Thursday, June 30, 2011

Who Mourns the Wicked?

I started to really wonder about the magic of Wicked after I wrote my last post. There I, practically in the same sentence, claimed that Wicked's not that amazing a musical, and then gushed about giving the actors mini-sized plushie versions of their characters to remember Wicked forever. Clearly the show has something special about it, but what?
Knowing I couldn't figure this out myself, I asked help from an expert...

Wicked was a strange event in the Finnish theatre scene in every way.
It wasn't any theatre fan's first guess of a show Helsinki City Theatre would do. But even though The Wizard of Oz is practically unknown in our country, and a show that grand was deemed way too expensive by speculators, Stephen Schwartz himself wrote something surprising on his website last year: Wicked's composer was glad to announce that a new production of his fantasy musical would premiere in Helsinki, August 2011.

A Wicked fanclub head Riikka Kiviaho explains:
"As far as I know, Wicked was, above all, important to the director Hans Berndtsson. He had seen the original version many times and had planned bringing it to Helsinki City Theatre for years. He wanted to bring something new to the show, and, after long discussions, managed to convince the decision-makers. Finland would be the home for the world's first non-replica Wicked." 
Berndtsson indeed brought a lot of his own to the production. He wanted, for example, to hint to Finnish history and to the 1939 movie: the Wizard's new look was designed after Soviet Union leader Joseph Stalin, whose troops fought against the Finnish forces in World War II, and Dorothy, straight from silver screen with her brunette braids and iconic blue dress, was introduced to Finnish audiences onstage.

The leading ladies of Wicked, Anna-Maija Tuokko and Maria Ylipää.

Despite the unique approach, critics didn't exactly adore Wicked, but audiences loved it. It was, with 65 842 spectators, Helsinki City Theatre's most popular play in the 2010-11 season. It even caused some discussion outside Finland’s borders: seeing videos online, international fans debated about whether Wicked’s new design was too far from the original or nicely refreshing. Many Finnish viewers, then again, described Wicked as unbelievable and once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Unexpectedly, Wicked closed only after one year. The reason is up to speculation; the production might be too expensive to keep up.

But so what, you ask. It’s live theatre. Productions come and go.

Yes – but what made Wicked a truly unique experience was the fans’ reaction. It’s not often that people get really involved in shows in the manner West End and Broadway in Finland. Yet Wicked has a Finnish fan club, ran by Riikka Kiviaho. Surprisingly, she’s not a long-time Wicked enthusiast:
"Before Wicked I went to the theatre really rarely, about once per year, usually to see a musical. And I was, at first, a little confused about the ads for Wicked. I hadn't heard of the show before and thought the green witch on the posters looked weird. But when Wicked premiered, a friend of mine praised it to me and I decided to find out a little about it, just out of curiosity.
Soon I had bought tickets to a performance that'd change my life in an amazing way. I fell in love from the first notes and that show was the strongest experience of my life so far – only the last performance in May could top it.”

Anna-Maija with fans.

How did the fan club come about?
"Wicked Fanclub Suomi was born on New Year's Day 2011. I had been interested in the fan culture around Wicked for quite some time, and especially the German fan club fascinated me. I wanted to find out if there would be a similar fanbase in Finland, and I also wanted to honor the unique Finnish production.
The club’s main objectives were to gather Finnish Wicked fans and inform them about all things Wicked. It got an amazing start, and after a month there were already a hundred members. They really wanted to show their support and plan new fan activities.
I was, and still am, amazed to see what my idea has grown into. When I found the club I never dreamed it would reach almost 200 members, forty of them really active, new ones still popping up even after the production has closed. Let alone having the full blessing of Wicked’s cast and crew!”

The fan club’s mere existence surprised the actors of the show. “It’s amazing. It’s really rare for any musical to gather a fanbase like this here”, they’ve enthused.
“When I first met Maria Ylipää, the Finnish Elphaba, at her gig before founding the fan club… I was horribly excited! After all I gathered my courage and went to talk to her. The meeting went really nicely and it was great seeing her expression when I told her that I’m a Wicked fan. Later on I got to know the cast of the show more closely, they started recognizing me in the theatre and we often met by the dressing rooms. They clearly appreciated the fans that came to see Wicked again and again”, Kiviaho tells.
Ylipää explains further in Gramexpress magazine: “The feedback has been incredible. The fans have sent us drawings and written about how they believe in dreams again. I feel like I’ve done something with a meaning. -- This’ll stay a unique experience in my life.”
Even the director Hans Berndtsson was really excited about the club from the beginning, to the point where he travelled to Finland from his home country Sweden to greet the fans at a meet.

