds a bit mundane, a realistic and down-to-earth story. But listening to it... Kristina is a musical symphony that soars to great heights, from joy to the deepest sorrow.

Sailing to America knowing she's never going to see home again, titular character Kristina faces many experiences and feelings I cannot personally relate to. But the music – more so than any other musical score – makes me understand. It's all there, Kristina's feelings and hopes, her fears and her decisions.

Gosh. I love this musical.

Maria Ylipää performs Du måste finnas

I enjoy every second of Kristina från Duvemåla, but there is one song I appreciate in particular. No piece of music has ever hit me like hearing Du måste finnas for the first time did.

In her big solo, devoutly religious Kristina faces a newfound, scary doubt: could it be that God doesn't exist? Sitting in Svenska Teatern in 2012, listening to Maria Ylipää's performance, I found out I had misplaced my tissues – so soon enough, I had to attempt drying the rivers running down my face with my sweater. I think I was sobbing out loud a bit. I cannot put what I felt into words. Every chord in the song struck a chord with me.

Du måste finnas highlights the enormity of an ordinary person's most private feelings. Each of us contains multitudes, and here, we get to see inside one woman's mind. Kristina expresses feelings she has never shared with anyone, apart from the god she is no longer certain exists. To say it's a powerful song is an understatement.

However, when you look at the musical as a whole, Du måste finnas is detached from the big arc of the story (that is the case with the corresponding scene in Moberg's original novel, too. Following the books to a tee, the musical inherits all of their problems). There is hardly any leadup, and afterwards, Kristina's faith is never discussed again. If anything, she seems to revert to the firm believer she was beforehand. So maybe we are supposed to infer she got an answer to her plea?

Indeed, Kristina från Duvemåla is not a perfect musical. Lasting for almost four hours, it's an overbloated spectacle. If (when?) it's staged again, I think it would be for the better to cut out 30 minutes and give it a brand-new direction.

But as a cast recording, as a piece of music, as a symphony, I wouldn't cut a minute.

A trailer for GöteborgsOperan's 2012–2013 production of Chess på svenska

Chess, Andersson and Ulvaeus' first musical from 1984, is very different from Kristina. It's a story about a Cold War era chess tournament, with an American and a Soviet grandmaster competing for the world championship – and for the affections of a certain woman.

With book and lyrics by Tim Rice, Chess has undergone many transformations: never quite finding a perfect mix, different productions feature different songs, different subplots and even different endings.

I have a less passionate relationship with Chess than I do with Kristina. I have never seen it live, and on paper, the plot doesn't really excite me. I'm sure seeing a live production of Chess would help me get a firmer grasp of the story, but while looking forward to that, I don't think I will be drawing fanart of Chess characters anytime soon.

But then there's that one thing again: the music. Ranging from classic symphonic musical sound to 80s pop... I love it all.

Chess has been recorded multiple times, in many languages. The Swedish Chess på svenska from 2002 is one of my top five musical cast recordings of all time. The score, the singers, the orchestra, the orchestrations, the sound quality of the recording... As a piece of music and as an album, it's absolutely perfect. I can listen to it time and time again, multiple times in a row, and the music floors me every time. Every song is a beautiful part of a gorgeous whole.

The Arbiter from GöteborgsOperan's production of Chess på svenska, with identical twins Henrik and  
Magnus Rongedal playing the character together. Maybe my favourite take of the song out there!

When it comes to dramaturgy, Chess and Kristina från Duvemåla both have their fair share of problems. But the way I enjoy them... For me, they're as much symphonies as they are pieces of theatre. Maybe more so. What does it matter that the plots are little clunky when the music flows forward with such beauty, beauty I have yet to find in any other musical?

There is plenty of good music out there, great music, songs I enjoy. Musicals and other genres. But nothing, nothing stops me on my tracks like these two musicals do.

Listen to Chess and Kristina on Spotify:

Chess på svenska – My favourite. I recommend listening to this even if you don't speak a word of Swedish. The music has it all.

Chess original cast recording – If you want to familiarise yourself with the original, English-speaking edition of the show. Rather more... 80s than the Swedish one.

Chess highlights – This short album from 2012 features a mostly Nordic cast (Maria Lucia, Jonas Malmsjö, Philip Jalmelid, Signe Kærup Hjort and Robbie Scotcher), English lyrics and enjoyable interpretations of the nine songs included.

Kristina från Duvemåla – The original, nearly three-hour long Swedish cast recording. What can I say. For me, it's perfect.

Kristina at Carnegie Hall – If you are not familiar with the show, I warmly recommend this English concert recording, complete with narration. It gives a good overview of the plot and the songs.

P.S. I have had a literal close encounter with my idols. In the last performance of Kristina från Duvemåla in Svenska Teatern in 2013, me and my friend sat two or three rows behind Benny Andersson himself – and then, after the show, I almost crashed into Björn Ulvaeus on my way downstairs. Huh! Maybe some braver soul would have approached for an autograph, but for shy little me, the fact I got to experience the incredible musical with the creators themselves joining us in the audience is quite enough to still make me smile.

