Monday, January 26, 2015

Finnish Musicals: Fully Finnish

The Life and Times of Musical Theatre in Finland, part 2/4. Read this part in Finnish here.

In the second part of the series, the focus is on completely Finnish musicals. Though Finns also enjoy Broadway shows, many of our most loved musical productions have been written and composed in Finland. And did you know Finnish musicals have been imported all the way to China?

“The performance itself hits a record low”, theatre critic Toni Lehtinen described the most popular Finnish musical production ever (Turun Sanomat 9.9.2006).

Vuonna 85 – Manserock-musikaali or In the Year 1985 – “Manserock” the Musical premiered in Tampereen Työväen Teatteri in September 2006.

“Manserock” is a term for rock music with Finnish lyrics from Tampere, Finland’s biggest inland city. The Manserock genre was especially popular in the 70s and 80s, and Vuonna 85 was based on well-known hits from the era. Listen to the song the musical was named after.

Theatre critics didn’t much appreciate the show, finding faults in nearly every aspect of the production. The audience, on the other hand, absolutely loved it. The musical ran for six years and was performed for over 400 times. Almost 300 000 people saw it.

The city of Tampere has about 220 000 inhabitants, so you could call that a success! Vuonna 85 is the most popular Finnish musical production of all times, and Tampereen Työväen Teatteri states it’s without a doubt the theatre’s most successful production ever.

The musical’s plot was built around hit songs and even the characters’ names were all picked from lyrics. The story, set in the 80s, revolved around a pair of lovers who lost touch and spent a summer trying to find each other from rock festivals. When they finally met each other again, it turned out the lady had found a new love – the man’s best friend.

During its six years in the theatre’s repertoire, the Manserock musical had three different endings. At first, the woman stayed with her new love, later she left him for her summer sweetheart. In the third ending, she ditched the both and joined the army.

Vuonna 85 was a fun show, but I believe that it also touched people. Many were surprised to find out how moving the musical was. People often denounce musicals as light and mindless entertainment, and on top of that, this one was a comedy… But many people found themselves crying during the show”, actor Jari Ahola describes.

Party like it's 1985! A scene from the Manserock musical.
Photo: Jaakko Vuorenmaa.

Finnish Fans

Vuonna 85 had lots of devoted fans. Many of them saw the musical dozens of times.

Audience members dressed up in the style of the 80s. There were fan meetups, meetings with the actors and 80s theme parties. From the theatre’s souvenir shop, audience members could buy cast recordings, karaoke DVDs and even Manserock themed board games.

“It was great to see the show having fans who enthused about their favourite characters. That’s quite rare in theatre. In a way, with this musical, you could pretend to be a rock star for a while”, Ahola, who played one of the musical’s leads, says.

“The fans dressed up as the musical’s characters, and sent us plenty of gifts. All sorts of teddy bears, clothes, perfumes and drinks – and once, I even received a pair of men’s underpants. An unused pair, though!” he laughs.

During the six years in the theatre’s repertoire, the musical was fine-tuned multiple times, resulting in revamped versions called Manserock the Musical Remix and Manserock the Golden Turbo Platinum Edition. What’s more, there were sing-along performances and a spinoff musical featuring some of the original’s characters that was performed in a nearby outdoor theatre.

The musical was also adapted for film. It was one of the most popular Finnish movies in 2013, but its success pales in comparison of the live musical’s nearly 300 000 watchers: the movie was only seen by 160 000 people.

Whistle while you work. Hard labour in the style of Vuonna 85.
Photo: Jaakko Vuorenmaa.

Manserock Returns

In December 2012, Vuonna 85 was performed for the last time.

But Tampereen Työväen Teatteri’s big success is far from forgotten. Nowadays Mauno Peppone, one of the main characters from the musical, has his own solo musical Mauno Peppone − elämä, kuolema ja comeback. The new show has been in the theatre’s repertoire from January 2014. The most enthusiastic fans have already seen the sequel dozens of times too.

