Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Finnish Musicals: Broadway for Finns

The Life and Times of Musical Theatre in Finland, part 3/4. Read this part in Finnish here.

Certain musicals are especially loved by younger theatregoers. Many generations of Finnish teenagers and young adults have enjoyed Broadway shows. In this part of the series, we’ll take a look at how Finnish audiences of both past and present have received hit musicals such as Hair, Rent and Wicked.

Adults don’t sing or dance on the west side of Manhattan. Or in Tampere, Finland, either.

West Side Story, the classic musical about gang wars and young love, premiered on Broadway in 1957. The groundbreaking musical showed fighting as dancing. The world West Side Story’s young characters live in is a dark one, but the musical also portrays adults’ society as distant and unfair.

The Romeo and Juliet remake arrived to Finland rather rapidly. West Side Story’s Nordic premiere took place in Tampereen Teatteri in 1963.

The production was a success and ran for three seasons. Both the audience and the critics fell in love, in Finland and elsewhere – when the production visited Vienna, the local audience applauded it for 18 minutes. In Finland, West Side Story was also quickly produced in many other theatres, including The Finnish National Opera.

“Yeah, it’s worth watching”, one of the teenagers who saw the musical in The National Opera commented (Helsingin Sanomat, 19.11.1965).

A couple of years after West Side Story, Tampere was again the Finnish capital for musicals aimed at young adults. Only two years after its 1967 Broadway premiere, in the summer of 1969, the hippie musical Hair was featured in Tampere Theatre Festival’s repertoire.

West Side Story is one of Finland's most popular Broadway musicals.
Here's how the show looked like in Lahden kaupunginteatteri in 2013.
Photo: Lauri Rotko.

Long, Beautiful Hair

Hair became a musical phenomenon.

The first theatre festival performances sold so well that more performances were scheduled and the ticket prices were raised. The production, featuring a cast of amateur actors, toured Finland for two years and also visited Sweden. The cast recording topped the charts.

Teen magazines wrote about Hair and tried to build a rivalry in between the touring production and a Swedish-speaking version that was staged in Helsinki’s Svenska Teatern at the same time. In real life, the two productions were on good terms.

The hippie musical formed bonds all over the globe, too. The Paris, San Fransisco, London and Australian productions of Hair all telegraphed their best wishes to the touring Finnish production’s premiere.

All feedback wasn’t quite as positive. The featured nudity and the musical’s general display of hippie lifestyle hurt some feelings along the way.

“What the theatre management was thinking, letting that porn theatre visit our city?” pen name “Appalled” wondered in the local newspaper Turun Sanomat when the Hair tour visited the city of Turku in late 1969.

“Please at least cancel the upcoming performances.”

The Tribe from Åbo Svenska Teater's 2012 production of Hair.
Photo: Robert Seger.

The Age of Aquarius, Continued

After the summer of ‘69, the hippie musical has had multiple new Finnish productions.

Nowadays, the show is associated with a fair amount of nostalgia. Turku, Finland’s medieval capital and nowadays the country’s 6th biggest city, was the European Capital of Culture in 2011. One of the year’s special events was a new production of Hair cast with middle-aged amateurs.

In 2012, Hair was produced professionally both in Turku’s Swedish-speaking Åbo Svenska Teater, and in Lahden kaupunginteatteri in southern Finland.

“The themes of Hair are still current”, director Maarit Pyökäri says. Pyökäri directed the show for Lahden kaupunginteatteri.

”Of course, some of the things have dated. Onstage nudity, for example, has lost its shock appeal. Other themes, however, are still as current as ever. The United States is still engaged in warfare on another continent, young people still use drugs...”

Pyökäri says that Hair isn’t an easy musical to stage. She describes the script that consists of a string of individual scenes instead of a traditional plot as chaotic, and mentions that translating the lyrics to Finnish also proved challenging. The musical’s music, then, was the reason to bring the show to Lahden kaupunginteatteri. The songs were performed on concert volume.

