Thursday, March 28, 2013


I've followed the international musical fandom long enough to know that fans around the globe get annoyed when theatres handle their PR less than perfectly. From inaccurate cast lists to social media responsibles who get outsmarted by fans... Mistakes happen, but they or, in some unfortunate cases, sheer laziness can be very irritating from a fan's perspective. We just want to know who is cast and if there are any understudies on!

Some recent events have made me think about good and bad musical PR in general, and Finnish musical PR especially. Here come my two cents on that, concentrating on a certain recent issue...

In Finland, the average musical is kept a secret as long as possible. It's always a nice day in spring when Helsingin kaupunginteatteri, the home of some of our biggest musical productions, releases their musical of the fall. There are never any teasers beforehand. But when the announcement comes, it comes with a bang, with a press release and promo photos. Same with many other theatres: the upcoming productions are shrouded in secrecy until the big day when all the info is out at once.

Usually, the mysteries annoy me. Would there be some harm in announcing the upcoming productions a bit earlier? The theatres know, so why can't the fans? It's almost painful to wait and speculate!

Strangely enough, watching Åbo Svenska Teater releasing info about their upcoming production of Jesus Christ Superstar, I've started to appreciate the usual customs more.

I love Åbo Svenska Teater. It's Finland's oldest theatre, a lovely place full of athmosphere. I also love the musicals they do. Everything I've seen there so far has been great. What's more, the people working at ÅST have been complete sweethearts towards me and my friends, and I'm grateful for that.

However, I've developed a strong dislike towards the way they handle their PR.

There have been some mishaps of the most annoying sort during the time I've known the theatre. When Les Misérables was still playing, ÅST made an announcement: the production would be extended once more. They added that all the leads would stay in their roles. A good day for a fan! But a bit of a punch in the stomach when I later found out the actor playing Enjolras would change. Tears in my eyes and all. Not a main role enough, apparently the actor change was notified on the theatre's website only a week before the production closed. What's more, waiting for the cast of Hair last year was slightly nervewracking. They started selling the tickets in March but released the cast a while later. In August.

And now there's Jesus Christ Superstar. We found out about JCS because the name of the musical was mentioned in a job advertisement someone found by accident. That was two months ago. To this day, there hasn't been a press release. We don't know the director or the premiere date. No idea when tickets will be available for purchase. Instead, we've been served a weird string of little updates, culminating this week in a local newspaper announcing the lead Alexander Lycke and the theatre not answering any questions about the rest of the cast.

I know Finland is a small country and the number of devoted theatre fans is tiny. But the little group there is would appreciate precise information.

I suspect there are theatregoes who don't care about casting. Some just want to have a good night at the theatre and don't remember the name of the lead the next day. But for the fans, like me and my friends, the casting news are important. We have our favourite actors and we are dying to hear what they're up to. We've been refreshing the ÅST Facebook again and again ever since they said they'd release the JCS cast before Easter.

Sure, partially, they did. But it's not nice to leave things hanging halfway, like announcing a Jesus but not a Judas. It's even worse when our questions aren't answered, not even with a "we can't tell yet." I'm sure the people who take care of the social media are busy, and it must feel like there are more important things to do than to answer some crazed fans' questions. But, on the other hand, the crazed fans are the people who won't shut up about the shows around the internet and in their everyday lives...

It's sometimes weird how little fuss theatres make about their musical actors. In many cases only the cast members famous for something else than doing musicals get hyped about. Maybe a musical actor could also be a star around here, like Peter Jöback is in Sweden. Where is our Finnish household name? Maria Ylipää comes the closest. But why, for example, isn't Helsingin kaupunginteatteri advertising Tuukka Leppänen (just cast as the lead in their production of Doctor Zhivago) as the supernova of stage charisma he is? Or, again, ÅST. Why aren't they making a big deal of bringing Alexander Lycke back, why have they drowned that piece of news in unrelated FB updates? Even the saleswoman at a local convenience store fangirled Alex with me back when Les Mis was playing. No grounds for any hype there?

I don't mean to say all Finnish theatre and musical PR is awful. Most of it is not. Tampereen Teatteri, for example, especially with their upcoming production of Les Misérables, has been doing a good job. I disagree with most of the things they're doing with the production... Which means they've released enough precise info for me to be able to disagree!

I just wish every Finnish theatre would understand that enthusiastic theatre fans actually exist. And that we want to know what's going on.