In Vuonna 85, Mauno Peppone was a young machine factory worker who dreamed of being a rock star. By the end of the second act, his dream came true. The solo show takes place in the middle of the original. Mauno falls asleep after a long day at work and dreams of stardom. In the sequel, the soundtrack isn’t fully Finnish anymore – instead, the history of rock gets rewritten during the show.

“I’m incredibly grateful to have experienced a success like this. I’ve put Mauno’s shoes on on nine autumns in a row. It’s not often you get to test how a character grows during the years like this”, actor Jari Ahola says.

So far, there’s no end in sight for Mauno Peppone.

“Judging from the standing ovations, the audience seems to really like the show. Hopefully we’ll get to perform it for a long while”, Ahola wishes.

Jari Ahola as Mauno Peppone, performing with Alabama House Band.
Photo: Kari Sunnari.

Pop Musicals Take Helsinki

Sweden is another of Finland’s official languages, and about five percent of Finns speak Swedish as their native language. Therefore there are some Swedish-speaking theatres in the country. Svenska Teatern in Helsinki is especially known for their musicals.

In 1994, Svenska Teatern premiered Hype the Musical, a show aimed at young people. It was a hit. The premiere audience applauded the show for fifteen minutes and the musical’s songs were even played on the radio. Listen to one of them here.

After fifteen years, it was again time for Fenno-Swedish musical production for young theatregoers. Svenska Teatern’s brand-new PlayMe the Musical was premiered in autumn 2009.

PlayMe is a story about a boy who creates a virtual reality, and a girl who wants to become a star. The two meet each other when the girl gets lost in the virtual world and the boy has to save her.

“The story also features a media mogul. He produces talent contests in the style of American Idol. The musical’s plot interconnects online worlds, dreams of stardom and abuse”, director Maria Sid describes the story.

“We wanted to make a new pop musical. Besides Hype, there haven’t really been any in Finland”, Sid tells about PlayMe’s creation.

The production searched for new talent both onstage and outside the theatre. Ten members of the musical’s cast were found via an online talent contest. The competition continued in the theatre: during the intermission, the audience could use their cellphones to vote for their favourite performance.

“In the beginning of the second act, it turns out the media mogul doesn’t care about the vote at all. Instead, he does what he wants to. I wanted to show the audience what the truth behind television’s talent contests is”, Sid says.

A scene from PlayMe. Photo: Cata Portin.

PlayMe Goes Abroad

In the 90s, PlayMe’s predecessor Hype was performed for two years and seen by over 100 000 people. In its turn, PlayMe only ran for one season and for an audience of 40 000. But that wasn’t the end of the musical’s story. Instead of Finnish stages, the show has found new audiences abroad.

In 2012, PlayMe premiered in Theater Chemnitz in eastern Germany. The show was produced by a German crew but according Svenska Teatern’s original concept. Some of the cast was again found via online auditions.

In 2013, PlayMe left for a Chinese tour.

Director Maria Sid, choreographer Reija Wäre and light designer Joonas Tikkanen traveled to China in late 2013. They worked on a new production with performers from the South China Song and Dance Ensemble. In December 2013, PlayMe started touring the biggest Chinese cities.

“The Chinese don’t know how to produce musical theatre like this. Besides buying the rights to the musical, they wanted to employ the original creative team to work on the production”, Sid explains.

In China, the online auditions were scrapped. Besides translating the Swedish lyrics into Chinese, the text was modified to fit local tastes.

“It was the same show, but slightly edited for Chinese audiences. Chinese humor is different from Finnish, so some bits had to be rewritten. We tried our best to understand Chinese culture. That was the hardest part of this work.”

Sid says the Finnish musical fits Chinese culture well.

“Stardom and the online world have an even bigger role in China than in Finland.”

A moment from PlayMe's German production. Photo: Theater Chemnitz.

Jukebox Life Stories

The most popular Finnish musical production ever, Vuonna 85, was a jukebox musical. All of its songs already existed before the musical was written.