“Young people fell in love with the show, while their parents knew the songs by heart. The production reached all ages”, Pyökäri says.

The Lahti Tribe. Photo: Tarmo Valmela.

Arts and AIDS

Worldwide, Jonathan Larson’s Rent can be called one of the most important musicals of the 90s. After premiering in New York in 1994, international productions of the musical soon popped up all over the world, Finland included.

Adapted from Giacomo Puccini’s opera La bohème, Rent shows a year in life of a group of young artists. The setting has been changed from Paris to New York, and the tuberculosis that threatened the artists’ lives in the original opera has been updated to HIV.

Audiences, especially people in their twenties and thirties, fell in love with the musical. It ran on Broadway for 12 years and was adapted for film.

“When I saw Rent in New York for the second time, I hardly found my way out of the auditorium. I was crying so hard”, director Marco Bjurström tells. Bjurström directed the musical in Helsinki.

In Finland, Rent was first seen in Tampereen Teatteri in 1998. The Finnish interest towards the musical was strong before the premiere: some of Finland’s biggest theatres, such as the national Swedish-speaking scene Svenska Teatern and Helsinki’s big musical stage Helsingin kaupunginteatteri, also wanted to stage the Finnish premiere.

Despite the initial interest, there were no productions of Rent in Finland for over a decade after the 1998 production. But in the 2010s, the musical has returned on Finnish stages. It hasn’t been produced in government-supported municipal theatres, but amateurs and professional have both been staging their own, independent productions.

The latest professional Finnish Rent was produced in Helsinki in 2012. Marco Bjurström directed the musical and produced the show without financial help from outside backers. The director says he dreamed of producing the musical for years.

“As a portrait of its own time, Rent left a lasting impression on me. It tells stories of the world we really lived in during the time musical takes place”, Bjurström describes.

A scene from the Helsinki production. Photo: Lasse Lindqvist.

Taking Risks

When Tampereen Teatteri staged Rent’s Finnish premiere in 1998, a musical featuring sexual minorities, drug abuse and AIDS was seen as both a financial and an artistic risk for the theatre. It ran for one season.

The Helsinki production was also a risk for its producer. The proceeds weren’t enough to make up for the original investment.

“I understood that Rent would probably never return to the government-supported big theatres’ repertoires. Some theatre managers still think it’s too wild. So, I thought I have to take the risk and do it myself, no matter what’ll happen. Otherwise I’ll never forgive myself for not doing it!” Bjurström explains his decision to produce the show.

Bjurström says the musical, set in early 90s New York, still touches people. The Helsinki production’s audience consisted of people of all ages, from school kids to senior citizens.

Rent tells a certain tale to those of us who have been young in the 80s and 90s. The story itself, however, has not dated in any way. It was fantastic to hear comments from the audience members. Whether they were pensioners or young students, the musical was a strong experience for all. Many got new hope, faith and power from watching it.”

A moment from Suomen Musiikkiteatteriensemble's 2011 production.
Photo: Suomen Musiikkiteatteriensemble ry.

A Journey to a Wonderful World

The fantasy musical Wicked premiered in Helsingin kaupunginteatteri in 2010, seven years after its Broadway premiere. The musical has plenty of young fans all over the world – also in Helsinki.

The story of Wicked is based on L. Frank Baum’s children’s novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and its classic movie adaptation. In Finland, the world of Oz isn’t nearly as well-known as in the USA.

Despite the relative obscurity of the source material, Helsingin kaupunginteatteri decided to stage the Wicked Witch of the West’s story. Theatre manager Asko Sarkola says that composer Stephen Schwartz was worried about Finns’ distant relationship with the original story.

“He often asked me if Finnish audiences know The Wizard of Oz. The musical after all features characters and plot points from the original story. I answered that not really, no, but the music is going to charm the audience in any case.”

Wicked is a story about being different, and about friendship. Riikka Kiviaho, the president of Wicked Fanclub Finland, says that knowing The Land of Oz gives Wicked’s world more depth. According to her, the show can nevertheless also be enjoyed without any prior knowledge of the story.

