Thursday, November 29, 2012

Phenomenon: Les Mis?

So, Tampereen Teatteri will do Les Misérables in 2013, premiering on September 13th and 14th. The cast and details were released today. Let's take a look:

Jean Valjean: Tero Harjunniemi / Petja Lähde
Javert: Sören Lillkung
Fantine: Ele Millistfer
Cosette: Sarah Nedergård
Marius: Tomi Metsäketo
Éponine: Saara Lehtonen / Pia Piltz
Thénardier: Ville Majamaa
Madame Thénardier: Ritva Jalonen
Enjolras: Samuel Harjanne / Lauri Liiv

Director: Georg Malvius
Sets and costumes: Ellen Cairns
Choreography: Igor Barberic
Lights: Palle Palmé
Finnish translation: Jukka Virtanen

Cast with director and conductors

There's no need to go deep into what I think about the crew or the translation. I've already mentioned that here, here and here. (A select quote: "Nothing will stop my disappointment if the hideous translation is not fixed." Well. Yeah.

TT's version will truely be something of an ÅST replica. In short, I think Åbo Svenska Teater's Les Mis was practically perfect, but I would still have liked to see a new vision. Too bad for me. They said the new show will be "based on" the ÅST production and mentioned how much easier it was getting the rights from producer Cameron Mackintosh when they had a pre-existing concept. Sure, director Georg Malvius said the new actors will take their roles to new directions, and it was mentioned the show must be changed to fit to a stage different from ÅST's. But still. Anyway, you know what I think, I've talked about this in my speculations already.

Let's move on.

Today, in the press release event, theatre manager Reino Bragge mentioned something that caught my attention. He said local cinemas and Tampereen Teatteri will work together, what with the upcoming movie and this production, to bring "the Les Mis phenomenon" to Tampere.

ÅST alumni returns: Tomi Metsäketo and Samuel Harjanne

The Les Mis phenomenon?

From what I gather from today's info event, Tampereen Teatteri is trying to replicate a phenomenon indeed. Not a Les Mis related one, necessarily, but the one that's going on in Helsinki and goes by the name of Kristina från Duvemåla. Does the following sound familiar: five shows per week, pricier-than-usual tickets, subtitles in English, based on a former, popular production...

It seems to me Tampereen Teatteri is preparing for a success. They trust their show enough to rise prices above the ÅST levels. English subtitles seem like a clear sign they're trying to attract audiences even from outside of Finland.

But is Les Mis enough to draw in audiences from all over? I'm not sure. The theatre seems to have some pretty nice discounts for students (Hevijuuseri-kortti), so if they're compatible with Les Mis, it's likely I'll end up seeing it more than once. [Edited to add: of course the discount isn't compatible. That's student friendly policy for you!] But surely it's not enough that the Finnish Les Mis fandom (size approx. ten people) visits TT again and again.

Newcomers: Tero Harjunniemi and Petja Lähde will alternate in the main role

Let's remember the Les Misérables Åbo Svenska Teater staged that closed less than a year ago. It was the most popular show in the theatre's 170-year-long history. It's a small country, Finland, so a record like that isn't set with only Fennoswedish audiences. I suppose many people from all over Finland, probably also from Sweden, saw the show in Turku. Did they like what they saw enough to return for the exact same thing next year?

And with the upcoming movie and productions popping up all over Europe, I wonder if the English subtitles will have many users. How many travel to Tampere during the winter, anyway? Les Mis is not like Kristina in this respect. Les Mis has been done everywhere. Kristina, then, has been done only in Sweden before, and it's been a while since. Yet it's a national treasure to Swedes, and means a lot to many people with Swedish heritage all over the globe. Over a million people saw the show while it was performed in Sweden. What with ferries from Stockholm stopping at Helsinki every morning and night... Somehow, it's easy to see why Svenska Teatern's auditorium has been so full lately.

Javert and the conductor: it's Sören Lillkung's 3rd and Jussi Vahvaselkä's 2nd Les Mis

But Tampere? TT's Les Mis cast has some Estonian actors. Are there Estonians who are curious enough to travel to Finland for them? How about people from other countries? Every Nordic country has had their own version of Les Mis in the past few years. In 2014, Malvius will stage his vision for the 5th time, that time in Denmark. The original in London is going strong for the 27th year. Sure, some travel all around for their favourite shows. Personally, I love seeing and hearing musicals in foreign languages and have travelled for them. But how many think like me?