Link tip: this blog is for reviews and musings. For anyone interested in news about Finnish musical theatre, I try my best to update the news tag at my side blog, Fuck Yeah, Finnish Musical Theatre!. Maybe give it a follow.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Wretched of the Earth

I don't think I'll be writing a Les Misérables movie review.

I’ve seen the movie in cinemas three times now. Though the stage show remains my true love, I think the film's good. But who needs another voice in the choir praising Anne Hathaway’s Fantine or criticising Hugh Jackman's Bring Him Home anymore? It's all been said already.

Instead, let's talk a bit about being a Les Misérables fan. 

Les Misérables has a lot of flaws. Despite them, it's been my favourite musical for four years. Every now and then, I think I'm now fed up with the whole thing, and then catch myself listening to some cast recording two days afterwards. I can't stop loving Les Mis.

For most of my time as a Les Mis fan, I’ve been publishing related news in LesMisClub, a community for Les Mis fanartists. Two and a half years ago, rumors about the movie started popping up. I did some quick research, listed the facts, and added my own opinion:
"I'd like to recommend not getting too excited about this. 
With little googling I already found out he [Cameron Mackintosh] has announced a Les Mis movie in 2009 (with Russell Crowe and Hugh Jackman in the main roles, apparently) and in 2005, and there even was a mention of a Les Mis movie ad campaign in 1991."
Little did I know this was finally the one that would come true.

Us fans of the stage show have always known Les Misérables is the planet’s most popular musical. But now, after the movie has premiered, we can suddenly see it. All of a sudden, everyone's friends, classmates and relatives know Les Mis the musical. The size of the Les Misérables fandom has exploded. Before, it was a neat acchievement if twenty people aknowledged your Les Mis fanwork existing. Nowadays, the average Les Mis film gifset gets a thousand notes in Tumblr. 

Before the movie came out, there was a lot of talk about new fans ruining the fandom. Sure, whenever a huge number of new people join any group, there will be some troublemakers – but I still feel that's a silly attitude. The fandom for Les Misérables is 150 years old. There have been stage versions, screen adaptations, radio plays, an anime series, a Donald Duck crossover and a fighting game, and each adaptation has brought in new fans – and now this new movie and the people who love it have supposedly ruined something? I don't think so. I'm just glad we got an adaptation that presents Victor Hugo's original story at least somewhat accurately for a chance...

Apart from introducing the story to new people, it seems the movie actually brought the fandom closer to each other. Speculating together about every new paparazzi photo and promotional image was plenty of fun. I don’t think I’ve ever felt as close to my fellow Les Mis fans around the globe than when we watched the livestream from the London premiere red carpet and liveblogged the experience together. For me, that was honestly better than watching the actual movie. Seeing things like the original cast Marius interviewing the movie Marius, and getting to scream about that with other fans in real time... The movie itself was worth the wait, but the waiting was worth a lot more on its own.

If I'm completely honest, I didn't feel much anything when I finally sat in the cinema and waited for the film to begin. I didn't feel particularily excited during the movie itself either (apart from Stars, which I found so good it reduced me to a sobbing mess). Maybe I was actually a bit sad that the wait was over. Or maybe I just had used all my excitement up months before already.

I don't mean all fun ended after we couldn't speculate anymore, though. The pictures featured in this blog entry are parts of the LesMisExtended Visual Petition. It's visible proof of the movie bringing the Les Mis fans together, and a project I'm very proud of.

Les Mis is one of the longest musicals out there, so the movie made many cuts. They were well done, you only noticed something's missing once or twice. But, since we know many things were cut only after filming... Of course people are curious to see how the movie actors handled the missing bits. When Tom Hooper hinted that if the fans are interested, he might consider releasing an extended cut of the movie, me and one of my online friends decided to do something. We started a visual petition. Anyone could show they want to see all that was filmed by drawing their favourite character.

143 people did.

I was floored by the number of characters people sent in (and so was my Photoshop and deviantART's file size limit). We've now sent prints of the whole thing to Tom Hooper and can't but hope they reach him. But even if they don't, the project still looks amazing and shows how much talent there is in the fandom. Just look at all the different ways the same characters are portrayed there!

And honestly, this is what being a fan is all about, to me at least. Taking something amazing and using it for inspiration. It was nice to see the Les Mis movie on a big screen, but it was way better to discuss it with my friends afterwards. Just as it's amazing to see the show live, but at least just as good to review the performances, to draw fanart based on it, to share the experience.