Wicked’s music is so impressive, you can really feel it resonating through your body. My mouth fell open during the first song already”, Sofia Sarkava says. Sarkava, a member of Wicked Fanclub Finland, saw the show five times.

The composer’s worries were indeed lessened with time.

“In the end, Schwartz was very happy with the way Helsingin kaupunginteatteri told the story of the different girl seeking for acceptance”, Sarkola says.

A scene from Helsingin kaupunginteatteri's Wicked.
Photo: Tapio Vanhatalo.

Fanclub Still Going Strong

The witches of Oz enchanted the Finnish audience. The musical was seen by over 65 000 people, and many saw the production more than once.

“I could relate with the musical’s themes and the relationships featured in the story. My situation in life was just right for Wicked”, Riikka Kiviaho describes the musical’s charm. She saw the production 16 times.

During the production’s run, Kiviaho founded a club for the musical’s fans. Helsingin kaupunginteatteri also joined the club activities. While the musical was in the theatre’s repertoire, the club and theatre joined forces to arrange cast meetups for the fans.

“The club turned into something special. The cast and the fans interacted with each other, and the feeling was good all around”, Kiviaho says.

Wicked’s Finnish run ended over three years ago, but the musical is still important to many fans. The members of the fan club still meet each other.

“I’m maybe the most impressed by how many people have found new friends via the fan club. I didn’t expect that when I founded the club. It still makes me teary-eyed”, Kiviaho summarises her feelings.

Witches and fans. Photo: Riikka Kiviaho.

Sources used: Mikko-Olavi Seppälä & Katri Tanskanen: Suomen teatteri ja draama, Reijo Paukku: Hippimusikaali HAIR ja Tampereen Popteatterin tarina, Taloussanomat 19.9.1998: Menestys tai tappio.


  1. Thank you for this series! Super.

    I've seen a production of Hair in Peacock-teatteri when it ran there, Wicked at HKT and then the Rent -production by Suomen Musiikkiteatteriensemble. Wicked was fabulous, but Rent made me cry so hard I probably scared a cast member after the show with blubbery thank yous. :D

  2. I can definitely say that what I love the most is a good Broadway style show so no wonder almost all the shows discussed here have a special place in my heart. :D

    I became obsessed with Wicked in 2006 and I spent years blabbering on how there NEVER could be a Finnish production because no one knows The Wizard of Oz. So imagine my surprise when I heard news of the Helsinki production. I swear I thought my head was going to explode even though my fandom had begun to fade with age. I still lived at home in Lapland but I found the insanely long train rides a worthy sacrifice and saw the production three times. I still prefer it to the Broadway version that I've seen in London several times as well. But I do feel like I don't need to see Wicked for many years now. It was a teenage-obsession that I grew out of. Kinda sad really. It makes me nostalgic. :D

    When I heard Marco Bjurström was putting on a production of Rent I had a reaction comparable to when I found out about Wicked coming to Finland. I dragged my brother along and we both had a great experience. Mine was borderlining on a spiritual level, that's how strongly I feel about Jonathan Larson's music. Since then I've heard a couple of people say they weren't so gutted that they missed the production because it was directed by Bjurström. I always get really bitchy and tell them off. Just because someone was a TV host over a decade ago doesn't make them understand theatre any less. At least not in my opinion. And having seen video of Bjurström talking about how strongly he feels about Rent I knew the show was in great hands.

    What was this comment about really? I don't know. Just felt like I had to share. :D

    1. Heh, never say that some musical will never be done in Finland... Doing research for this series, I was surprised to find out how early many legendary musicals have found their way to Finland. Like Hair premiering in Finland in only two years after the Broadway premiere! We're actually pretty lucky here. (But it's not only us theatre fans that sometimes feel pessimistic. How about this article implying we won't be getting Phantom, Mamma Mia or Billy Elliot:

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts! :)