Thursday, November 14, 2013

Audience Participation

I saw Rocky Horror Show at Turun kaupunginteatteri yesterday. I don't have much to say about it. I went there because I live close to the theatre. When an opportunity to see a new musical next door presents itself, I tend to take it. But going in already, I was quite sure I wouldn't much enjoy the show. I was right. Not a new favourite.

Rocky Horror Show is, as most musical fans know, famous for its audience participation. The production I just saw puts plenty of emphasis on that. The story makes no sense, and while the music is catchy, the most exciting part of the show is getting to take part in it. You can throw things onstage and shout at the characters. There's a sort of a script for the audience to follow, when to throw and what to shout. In Turun kaupunginteatteri, a participation guide can be found in the souvenir programme, and they even have video screens with instructions around the stage.

Turun kaupunginteatteri has been saying Rocky Horror is famous for it's "genuine audience interaction", but I'm unsure if it could be called that – the audience is, after all, following a script too. But genuine or not, the interaction is crucial for the show. I don't think it could survive without the audience doing their part. I guess most people don't buy their tickets to see a piece of theatre, they go in for an experience.

Finns are known as a shy people, but last night at least, the audience played along and even seemed to be having some fun doing so. Not me, though. I doubt I'll ever be a Rocky Horror person. While I think it's a fun opportunity for outgoing people that the audience has their own part to play, I don't feel comfortable with shouting obscenities and throwing things in theatre myself. I prefer sitting quietly and observing the events. Trying to start standing ovations every now and then is quite enough excitement for me.

But what if this isn't a matter of shyness, after all, but of practice?

Maybe even I could get into a proper audience participation mood if I got to try it out during musicals I know and love first? I'm proposing that we don't let the casts of famous shows have all the fun by themselves anymore. Here are audience participation directions for three popular musicals. Share them with your fellow audience members, too!

Les Misérables:
  • Whenever Jean Valjean’s name is mentioned, shout “bread!”
  • When Javert is mentioned, shout “law!”
  • Greet Enjolras by loudly yelling “Enjolr-ASS!” every time he appears onstage.
  • Take your own yellow ticket of leave with you. Follow Valjean’s example and tear it in a dramatic manner.
  • Take some glittering confetti with you to throw in the air during Stars.
  • When Javert appears onstage in his undercover outfit, you can go undercover too: put on your cap. Feel free to look shifty and suspicious.
  • Shout “kiss already!” every time there’s a long glance in between Jean Valjean and Javert.
  • During the Wedding, blow soap bubbles to celebrate the happy couple.

Sweeney Todd
  • Every time Anthony appears onstage, shout "stalker!"
  • Whenever Mrs. Lovett is baking or pies are mentioned, throw a bit of flour in the air.
  • During My Friends, slowly raise your own safety razor or ladyshaver.
  • When flowers are mentioned in Wait, feel free to throw some onstage. Not restricted to daisies and gillyflowers, but no cactuses, please.
  • During the beginning of A Little Priest, shout "get it!?" after Mrs. Lovett's every line. Boo until Sweeney finally gets it.
  • Uh-oh, it's raining blood! Cover your head with your favourite penny dreadful.
  • Mrs. Lovett is dreaming about a life by the sea. Show your support by wearing your sunglasses.
  • Shout "Benjamin Barker!" together with Sweeney. The more dramatic, the better.

Fiddler on the Roof
  • Blow your party horn constantly until If I Were a Rich Man finally, finally stops playing in your head.

Photo by Robert Seger.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Interview: Tero Harjunniemi

At the moment, Finnish tenor Tero Harjunniemi plays the part of Jean Valjean in Tampereen Teatteri’s production of Les Misérables. Classically trained and having done many opera roles, his voice gives the part a unique twist. But how did he end up as the lead in the new Finnish production of world’s favourite musical, and what does he think about his character?

A while ago, I had the chance to find out.

During the past years, Tero Harjunniemi has been singing in various operas, operettas and musicals. But music isn’t the career he originally chose. He decided to become an architect when he was still in comprehensive school, and eventually became one. But on the side, he also studied singing. For years, he kept doing the two side by side, but finally, singing won.

“There are two things that I like a lot that I’ve always been somewhat good at: drawing and singing. The former affected my decision to become an architect, but singing has always been my ultimate dream. Music has always interested me, always affected me in some way”, Harjunniemi says.

Harjunniemi mentions that he sings mainly because he enjoys it himself, but the energy he gets from the audience is also important to him. One of the differences in between the two professions is the speed of getting feedback.

“You do get feedback when it comes to architecture, but that takes a while. When you’re singing in front of an audience, you get the feedback right away. It’s great. You don’t have to try guessing what people think about your work. Of course, nowadays, I can also tell myself if something is going wrong – my own estimate is rarely completely wrong.”