P.P.S. A note on the other Andersson/Ulvaeus musical, Hjälp sökes (2013): I have listened to it once and didn't really feel it – but I'm waiting for the right moment to give it a second chance. I'm sure there's more for me to explore there than what met the ear during the first listen.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016


Turun Sanomat, 1946

Kävin kouluni Keravalla. 12-vuotisen peruskoulu- ja lukiourani aikana minut vietiin koulun puolesta teatteriin kerran.

Elettiin talvea 2011. Lusimme äidinkielen ryhmäni kanssa läpi Ryhmäteatterin nykypäivään sijoitetun tulkinnan Dostojevskin Rikoksesta ja rangaistuksesta. Päällimmäinen muistoni esityksestä on koko lukiolaisyleisön läpäissyt tylsistyminen ja levottomuus. Kallion katuja kulkenut Raskolnikov ei innostanut edes minua, vaikka olin fanittanut teatteria jo monen vuoden ajan.

Monellakohan lukioryhmästäni tämä teatterikäynti jää elämän ainoaksi?

Kaikki kunnia Ryhmäteatterille (tämän kesän Suomenlinnan-veto Kesäyön uni oli muuten mielestäni aivan mainio!) – mutta iso kimppu risuja opettajalleni teosvalinnasta. Kun teatteri jo valmiiksi tuntuu useimmista teineistä vaikealta... Millä logiikalla nuorten ennakkoluulot hälventää modernisoitu venäläinen klassikko? Keksittekö mitään aloittelijan korvaan vaikeammalta kuulostavaa? Teatteri on kaikille – mutta kaikki teokset eivät sovi jokaiselle.

Rikos ja rangaistus ei sopinut keravalaislukiolaisille.

Pelkään pahoin, että muillakin kuin Keravan lukion kasvateilla on kerrottavanaan vastaavia teatteritarinoita. Äidinkielentunti yksin tuskin tekee kenestäkään palavasilmäistä teatterifania, mutta mielikuvan se jättää. Ensivaikutelma ei unohdu. Ja ensivaikutelmasta voi riippua se, avaako teini teatterin ovea enää koskaan uudestaan.

Opettajilla on suuri vastuu siitä, mitä he vievät oppilaansa katsomaan. Mutta yhtä suuri vastuu on teattereilla. Onko ohjelmistossa teoksia, jotka kiinnostavat nuoria katsojia?

Mielestäni nuoren teatteriyleisön koukuttamisen tulisi olla jokaisen teatterin ykkösprioriteetti. Totuus on nimittäin tämä: marttakerhojen aika on pian ohi, ja jos nykynuoria ei saada innostumaan teatterista, saa moni perinteikäskin talo lyödä lähivuosikymmeninä lapun luukulle. 

Monet teatterit tekevät hyvää lastenteatteria ja aikuistenteatteria – komediaa, draamaa, musikaaleja. Nuorille suunnatut näytelmät ovat sitten mutkikkaampi ja usein synkempi juttu. Olen huomaavinani, että kun nuorille tehdään, aiheet valitaan usein akselilta kiusaaminen–syrjäytyminen–itsemurha.

Taide voi totta kai auttaa ja parantaa, mutta silti mietin, onko tämä tarkoituksenmukaista. Saako kiusattu lohtua tai ottaako kiusaaja opikseen, vai osuvatko aiheet ahdistavan lähelle omaa todellisuutta? Voisiko koulumaailmaan sijoittaa muutakin kuin pahaa oloa?

Nuorisoa on toisekseen mahdollista houkutella muutenkin kuin kertomalla heidän arkielämästään. Kiinnostavan teoksen rakennuspalikoita voisivat uskoakseni olla vaikkapa kiehtovat (mieluiten alle keski-ikäiset) hahmot, suuret tarinat, jännitys tai huumori.

Olen havainnut, että katsomossa on usein tavallista korkeampi prosentti teini-ikäisiä ja nuoria aikuisia, kun ohjelmistossa on kauhu-, fantasia- tai draamamusikaali. Muun muassa Wicked, Jekyll & Hyde, Les Misérables ja Vampyyrien tanssi ovat viime vuosina kolahtaneet opiskelevaan kansanosaan. Viime kaudelta muistiini jäivät etenkin Jyväskylän kaupunginteatterin viimeisen Jekyll & Hyde -esityksen eturivin nuoret teatterifanit intoilemassa yhdessä hahmojen ihanuutta. Taas se nähtiin. Teatteriakin voi fanittaa.

Niinpä kysyisin: tarvitseeko nuorille suunnatun (tai heidän katsottavakseen koulun puolesta valitun) teatterin olla alleviivaavan opettavaista, vai riittäisiköhän teatteri-illan opiksi uusi mukava kosketus monipuolisen taiteenlajin maailmaan?

Olen 23-vuotias. Mistä minä siis enää tiedän, mitä koululainen teatterilta haluaa (ja siinähän taisi tiivistyä koko edellä esitetty ongelma)? Siksi annan viimeisen sanan Turun Sanomien huhtikuussa 2016 haastattelemille kahdeksasluokkalaisille.