Even though many musicals with all-new music are staged in Finland every year, jukebox shows are especially popular all around the country. Musical plays that retell a famous artist’s life story through their hits are often produced in Finnish theatres. Dozens of Finnish stars have their own musical.

One of these stars is Rauli "Badding" Somerjoki. Somerjoki was a popular singer-songwriter who, suffering from long-time alcoholism, died as a 39-year-old. Listen to one of his best-known songs here.

Last autumn, Vaasan kaupunginteatteri premiered Badding rokkiin ja takaisin, a musical about Somerjoki’s life.

“It’s incredible how such an ugly life can leave behind so much beauty”, theatre manager Erik Kiviniemi summarises the musical’s theme.

Vaasan kaupunginteatteri’s musical is new, but it’s not the first time Somerjoki’s tragic story has been told onstage. Another musical based on Somerjoki’s life premiered in Tampere at the same time as the Vaasa production, and there have been many different versions before these two.

During its first season in the theatre’s repertoire, Vaasa’s version has proved to be a hit. Kiviniemi believes that despite all the musical adaptations, there are still stories to tell about the popular musician’s life.

“From the very start, it was really important for us to do this seriously. We don’t do a concert that features the artist’s music and ties some silly story around it. Instead, we want to give an accurate picture of Rauli Somerjoki’s life.”

Kiviniemi says a jukebox musical is perfect for Vaasan kaupunginteatteri, a middle-sized theatre on Finland’s western coast.

“Vaasan kaupunginteatteri employs dramatic actors who also know how to sing. If you want to produce an American show, like Chicago or Shrek the Musical… Americans and Swedes are better at those. But if you want to produce a world-class show here, a musical like this is the right choice.”

A scene from Badding − rokkiin ja takaisin, with the titular character
(played by Oiva Nuojua) on the right. Photo: Jyrki Tervo.

Source used: Satu Räty-Tuominen: Vuonna 85 Manserock -musikaalin lyhyt oppimäärä eli menestystekijät ilmiön takana.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

On Dance

Please note: I was invited to see a preview performance of Tanssiteatteri ERI's new production Zirkkeli for free.

When I was twelve years old, my mother took me to see a modern dance performance by Tero Saarinen Company.

Tero Saarinen Company, in case you are not familiar with it, is a really famous Finnish dance group. Tours all around the globe, glowing reviews, sold-out performances... Naturally, mom was excited to see them perform, and she saw it as a chance to educate me about the arts, too. We dressed up in our finest and headed to the theatre.

It wasn't my first time in a fine arts performance, but it was different from most of my previous experiences. It wasn't like the ballet or the opera, with big sets and glittering costumes. Instead, I remember the performance as dark, confusing and dull. And while I'm sure the Q&A session with the performers after the show delighted my mother, it bored the 12-year-old me out of her skull.

Next day, mom asked me how I liked the dance performance. Arrogantly, I told her it was awful.

Mom flipped out. She swore that since I was such an ungrateful child and didn't appreciate the chance I had been given, getting to see the finest dance performance out there, she would never ever take me see modern dance again.

To this day, mom has kept her word. We haven't been to a modern dance performance since.

A moment from Petrushka, the piece we saw.

Let's be fair here. My mom hasn't actively held a dance-related grudge against me for the past nine years. I'm sure she would have taken me to see dance again, had I apologised and expressed some interest towards the art form again. I'm afraid I didn't.

I don't understand dance, and so far, I have to admit I haven't had interest in changing that.

I appreciate the immense training and skills it takes to be a dancer. However, I don't appreciate them on the same emotional level I appreciate for example singers' talents. Music makes me feel things and I'm able to enjoy it without much questioning it. Dance makes me confused. What should I look at? How should I interpret this, or shouldn't I try interpreting it at all? I have no idea.