An ideal role

Harjunniemi says the role of Jean Valjean is a part that lets him use all his talents onstage. He wasn’t dreaming about doing the role before learning the musical would be produced in Tampere, but looking into the part, he found out it would suit him. 

Alfie Boe inspired me to audition for Les Mis. If he could sing the part in a classical style in the 25th Anniversary Concert, why couldn’t I? If they have voices like that in the role in London, why not in Finland?”

Why not indeed – Harjunniemi has been playing the part for the past few months and the reviews have been glowing. Originally, however, he wasn’t to be the only one to play the lead in the production. The role of Jean Valjean in TT’s Les Misérables was supposed to be split in between two actors. Before the premiere the alternate had to back out, but Harjunniemi was up to the challenge.

“A double opera I did in Oulu assured me I could do this. There, I did two opera roles – Cavalleria rusticana’s Turiddu and Gianni Schicci’s Rinuccio – back to back, on the same night, three nights in a row. After that, I was certain I could do five shows of Les Mis a week!”

Harjunniemi was sure the role of Jean Valjean would suit him vocally, but before the premiere, he was a bit uncertain about the looks.

“Valjean has been played by tall, rugged-looking guys…  So I wondered if I would look believable in the role. But makeup does wonders. I was looking at some photos taken during the premiere night’s curtain call and had to look at them twice before the realization hit me: oh, that’s me. I honestly didn’t recognize myself. I look quite convincing as a senior citizen!”

Character studies

Les Misérables is based on a classic work of literature, but Harjunniemi is still half-way through reading Victor Hugo’s brick of a novel. He thinks that while it’s interesting to see how the author originally saw the character, everything you need for the onstage performance can be found in the script of the show.

“I have been studying the character’s background online. But for the show itself, I don’t think research like that is necessary. You can’t show off your knowledge about the character’s origins onstage.”

Harjunniemi mentions that Les Misérables is a rare musical – not many musicals tell the whole life story of a person. In this case, the story begins in prison.

“Valjean’s sense of justice is very strong. He simply cannot accept the punishment he has been given.  He doesn’t seem like the sharpest crayon in the box, though, trying to escape the prison so many times and not making it… Maybe there’s some simplicity in the character, and why wouldn’t there be. He’s a normal guy”, Harjunniemi ponders about his character.

The Bishop’s gift of candlesticks changes Jean Valjean for good. Harjunniemi wonders, however, if the Bishop alone could’ve helped Valjean to the right track. He thinks there must be another experience in Valjean’s life that motivates the big character change.

 “What has taught Valjean to accept the chance the Bishop offers to him? I’m sure there has been someone in Valjean’s life, before the Bishop, who has given him love, goodness, warmth – something. Nothing else explains how Valjean was able to turn the love the Bishop shows towards him into opportunities for another people. I don’t believe a man can change just like that unless something good has happened in his childhood. The prison doesn’t make you very gentle, after all!”

In the musical, Valjean’s character embodies the themes of love, caring, and forgiveness. Yet his life is never easy:

 “Valjean is afraid of getting caught all the time. And that fear grows stronger from the moment he meets Cosette and decides to take care of her.”

The fear is personalized in Javert, Valjean’s opposing force.

“I consider the character of Javert to be deranged in some way.  When he can’t do his job, it’s too much for him to bear. It’s a little silly to think that is his reason for committing suicide. He has had a really bad childhood that has affected him in the wrong way. Then he’s ended up in a profession where you can control people – as long as it’s in accord with the law, he has the chance to do treat others whichever way he wants. During the course of the story, he stops using common sense altogether.“

“Valjean, then, thinks with common sense all the way through and sees things in a completely different light. That’s where the theme of forgiveness comes into play. Valjean sees no reason to take his revenge on Javert, even though he has multiple chances to do just that.”

Is there anything in common in between the actor and the character?

“Determination is a trait I share with Valjean. Once you decide to do something, then you do that, no matter what happens on the way! Acting is always about becoming someone else. But it has been easy becoming Valjean, seeing how he stands for things I could imagine standing for myself.”

Fantastic combination

The tickets for the spring 2014 season of Les Misérables are on sale, so for a while still, Harjunniemi’s life will be all about Les Misérables. And who knows, maybe the future might hold more musicals in store.

“I like the world of musicals, and I suppose there are many musical roles that might suit me, seeing that I also sing in a non-classical style. But the show has to mean something to me. Just like opera – next, I would like to do a role that touches me.”

Summing up his life at the moment, Harjunniemi feels happy:

”For me, this combines a hobby and a job. I think that’s the ideal situation. You get to do what you want, and maybe sometimes somebody even pays you something for doing it. That’s a fantastic combination.”