Joko Suomen Kulttuurirahaston upeaa Taidetestaajat-hanketta tai Turun Teatterisäätiön yhtä mahtavaa Teatteri-iloa-projektia käsitelleen artikkelin nimi ja toimittaja ovat ikävä kyllä hävinneet muististani, mutta säästämäni lyhyen leikkeen sisältö on kultaa ja timanttia:

"Vauhdikkaita, hauskoja ja sellaisia, joissa on toimintaa ja jotka koskettavat meidän ikäisiä", [kahdeksasluokkalaiset] luettelevat toivenäytelmien ominaisuuksia.

Mitkä asiat sitten koskettavat teidän ikäisiä?

"Koulusta kertovat jutut, kaverisuhteet ja muutkin ihmissuhteet", kuuluu vastaus.
(Lähde: Turun Sanomat, huhtikuu 2016)

Mielestäni ei mitenkään liikaa pyydetty.

Lisää aiheesta: Nuoret, martat ja musikaalit

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Nordic Reviews: Les Misérables in Wermland Opera

Two weeks ago, I traveled to Karlstad, Sweden, to see my all-time favourite musical. It's been two years since I last saw Les Misérables live, so it felt especially sweet to watch this new production.

Let's dive right in.

Direction: James Grieve

Wermland Opera's Les Misérables is a collaboration in between a largely British creative team and Swedish cast and crew. According to his interview in the production's souvenir programme, director James Grieve usually works with newly written straight plays. If anything, I believe that experience makes his new version of Les Misérables the musical even stronger.

This production moves forward so smoothly, you don't even notice when a scene changes into another. In every scene, the audience's attention is directed to exactly where it should be, be it Jean Valjean or Javert or Fantine or Cosette or whoever. No one tries to steal the spotlight, everybody onstage works well together and the performances support each other beautifully. It's a joy to watch.

In the aforementioned interview, director Grieve says he sees Les Misérables not as a musical, but as a play with sung dialogue. While some might argue that's exactly what a musical is, I see what he means: in this production, the songs are dialogue first, musical numbers second.

For example: Jean Valjean's long 'took his flight' note when he escapes with the Bishop's silver is cut short, creating a rather realistic delivery of the line – one that reflects the determination and hurry of a man who has to get away quick. With little details like this, every line in the most overdone ballads of the piece seems to have new thought and meaning behind it. This is especially apparent in Jean Valjean's material. The character's inner struggle has never felt this tangible to me.

And that brings us to...

Jean Valjean: Christer Nerfont

Have you ever seen such a perfect portrayal of a character that you have a hard time describing it?


Christer Nerfont's performance highlights the big tragedy at the heart of Les Misérables. It's not about Jean Valjean versus Javert, or Jean Valjean versus the world. It's, first and foremost, about Jean Valjean versus Jean Valjean. Facing his past, his conscience, his personal sense of right and wrong.

This Jean Valjean thinks a lot. Sometimes, he thinks out loud so we can hear and sympathise with his troubles. Every line has depth and meaning. Sometimes, he thinks quietly, but even then, it's clear to us what's going through his head. For example, when reading Marius's letter to Cosette, we see a plan forming in his mind before he's even through reading. Nerfont's performance is very expressive in the sense that it's easy for the audience to understand what Jean Valjean is going through and how he decides to take the action he does.

I could list so many little moments I adore in this performance. Convict 25601's (the Swedish translation makes a small change to the notorious number) transformation into a respectable mayor. How it dawns on him what he has done to Fantine. How Jean Valjean keeps an eye on Marius at the barricade the whole time. His heartbreaking 'no no no no no' when he sees everybody on the barricade has fallen. His total frustration with Javert in the sewers.

In short, I have never seen this thoroughly thought-out, three-dimensional, human portrayal of Jean Valjean's character. This is the first time the character has felt truely relatable to me.

What I've written so far should be reason enough for you to book your tickets to see this production. Come back after you're done. I'll wait.

Javert: Philip Jalmelid

If Jean Valjean is everything I've ever hoped for and then some, Inspector Javert leaves something to wish for. Philip Jalmelid's take of the character is rather vigorous and angry, sometimes to the point of silliness. He is more pronouncedly antagonistic than I personally think the character should be portrayed as.

I have been summarising the performance as "Sweeney Todd gets anger management lessons from Donald Duck" – and while that's obviously a gross exaggeration, there is something very Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd-like in Jalmelid's angry, obsessive, borderline vengeful Javert. The white stripes the character has in his black hair are... not helping. He also makes me think of Geoffrey Rush's Javert in the 1998 movie adaptation.

There is one Javert moment that really surprised me. This Javert is clearly very afraid when he's captured at the barricade and the National Guard start shooting at them. Every Javert I have seen so far has been very stoic in the face of danger – shoot me now or shoot me later. I don't know if I much care for this bit of characterisation. To me, it doesn't seem likely a person who is so hard on himself would so openly show his fear. (Though one could make an argument that they're trying to underline the impact Jean Valjean's forgiveness has on Javert, showing that moments before, Javert is still terrified of death.)

In my eyes, great vocals usually cannot save a lacking performance. Here... I wouldn't say the singing makes it all good, but it makes it a lot better. Jalmelid's singing escapes words, it's so good.

Jalmelid delivers the production's biggest showstoppers. His soloes are more musical-like than Nerfont's. While Jean Valjean's big songs are all about introspection, Javert's are classically beautiful musical ballads. I was especially impressed by Javert's Suicide, it literally made my heart beat faster.

