Do You Hear the People Sing? Why the Whole World Is Listening Now

In lieu of offering a full fledged review of the recent movie, I would like to offer this trip around the world with 17 Valjeans from international productions. Because if nothing else, well-done movie musicals offer exposure to the medium. And there’s nothing like getting another person addicted to a show that took over the musical world for the better part of two decades.

There’s a reason why the show has clout – just listen to the ending (4:44).

The Eyes Have It

“No one can lie, no one can hide anything, when he looks directly into someone’s eyes.”
– Paulo Coelho 

Can you identify these posters by their eyes alone? Many iconic shows have taken to marketing themselves through a glimpse into the eyes of some of their shows’ central figures. A quick glance is all it takes to offer a memorable portrait of what lies ahead for the audience.

Image Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 

World’s A Stage: Spotlight on Sri Lanka

The theatre scene in Sri Lanka has been long in the making. As a country with roots in Theravada Buddhism, many believed that it was vital to tend toward solitary contemplation versus congregational practices or participation in community life. Thus, theatre arts were hard to come by until the 1950s when a serious scene began to develop. Local theatre has since become a melange of early folk ritual, dance drama, and Western theatre, creating a medium unlike any other.

The most recent hit out of the country is a new musical by Jehan Aloysius entitled ‘Rag’ which grapples with the divisive practice of ragging – a ritual seen by some as an equalizing activity, and by others as worse than bullying and hazing. Ragging is typically enforced by senior students on younger ones and includes forced consumption of alcohol, insects, and/or chemicals, physical exertion to the point of organ failure, and an assortment of humiliating activities meant to break the newcomers upon their arrival.

The show’s creator, director, composer and lead actor, Aloysius, has been developing the show for more than ten years, sparked by his own experiences with ragging at university. When Aloysius first received his university acceptance letter he was filled with dread and hid it from his mother. Four months later she found it, and off to school he went.

During his eventual ragging, he was spared some of the worst practices but he says that his classmates underwent processes worse than what he could have imagined. Some of these events have made their way into the show. While the show circles instances of rape, discrimination, shame and suicide, the writer’s efforts to reveal the darker side of university life ultimately provide for a cathartic experience.

Aloysius sought out a cast who had experienced ragging first-hand and after auditioning 250 people, he assembled his lead cast of 12. The story follows the creator’s character, Joseph, who starts a non-violent anti-ragging movement which runs into opposing forces who say it must be violently resisted. The result is an empowering musical that’s breaking boundaries abroad.

The show’s standing ovations and rapturous praise stand testament to the idea that creative expression continues to be one of the best mediums for processing struggle.
If something goes wrong, make art.

World’s A Stage: Spotlight on France

When thinking of Mozart, the notion of early rock-star may not come to mind. A child prodigy, yes. A whiz on the ivories, no doubt. But emo-rock sex symbol? The creative team behind Mozart l’Opera Rock certainly thought so; they re-envisioned his life for the stage and took France by storm.

The musical, a mashup of new pop-rock and traditional Mozart compositions, premiered in late 2009. Though not as critically well-received as some other tuners out of France in the recent years(including Notre Dame de Paris, Le Petit Prince, and Le Roi Soleil) the show’s glittering reimagining of the 18th century composer’s life devloped a large fan following and went on to tour through Europe and the rest of France.  

Take a glance at this cheeky single that became one of the show’s most popular anthems. The song follows Wolfgang as he attempts to distribute his music and find a job in Paris. The lyrics dabble with sexual wordplay (somewhat evident, though undoubtedly less subtle, in the English subtitles available on this version). Enjoy this stroll down anachronism lane with Mr. Mozart himself.


Let It Shine On Me

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is rakish, wild and unapologetically in your face. Its score: tongue-in-cheek emo rock goodness.

But in order to create the feel of arriving at a concert (that happens to have Jackson as the headliner), creative lighting both inside and out are a must. These shots display great use of visual intrigue. The creative reimagining of found objects gives the lighting an extra pop.