Suomalaiset lukijat, kuunnelkaa myös tämä: audiohenkilökuvassa Tero Harjunniemi

Saturday, November 2, 2013

104th Musical Retrospective

I was supposed to write a retrospective post before seeing the 100th musical performance of my life. Being lazy and busy, I've now seen 104 musicals (yes, I count them) and have just gotten around to writing this. At least this is the 100th post in my blog!

In honour of all that, I thought to write a little about being a musical fan. I can't really explain why I love musicals so, even if I try, but at least I can tell how that love has affected my life – so far.

Musical theatre is the biggest passion of my life.

It brings me so much joy. I spend the most of my free time doing something musical-related. I of course don't see shows every night, but not a day goes by without me speculating about upcoming shows and discussing and thinking about the current and past ones.

Online, apart from this blog here, I have this little side-project I call Fuck Yeah, Finnish Musical Theatre! It's a sort of an archive of pictures, videos, news articles and so on related to Finnish musical theatre. It's updated at least once every day, has over 1,100 posts at the moment, and probably has a tag full of material about your favourite Finnish musical performer or show too. Whenever I'm not busy with that, I like drawing musical fanart. I believe my deviantART gallery has over a hundred musicals related pictures already.

As you probably have figured out already, my true love is Finnish musical theatre. I like all musicals, but the ones here in Finland are the closest to my heart. They're of course not always perfect, but I see red every time I hear someone implying Finnish shows can't ever be as good as the musicals in London and New York. Bah! I think it's such an ugly attitude that Finnish shows can't possible ever be the best, just because they're guilty of being Finnish. But, to be honest, I used to think so too. When I was just getting into musicals, I was convinced Finland would never be on par with the musical capitals of the world and lamented that we'll never get the best shows here. Then we got a production of Wicked I honestly liked better than the West End version, and I started to realise I had been wrong. Great productions can happen anywhere.

With my blog here, written in English, my side blog, and even my drawings, I admit I try to showcase Finnish musicals to international theatre fans. Maybe there won't ever be a surge of theatre tourists in Finland. Personally, I don't pay much attention to lyrics and enjoy shows in languages I don't understand, but I know the language issue is a problem for many fans. But maybe international attention is not the most important thing. Sure, I'd like to see the worldwide musical fandom appreciating all international productions, Finnish ones included, even more than it does nowadays. But more than anything, I would like no Finn ever again uttering the that-was-almost-as-good-as-on-Broadway mantra.

It would be silly to think my blogs and posts would make a big difference in the opinions of either Finnish or international musical fans. But once, for example, my posts were one of the starting points in a chain of events that culminated into an American theatre fan (and nowadays, one of my best friends) flying to Finland to see Les Mis. So maybe that alone was worth all the time I put into this!

Speaking of that Les Mis, though... I've said it previously and I still claim the Åbo Svenska Teater Les Misérables changed my life, so I guess it'd be fitting to dedicate a couple of paragraphs to it in this post too. Of course, it's not the sole thing that's made me the person I am today, but it was a turning point for me nevertheless. I've repeated this all to ad nauseam, but it means so much to me, so hear me out.

I still feel amazed about the things that happened during the run of ÅST's Les Mis and because of it. Those experiences, in a way, might also explain why I love musical theatre so much. The magic is not just about seeing shows and appreciating the talent onstage. It's also about making friends and having adventures, like I did during the run of ÅST's Les Mis. (And, to a lesser extent, during the run of Seinäjoen kaupunginteatteri's Tanz der Vampire too. The two overlapped, so I usually just think about it all as one big happy blur of events!) A single musical production can bring so many new friends and good things into one's life, a seemingly small thing can start the adventure of a lifetime. Little things can make you smile even almost two years later.

Though, of course, I also appreciate this production because it's the best one I've ever seen. If I was asked to single out the best of those 104 musical performances I've seen so far, Les Mis in Åbo Svenska Teater on 30.4.2011 would be my choice, and I wouldn't even hesitate. That was one perfect night at the theatre.

Before ÅST's Les Mis, which premiered in 2010, I believe I was what you'd call a regular musical fan. My parents actually knew about the production before I did and didn't tell me – I was going to get a ticket for Christmas present and they wanted it to be a surprise! Hah! I did find out about the show in November, so their plan failed even then. But these days, I doubt anyone who knows me would imagine that if a Finnish theatre announces during the fall that they will do a musical, I wouldn't find out before Christmas...

My obsession has seeped into my school work, even. My high school final exam essay in Finnish was mostly about Tanz der Vampire, which I had just seen in Seinäjoen kaupunginteatteri the previous week (and I got the best grade). I've been studying journalism for the past year and a half soon, and whenever possible, I do my school assignments about theatre. (Stay tuned, there is an interview with someone who plays Jean Valjean coming up later this month!)

It's funny my biggest passion in life is musical theatre, seeing how my own talents lie elsewhere. I have no musical skills whatsoever. I like singing along when I listen to music alone, but I'm not good at it, and I've never been interested in playing any instruments. I'm no more interested in acting or dancing, apart from a spectator's point of view.