As a huge musical fan, I of course often see dancing onstage. I just don't tend to give it as much attention as I give singing and acting. It's nice, and some musicals wouldn't feel whole without dance. Often, it's fun to watch the ensemble move. But even so, I can't name any musical choreographies I especially like.

I do know what I don't like, though. For example, Malmö Opera's production of Les Misérables was heavily choreographed. Too heavily, if you ask me. While the miserable moves looked impressive in their own way, I sorely missed watching my favourite actors act during group scenes. It's not really fun having your favourite play Drunk #4 if he has exactly the same steps as Drunks #1, #2 and #3.

Dance dance revolution.

I'm thinking about all this now because this week, I was invited to a dance theatre. I saw a preview performance of Tanssiteatteri ERI's new production Zirkkeli – a show that, in their own words, "dives into the circus of life, where humor is wild and twisted, joy fragile and fleeting".

I didn't understand much.

For me, the easiest-to-approach part of this performance was the live music. The show included songs sung by Jouko Enkelnotko. But, whereas in musicals the singing is usually the most important thing and the dancing more like an added bonus, here the tables were of course turned. Enkelnotko had a couple of solos, but the dancing was obviously in the leading role.

And the dancing... I don't really know what went on there. Don't get me wrong. The performance was fun to watch, I didn't feel bored like I felt nine years ago. But just like back then, I felt confused. I suppose all of the scenes had their own story to tell, but I only understood what was going on in a handful of them. Rest of the time, I just watched the dancers move.

The aucience's reactions were interesting to follow. They laughed out loud at things that caused no reaction in me. After the show, I chatted with an older lady. She told me that she felt laughter mixing with tears during the performance. She obviously saw something in the dancing I didn't. I didn't know when to laugh and have no idea where the tears were supposed to come in.

The show ended with the audience getting a chance to dance onstage too. That's when me and my friend – also a newbie to the world of dancing – sneaked out. Watching something new is one thing, but taking part in it... There is no way on earth I could have done that.

A moment from Zirkkeli.

All in all, visiting a dance theatre was a nice new experience. But my perspective on this subject is, obviously, still really limited. I don't know if I'll ever enjoy dance like I enjoy music, but I'd like to learn a little more.

So, dear readers, let me know: how do you enjoy dance, or do you enjoy it at all? Share your thoughts with me, in English or in Finnish!

Photos by Sakari Viika, Malin Arnesson and Matti Kivekäs. As always, hover over them for info.
Author's note: I danced to ABBA Live at Wembley Arena while writing this review.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Finnish Musicals: Fiddlers, Logs, and Sounds of Music

The Life and Times of Musical Theatre in Finland, part 1/4. Read this part in Finnish here.

In the first part of the series, we'll take a look at Finland's favourite musicals of all times. The list of favourites is international, but the number one spot is held by an all-Finnish classic...

On Friday the 13th, 1899, musical history was made in The Finnish National Theatre. It’s a small wonder, though, that the show in question featured music at all. The songs had been written only a couple of weeks before, and the script had been revised all the way to the premiere. The writers didn’t believe their piece would be much of a success.

Against all expectations, the all-Finnish musical comedy Tukkijoella was a huge hit. During its first season in the theatre’s repertoire, it was performed dozens of times for full houses. Even the usually restrained premiere audience laughed out loud.

Written by Teuvo Pakkala and composed by Oskar Merikanto, both well-known Finnish artists, Tukkijoella has been produced in Finnish professional theatres more often than any other musical. It has been seen by more people than any other Finnish play. Since its premiere in 1899, it’s been revised in theatres all around the country over 130 times – and that number only includes fully professional productions!

A scene from The Finnish National Theatre's early 20th century
production of Tukkijoella. Photo from the theatre's archive.

The Number One Favourite

The show’s title, Tukkijoella, loosely translates as “We’re Log Driving”. In the main storyline, the daughter of a respected family is courted by the mischievous leader of a group of log drivers. The girl’s father is furious, until it turns out the log driver is actually a wealthy farm-owner. The father then gives the couple his blessing and the lovers get their happily-ever-after. In the subplots, a villainous servant of the crown is defeated and the other log drivers also find romance.