Image Credit: 12, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 + 8

World’s A Stage: Spotlight on Germany

You’ve never seen Shakespeare like this my friends. The Berliner Ensemble is reknowned for their aggressive and direct method of performing. Screaming at the audience? Yup. Mashing food into their face as they perform? Happens all the time. Breaking down that 4th wall? Each and every chance they get.

That’s why in 2009, when the group tackled Shakespeare’s 400 year old sonnets, the result was anything but traditional. This incredibly distinctive production from director Bob Wilson with music by Rufus Wainwright featured gender reversal, shadowplay, unforgettable makeup,  and of course nods to Brecht and Weill (of Threepenny Opera fame).

Take a look at how the Berliner Ensemble tackles the world of Shakespeare and instantly invites you to join them on their hallucinatory ride. Something about the coarseness of the performing style met with the Bard’s infamous words seems like the perfect oxymoron, and yet this production succeeds because it challenges any preexisting notions of Shakespeare’s work.

Because I Heart Historical Musicals

I’ll admit it…I have a thing for shows that can teach me a little something about American History. Whether it’s 1776, Assassins, or any of the others that illuminate history as they jaunt along through the realms of song and dance, I’m hooked.

That’s why when I heard that Lin-Manuel Miranda was working on the Alexander Hamilton Mixtape, I immediately raced off to find out everything I could about the project. If you haven’t seen any of his work before, please check him out – one of the most creative minds and endearing personalities to come out of the musical theatre scene over the past few years. I love how he uses rap to bring a fresh look to the dusty-old-textbook version of stories we’ve heard hundreds of time.

You Can Dance If You Want To

“To dance is to be out of yourself. Larger, more beautiful, more powerful. This is power, it is glory on earth and it is yours for the taking”

-Agnes De Mille

There’s something absolutely wonderful about these shots of some of the greats in rehearsal. Little moments before the polish went on, right in the midst of finessing a piece. Yet even in these “rough” shots, it’s easy to pick out the stars. They’re electric. Eartha Kitt and James Dean hanging in dance class? No biggie. Bob Fosse demonstrating wild 90 degree angle wrists for his troupe? Makes it look easy. Judy Garland and Gene Kelly catching some serious air? Obsessed.

What is your signature move? Dare you find time in your day to try out any of those above.

Image Sources: 1, 2, 3

World’s A Stage: Spotlight on Austria

As we continue around the globe, we find ourselves meeting up with some of the most incredible set design you’ve ever seen – in Bregenz, Austria.

The city is known for its long tradition of Opera on the Lake, productions that take place on a floating stage anchored in Lake Constance. The opera stages are built every two years and must house not only the performance space for the actors, but also the costume and dressing rooms, machine rooms, and the orchestra pit for the Vienna Symphony Orchestra.

The set must strictly follow the following provisions:

  • The floating stage must be at least 2/3rds larger than a normal stage
  • The house seats 6,800. Everyone in the audience (even those in the nosebleed seats) must be able to see the stage action.
  • The set construction has to allow for quick and silent scene changes (there is no curtain)
  • The stage has to be able to survive extreme weather conditions during the two-year production runs including thunderstorms, harsh rains, and up to 20 inches of snow and below freezing temperatures
  • The set must weigh as little as possible. Designers have to consider that while concrete, brick and solid wood are weatherproof, they may prove too heavy to float

Take a look at these incredible stages through the years. Talk about a brilliant design team.

Die Zauberflote (Mozart) | 1985-1986

The Flying Dutchman | 1989-1990

A Masked Ball (Verdi) | 1999-2000

La Bohème | 2001-2002

West Side Story | 2003-2004

Tosca | 2007-2008

Aida | 2009-2010

André Chénier | 2011-2012

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World’s A Stage: Spotlight on Czech Republic

Next up in the series on theatre trends from around the globe is the Czech Republic – specifically Prague.

I’ll never forget walking down the streets of the city and being taken aback when I thought I stumbled on an incredibly racist form of theatre.