As said, I study journalism, but being a journalist isn't my dream. Though I don't want to be onstage, it's my dream being a part of bringing the theatre experience to others one day, in some way. I worked in an outdoor theatre last summer, as a part-time PR assistant and as a part-time box office and café saleslady, and can't but hope that wasn't my last time working in a theatre. Even selling tickets and pouring coffee last summer was strangely satisfying – to know that I did something to help others to experience the thing I myself love so much.

So, there you have it, my big goal. I don't know yet how, when, or even if I'll reach it, but I will try. And on the meanwhile, I guess I'll see a hundred and four musical performances more and write some more posts.

Drawings by me.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Dr. Zhivago

I wasn't planning to see this production until later in November - but when you get a premiere invitation from a friend who's gotten an invitation from the very lead of the show, you really can't say no... That being the case, I think I should include a disclaimer: in a way, I saw this production for free on the courtesy of Helsingin kaupunginteatteri.

Like last year's Fiddler on the Roof, Helsingin kaupunginteatteri is again doing a musical based on a classic Russian story. Doctor Zhivago the musical is, however, a bit fresher than last year's classic: this is the first production of the show in Europe!

I was quite excited about this production beforehand, but it's been difficult trying to shove my thoughts into a nutshell afterwards. This musical had many elements I liked and I left the theatre feeling quite impressed. But after the initial excitement about seeing one of my favourite actors in a leading role and getting to be a part of the fancy premiere audience wore off, I was left wondering if I was actually much touched by the show after all.

Let's see.

Anna-Maija Jalkanen and Tuukka Leppänen

Doctor Zhivago, based on Boris Pasternak's Nobel-winning novel, tells a story of one man's life in tumultuous beginning-of-the-20th-century Russia. Above all, however, it's a love story – a love triangle in between the titular doctor and the two important women of his life.

The show has been compared to Les Misérables multiple times, and having seen it now, I have to make that comparison once again. The similarities are striking: it tells the leading character's story from his prime to the end of his life, a revolution as a backdrop... I dare you to watch either of Doctor Zhivago's act endings without being reminded of Les Mis. Doctor Zhivago has a tad simpler story and less characters than its French counterpart, but it also lacks a certain epicness that makes Les Misérables memorable. 

Maybe that's to do with the music. Doctor Zhivago's music is quite nice and beautiful. But oftentimes, it's nice and beautiful even during intense scenes. To me, Lucy Simon's tunes were perfect for romantic moments but felt lackluster during the biggest scenes. I think the music could've been more bombastic in the war scenes, more chilling when the villain was singing... Still, it's a shame there is no cast recording of this musical. I've a feeling these songs might grow on me, and I'd also like to hear the original English lyrics.

The action, luckily, wasn't as mild as the songs. For example, I've never seen as disturbing an onstage death as one of the deaths in Doctor Zhivago. I felt freaked out, but in a good way.

Antti Timonen and Anna-Maija Tuokko

Tuukka Leppänen and Anna-Maija Tuokko were both quite intense in their leading roles as Yuri Zhivago and Lara, the forbidden love of Zhivago's life. I could listen to especially the former's singing for the whole night, and thankfully, he finally plays a part where he gets plenty of songs!

I'm afraid, however, that I have to agree with whichever review mentioned that the chemistry in between the two leads was still a bit lacking. Maybe that was just premiere nerves, though? I wouldn't be surprised to see the relationship in between Yuri and Lara developing to feel more and more natural in the upcoming performances.

My favourite character by far was Pasha Antipov, played by Antti Timonen. A truely evil musical villain, this one! You have all these antagonists, Javerts and Phantoms and Judases, who do awful things but who you are still expected to symphatise with... So, for once, I enjoyed this truely evil character. You can't even try excusing his actions, even when the motivations behind them are explained to you, and Timonen's take was chilling. I was impressed.

I was also rather impressed by the looks of Ralf Forsström's set. Steely, icy, and still strangely beautiful, it suited the musical perfectly. For once, Helsingin kaupunginteatteri's huge scene didn't look too big. Forsström's costumes didn't impress me in a similar way, I thought they were mostly nice but nothing especially memorable – but two thumbs up for the set!

All in all, I think Doctor Zhivago the musical is worth seeing... but.

You probably know the feeling. Sometimes, you see and acknowledge that there is a lot of good in a production, but you can't feel it in your heart. That is my relationship with Doctor Zhivago. I can't point out what is wrong exactly, but a certain flame is missing. The irrational part of my taste that arbitrarily decides which shows I love seems to crave for something else than what this musical delivers. I'll probably try seeing the show again in the winter for all the positive things I've mentioned here, but I doubt I'll be listing it as one of my personal favourites even then.

Photos by Charlotte Estman-Wennström.