All in all, I'm not saying that the way this production portrays Javert is wrong. It's just not in line with my own interpretation of the character. I can however appreciate how making Javert less nuanced highlights the depth in Jean Valjean's characterisation. Maybe in this production, we're actually seeing how Javert looks like in Jean Valjean's eyes?

Fantine: Cecilie Nerfont Thorgersen

One of the best Fantines I have seen. Fantine's story always feels a bit rushed in the musical, but Cecilie Nerfont Thorgersen makes the most out of the character's material. Interestingly, she's reprising a role she first performed in 1996 – in Wermland Opera, no less.

In I Dreamed a Dream, I could practically see Fantine's lost love standing next to her, her retelling of the events is so vivid and so full of feelings, anger and hurt. And at the same time, it's a gorgeous vocal performance. (I'm also glad to see the song in its original place again, after Georg Malvius's two recent productions placing the song after Lovely Ladies like the movie did. I feel Lovely Ladies makes a bigger impact when we get to know Fantine and her sad backstory beforehand.)

This production has taken some inspiration from the 25th Anniversary Concert and has Fantine and little Cosette cross ways while Fantine is making her exit after Come to Me and Confrontation. It's a bit sugary and sentimental, but very effective in any case... I'm not crying, you're crying!

The Thénardiers: Jonas Schlyter and Jenny Norén

This production doesn't make the Thénardiers comic reliefs. For that, I raise my glass.

The Thénardiers' songs are lighter in tone than the rest of the score, but there is nothing laugh-out-loud funny about them. Master of the House is their introductory number, plain and simple – it just shows them doing what they do and being who they are. Dog Eats Dog makes it clear the Thénardiers are victims of the system too, products of their environment, whether they admit it or not. And instead of a clumsy last-minute comedy number, Beggars at the Feast is a cynical celebration of opportunism. No matter that the world we live in is a broken one, these two will always land on their feet.

The Thénardiers I have liked so far have all been good actors making the best of an unfortunate situation, trying to introduce darker shades to in-your-face comedic scenes. Here, with the direction itself giving the Thénardiers' material a somber spin, we get sinister, upsetting, three-dimensional performances from Norén and especially from Schlyter.

I have to wonder, however, why director Grieve has chosen to feature Thénardiers in the Finale but leave Javert out. If you ask me, it would have made more sense to either put everybody in the final scene, so-called bad guys included, or leave both Javert and the Thénardiers out. If the scene is not treated as an all-inclusive barricade afterlife, I don't see any reason why the Thénardiers would feature in Jean Valjean and Fantine's heaven!

The Younger Generation

Rikard Björk's Enjolras and David Alvefjord's Marius are an effective revolutionary duo, pasting up Lamarque posters and giving speeches to the Parisians. Alvefjord delivers a touching performance as Marius. Björk's Enjolras, on the other hand, is a bit less mature than my usual preference, and therefore didn't especially stand out to me. (A part of that might have to do with his costuming. I had a hard time telling him apart in the barricade scenes.) Kerstin Hilldén's Éponine didn't leave an especially strong impression on me either, though I appreciate how young and therefore vulnerable the character seems like, especially in the first act.

If this was Hogwarts, I have a feeling Cosette (Kristin Lidström) would be sorted into Slytherin. She is a cunning creature, thinking hard and fast of ways for her to spend more time with her newfound boyfriend – only to see her three-men-I-saw-beyond-the-wall lie backfiring and taking her away from her love instead. Lidström puts a lot of character in Cosette's short moments and sings the part to perfection.

One ensemble member stood out to me especially. John Alexander Eriksson's (Combeferre and other roles) strong beautiful voice caught my attention whenever he was featured as a soloist. He's the understudy for Javert, and thanks to Wermland Opera's excellent cover list, I know he is going to perform the part on November 19th, when I travel to see the show for the second time. I'm very excited!

Sights and Sounds

This production sounds and looks good.

According to conductor David White's interview in the souvenir programme, Christopher Jahnke's orchestration with additional orchestrations by Stephen Metcalfe and Stephen Brooker is inspired by the 2012 musical movie. In another interview, White is quoted saying that at the moment, this production features the whole world's biggest Les Misérables orchestra – which is no wonder, since it's produced by an opera house. Combine these two elements and you get a full, lush sound that's not quite as harsh and bombastic as the 25th Ann. orchestrations. I especially appreciated the beginning of the Prologue, where the orchestra is accentuated by the sound of the prisoners' sledgehammers.

Lucy Osborne's sets place the whole story in the sewers of Paris, or that's how it looks like to me (I'm sure Victor Hugo would approve). The set is impressive and allows for smooth scene changes. Osborne's costume design doesn't look like it's firmly rooted in any clearly specified time period, it just has this generic old-fashioned feel to it. I like that. The stories of the miserable ones could take place in anytime anywhere and continue taking place all around the world today, so I think the timeless visuals are a good fit.

