Monday, February 23, 2015

Finnish Musicals: Surprising Successes

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

Oftentimes, a success is a surprise. The musicals near and dear to Finnish theatre fans’ hearts aren’t always staged on the biggest stages in Helsinki. And sometimes, people even travel to Finland just to see a musical!

“At first, people were frightened. You can’t show transvestites here, we’ll be tarred and feathered and sent to the nearest train station”, director Olli-Matti Oinonen reminisces. He directed the first Finnish production of Rocky Horror Show.

“But soon, everyone realized we had a treasure of a musical in our hands.”

The queen of all cult musicals, Rocky Horror Show, first seduced Finnish audiences in Seinäjoen kaupunginteatteri in the spring of 1995. Seinäjoki is a middle-sized Finnish town on the western side of the country, in the middle of what’s sometimes called the Finnish Bible belt.

Rocky Horror Show was indeed seen as a risk for the town’s theatre. It turned out taking the risk was worth it.

“The audience loved the show. I didn’t hear a single negative word. The reaction showed there’s an accepting atmosphere in the region”, Oinonen says.

Rocky Horror Show has been raising audiences’ eyebrows ever since premiering in London in 1973. The science fiction musical features a bunch of aliens from the distant planet of Transsexual and a goodie-two-shoes earthling couple that stumbles across the aliens’ castle on a dark and stormy night. The aliens’ wild ways soon cause tension in between the young couple.

The show isn’t best known for its story, but for the way the audience takes part in the action. When watching Rocky Horror Show, you’re allowed to yell comment at the actors, throw toilet paper onstage, blow a whistle, wear a funny hat...

In Seinäjoki, the audience was encouraged to take part in the fun by a special theatrical cheerleading squad.

“The squad was the motor that kept the show running. The script has its flimsy parts. With the squad yelling commentary, the show stayed alive and interactive”, Oinonen describes.

”The best part was how the squad evolved during the run of the show. They adlibbed new comments that were sometimes written down and brought back during subsequent performances.”

Rocky Horror Show's Seinäjoki cast recording is nowadays a collectible.

Sold-out Performances and Recordings

Rocky Horror Show was a hit with the audiences. After theatre critic Jukka Kajava praised the show in Finland’s biggest newspaper Helsingin Sanomat, multiple performances sold out in no time.

The production even got its own cast recording.

Rocky Horror Show’s songs have been recorded dozens of times all around the world. But in Finland, recording a foreign musical is really uncommon. Today, the Seinäjoki Rocky Horror CD is a rare collector’s item.

“Ten years ago, a New York based magazine called the CD one of the best Rocky Horror recordings ever”, Oinonen mentions.

Finland’s first Rocky Horror Show ran for two and a half years. It would’ve sold even more tickets if the run could have been continued on weekends only, but the repertoire theatre’s other plays had to be fitted in the performance schedule too. Rocky had to give way to other shows.

After the Seinäjoki production, Rocky Horror has also been performed in Turku, in Finland’s both official languages. Åbo Svenska Teater produced the world’s first Swedish-speaking production of the cult classic in 2002, and the Finnish-speaking Turun kaupunginteatteri brought the show back in 2013. Fans saw the show again, but both Turku productions closed faster than the Seinäjoki original.

“We were foolhardy and had a really good team spirit with the whole cast and crew”, Oinonen muses over the Seinäjoki success.

A scene from the latest Finnish Rocky Horror Show,
Turun kaupunginteatteri's 2013 production. Photo: Otto-Ville Väätäinen.

The Fearless Vampire Killers

Seinäjoen kaupunginteatteri has been the stage for many Finnish premieres of well-known international musicals, such as Aspects of Love and Titanic.

The latest musical imported to Seinäjoki was Tanz der Vampire, one of the most popular European musicals. The Finnish production used the German script but borrowed its name, Dance of the Vampires, from the flopped Broadway production. Fans soon translated the title to Finnish and called the show Vampyyrien tanssi.

Vampyyrien tanssi premiered in Seinäjoki in the autumn of 2011. The musical was again directed by Olli-Matti Oinonen.

“Seinäjoen kaupunginteatteri was looking for a rock musical. I had already suggested Tanz der Vampire for a couple of Finnish theatres, but they had only laughed at the idea and claimed that no one’ll want to see a musical like that. I felt that Seinäjoki would be the right town for this show. Tanz served as a sort of a sequel for Rocky, after all. In Rocky we travelled to Transsexual, in Tanz to Transylvania.”

Tanz der Vampire is based on Roman Polanski’s movie The Fearless Vampire Killers. The story parodies vampire films. A vampire count seduces a country girl, and a vampire hunter professor and his lovestruck assistant try to save her.

The story is told through Jim Steinman’s music. Some of the tunes are familiar from Meat Loaf’s and Bonnie Tyler’s albums.

Tanz der Vampire is a big hit in Central Europe, for example in Germany and Hungary. Most of the Central European productions are replicas of the original Austrian version. The Seinäjoki production, however, was an all-new version.

“Even though I say it myself, ours was the best”, Oinonen laughs.

