Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Non-replica Productions for Jellicle Cats

I apologise in advance for this entry jumping from one subject to another with seemingly no logic at all. It made sense in my head when I begun writing, I swear.

Cats is a very special musical for me for a simple reason.
Seeing the Finnish version of Cats marks the moment I became a musical fan.

It was the autumn of 2008. For whatever reason my mother had taken up telling me repeatedly that "a person your age should see some theatre at the long last, Siiri!" Finally, driving to Lahti to visit some relatives, a theatre poster caught my eye. Soon enough I found myself in Lahden kaupunginteatteri's auditorium to see one of the most popular musicals in the world.
For those three hours, my first three hours in a real theatre auditorium seeing a real musical... I wasn't sitting in my seat like so many others in the audience. I was flying.

The energy. The costume designs. The music. The talented performers.
I had never seen anything like that before.

I remember the day after seeing the show rather well. It was Thursday, and I was doing a couple weeks' internship in my home town's library. I recall standing in between two shelves, shoving books into their places with empty eyes and silently repeating "I will never see that thing again... I will never see that thing again..." All heartbroken.
I don't know how long it took for me to understand that nothing's stopping me from seeing the show again if I'd want to... But no more than a month, since in four weeks' time I was back in the auditorium, filled with fangirlish excitement. I was ready to fly again.
The show didn't fail to amaze me the second time around, either. If anything, the second time made me love it even more. Too bad the production closed about two weeks after that. I remember being enraged, reading some internet commenter boasting having seen the show eight times so far. So not fair!
I got a couple of cast recordings and the DVD and spent all my free time with them for two of months or so.

Maybe not surprisingly, I don't love Cats all that much anymore. I think the whole premise is actually quite insane - a cast of people playing cats, how did that even happen? - and a lot of the songs sound like pure filler to me. But back then, Cats was the best thing I could think of. And, interestingly enough, the first show I ever loved also taught me how harsh musical fans can be towards the slightest modifications of their favourite shows.
I visited some musical forum where Cats was being discussed soon after seeing the show. I noticed the board had a topic about the Finnish production, and froliced there with glee. What would I find? Other fans of the production? Or foreigners praising the production's originality, perhaps?
As if.

What I still like about Cats is how versatile it is. You have these characters who only have one set charasteristic - everything else is up to the cast and crew to figure out. You can have imaginative costumes, all sorts of relationships between the characters, new choreography...
So, surprisingly to me, the whole topic was filled with complaints. Apparently, the Finnish production didn't do anything right. After two minutes of studying the international musical community's response to my favourite thing in the world, I was ready to cry. They said the costumes - the beautiful, fun, imaginative costumes that to my mind had the perfect balance between cat-like and fantasy-like - were horrible. They said the look of the show in general was horrendous. They said the production was wrong to mess with a classic, these changes did nothing but made it a million times worse.
I've a feeling hardly any of the forum members had actually seen the show live since most comments centered around the show looking wrong. But maybe it's for the better they didn't. If the costume design looking non-traditional was enough to send them into full-blown rage, I've a feeling finding out Munkustrap's special sweetheart was Rumpelteazer instead of Demeter would've done their head in. Not to mention Jennyanydots was played by a man.
I, of course, took the criticism personally and shut the computer with tears in my eyes. How dare they! They haven't seen it, they don't know anything!

Later on, I've learned this is not an uncommon occurance with musical discussions.
Almost every time a Finnish non-replica production has made its way to the consciousness of the international musical fandom, it has also attracted some bashing. And, considering every single production in Finland is at least somewhat non-replica... There's a lot to bash.

Let's take the recent production of Wicked in Helsingin kaupunginteatteri, for example. It was the first non-replica Wicked ever produced. While many fans seemed to like the new look, accusations about the production just being a beyond horrible cheap copy also ran rampant, usually from people who had only seen the Youtube trailer. Same deal with Tanz der Vampire. Interestingly enough, "this is too different from the original" seems to be a common comment in these cases.
I can't understand what's up with that.
Why do these people who will probably never see the shows in question feel the need of badmouthing them? You'd think it's not their problem - so what if there's a weird production of their favourite show in some northern corner of the world? No one's forcing them to come and see it! But no, there's always someone out there complaining about the new version destroying the beauty of the original. Even if the original is, completely unaffected by the scandalous Nordic take, still playing in seven different locations around the globe.

Personally, I love non-replica productions. I love the prospect of putting new spins on classics. It's not that I don't adore the original versions of the shows, I often do. But I don't see why they should always be replicated. They're the work of one director and creative team - isn't seeing what another team can do with the same piece a lot more interesting than just literally seeing the same piece over and over again? Obviously, the results aren't always pure brilliance, there are both hits and misses... But for the joy of having seen hits such as Finnish Cats, Tanz and Les Mis, I'm ready to sit through twice as many failures. I love not knowing what I'm about to see beforehand, and I also love comparing different versions...
I also like non-replica productions because they allow smaller theatres the chance to do musicals they'd never be able to do if only replica was an option, meaning a lot more people can enjoy the shows. Let's take Les Mis for example this time: if you took the huge turning barricade from the original (I've read so many comments saying "if the barricade doesn't spin, it's not Les Misérables!") and tried to fit it on Åbo Svenska Teater's stage... Yep, not going to happen. But you know what, the production is still brilliant. Of course most Finnish productions are smaller, the theatres here just don't have the resources some of the biggest West End and Broadway productions have. There's hardly point in paying millions for replica rights if you can get a non-replica version done with half of the money.