“It’s a fine portrayal of the Finnish way of living, both the way it used to be and the way it still is. Friendship in between men is also an important theme of the piece”, director Pentti Kotkaniemi describes the story. Kotkaniemi directed Tukkijoella for Turun kaupunginteatteri in 2008.

Tukkijoella is such a popular show that it has been adapted for film three times. The musical play was turned into a silent movie in 1928. The silent film was followed by two all-singing-all-dancing versions, released in 1937 and in 1951.

The number of film adaptations pales in comparison to the number of times Tukkijoella has been performed live in Finnish theatres. It’s been a hit on both professional and amateur stages all over the country. New amateur productions still premiere every year. Tukkijoella has even returned to the repertoire of The Finnish National Theatre – half a dozen times, most lately in the 70s.

Tukkijoella has been seen as a guaranteed success for any theatre. Critics have thought the piece’s humor and energy, its charming characters and, nowadays, the audience’s nostalgia and appreciation for camp are keys to the show’s success.

Tukkijoella is a comedy, but it can also have serious undertones. Tampereen Työväen Teatteri’s 1971 production added a new undercurrent about nature conservation into the story. The politic movements of the 70s also influenced the way Finnish audience interpreted certain aspects of the story.

This revised version of Tukkijoella turned out to be a massive hit.

The performances ran for eight years, and the play returned to the theatre’s repertoire in the 80s. The original production and the revival combined, Tampereen Työväen Teatteri’s Tukkijoella was seen by almost 250 000 people. It’s a number only a small handful of Finnish theatrical productions have ever been able to reach. The production also visited Stockholm and went on a short tour of the United States – complete with a performance on Broadway.

A scene from Turun kaupunginteatteri's 2006 production.
Photo: Robert Seger.

Return of the Log Drivers

The latest professional production of Tukkijoella premiered in Turun kaupunginteatteri in 2008.

“Directing this play was on my ‘To Do’ list ever since I saw Tampereen Työväen Teatteri’s production in the 70s”, director Pentti Kotkaniemi says.

In Turun kaupunginteatteri, the 19th century play was brought a bit closer to the present. The log drivers wore modern jackets and worked with chainsaws. Kotkaniemi says that regardless of the visual changes, the production wasn’t a modern version of the story.

“We decided to abandon the museum-like late 19th century style right from the start. But since the dialogue and the story are over a hundred years old, there’s no way of fully modernising the play without touching the script.”

Turun kaupunginteatteri’s production of Tukkijoella was seen by almost 18 000 people. But after the derniere, there has been a log jam on the river. No professional theatre has produced Finland’s most popular musical in over six years.

Despite this break in performances, Kotkaniemi believes that there’s still room for the classic in theatres’ repertoires.

“I would indeed be interested in directing the play a second time. I’ve suggested revising it to a certain theatre – and who knows, maybe the project will take flight one day.”

A tender moment from Tampereen Työväen Teatteri's 2012
production of Countess Maritza. Photo: Jonne Renvall.

Finnish Favourites

Even though Finns’ number one favourite musical is a completely domestic work, Finnish audiences are also captivated by imported pieces. Maybe surprisingly, the list of Finland’s most often performed musical plays is not dominated by Broadway musicals but Hungarian operettas.

Die Csárdásfürstin or The Gypsy Princess, Victoria and Her Hussar and Die lustige Witwe or The Merry Widow are all featured on the list of the musical plays most often produced in Finland. Hungarian operettas were especially popular in the beginning of the 20th century. They formed the backbone of many theatres’ repertoires. Nowadays, operetta isn’t seen on Finnish stages nearly as often, though new productions of old favourites still pop up every now and then.

Certain Broadway musicals have also been very successful in Finland. Unlike operettas, their success continues to this day.