In conclusion

I have my nitpicks and disagree with a couple of the performances, but direction-wise and as a whole, I wonder if this might be the best production of Les Misérables I've ever seen. While nothing can ever beat the emotional attachment I have to a certain earlier production, the way this production flows and the emphasis and depth it gives Jean Valjean's story really, really blows me away. It feels so fresh, despite being a 30-year-old megamusical phenomenon.

Nothing makes me feel quite like a good production of Les Misérables. Heart racing, new thoughts about the story and characters firing through my brain, standing up to cheer and clapping until your hands hurt. For me, it's as cathartic as musicals come.

If you love Les Misérables, you will love this production, too. See it if you can.

Photos by Mats Bäcker.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Berlin Vampires

So. After traveling 1,300+ kilometers for a musical we never got to see, we returned to Berlin and decided to do the next best thing – see Stage Entertainment's production of Tanz der Vampire in Theater des Westens.

Thank heavens for dancing vampires.

So far, I have only seen the two Finnish productions of Tanz der Vampire. Therefore, even though it's a replica of the 1997 original production, the Berlin Tanz – directed by The Fearless Vampire Killers director Roman Polanski – felt rather fresh to me. Something in the overall look and feel of the piece tells me the direction dates from way earlier than 2016, and in a different state of mind, I would probably have had more problems with it. But for a first-timer in emotional turmoil, it was all good.

For me, Kirill Zolygin's (u/s) Count von Krolock was the most fascinating performance in the show. His take was just so different from any of the Finnish von Krolocks I have seen so far. Thus, he opened my eyes to a whole new side of the character I have never seen in action before. Less passive and discreet, less melancholic, more bitter.

I don't know if alive is the right word to use when you're discussing vampires... So let's say Zolygin's Krolock is very active. It seems like he's in control of whatever situation he's in and has a good, at times almost exhilarating time seducing his victims to their deaths – until the moral hangover hits. Zolygin's Unstillbare Gier was the highlight of the show. The song was a journey through moments of sorrow, regret, self-hatred, disdain, sense of superiority and cold bitterness. Super fascinating to watch.

Professor Abronsius, played by Victor Petersen, was another interesting character to me. This version of the professor is, though determined, super old and frail. Alfred seems like 25% professional assistant, 75% geriatric nurse... But, compared his younger, more energetic and arrogant Finnish collegues, the Berlin professor is way easier to like. He's not a coward but an old man who, no matter how much he wants to, cannot hunt vampires with such vigor as he used to anymore. (Interestingly, judging by his photo in the programme, Petersen cannot be a day over 30 in real life.)

As a whole, the cast was good and evenly matched. Alfred (Tom van der Ven) and Sarah (Marina Maniglio, u/s) didn't really move me, but I quite enjoyed Merel Zeeman's spirited Magda, Sander van Wissen's (u/s) dangerous Herbert and Yvonne Köstler's surprisingly touching portrayal of Rebecca.

All in all, I had an amazing time.

The first act didn't really blow me away (it never does) but the second act just kept getting better and better. It was very nice to see moments I've watched on Youtube and seen in photos come to live. This staging also helped me to understand the charm of some scenes I haven't really been a fan of before. Ewigkeit, with the vampires rising from rows and rows of coffins, made a big, unexpected impression on me.

Some moments, on the other hand, were... comical. I couldn't help snickering, watching the Black Vampire dance his way to Dream Sarah's heart and throat during Carpe Noctem. Airbrushed abs and showy strutting around in tight tight leather pants. I've always thought Carpe Noctem is Alfred's own dream, I don't believe it's influenced by von Krolock – so the Count must've left quite an impression on our young hero the night before!

The prices for row 24 seats were high (70 € per ticket), but to the staging's credit, it must be noted it's enjoyable even from the very back. Usually, I like front rows better, but I feel this production might feel too in-your-face if you got really close. From my seat, the world of the vampires looked beautiful.

I saw Tanz der Vampire a day after experiencing the biggest disappointment in recent memory. I don't think any other musical would have felt quite as good in that moment as this.

Tanz is a very cynical story. The heroes all lose and the day is not saved – and everybody in the audience cheers. The title song is already my favourite musical finale, and this time, it felt extra amazing. I've listened to the German versions literally over a thousand times, and to hear it live in German for the first time after everything that had just happened... I hope you can imagine, since I don't think I can find proper words right now.

Thank you for the midnight ball that made everything better, von Krolocks and company.

Photos by Even Press.
Related reading: The story of the 1,300+ km disappointment

Monday, June 27, 2016

Jekyll & Hyde in Greifswald, Germany

Last April, I, Ida and Rami bought tickets to see Theater Vorpommern's outdoor production of the musical Jekyll & Hyde.

All three of us are big fans of the musical and also of the actor Chris Murray, who plays the titular roles in the production. So it didn't matter to us one bit that the show was staged in Greifswald, a small city in a faraway part of Northern Germany. Being as attached to the musical as we are, having seen video of Mr. Murray performing the role of Jekyll/Hyde, and then me and Ida seeing him live in Theater Pforzheim's Dracula, we knew the performance would be well worth the trouble.

This is the story of our trip to Greifswald last weekend.

Our flight to Berlin left Helsinki Airport early on Saturday morning. At 9 a.m., we were already enjoying a lovely breakfast on Berlin's Alexanderplatz, waiting for our bus to Greifswald to arrive.

