Tuesday, April 24, 2012

About a Classic and Some Cast Recordings

Warning: this entry will contain spoilers for the classic Finnish play (and now, a musical) Anna Liisa. They don't want any of us here graduating middle school without knowing what it's about, but seeing most of us slept through those classes... Maybe consider this as a lesson in Finnish literature if this is new to you. 

I've never seen a Finnish original musical before Tampereen Työväen Teatteri's Anna Liisa.
It's silly. I spend half of my time online shrieking about Finnish musical theatre, yet it took me this long to see a show created from start to finish in this country.

It's easy to point out what's kept me away. 
Firstly, I don't like jukebox musicals, and most of the Finnish musicals seem to be that sort. If I wish to listen to hits from the years gone by, I'll listen to Radio Nostalgia. Now give me some original tunes! Secondly, the target group for Finnish original musicals often seems to be people fifty years older than me. Combine this with the first one for especially exciting results: Katri Helena, Matti and Teppo the Musical, The Great Humppa Musical...
The last reason, of course, is good old prejudice. It's done here in Finland, there's no way they can compose anything that compares to stuff from Broadway!

Luckily, Anna Liisa proved at least the third thought wrong. There is no reason why original Finnish musicals couldn't be as enjoyable as imported shows.

Anna Liisa is, originally, a 19th century play by the Finnish writer Minna Canth. It tells a story of a young woman who is getting married while hiding a huge secret: years ago, she gave birth to another man's child - and, in her extreme distress, killed her baby right after it was born.
Not a very cheerful story, but then again, when have musicals ever been? Ever since West Side Story, they've been mostly about death and sorrow already - Anna Liisa is just following the genre's traditions.

This haunting story was combined with, in my opinion, quite nice music by a band called Hehkumo. I think the show's programme says it well: Hehkumo creates unique music. Its roots and foundation are in folk music, but the result is new music that fits the modern day. The music wasn't traditionally musical-ish. I don't think it would fit a show set in a modern period, but it suited the rural 19th century story well.
The tunes were more about setting the tone of the scene and explaining the character's personalities and motives than bringing the events forward. Luckily, unlike for example in Ghost, that seemed like a good decision. While I've only read short snippets of Anna Liisa and can't say for sure, I suspect that most of the dialogue was directly from Canth's play. Trying to convert a monologue about a woman killing her child into a showtune seems like an endeavor that's doomed to fail in nine out of ten cases - I'm glad the music took a different route.
The lyrics of the songs, also a bit old-fashioned but in a positive way, suited the spoken dialogue's style.

The band was onstage, playing the tunes and also taking part in the action sometimes. I liked that, it didn't feel gimmicky. The band seemed like a seamless part of the rest of the cast - a cast that handled their singing parts nicely, by the way.

Acting-wise, I felt to me some moments were done a little too loudly, there seemed to be a little too much shouting and exaggeration at times. Luckily it didn't distract me too much. Judging by the people sitting next to me, sobbing as the events progressed, it didn't ruin others' experience either.
There also was a lot of dancing. I don't know lots about dance styles, but Anna Liisa's choreography felt nice to me. It wasn't distracting, it didn't scream "look at us dance and then the show will proceed". It felt like a integral part of the piece.

The show's visuals were mostly enjoyable. The fir tree sets used as the background greated a lovely feeling of being in a forest. The only thing that truely kept bothering me about the visual side of the show was... This is so nitpicky it's going to sound sad, but I'll say it anyway:
There was a character called Minna Canth onstage. She opened both acts by talking about the way the author saw her own play. I don't know if the show would've been significantly different without her, but she didn't annoy me. Her t-shirt, however, did. Everyone else had a nicely timeless wardrobe, even though some pieces of clothing were based on modern styles it was done in a stylish way... And then there's a character with a bright t-shirt that reads ANNA LIISA on the front. I know I shouldn't let that irritate me, but it broke a bit of the illusion for me.

All in all, however, I'm sad the auditorium was only half-way full. I understand most people my age think this must be the most boring thing ever and simply won't go, and I suppose not everybody can get into the music. But personally, I think Anna Liisa was well worth seeing. Definitely the best Finnish original musical I've seen...
There are only three performances left next month. If you happen to be hanging around Tampere these days, I recommend.

But wait! There's more to this.
The thing I'm the most impressed of here, actually, is Tampereen Työväen Teatteri releasing a CD with Anna Liisa's songs.

I listen to musical albums every day, but until this, Finnish ones have been lacking from my collection. my collection. I know there's been a small handful of Finnish musical cast recordings before, but Anna Liisa is the first one I've encountered - and I've truely enjoyed this rare chance of revisiting the show after returning home.

In Anna Liisa's case, it probably was as easy as it can be to decide about recording an album. It's a new show, so there was no need to negociate with any producers from some foreign country. Still, I can't help hoping they'd record Finnish productions of international musicals, too. I continue being upset that there wasn't a CD of either Åbo Svenska Teater's Les Misérables or the Seinäjoen kaupunginteatteri's Tanz der Vampire.
With about 48 pre-existing Les Mis albums in dozens of languages, I have to admit the former decision isn't impossible to understand. But then there's Tanz. The best Finnish translation I've ever heard; a cast I've preferred to every single Tanz album I've listened to so far; a large, partially international fanbase... I think it would've been worth recording. I also think Svenska Teatern, with their sold-out-until-2013 production of Kristina från Duvemåla, is making a mistake if they don't release a CD.

If even the Swedish have done cast recordings for Les Mis, Phantom of the Opera and so on, I don't see why the Finnish couldn't get at least a small highlights album of some Broadway show done.

Anna Liisa's trailer.

Logo by Anne Sillanaukee and Kari Sunnari, photos by Jyrki Tervo / Tampereen Työväen Teatteri.


  1. Thanks for the review! I've been meaning to give this a try because it's been praised by people whose opinion I trust in, so maybe I should drag myself to one of the remaining shows.

    My previous experiences with Finnish musical music haven't been very positive, so I don't have high hopes, but it's always nice to be positively surprised. I've heard Patukkaooppera and Astoria on CD, and both had this certain sound in them that I've labelled "Finnish musical music genre". None of the tunes stayed in my head, and all the songs sounded the same. Suruttomat sounded a bit different, but it felt more iskelmä-like and I didn't like it, either.

    1. Yep, go ahead and give it a try, I was pleasantly surprised at least!

      I've only heard the titles of those two shows - your description doesn't exactly encourage me to start looking for the CDs... ;) So yeah, just hoping it's not all downhill from here for me when I see other Finnish original shows!