It's been a while since seeing that production of Cats. If I were to see it again today... While my nostalgia-goggles would no doubt help me enjoy it, I'd probably see all its flaws more clearly now. But still, I think Cats in Lahti was a perfect example of a non-replica treatment making the piece better - even if the international community had a bit of a problem appreciating it. I'm sure I'd fallen in love with the show even if I had been presented with the skin-tight more literal cat costumes of the original... But the imaginative approach really intrigued me and made seeing the DVD a more interesting experience, it being my first taste of how different versions you can do of the same piece of theatre.

And mom has never had to scold me again for not going to theatre often enough.

Pictures from Lahden kaupunginteatteri's press photo site.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Interview with an Enjolras

Happy new year, dear readers! And an especially happy new year to all of you who like Åbo Svenska Teater's Les Misérables, because here's a little treat for you...
An interview with Rune Sæter - ÅST's Enjolras during the 2010 and 2011 seasons and currently teaching musical theatre in Bømlo, Norway.

Let's start with a little background! Where have you studied?
"I went to Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts in London for three years (1999-2002) - the same course as Josefine Isaksson, who plays Éponine. A couple of years ago I also studied to become a teacher in drama.
Musically I'm hugely influenced by gospel, soul and jazz, although these styles are quite far from the style in Les Misérables... When it comes to musicals, I would say that rock musicals favour my natural voice."

What are the most important roles of your career so far, and which one have enjoyed doing the most? How does Enjolras situate on that list?
"Judas (Jesus Christ Superstar) is my favourite role. Musically it's almost perfect for me, and acting-wise he's a great character to portrait. I would love to do that part again.
Claude (Hair) was important to me because it was the first time I got a leading role at an influental large theatre in Norway (Det Norske Teatret in Oslo). Playing Che (Evita) at ÅST was a superb experience, and I realized how important it is to work with people with great acting abilities, like Birthe Wingren, who played Evita. It was also the first time I worked with Sören Lillkung [Javert] and Thérèse Karlsson [Fantine], people I respect highly regarding their professionalism and talent.
Enjolras has been a challenge for me. I'm a tenor, Enjolras is a baritone role. Most of his top notes are in the most sensitive part of my register, and I've struggled to sing the role at times. I consider myself a physical actor, and I must say that Les Mis can be a little static at times…
On the positive side is the fact that Enjolras must be played by someone with great presence and charisma, and I do think that I possess some of those qualities. You certainly do not learn when things come easily, so in that sense this has been a great experience for me. Also, the fact that so many people are touched by the story in Les Mis makes it motivating to play."

What are your favourite musicals, and is Les Mis one of them?
"I think Les Mis is one of the strongest musicals when it comes to the story, and the music is supporting it beautifully.
My favourite musicals at the moment are RENT, Jesus Christ Superstar (because of Judas) and Wicked. I would love to see The Book of Mormon, Avenue Q and Next to Normal, because I truly think I would love them. For me, the story and subject are important in a musical."

Who's your favourite character in Les Mis?
"I think Javert has some interesting aspects. Valjean is a demanding role, but I choose Javert."

How about favourite song or scene?
"Bring Him Home, a highlight, done beautifully by Alexander Lycke! One Day More also."

Have you seen other productions of Les Mis? If so, how do you think the ÅST version compares to them?
"I saw a production in Oslo a couple of years ago, and I was disappointed.
It's not easy being too critical towards your colleagues, but I do believe ÅST has succeeded finding great actors and singers for every role. ÅST's production is balanced and strong."

How do you see the character of Enjolras? What are your sources of inspiration for playing the part?
"The most important thing for me has been making him a natural leader. He must be a person the others look up to and trust. A person with vision and strength. I know that my version of Enjolras is slightly different from the one in the original book, but I truly believe he has the same backbone. Enjolras has been done in so many ways. Some make him beautiful and charming, singing him with a lyrical quality. For me, it's important to make him not so pretty and 'well sung'. He is strong, but broken. Charismatic, but also sensitive. The relation with the students is very important, without them he is nothing. He is the opposite of selfish, being the voice of the people in difficult times.
My sources of inspiration lies in the work with my fellow actors. Creating scenes by giving and receiving. You have to trust your colleagues, and what they bring to the table, of course seen in the light of the original script and book."

What have been the best moments during your time working in this production?
"The best moments are magical moments happening on stage."

Care to share any silly mistake you've done?
"Well, I've been working professionally for ten years, and for the first time it almost happened that I didn't get on stage in time. I was saved by the great Valde Wallenius who caught me wandering about in my own universe when I was supposed to get ready for a slow motion sequence in Empty Chairs at Empty Tables. Thanks, Valde!"

How has working in ÅST, and Finland in general, been like?
"It's been a tremendous experience, and a bit of my heart lies pounding in Finland. I like the Finnish down-to-earth working morale."

If you got the chance of being a part of another production of Les Mis one day, would you, and who would you like to play that time around?
"I don't see myself playing a different character, mostly because of the limitations in my physical being. If I was to choose, it would be Javert."

How about your non-Les Mis dream roles for the future?
"Judas with great cast members! Perhaps Angel or Tom Collins in RENT."

How do you feel like about leaving the production?
"Leaving the production is of course a little sad, but life goes on, and I couldn't have done Enjolras at ÅST for the rest of my life. I bring with me good memories."

Pictures by Nana Simelius and Robert Seger, from Åbo Svenska Teater's press photo site and the programme for Les Misérables.