We had booked our journey from a bus company called FlixBus MeinFernbus. We had heard they were prone to delays – but it's cheap and we have time to spare, so how bad can it be! We're talking of a three-hour drive and the bus is scheduled to depart at 10 a.m., while the musical begins at 7 p.m.. It's no problem if there's a little delay.

In the morning, we received a message informing us that our bus would be 40 minutes late. It's all good, we thought. We will still make it to Greifswald nice and early.

Our bus left Berlin's Alexanderplatz a full hour late, after additional 20 minutes of confusion over booked tickets.

It was a very hot day, with the temperature hitting 30 °C in the morning already. Due to the heat, a driveway out of Berlin had melted (!) so badly that we had to take a smaller road out of the city. We spent an hour in a traffic jam, found out we were actually making a detour to empty the bus's overflowing toilet (!!! !!!! !!), then started our way towards Greifswald in earnest.

After driving on the autobahn for a while, we came across a complete stop. An accident had blocked the road. 

By this point, I started to feel really worried we would miss Jekyll & Hyde simply because we will not get there in time.

We finally reached Greifswald at 4 p.m., three hours late of schedule.1

Me and Rami walking (!!!) on a German autobahn in 36 °C heat

We had made it to Greifswald, so everything was going to be okay now. Or so we hoped, but nature had something in store for us: a thunderstorm before the performance. We had been keeping a close eye on weather forecasts and knew a storm was on the charts.

Luckily the forecasts also promised us the storm would be over before showtime.

We found our pension, left our bags in our rooms and walked to the city centre – in pouring rain. We ate at a small kebab place, wishing for the storm to pass. And, just as the forecast had told us, the sky indeed started clearing around 6 p.m..

After finishing our meal, we walked to the outdoor stage. It had been a rather bad day so far, but now, we were in for a lovely night of theatre, for something that would make us forget all the trouble.

Approaching the stage, a lady standing in front of the box office caught our attention, telling us something in German.

"Is the show still on?", Rami asked her.
"No", the lady replied.

Just like that, it turned out we had traveled 1,300+ kilometers for a musical we would never see.

Just like that.

Our tickets were refunded, but I don't feel Theater Vorpommern's outdoor box office personnel treated us with the respect we (or any customer who has to face such a huge disappointment) would have deserved.

The stormy weather is of course no one's fault. But – even after hearing that we had travelled from Finland just for the show – the staff offered neither a word of explanation or any expression of compassion. A simple Is there anything we can do to help you? or We feel very sorry for you or maybe You can go drink a cup of coffee at the theater café; it's on us would have done wonders. No. Instead, they had the nerve of asking us for money when we asked if we could at least take some souvenir programmes with us.

That is no way to face someone who has travelled from another country for a cancelled performance.

The weather was completely fine by 7 p.m. and stayed fine until midnight.

Coming back to the pension at 10 p.m., none of us could figure out how to unlock the front door.2

Due to storm damage and a computer error, both our train back to Berlin and our flight back to Finland were late. In total, 15% of the duration of our two-day trip was spent sitting on various stations and vehicles being late.

Sun starting to set over Greifswald

There were two things that, in the end, made our trip worthwhile.

First is the star of the musical we never got to see. We messaged Mr. Murray about our experience right after leaving the theatre and he did something really sweet, just in the hopes that it would make us feel better: he left us a care package at the stage door of Theater Greifswald, complete with candy and musical CDs. 3

After the terrible day we had just had, receiving a gift like that brought tears to our eyes. Good tears. Everything felt so much... less horrible, all of a sudden.

A package of good feelings

Chris – once more, thank you. You're a superstar, on and off the stage. I want to let you know that on our flight home, we raised our glasses of airline coke and coffee and drank your toast at some 10,000 meters of altitude. At that moment, it was literally the highest honor we could come up with.

The second lifesaver of the trip is the musical Tanz der Vampire, currently running in Berlin's Theater des Westens.

I will write more about the German vampires later (edited to add: read my thoughts here). Now, I just want to say that I'm beyond grateful Tanz happened to be running in Berlin just now. As always with Stage Entertainment's productions, the tickets were super pricey (70 € for a stalls seat in row 24), but this time, the experience was worth every cent. I don't think any other musical would have helped me to forget my disappointment better than this one.

And that is the story of our Midsummer trip to see Jekyll & Hyde in Greifswald.

1 FlixBus MeinFernbus: avoid this company like the goddamn plague. The personnel's flippant attitude with no apologies about the delays whatsoever is reason enough. A wholly, thoroughly unpleasant ride, every delayed minute of it.
2 Pension Possehl: recommended with caution. The prices are rather affordable. The twin room upstairs was lovely, with a big balcony and good facilities. On the other hand, the single room in the basement was damp, moist and overall nasty, with a toilet that couldn't handle paper being flushed. Remember to bring your own soap and shampoo. Pay extremely close attention to how to unlock the front door.
3 My tirade about Theater Vorpommern's personnel only extends to the people who worked in the outdoor stage's box office. The gentleman guarding the theatre's stage door was nice and helpful when delivering Mr. Murray's gift to us.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016


Frank Wildhorn.