Turns out all the signs I had been seeing for “Black Theatre” weren’t advertising some sort of event to rival the old World Fairs of the 1800s. “Black Theatre” is shorthand for “Black Light Theatre,” a theatrical style for which Prague has become famous.
Black Light Theatre performances are characterized by their use of a small black box theatre and…wait for it…black lights. That’s right ladies and gents: theatrical productions specifically done using glow-in-the-dark suits and black lights. In addition to the small, darkened stage, fluorescent costumes and fantastically flattering UV light, the technique is noted for its expressive artistry of dance, mime and acrobatics.

Little known fact: this form of theatre originated from Asia and can be found in a number of places around the world. It’s just become a specialty of Prague nowadays.

Now true story – when I was traveling through Prague with a friend of mine about four years ago, we passed by a small sign advertising “CATS- THE MUSICAL – BLACK THEATRE.” All in caps. Just like that. The sheer lack of subtlety (and my general intrigue as to how they were possibly going to pull off one of the world’s most tech-heavy shows in a theatre that could not have been bigger than a 7-11) led me to force my friend to buy a ticket with me so we could return to the theatre that evening to check it out.

I don’t think I’ve ever cried-laughed so much during a show in my entire life. Easily 90% of the show was meowing sounds and squiggly arm choreo. An ensemble of six lovingly butchered every memory I had of the musical prior to this performance. Each song was a variation of Webber’s version: sped up, melodies slightly altered, and accompanied by a blaring MIDI track that I’m pretty sure had been used since the show had first reached commercial fame in the early ’90s. The ladies wore white unitards that glowed brilliantly as they followed around the main “Tom Cat.”  A little taste of the lyrical genius: “Prague is the city of love/ and the end is full of dreams/ not to be a cat is unheard of!”

Now, I don’t know if we caught a show in one of the off-the-beaten-track theatres or what, but the historic tradition of beautiful “dance, mime and acrobatics” didn’t make it into this production. That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy the show.  I loved it. It was able to transcend its horrendous beginnings and reach that sort of  mystic level, when something gets so terribad you literally can’t look away. All you can do is declare it the best show you’ve ever seen. In a “Black Theatre.” In Prague.

Perhaps the “Tom Cat” said it best, when he closed the show with the line “Ladies and Gentlemen, there haven’t been any better show!”

Image Credit: J. Randall. More of his stuff here

World’s A Stage: Spotlight on Japan

Here’s the start of a new series highlighting theatre trends from around the globe. This big old world is a fascinating place – let’s take a look beyond our own country’s border shall we?

First up, Japan:

Nothing better than ladies strutting their stuff on stage right? The gals of Takarazuka, Japan sure think so.

Promo Poster – Casablanca

The Takarazuka Revue (宝塚歌劇団) is a Japanese all-female musical theater troupe. Ladies play every role in larger-than-life, Broadway style productions. All of the women in the troupe work for the Hankyu Takarazuka rail line.

5 Reasons why the Troupe is Fascinating:

–       The Revue was founded in 1913 as a way to boost train ticket sales and draw additional business to the town. The company  now performs for 2.5 million people per year.

–       The troupe is highly competitive and only accepts 40 to 50 girls each year from the thousands across Japan that audition. Once accepted into the super strict program, the women are trained in music, dance, and acting, and are given seven-year contracts.

–       Within the first year, teachers decide who will be best suited for the male and female roles. Those playing a man’s role, otokoyaku, cut their hair short, take on a more masculine role in the classroom, and speak in the masculine form.

–       This stuff is popular with the ladies. The otokoyaku represents the woman’s idealized man without the roughness or need to dominate, the “perfect” man who can not be found in the real world. It is these male-roles that offer an escape from the strict, gender-bound real roles lauded in Japanese society.

–       They often adapt classic Western novels, films, and musicals. Just a few of their past productions include Tale of Two Cities, Wuthering Heights, Guys and Dolls, Kiss Me Kate, Phantom, Sound of Music, Oklahoma!, The Scarlet Pimpernel and Ernest in Love (an adaptation of The Importance of Being Ernest).

Clip of “The Muffin Song” from the aforementioned Ernest in Love.
At the end of this clip, you can catch a glimpse of the actors nearly breaking on stage.

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