The meet is one of the things Kiviaho is most proud of when talking about the club.
“In the meet about thirty fans toured the theatre with Hans. We got to see the sets and props, briefly met Tuukka Leppänen who plays Fiyero, and enjoyed the programs, posters and green drinks the theatre provided for us. After the show we got to meet the leading ladies, Maria Ylipää and Anna-Maija Tuokko – they were almost more thrilled about the event than we were! We got to hear back then, and afterwards too, that our passionate group of fans had left a lasting impression on the cast. They said it was just like performing on Broadway!”

Fans, Hans and the Wicked set.

The actors are certainly not the only people forever influenced by their experience with Wicked. The fans have also been touched for life. According to Kiviaho many of them, herself included, saw the piece over ten times.
“Everybody would certainly have seen the show more if they could’ve! The record for most times seen must belong to an older gentleman though – he allegedly saw it almost every week.”

What is it about Wicked, then, that draws people in again and again?
“Personally I’ve been captivated, ever since the first time, by the overall impression the show gives: I’ve always been completely absorbed in the story, the actors, the music, the sets, the choreography… The amount of details is incredible, and without talking to the cast I probably wouldn’t have noticed most of them!
The most inspiring themes in our fandom conversations, then again, have been accepting difference, finding one’s inner strength, believing in your dreams, the characters’ inner growth, everlasting friendship and the many faces of love.”
No wonder Berndtsson is happy about the fan club. When he spoke about Wicked before its premiere, he stressed that his version is all about accepting difference and the many aspects of love. Judging from their conversation topics, the production’s young fans truly saw what the director wanted to tell.

The secret love story of the witches of Oz is a very important detail for Kiviaho:
"It's something the audience won't necessarily get unless they watch it from a certain point of view, but the Finnish version had many hidden messages, and I’m extremely grateful for that. In the final show Maria and Anna-Maija paid their respects to the story of their characters and, instead of hugging after For Good, kissed each other. In my opinion that was the perfect tribute to Wicked’s essence – accepting difference."

Thank you, Wicked.

The last Finnish Wicked was a huge, emotional moment for both the fans and the cast. The actors knew there’d be fans awaiting a special night in the audience.
“The club had a goodbye event in May. It wasn’t as grand as the previous meet, but instead we gathered together to enjoy ourselves, to reminisce the months gone by and to say a special goodbye to the Wicked cast. There were lot of us around the theatre even before the show and the mood was electric.
The cast gave their best, the audience gave their best, and the result was an emotional spectacle everyone will remember for the rest of our lives. Both fans and cast had tears in their eyes, there were Thank You signs in the audience, confetti was flying and the volume was straight from a rock concert.
Maria and Anna-Maija met us fans after the show once more. We could see the fanbase Wicked had gained was something really new and very touching to them too.”

What does the future hold in store for the fan club now that the production’s over for good?
“The days after the last performance were quite depression-filled – we woke up to understand that none of us would ever see the Wicked we fell in love with again. But there was also gratitude: the story has inspired so many, given us strength to believe in our dreams and changed our lives for the better. Now the situation is calmer, even though fits of yearning still come and go.
I think it’s important the fandom activity continues. It’s much needed, if only from the peer support point of view… Knowing that people have gotten joy to their lives thanks to it is the best prize for running the club.
As for future plans, there’ll be a Wicked Summer Meet in the beginning of August, and the fans have been seeing other productions by the cast ever since Wicked ended. Myself, I have started appreciating theatre in a whole new way after Wicked and will surely see more than one show per year from now on.
I dream of seeing the original production of Wicked, too. But I’m afraid I will miss the astonishing atmosphere and the bond between the actors and the audience of Helsinki City Theatre’s version when watching Wicked on Broadway!
It was truly amazing to see how the Finnish Wicked developed during these eight months, always towards the better. It was a big, meaningful and touching experience for both the fans and the cast and crew, so we connected quite naturally. Thanks to that connection, many people from Wicked are still important parts of my life, even though the musical itself is over.”

Maria, Riikka and Anna-Maija.

Pictures belong to Riikka Kiviaho - visit her at her blog!
Sources:  Gramexpress 2/2011, MTV3 Uutiset
If you wish to know more, you can read a quite detailed review/description of the Finnish Wicked: click.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

My Finnish Musical Year 2010-11

A Retrospect of Musical Theatre in Finland, 2010-2011

The first musical I saw the last fall - or actually, summer, it was still August - was Titanic in Ypäjä Music Theatre, an amateur theatre company that puts up plays with music. It was also my first closing night, even though I didn't know that at the time. I saw the show with my ever-so-loyal theatre-going friend Sara and her mother.
The musical Titanic isn't great material to work with, I think. I'm endlessly fascinated by the ship, its passengers and the disaster, and I love the movie - it captures the panic onboard very well. Sadly, this musical doesn't. The composer, Maury Yeston, had the chance to make all the noisy, epic tunes he wanted, but he wasted that opportunity. The music is, in my opinion, a bit too calm and pretty.
Luckily the plot only twists a couple historical facts, most notably by making Bruce Ismay a speed-obsessed jerk... But what I think is the story's greatest fault is having no clear main characters. In some instances that works, but not here, I'm afraid. It's hard to feel bad for a collection of characters you know hardly anything about.
All that said, the production was still great. You wouldn't have believed it's an amateur theatre! Most of the actors did great job with their roles, the set was really inventive and even the costumes were beautiful. A huge thumbs up to Ypäjä Music Theatre! When you guys do your next show, I'll try my best to be there!