The composer of musicals such as Jekyll & Hyde, The Scarlet Pimpernel, Dracula, Bonnie & Clyde... The composer I love to hate and hate to love. I rave about his musicals and watch them time and time again. I travel to foreign countries for them. And if you ask me, I will let you know that I detest them, loud and clear.

In this post, I try to explain what is going on with this love–hate relationship.

I've been a musical fan for about eight years. For most of that time, Frank Wildhorn's shows have had a place in my collection of cast recordings.

I can't even remember when I bought my first recordings of Jekyll & Hyde, Dracula and Rudolf, it's been such a long time. For years, though, I only enjoyed them as music. I popped the CDs into my player every now and them, hummed along Facade or Zu ende, but didn't ever bother finding out what the musicals are about. They were enjoyable showtunes for me, nothing more.

It was the closing of the first Finnish production of Jekyll & Hyde in 2014 that finally pushed me over the edge. Trying to fill the hole the production left, I delved deep into Wildhorn's work and actually started watching his musicals.

After marathoning through a slew of bootlegs, me and my friend compiled the bingo you can see above.

Frank Wildhorn has collaborated with multiple lyricists and writers. So how is it even possible all of his shows feature the exact same clichés and weaknesses? Whatever source material he works with will be mangled beyond recognition as the creative team removes layers of depth and characterisation to make way for a forced love triangle.

There is a lot to criticise when it comes to these shows, but my least favourite thing is Wildhorn's women.

Wildhorn's musicals aren't the only works of musical theatre that feature stereotypical portrayals of women. But the way these musicals depict ladies is especially egregious – all the women ever talk about is the leading man. Talented actresses often do wonders with the roles, but the material they have to work with... The character may be called Emma, Mina, Mary or Marguerite, but since all she does is pine after her man in a generic manner, it feels like we're seeing the same character again and again. Boo.

It's annoying how fond Wildhorn is of depicting love triangles. Whether it's a lady trapped in between a bad guy and a good guy, or a dude who gets to choose in between two shades of bland, Wildhorn's musicals are always certain to feature half a dozen boring love duets. So boring they're sometimes literally interchangeable in between musicals. (See: Only Love from The Scarlet Pimpernel / Only Love from Rudolf)

Lucy and Hyde ready to duet. Jyväskylän kaupunginteatteri, 2015.
Photo by Jiri Halttunen.

Love duets aside, the music is the saving grace of these musicals. When Wildhorn's music is good, it's fantastic.

One of my favourite musical songs of all times is Alive from Jekyll & Hyde. You don't even have to listen to the words. The joy of being alive, the feeling of being Edward Hyde, is all there in the melody. Many of Wildhorn's faster-paced tunes are amazing like that: full of energy, telling us all about the character and their outlook on life. I love his energetic villain songs and rousing ensemble tunes. Sometimes, the whole score soars. Listen to Dracula for an hour and a half of perfection.

What's more, I often like the subjects Wildhorn picks. His musicals are oftentimes based on classic works of literature, on stories that are full of drama, memorable characters and fascinating themes. There are plenty of intriguing aspects to these musical adaptations, even if they often turn out a bit garbled.

For me, a part of the charm is imagining how the shows could be made better. There are plot holes and silly clichés, but often, it seems like just removing a song or adding a line or two of dialogue could do wonders. The scripts of many Wildhorn shows have indeed been edited multiple times. With five or six script editions out there, Jekyll & Hyde has been work in progress for the past 30 years.

But even without rewrites, there is so much potential to these musicals. If the cast and crew really put their hearts to it, almost any Wildhorn musical's positive qualities can and will outshine the bad. (I say almost – I'm unsure if Rudolf can ever be salvaged.)

Sometimes, actors and directors can make inventive decisions that lift their production way above the source material and really make you think. See, for example, my review of the recent Danish production of Jekyll & Hyde. With imagination, the gothic fairy tale was turned into a haunting exploration of cause and effect.

For a production like that, I'll sit through a hundred of those boring love duets.

Mina and Dracula ready to duet. Theater Pforzheim, 2012.
Photo originally from the theatre's Facebook.

My least favourite Frank Wildhorn musical is Rudolf – Affaire Mayerling. It's awful, depicting double suicide as the height of romance. Focusing on Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria's death that is also portrayed in the 1992 hit musical Elisabeth, Rudolf (2006) seems like an attempt to cash in on the earlier musical's success. The plot is distasteful, historically inaccurate and illogical. As fellow blogger Laura puts it, this musical sucks.

And yet, and yet... I haven't one but two dream casts for Rudolf, all depending on the turns my imaginary direction takes. I can't stop thinking which of my favourite actors would be perfect for the musical's roles.

Rudolf's music is gorgeous, and despite (or because of?) all its awfulness, it's so much fun thinking of how the show could potentially be improved. I sincerely hope no theatre in a thousand-mile radius as much as thinks of producing the musical. Yet in my heart I know if it ever comes to that, I won't hesitate boarding a plane and flying to any of the neighbouring countries to see the musical's Nordic premiere. 

And indeed, the best thing about being into Wildhorn's musicals is that they take me on adventures.

