Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Small Town Theatre, Big Time Musicals – Fredericia Teater and the success of The Hunchback of Notre Dame

If you've been reading my blog lately, you've certainly noticed how I feel about Fredericia Teater's Danish production of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. From an audience member's point of view, it's an experience like nothing I've ever seen before – but, I started wondering, how do the people who create the magic feel about it? What is the deal with this Fredericia Teater, really?

I decided to find out. During my last trip to Copenhagen, I got to take a sneak peek behind the scenes and meet some really interesting people. Here's what they told me.

This article was originally published in the newspaper Helsingin Sanomat (2.8.2017). Finnish friends: you can read this text in Finnish right here!

Lars Mølsted as Quasimodo

We're behind the scenes in The Royal Danish Theatre in Copenhagen, and it’s nearing 7.30 pm. Soon, it’s showtime for The Hunchback of Notre Dame the musical. Actor Lars Mølsted, who portrays the titular role, knows what to expect.

”We have eight shows a week, and 1 350 people give a standing ovation after every single show. There’s almost a thousand people standing in the balconies alone, so you just feel it pouring onto you. That’s an out-of-body experience.”

To put it mildly, Danish theatregoers have received the small town theatre’s production with extraordinary enthusiasm.

During the last six year, Fredericia Teater – based in the town of Fredericia (population 40 000) in Jutland peninsula, a three-and-a-half hour drive away from Copenhagen – has both won the hearts of Danish theatre fans and gathered international attention. It’s all thanks to the theatre’s successful musical productions.

The theatre, since 2011 managed by creative producer Søren Møller, has chosen a very unique path. It only puts on musicals that have never been seen in Denmark before, both brand-new shows and internationally successful pieces. It’s a one-of-a-kind approach never before seen in any Nordic theatre.

Actor Lars Mølsted has been working in Fredericia Teater on an open-ended contract since 2011. He points out that the theatre has had to, and sometimes still has to, fight against preconceptions about both its location and its repertoire.

”Jutland is still seen as a farming country. Even the local dialect has a hillbilly stigma. Musical theatre in Denmark has also had a bad reputation. The Academy of Musical Theatre was founded in Fredericia in 2000, before that there was no musical theatre education.”

The paying audience, however, doesn’t have too many hang-ups about all that. Despite getting a smaller subsidy from the government than theatres in Denmark’s leading cities Odense, Aarhus and Aalborg, when measured by tickets sold, Fredericia Teater has become Denmark’s biggest theatre outside Copenhagen.

Even compared to Fredericia Teater’s recent success, though, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is something special.

The musical, composed by Alan Menken with lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, is based on the 1831 novel by Victor Hugo and songs from Disney’s 1996 animated movie. It’s way less family-friendly than the movie and instead brings the story closer to Hugo’s original tragic tale.

The musical first premiered in Germany in 1999 and then in the US in 2014, revamped with some new music and a new script by Peter Parnell. The updated version had its European premiere in Fredericia Teater in October 2016.

The feedback has been exhilarating.

25 different media outlets have given the musical 6-star ratings – the Danish equivalent of five stars. Counting the stars, it’s the highest-rated theatrical performance in Danish theatre history. There have been over 120 000 tickets sold. In June, the musical received three Reumert awards, the Danish counterpart of Broadway’s Tony Awards.

Also in June, the production moved and reopened in The Royal Danish Theatre’s premises in Copenhagen. Most of Danish theatres close their doors during the summer and theatre fans enjoy light summer revues, oftentimes performed outdoors, instead. Fredericia Teater has proven that there’s also room for a summer musical.

Over a half of the tickets sold have been to the Copenhagen performances. After the Fredericia run sold out, many people bought tickets to the Copenhagen shows and have now travelled to the capital just so they can see the musical.

Frollo (Mads M. Nielsen) and Quasimodo

Mølsted, who plays the eponymous hunchback Quasimodo, has performed in over 20 musical productions in Fredericia Teater. Even so, The Hunchback is a unique experience for him.

”Something really scary and touching and awesome happened in the rehearsals. The first five or six times we tried, we couldn’t get through the last scene because the ensemble was sobbing. We couldn’t finish the run-through, we couldn’t sing it. At that point, I knew this is something more than entertainment.”

Mølsted says the opening night felt like a rock concert. The audience of 850 people let their feelings show.

”We finished the prologue, and the audience wouldn’t let us continue. We couldn’t go on because of the applause. Just after the show, I met with the director Thomas Agerholm backstage. We were literally just standing there and shaking our heads to each other for ten seconds, thinking, ’I don’t know what just happened’.”

The actors get plenty of fan mail on Facebook, but Mølsted says the most incredible and humbling thing is the audience’s reaction each night. The most unbelievable moment is when he takes his bow at the very end.

”The overwhelming thing for me is, I’m the last one out. Everyone’s always telling me, you can’t believe it can get louder, but then I get onstage – and the people find some way to be louder. We’ve measured the decibels. The applause when I come out is higher than if you’re standing right next to the speakers during the show. Isn’t that crazy?”

The Hunchback of Notre Dame’s finishes its run in late August. Behind the scenes, Fredericia Teater is preparing for the upcoming season.

In the autumn, the theatre will put on an original musical about Danish musicians Tommy and Rasmus Seebach. The spring of 2018, however, poses an even bigger challenge.

In April, Fredericia Teater will stage the world premiere of The Prince of Egypt, a musical based on Dreamwork’s 1998 animated movie. Dreamworks Theatricals chose Fredericia Teater to produce the musical shortly after The Hunchback of Notre Dame’s opening.

”Composer-lyricist Stephen Schwartz had seen the level of the production, and therefore trusted us,” Fredericia Teater’s associate producer Rob Hartmann explains.

The Prince of Egypt will be produced in collaboration with the California-based theatre TheatreWorks Silicon Valley. The European premiere helps the musical’s creative team to ensure the show’s international appeal.

”Everything right now leads up to the premiere of The Prince of Egypt. The pressure is huge, and April seems very soon,” Hartmann confesses.

Before then, though, the bells of Notre Dame will still ring. Actor Lars Mølsted makes it clear that no matter what, you have to keep your feet on the ground. Each round of thunderous applause is followed by a new performance with a new audience.

”As an actor, you’re only as good as the last show you did.”

Photos by Søren Malmose.
My reviews of this production: October 2016, July 2017

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