In August it was also time for Wicked's Finnish premiere in Helsinki City Theatre, a premiere which I attended with my friend Tiia. (Such sneaky birthday gift to give to your friend, musical tickets! That's practically forcing her to keep you company in theatre!) I've talked about Wicked here a couple times already, most notably at here, at my response to one especially sour critic. I don't claim Wicked is a perfect musical by any means, but it has good tunes and will surely entertain you - so I still think badmouthing everything it has to offer is a bit of an overkill.
I don't have much to add to what's been said before, but Wicked, besides being my first premiere, also marks my first time seeing a musical composer, this time Stephen Schwartz, live. Too bad they kept him hidden during the intermission, I'd have loved to shake hands with him!

In September I saw Chicago in Tampereen Työväen Teatteri with Sara.
I like Chicago a lot, but as I've said before, this production was a disappointment. I've talked about it here, and while I've learned to see good in it in retrospect and don't dislike it particularly strongly anymore, I don't really like it either. I can't bring myself to like stealing ideas from movies, and even though the leads did, mostly, an amazing job, I think the show would've needed more ensemble members and even more glitz and glamour to really take flight.

In October I had my first chance to see my favourite musical, Les Misérables, in Finland. Oddly enough, the first time visiting Åbo Svenska Teater - again with Sara - didn't really feel that epic. It was great, but I didn't feel as extatic as you'd suspect. It felt just great. Little did I know how epic my feelings would become later on...

In October I also saw Rebecca in Kouvola Theatre, once again with Sara.
The more I think about Rebecca, the more I dislike it, surprisingly. Maybe some of that's to do with the CD I bought, which has the whole show, dialogue included, in German - it's annoying to listen to, not understanding the language. But I also find the music a little bit underwhelming at parts, and the whole story, while it was really interesting to see it unfold, doesn't really fit well for repeated viewings in my opinion. I thought it was great when I left the theatre, now I mainly think "meh" when it comes to my mind. But maybe seeing it again would change my mind, after all...
However, as with Titanic, the production was surprisingly superb. Kouvola Theatre is a small one, and therefore I was amazed at the quality of their cast. Some of the sets were a little set-looking as opposed to realistic, and the big scene in the end could've been grander, but for the theatre's size and my expectations, I was positively surprised.
Bonus points to the lovely ladies of The Senior Teacher Club of Kouvola for making me smile with their wisdom, heard in the theatre foyer: "I really disliked the play. It should've been two or three hours shorter."

I saw Les Mis again in November, with my dad and a couple of my family's Åbo-based friends, and this time the epicness really got me. The next day I wrote one of the hugest rambles of the history of all my blogs - and, suprisingly, also my blog's most popular text -, a review at here. As I wrote back then: "I had seen the show once before this. I had a really good time back then and thought it was an awesome production. But for some reason just after this time it hit me how great this production of Les Misérables actually is."
I had found a new favourite musical production. Cats, Lahti City Theatre 2008-2009, you were amazing, but sorry...

I saw nothing in December, but 2011 started nicely with Next to Normal in Helsinki City Theatre.
I had managed to get a bunch of friends to come along: Sara, as usual, but also Tiia (a Christmas gift this time), Ulla and Mimmi. We had a blast, I don't remember ever laughing so much during an intermission!
And the show was amazing. I think it's one of the best scores I've ever heard in theatre, and the subject matter is very touching. When the big twist happened my jaw really dropped, extremely clever!
This was also a great time for me and Tiia to fangirl over our favourite actor, Tuukka Leppänen. I had been a fan ever since the aforementioned Cats, and Tiia, being introduced to him as Wicked's Fiyero, quickly developed a fangirl crush on him, too. I think Mimmi, Ulla and Sara were quite embarrassed of us two the way home, when we couldn't stop gushing and giggling in the train station... If you, for a reason or another, are interested in my Tuukka Leppänen fangirling, do see this link.