Sometimes, literal adventures: soon, I've traveled to Germany twice to see them. Sometimes, they brighten up my life in other ways: I have first encountered some of my all-time favourite actors via Wildhorn's musicals. What's more, the shows are such a fun subject to diss and discuss with likeminded friends, to dreamcast and to speculate about, to blog and to draw fanart about. It feels so good to be passionate about something.

For me, despite all their faults, these musicals are inspiring.

Two women duet about loving a man. Bingo!
Det Ny Teater, 2016. Photo by Miklos Szabo.

I still haven't listened to all of Wildhorn's recorded musicals.

When it's good, it's brilliant, but a little of Wildhorn usually goes a long way. So I'm saving treats such as the demo recording of Svengali and whatever Sound of Music decides to add to their Frank Wildhorn shop next for the right moment. It's a special sort of mood I need to be in when delving into a new Wildhorn show, a mix of excitement and calm, curiosity and patience.

When I have familiarised myself with a new show, however, I tend to listen to it lots. So, to finish off this blog entry, I've compiled a little playlist of my Wildhorn favourites for you.

Ranging from unironically gorgeous to nonsensical-yet-entertaining, from pure musical perfection to awful-in-content-but-beautiful-in-tune, each of the songs on the list has some quality that I admire in Wildhorn's work.

Starting here:

I want to end with two questions to all readers who are familiar with Frank Wildhorn's work.  

What are your favourite Wildhorn musicals and songs? Do you have some show or tune you (love to) hate?  

Please share your thoughts with me in the comments!

Related reading: My Top 5 Frank Wildhorn Disappointments, The Beginnings of Jekyll & Hyde

Monday, June 20, 2016

Upcoming up North

The summer and autumn of 2016 will bring many interesting musicals to Northern European stages. At the moment, I'm planning on seeing three productions outside of Finland. Beginning this Saturday, it's time to travel to see...

Jekyll & Hyde // Theater Vorpommern, Greifswald, Germany

Photo by Vincent Leifer

Based on a video bootleg and seeing him live in Dracula a year and a half ago, I made a promise: if Chris Murray ever plays the title roles in Jekyll & Hyde again, I will be there to witness it.

Guess what.

Theater Vorpommern's Jekyll & Hyde will be performed outdoors. As is always the case with Frank Wildhorn's musicals, going in, you don't really know what you're going to get. Which edition of the script will the production feature, which songs are we going to hear? Who knows. But I'm curious to find out. Based on the photos I've seen, this production looks like a lot of fun. Also, if Chris Murray is half as amazing as he's on the video from the 2008 Dresden production of J&H, his performance is going to be breathtaking.

And whatever the show will be like, watching a favourite musical outdoors on a midsummer night, with friends with you in the audience and a favourite actor onstage, will certainly be a night to remember.

Les Misérables // Wermland Opera, Karlstad, Sweden

Photo by Mats Bäcker

In July, it's Les Misérables time for me.
It's been two years since I last saw Les Misérables. It's the longest time I've been without live Les Mis since becoming a fan in 2010. So I'd say it's about time. I'm eagerly looking forward to seeing the show in Wermland Opera – though not because of the cast, or the direction, or any other detail specific to this production. Above all, I just want to spend a night with Jean Valjean, Javert, Cosette and all the others again.

I guess Wermland Opera's Les Mis is going to be an emotional experience. Hearing Les Misérables sung in Swedish, and performed in an old theatre that looks a lot like Åbo Svenska Teater... As long-time readers know, the 2010–12 Fenno-Swedish Les Mis is my all-time favourite musical production. Hearing the show in Swedish will always be extra special for me.

Listen to them sing the song of my heart:

Klokkeren fra Notre Dame // Fredericia Teater, Fredericia, Denmark

 I have been waiting to see this musical for six years.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame is my favourite Disney movie. In 1999, three years after the movie, a stage adaptation called Der Glöckner von Notre Dame premiered in Berlin. Ever since finding out the musical exists, I have been obsessing over it and wishing it would be revived.

After its initial three-year run, Hunchback the musical disappeared for a decade. Despite wishing for its return, I didn't really believe it would ever come back. The Hunchback is one of Disney's darkest animated movies, and the musical is even darker. I thought they had forgotten about it for good – I just didn't see it following The Little Mermaid and Aladdin in Disney Theatrical Group's plans.

So you can imagine how I felt like, reading the news of The Hunchback's 2014 American premiere, and then listening to the brand-new English-language cast recording. And now the revived, revised Hunchback has found its way to Europe, premiering in Denmark in the autumn of 2016!

The Hunchback of Notre Dame has everything I want to see in a musical. It's dramatic, tragic, historical, huge. Alan Menken's score, composed of songs featured in the movie and new material written for the stage, is one of my all-time favourites. I also appreciate how the musical brings the story closer to Victor Hugo's original tale. There are no comic relief gargoyles here. It's a solemn, dark, upsetting adaptation I believe Hugo would approve of.

I feel like tearing up each time I listen to The Hunchbacks' first act finale, Esmeralda. I can't even imagine how it will feel like, finally watching the musical live. I get chills just thinking about sitting in the theatre. I don't remember the last time I've waited for a musical production this eagerly. This year, October can't come early enough.

But first, Germany and Sweden, here I come!