Les Misérables the musical takes itself completely seriously. So much so that I doubt I would find it enjoyable anymore without the fanart, the discussion, the jokes... I love the songs and the characters, and whenever I see the show live, I enjoy it so much I can hardly sit still – but even then, it feels a bit heavy sometimes. Drawing a comic where Enjolras has superpowers or just giggling about some miserable pun balances the pathos out nicely.

It's weird how much a single musical can give to a person. Without Les Mis, I wouldn't know some – if not the majority! – of my good friends. Without that sorrow-drenched story of a bunch of French people dying, I would have a lot less fun in my everyday life.

I'm glad I got to be there while the movie was made, from the first announcement onwards. Getting a good film out of that was a nice bonus.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Hair That's a Fright

What is the deal with the musical Hair? I've now seen two productions of it. Based on my limited knowledge, I don't think I've ever encountered a show that varies this much from theatre to theatre. Does the same character ever sing the same song in two different productions?

After falling in love with the Åbo Svenska Teater production (read my review) and hearing lots of praise for the other current Finnish production, directed by Maarit Pyökäri, I went to Lahden kaupunginteatteri with great expectations. While ÅST has reconstructed the whole show to follow the movie and the director's own ideas, the Lahti Hair resembles the original Broadway production. I was excited to see what the original was like.

Such useless excitement.

The positives first: the cast was energetic and seemed to be enjoying what they were doing. There were some beautiful singing performances, I especially enjoyed Elsa Saisio's Easy to Be Hard. Timo Välisaari gave a good performance as Claude.

Then the negatives.

The worst thing was how emotionally empty the production felt. It didn't bore me, but I felt no emotional highs or lows. Some of the songs were a little touching on their own, but the piece as a whole didn't make me feel anything. The ending medley didn't cheer me up when I never felt the down in the first place.

The emotion in the story is strongly tied with the character of Claude. Here, despite the actor being talented, I didn't feel sad about Claude's ultimate fate. The going to war part was too brief. Before that, the characters didn't really feel like an intimate group – would they really miss Claude? I didn't feel a true sense of friendship or love in between any of the characters.

Partially, the space and choreography are to blame for the show feeling distant. Lahden kaupunginteatteri has an unfortunately big stage. Sitting in the third row, the actors still seemed far away. To fill the stage, Hair was thoroughly choreographed, which left little possibilities for natural-like action in between the Tribe members. The dancing did look nice, though.

I felt uncomfortable about the production using face paint to create the black Tribe members. Sadly there aren't many non-white actors in Finland – but after seeing how they managed to find an ethnically diverse cast in ÅST, I have to wonder: would it have been impossible here? Painting people black probably wasn't frowned upon in 1960s' Finland, but it feels like something that shouldn't be done in 2013.

Some might oppose moving the songs around like they did in Turku, but I think a complete restructuring did a great deal of good there. ÅST's piece sure doesn't much resemble the original Broadway Hair, but it doesn't feel jarringly dated, either. The Lahti one, with nearly all of the scenes intact and in the original order, does. The bits relating to US history, seen via the eyes of the 60s, felt very distant from my young Finnish perspective.

I almost missed the old Finnish translation, the revised one sounded too modern at times when the production felt so stuck in the 60s otherwise. Weirdly enough, reading a description about the 1969 Finnish Hair, I get the feeling the 2013 Lahti Hair actually toned down the scenes dealing with homosexuality and sexuality in general. The scenes dealing with racial inequality, which sadly still aren't irrelevant, turned into a joke when performed by white actors in black masks.

The production did try bringing in something new: the whole show being a blind Vietnam veteran's, played by Heikki Harma a.k.a Hector, flashback. I liked the idea, but it would've still needed some fleshing out and refining. As it was, I couldn't properly connect the veteran with the events. But thumbs up for the idea!

All in all, I have to ask one thing: which message did the Lahti Hair try to convey? I only saw two hours of hippies taking drugs and singing, with no story, no message, no feeling. Maybe catchy tunes and energetic choreography are enough for someone looking for a nostalgia trip. I, however, got nothing out of it.

It's possible Hair isn't my cup of tea in general and I only liked the ÅST Hair because it's so different from the original, almost a different show. But even so, I'll say that if you want to see Hair in Finland, skip this one and catch Åbo Svenska Teater's production while it's still playing.

Photos by Tarmo Valmela.
Reijo Paukku's book Hippimusikaali HAIR ja Tampereen Popteatterin tarina used as a source.