I and Sara saw West Side Story in Tampere in February. It was a student production, and Sara wasn't exactly excited about it, but I really liked it. The actors, still studying to be trained singers and actors, weren't always perfect of course, and the director had made some bad choices (why no male ensemble in Tonight Quintet, just Riff and Bernardo? Why?), but the production had a huge orchestra and sounded as good as it gets.
Here I found out that I actually love West Side Story. I had seen it on Broadway, and, while I dislike the movie, had liked it, but here I started to love the show. It's a compact package of strong emotions, great tunes, serious issues and, to put it bluntly, shit hitting the fan. There's nothing to add and nothing to take away, it has all the elements you need for a good musical. 
If some Finnish theatre decides to do West Side Story again, though, I've a word of advice: get a new translation. The current one, from the 60's or so, is the most horrible one I've ever had to listen to. Using lots and lots of bad puns doesn't equal Sondheim in any way.

In February I also left for Athens with my dad, and we had the chance to see a Greek production of RENT - but that's besides the point here. So, jumping to March, and to Les Mis once again, and again with my dad (he's becoming quite a fan, I believe). It felt even epic-er, and I was really amused to notice my dad's an Eponine fanboy: "I think that Cosette was a bit of a jerk, Marius should've gone with Eponine instead. She was a nice girl."

March continued with Wicked again, and boy, was that one of the most exciting nights of my life.
As I've told you before, I and Tiia, who had become a fan of the show since the premiere, had decided to make little plushies for the three main actors of Wicked. I admit my motivations had a little bit more to do with meeting a certain actor than complimenting the leading ladies for their good work (not that I wouldn't have honestly wanted to do that too, though!)...
Our friend Mimmi joined us to see the show, and I'm glad she was there - we were so nervous, Tiia and I, that it was good to have someone in her right mind around... We almost fainted just because we were so nervous before meeting the actors to give them our gifts. Luckily they turned out to be lovely people and everything went as well as it could, after all. It was great meeting all three, and, after two years of fangirling, I could check "hug Tuukka Leppänen" off my to do list! As I figured at here back then, I smile because it happened, still. So much that my face hurts.

March was a good month for seeing shows. We celebrated Sara's birthday by going to see RENT's Finnish premiere. Sara, Ulla and Mimmi all enjoyed the show greatly, only Suski thought Wicked was better... To each her own. I'm more with Sara's team here - I thought Suomen Musiikkiteatteriensemble ry, a newly-found group composed of young actors, did an amazing job with one of my favourite shows of all time.
I've talked a lot about this, and the Greek RENT, at here - I might just add that Sara and I loved the show so much we, besides giggling, screaming and making a general scene of ourselves in the night of Lahti after the show, rushed to see the closing night two weeks later. It's very sad the show's run was so minimal, but I've heard the cast didn't get paid, and the show didn't have a huge budget to begin with, so I can understand their decision. Still wishing for a quick revival, though!

In April we saw A Little Night Music in Turku City Theatre with Sara. She didn't like it, I loved it. Pretty much all has been said at my extensive review at here already, moving on...

The last day of April was also the last day of Les Mis for this spring, and I had to see it. I know this blog seems to be mainly about the aforementioned show already, but maybe I could add a couple of words...
This was the best time I've ever had in a theatre. I went alone, but had a truely amazing time. And not just me, the whole audience's mood was fantastic! It was May Day, so I don't know if everyone had already drank their first glass of champagne before entering the theatre or if it was just general party mood... But it was fantastic nevertheless.
Hearing the cast rehearsing One Day More before the show begun... Alexander Lycke, ÅST's Valjean, staring me directly in the eyes during one of his songs (or so it seemed to me. He probably just wondered why I was smiling so widely at his character's pain)... The longest applause I've ever heard, the most enthusiastic standing ovation... The party blowers and streamers the cast had at the curtain call... The "We will Mis you, Marius" sign some fellow fans waved at Glenn Nilsson since it was his last night in the role (I agree with them - Nilsson's Marius had the perfect mix of emotion, good looks and social awkwardness for two women to be fighting over his heart)... The director Georg Malvius coming onstage to take his bow... Me explaining Javert's motivations to an English-speaking couple in the foyer...
It was perfect. I felt like home there. The best May Day I could imagine.

The year's last show for me was Helsinki City Theatre's Next to Normal again, and again with Sara and her mother. Right after seeing it I was quite sure twice is enough, but now I don't know anymore... Maybe third time tells the truth next fall after all?

I of course didn't see every show in Finland, not at all. Some are too far for my time and funds, and some I skipped because I know I don't like them, or, as with Helsinki Svenska Teatern's Cabaret, because I know a Finnish production is coming up soon and would see that rather than the Swedish one. But what I saw didn't disappoint me - I'm constantly amazed at the quality of this country's theatres!

The next season holds a lot of goodies in store, too. Jesus Christ Superstar in concert, Tanz der Vampire, a new Finnish musical called Anna Liisa (about a young lady in the 19th century who is forced to kill her baby), the closing night of Les Mis, Kristina från Duvemåla, and lots of others...
I can't wait for the 2011-12 season to get started!

Pictures from the theatres' websites.