Then there's the upcoming movie. Soon, everyone will have Les Mis in their home town. It might encourage people to see the stage show. But it also rises the bar pretty high for TT, supposing the movie'll be good. I had a short chat with Tero Harjunniemi, who will play Valjean in TT. He said he's not scared of the movie setting expectations because theatre is such a different medium. True that – but wonder if the audience will still go in expecting to see a performance to match Hugh Jackman's instead of a Finnish actor's own vision? Anyway, I'm glad TT will at least replicate a stage show instead of trying to bring the movie onstage!

Cosette and the director: Sarah Nedergård and Georg Malvius


Personally, I would've preferred to see a different director and an all-new cast. But, if they had to replicate something and bring back some actors, I guess these were the best choices (and to be fully honest: in a way, it warms my heart to no end to see at least some of the ÅST cast I loved so so so so so much returning, even though I keep saying I'm all for new people in the roles. A small part of me keeps screaming about returning home and reliving the magic). TT's Les Mis will be unoriginal, but I feel it will also be good, just like it's predecessor. The translation notwithstanding... Theatre manager Bragge claimed some bits may still be fixed before the premiere. Can't but hope and pray, and on the meanwhile learn to not understand the Finnish language and only enjoy the voices.

But will TT's Les Misérables be interesting enough to bring "the Les Mis phenomenon" to Tampere? Time will tell, but I can't help feeling a bit sceptical.

Photos by Harri Hinkka and Muplakuovi.
Listen to Sören Lillkung sing Stars in Finnish.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Interview: Samuel Harjanne

It’s morning, I wake up in Vaasa, and I’m supposed to be doing an interview in a couple of hours. First, though, I open my e-mail. There’s a new message: “Could the interview be postponed by a couple of hours? Our matinee was cancelled, I could sleep for a while longer.” Well, that answers the first question in my mind. Samuel Harjanne does sleep – at least sometimes.

Striking 12, Helsingin kaupunginteatteri 2011.

Åbo Svenska Teater, Helsingin kaupunginteatteri, directing, winning a musical theatre prize… Samuel Harjanne has been busy lately. At the moment, Harjanne, known for his dubbing and musical roles, is performing in Wasa Teater’s Next to Normal.

“Wasa Teater is nice, but as a town, Vaasa isn’t one of the most interesting ones. I like a bit bigger cities. But you go anywhere for an interesting job. We have a lovely team, and Next to Normal is a good musical.”

24-year-old Harjanne has been performing for soon fifteen years. He’s done lots during his career, from a singing competition for children to directing musicals.

Before musicals, there was opera. Harjanne’s career started in a children’s choir. Via the choir, he got a part in The Magic Flute and ended up singing in Finland’s National Opera. But getting the part of Gavroche in Helsingin kaupunginteatteri’s 1999 production of Les Misérables was a turning point for him.

“After performing in the National Opera, I knew I liked operas a lot. Then Les Misérables auditions happened. I got in – and had a revelation. Theatre can be like this? Classical music is great, but pop and rock speak to me on a completely different level. Ever since, musical theatre has been really important to me.”

Next to Normal, Wasa Teater 2012. With Mikaela Tidermark.

Harjanne has acted in shows like Helsingin kaupunginteatteri’s High School Musicals and Spring Awakening, not to mention his countless Finnish dubbing roles in animated movies. However, during the last year, Harjanne has acted in two Swedish-speaking musicals. Two of the musicals he’s directed have also been, at least partially, in Swedish.

So, it’s surprising to hear Harjanne was not interested in the language at school. Actually, he says he hated it. He’s learned Swedish during the past few years.

In 2009, Harjanne was asked to direct the musical The Wedding Singer, in Swedish. He said that no way, you’ve called the wrong person, I can’t speak Swedish – and agreed to do the project nevertheless. He’d use English.
Around the same time, colleague Sören Lillkung told Harjanne to audition for Les Misérables again, this time in Åbo Svenska Teater. Harjanne was again skeptical, but agreed to try his luck.

”I sung Empty Chairs at Empty Tables and Your Song. Your Song is a pretty long tune, but I got to sing the whole thing… while director Georg Malvius was staring out of the window. I thought that I sucked. But soon, Malvius called me. I got the part of Feuilly and the understudy for Enjolras. The catch was that I should be able to understand the direction in Swedish.”