“It had the best cast and crew I have ever worked with. The team spirit was incredible, and we overcame all obstacles together.”

Vampire count (Jyri Lahtinen) leads the lovely Sarah (Raili Raitala)
to the dance floor. Photo: Ari Ijäs.

A Ticket to Seinäjoki

News about Vampyyrien tanssi quickly reached the fans of the musical. During the musicals’ time in the theatre’s repertoire, Seinäjoki saw visitors from all over Finland and even farther away.

Kim Holte traveled to Finland from northern Norway. Micha Salet flew from Amsterdam. Holte saw the Finnish vampires dance twice, while Salet first saw the show two times and later returned for the last two performances.

“When I first heard about the production, I was skeptical about how it would turn out. I didn't plan on going. But after seeing promotional videos, reading great reviews and slowly realising that Finland wasn't that far away, it just happened”, Holte tells.

In Central Europe, Tanz der Vampire is performed in big theatres, and the runs continue for years. Even so, the smaller Finnish version was to international fans’ tastes.

“There were a few directional choices I really liked that I wish they would implement in the other productions. There's an obvious difference in budget for the Finnish show and most of the other versions, but it didn’t make the Finnish show worse, just different”, Salet says.

“The directing stays much the same in other European productions. It's not very imaginative or interesting to watch actors from four different productions do the exact same movements onstage. So Tanssi was new and exciting. I still regret not booking a third show”, Holte adds.

Before Vampyyrien tanssi’s last performances, people queued for return tickets. Despite the success and the sold-out seats, the musical only ran from September to March. Regardless of the short run, the musical still brings fans and vampires together. Cast members have performed the musical’s songs in concerts, and the fans still meet each other every Halloween.

“It says something that I come back every year to meet up with my friends and reminisce about the show”, Salet says.

“We meet up with the musical’s cast every summer. I believe that’ll continue for years to come”, director Oinonen tells in turn.

Vampire hunter Alfred (Ville Salonen) gets a scary hug from
viscount Herbert (Jouko Enkelnotko). Photo: Ari Ijäs.

Emigrants in Helsinki

The men of ABBA, Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, are the composer and lyricist behind Sweden’s most popular musical Kristina från Duvemåla.

The musical premiered in Malmö, southern Sweden, in 1995. The production ran for years, and it was seen by over a million Swedes – almost one eight of Sweden’s whole population at the time.

Finland is the first foreign country to bring a fully staged production of the Swedish hit onstage. Kristina opened Svenska Teatern’s newly renovated building in early 2012. Swedes were quick to travel to Helsinki to see their favourite musical again.

“Out of the hundred thousand audience members, about a fourth were Swedish”, theatre manager Johan Storgård tells.

“Another fourth were Finnish-speaking Finns who had never visited the Swedish-speaking Svenska Teatern before.”

Kristina från Duvemåla is a big musical epic. One performance lasts for three and a half hours. The original cast recording is split on three CDs and features 39 songs. Based on Vilhelm Moberg’s four-part novel series The Emigrants, it tells story about a group of Swedes who immigrate to the US in the middle of the 19th century.

During each three-hour performance, the musical features both moments of joy and plenty of sorrow and death.

Outside the Nordic countries, Kristina’s story hasn’t become a hit. There have been Kristina concerts in both New York and London, but no onstage productions.

“In the UK and the US, theatre producers are worried that the musical is a little bit dark. It’s a love story in between Kristina and her husband, but it has a really tragic ending. The audience cries for two and a half hours out of the three-and-a-half hour performance”, theatre manager Storgård describes.

“A story like that suits the Nordic state of mind better than for example Central European or British mentalities.”

One of the musical's rare happy moments.
Photo: Cata Portin.

Return Ticket to Duvemåla

Despite its sorrowful story, Kristina från Duvemåla has fans all over the world. Thanks to composer Andersson and lyricist Ulvaeus’s fame, countless ABBA fans are familiar with the musical.

Svenska Teatern’s production was in the news all over Europe. The theatre prepared for international visitors by subtitling the show in English.

“There were lots of Germans in the audience, and we even had visitors from Australia, America, Japan...” Storgård lists.

At the very moment, ABBA draws audiences to Svenska Teatern again. This time, Mamma Mia!, the jukebox musical featuring ABBA’s biggest hits, is playing in the theatre.

Unlike Kristina, Mamma Mia! is a hit all over the globe. Svenska Teatern’s version has also been received with enthusiasm. Tickets for autumn 2015 were sold a year in advance.

Kristina, then, has returned home.

“Last autumn, Kristina från Duvemåla premiered in Gothenburg. The new Swedish production stars all four leads from Svenska Teatern’s version and also features the same sets. We have worked together with GöteborgsOperan to return the musical to Sweden”, Storgård says.

Finnish actresses Birthe Wingren and Maria Ylipää star in Kristina's
new Swedish production. Photo: Mats Backer.


  1. Reading this series makes me exhilarated and also furious: why have I not seen these shows? Especially Tanz der Vampire has piqued my interest!

  2. What an interesting piece of (recent) Finnish theatre history! I've nominated you for the Blogger Recognition Award, here it is: :)