Fiddler on the Roof is Finland’s most popular American musical. The story about Jews being evicted from their village by the Russian Tsar has been produced professionally 48 times.

Both the first Finnish Fiddler and the latest production of the classic were seen in Helsingin kaupunginteatteri. This theatre in the Finnish capital is the home to the country’s biggest musical productions.

The original Finnish production of Fiddler on the Roof ran from 1966 to 1971. Over 319 000 people watched the musical. It’s the biggest audience any Finnish theatrical production has ever gathered. The 2012 revival ran for one season only, but the musical is still loved by theatregoers. The new production, with 71 000 spectators, was the most popular play of the 2012–13 Finnish theatrical season.

A scene from Helsingin kaupunginteatteri's 1966 production of
Fiddler on the Roof. Photo from the theatre's archive.

Classic with a Current Theme

“The story of Fiddler on the Roof has not aged at all. Emigration is a universal theme”, Helsingin kaupunginteatteri’s manager Asko Sarkola says.

Sarkola tells the cast and crew available influenced Helsingin kaupunginteatteri’s decision to bring the classic back in 2012.

“Director Hans Berntsson’s family emigrated from Russia to Finland, and later from Finland to Sweden. Therefore Berntsson has a personal connection to Fiddler’s story. After finding the director, I called Esko Roine [one of Finland’s best-known and most prolific actors, has played many musical roles in Helsingin kaupunginteatteri] and asked him if he had ever considered playing Tevye. Roine told me that yes, the thought had crossed his mind.”

In the 60s, a part of Fiddler’s popularity could be explained by how people could identify with the story. The evicted villagers reminded the Finnish public of the evacuation of Eastern Finland after losing land to Russia after World War II. In the 60s, many Finns also moved to Sweden in search of employment.

The 2012 version didn’t even try to live up to the huge success of the first production. Sarkola says a success like that is always a surprise.

“The 2012 Fiddler on the Roof was as popular as our other musicals around the same time. It reached our audience goal. Big successes are always matters of chance – and in a way, they’re miracles, too. In a hit like the original Fiddler, a piece of theatre and the way the nation feels at the moment have to meet.”

The new sewing machine still amazed the villagers in 2012.
Photo: Tapio Vanhatalo.

Trapp Family Singers Claim New Land

The list of Finland’s most popular foreign musicals is continued by The Threepenny Opera, Cabaret, My Fair Lady and The Sound of Music. New productions of these classics have lately premiered in professional theatres both big and small all around the country.

This season, the love story of an aspiring nun and a militant captain takes the stage in Eastern Finland, in Kuopion kaupunginteatteri. The theatre’s manager Pekka Laasonen says the evergreen favourite was chosen for the repertoire to celebrate the theatre’s newly renovated building.

“Our theatre was under renovation for two years. We decided the new season should start with a big musical on the big stage.”

Laasonen says the theatre considered dozens of Finnish, English, American and Central European musicals. They decided to go with the classic when they learned a surprising fact about it.

“It turned out The Sound of Music had never before been performed in Kuopio before. We made the decision rather quickly after finding that out.”

Laasonen says the beloved piece was also chosen because it’s suitable for all ages, even children. What’s more, collaborating with the town’s orchestra gives the classic new energy.

“The musical’s right holders were really glad to hear our Sound of Music features such a big orchestra. There are over 20 musicians involved with the production. It’s almost as big an orchestra as the one the music was originally written for. It’s rare to perform this piece with so many musicians today – rare not only in Finland, but all over the world.”

Order! A scene from Kuopion kaupunginteatteri's production of
The Sound of Music. Photo: Ari Ijäs.

Sources used: Ilona database, Kansaa teatterissa – Helsingin kaupunginteatterin historia by Pirkko Koski & Misa Palander, Näyttämöllä – teatterihistoriaa Suomesta by Pentti Paavolainen & Aino Kukkonen, Tasavallan toinen teatteri – Tampereen Työväen Teatteri 1964–2001 by Panu Rajala.