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.


  1. Thanks for the post, this is all so true. Granted, I also sometimes bash visual looks based on photos and trailers if they look in my opinion ugly or something, but I hate it when people bash something simply because it's *different*.

    I can't help but think that the replica productions have gotten such a big part of fans' own personality that anything questioning their solutions means questioning the people's personality as well. Fear of change is natural for humans, but in this case it's already getting ridiculous. It also feels that there's a real "danger" of someone doing something better in non-replicas, which might make the original replica look less excellent and make its faults more visible, and people rarely want to see the faults of their favourite things.

    Then there are cases like Elisabeth and Mozart!, where almost every single production has looked totally different. I rarely see anyone complaining anything about Elisabeth's visual looks only because it's different than somewhere else, and I think it's because fans have gotten more used to variety and the idea that there's no one single way of doing something. Unlike ALW and other such names, Michael Kunze publicly encourages for adapting the productions in different countries, and I respect him for that.

  2. Excellent rant :-)

    I agree 110% with all you wrote. After considering how complex enterprise a piece of musical theater is (with all its moving parts including the story, dramatization, music, lyrics, orchestrations, sets, costumes, lights, acting, etc.), it is a fair bit naive to think that there would be only one way to make it "right". It is also good to remember that one characteristic sign of any true piece of art is its capability to remain open for adaptations and interpretations, isn't it?

    And what comes to the original West End production of Les Mis vs. others... Well, as much as I love the West End version, I have to honestly admit that the novelty of extensive use of revolving stage soon wears off and after 26 years there are places where it hasn't aged all that well. That's why I did find the upgraded, more contemporary 25th anniversary production quite refreshing indeed, making it my favorite incarnation of the show so far.

    Also, as a side note, it would be interesting to be able to compare the original 1985 Barbican Les Miserables with the current Les Miserables at the Queen's to see how closely they still match...

  3. Ciarana: Thanks! Very good points there, I think the danger of a non-replica being better thing might explain a lot!

    Alberto Orso: Thanks!
    And good you like the 25th Ann. production of Les Mis - with the US tour and the Spanish production being exactly alike it, I've a feeling Cammack is trying to make it replace the London original as the most replicated production... :P I haven't seen it myself though, so I can't really say much about it... From what I've heard, it sounds like a great version!

  4. Yeah, there was some discussion about how the new production would be the template for the future replicas from now on, leaving the West End one as the sole original for the time being. There was also some speculation that being the reason why they dropped the revolving stage from the anniversary production, making it easier (and less expensive) to stage the replica productions.

    As a personal observation, I can't say that I missed the rotating barricade all that much as they did rather well without it. The only moment where the new production probably didn't rival the original was the end of the barricade sequence where we didn't get to see that iconic pietà of the fallen revolutionary.

    However, if you haven't seen it yet and are not going to pay a visit to U.S. or Spain any time soon, you may want to hunt down a copy of an excellent unofficial video from the Barbican leg of the tour on September 17th 2010.

  5. tuukka hyppää korkealle! ihana postaus, kiitos =)

  6. Petra: Mukava kuulla, että tykkäät! :)