With two Swedish projects in sight, Harjanne started learning the language. He took lessons and told the fellow cast members to talk to him in Swedish.

“It made me very quiet. I’m usually very social, but I couldn’t keep up with the Swedish conversation.”

However, Harjanne’s language skills developed. After Les Mis, he was asked to do Next to Normal in Vaasa. The theatrical production company Polar Illusions, which Harjanne is the Head of Arts of, has also helped. The company put up a bilingual Finnish/Swedish production of Disney’s Aladdin last summer.

“The Swedish language has jumped into my life, and I’m glad about that. Nowadays I can have discussions in Swedish, and that’s amazing!”

Spring Awakening, Helsingin kaupunginteatteri 2009. With Teemu Mustonen.

When asked about his most embarrassing moment onstage… There isn’t one, really. Harjanne says he doesn’t get embarrassed easily.

“A blooper is a gift, that’s my advice about acting. But well, in Next to Normal once, I said complete nonsense instead of my line. Since I don’t have improvisation skills in Swedish… Luckily, Mikaela Tidermark just kept going. That was difficult. But usually, I don’t get embarrassed. Some people think it’s embarrassing if you stumble onstage. I think it’s just a part of the act.”

Harjanne has acted in one of the most famous musicals based on a book, Les Misérables. Next, he will be tackling an ensemble part in Jekyll & Hyde. Has he read the books the shows are based on?

“I started reading Les Misérables after playing Gavroche, but I never finished it. When I read books, my imagination starts flying… Then I notice ten pages have passed and I don’t know what has happened. It’s annoying. Maybe I’ll read Jekyll and Hyde, though!”

Harjanne thinks musicals and books are very different, so going by the original book isn’t a priority for him.

“When creating a character, I first think how I see the character myself. Then I find out what other people think. The most important thing is how the other characters in the script react to the character. So, I’m not interested in how the character is portrayed in the book. The director’s vision may differ from that. In a worst-case scenario, the facts from the book just mess with you.”

How about favourite roles? Harjanne mentions dubbing the title character of The Adventures of Tintin.

“It was really interesting, such a great role. I read the comics a lot as a kid. I outdid myself so many times while I was acting the part.”

When it comes to onstage parts:

“Enjolras is an interesting role to do. He’s a lot like me, I’m a leader type of a person too. And passionate. But I also liked Spring Awakening, High School Musical… All my roles, actually. Henry, the role I’m doing now, is maybe the least colourful one I’ve done. He’s pretty much only a support to his girlfriend. Then again, he’s the only positive character in the whole show.”

Next to Normal, Wasa Teater 2012. Again with Mikaela Tidermark.

Harjanne has done so many dubs and musicals that one might imagine he never sleeps. He admits that he does lots of work. If he has free time, he spends it by playing badminton, watching movies – and going to the theatre. Traveling is also important to him.

“I leave the country whenever I can. It’s amazing just to relax.”

Next to Normal will close in December. After that, as mentioned, Harjanne will be seen onstage at Turun kaupunginteatteri's production of Jekyll & Hyde. He’s a part of the show's ensemble and understudy for Riku Nieminen, who plays the titular part.

“It’s nice to do an ensemble role again. Many think a main role is better than ensemble, but that’s silly. Without ensemble, the piece doesn’t work. As for the title role, I figure I’m very young for the part. But it’s amazing to study such a huge role at this age. I will learn a lot. I haven’t got time to go to schools right now, so this is the way I learn.”

Polar Illusions will stay an important part of Harjanne’s life. There are lots of plans. For example, they’re working on doing Aladdin in some other country than Finland. Harjanne wouldn’t say no to working in foreign countries in other projects, either.

Jekyll & Hyde, then, will only employ Harjanne for a limited time. The production will go on for a longer time, but Harjanne leaves Turku after the spring’s last performance. He won’t yet reveal what he’s going to do after that.

But the grand plan for the future is clear:

“I know I will work with musical theatre all my life.”

Photos by Ville Akseli Juurikkala and
Frank A. Unger. I tried taking my own – and of course messed royally with the camera, ending up with only lots of blur. Boo.
Related: my reviews about Striking 12, Aladdin, WT Next to Normal.

I've also published a version of this interview in Finnish.