Frank Wildhorn and His Musical Theatre WORLD
A few weeks back, BroadwayWorld.com's international sources tipped us off to the fact that composer Frank Wildhorn was having quite the European adventure this past summer, with new productions of Dracula, Jekyll & Hyde, The Scarlet Pimpernel and Rudolf, taking the continent of Europe by storm in Germany, Italy, Austria, Hungary and more. In addition, a musical theatre festival named after him as well as word that the Far East is joining in the Wildhorn fever as well.
This of course, made me track him down and found myself heading into Lower Manhattan to sit and chat and hear firsthand about all things "Wildhorn."
Word on the street is that you've gone completely "international" as of late - from the West to East. Where should we begin?
Japan's a good place to start, because it all leads back to Europe. Last year in Japan, I was the first Westerner to be commissioned by Takarazuka, which is the all-girl group in Japan. They've been in existence in Japan for a hundred years. It's a whole culture where you graduate from the schools and then join these performance companies. Almost all the biggest stars in Japan have come from this tradition. So, I did a show in Japan called Never Say Goodbye (which I wrote with Shuichiro Koike). I'd never been there before and it's suddenly become a huge market for me. So in 2008, Rudolf, which is playing in Budapest, Hungary (and has played in Szeged, Hungary for the past 2 summers - theatre capacity 4,000!) will be moving to Japan and The Scarlet Pimpernel will also be done by Takarazuka as well.
It sounds like maybe you're eating a lot more sushi?
I don't eat sushi, which is a problem, because they don't know what to do with me! I'm such a steak and potatoes kind of guy.
Lots of Teriyaki then? I'm sure that's not stopping your flow of work down there...
In 2009, Cyrano will be there. I went to Japan this summer to celebrate the 7th year (running) of Jekyll and Hyde and the only reason that it is coming off is because of Takeshi Kaga, the show's star (who's also happens to be "The Iron Chef"). He is like the Brian Stokes Mitchell of Japan - their biggest leading man. Jekyll must cease performing so that he can star in Cyrano next and they need to make room for it. Otherwise, needless to say, it could keep running, but otherwise 7+ years is simply great.
Thomas Borchert (Dracula) and Vampire Girls in the Austrian production
After that, there's a woman named Yoka Wao, who was the star of Never Say Goodbye, again from Takarazia. She's a beautiful, tall, incredibly talented Japanese star there. She has now graduated / retired from Takarazia and the next thing she's going to do is Dracula...and she's going to PLAY Dracula.
Fascinating as Japanese history and the tradition was for more to play woman. Now, a female Dracula?
Exactly! While I was in Japan this summer for Jekyll, she
came to me with this idea and I said – I don't know. But, she convinced me.
When, we resurrected Dracula this summer
in Europe, she came with her producers and we made a deal, so in Spring of
2009, Dracula will open in Japan with a woman in the starring role. I think that's so cool, and the costs of musicals alone make it financial risks so to cast a woman in a role traditional a man (not to mention the Bram Stroker novel) becomes riskier.
It's great to reinvent your own work. Let's move to Europe then, where it sounds like you spent most of your summer?
Yes, the summer mostly has been all about European adventures. This summer, they had the first Frank Wildhorn Music Festival. One of my new shows, Rudolf, is a big hit in Budapest and next will open in Vienna in February of '09. What they did this summer was move it from a traditional-sized theatre to a 5,000 seat amphitheatre and every single performance was sold out.
The Scarlet Pimpernel had an opening in Germany and Jekyll & Hyde had multiple openings and we also opened a production of Dracula in Austria which was very satisfying. It was a totally revised version of the show, with many, many new songs and it was really how I always wanted it to be done on every level...as far as the sweep of the music, the scope of the music and how it was to be performed. For me...that was IT. We had a 26 piece orchestra and Thomas Borchert, who's one of the biggest musical stars in Europe played the title role. The reviews were some of the best of my career and the business is over 100% capacity.
Sounds fascinating. I'm
assume that success begets more success and subsequent interest from new countries?
Yes. Because of that, Dracula will now have the international life that I always dreamed that it would...and so, we have a number of series lined up in Europe along with Korea and Japan. It's become a "hit" and will have an extended and popular life with audiences.
Tell us about this new Festival named after you?
In Austria, we awarded the inaugral first Frank Wildhorn Musical Theater Award. We had submissions from all over Europe, and surprisingly, even from America - with hopefuls submitting new shows. The jury was top notch collection including Maik Klokow (who runs Stage Entertainment in Germany), Kathrin Zechner (who runs "Vereinigte Bühnen Wien" - which commissioned me to write Rudolf), and directors of leading repertory theaters from Italy, Switzerland and many other European countries.
(Rudolf by the way, has been running in Budapest since May, 2006 and will open in Austria in February, 2009)
It was fantastic to see all of these young people come and do excerpts from their show, and we had the pleasure of giving a monetary reward to help further their work.
At next year's festival, they'll perform their pieces there and I love that we got to help launch that...and that my name was attached.
I often teach master classes, here in the US, and I started doing the same in Vienna. I flew everyone in and we enjoyed an enormous success with this program.
What can you tell us about the caliber of the festival's submissions?
For a first time endeavor, I'd say the submissions pretty good. With so many productions in Europe and Asia and a stronger presence of independent producers, there is great interest in doing new work and not just importing Broadway shows. Also in Europe, you will find that the arts are very often state subsidized. The latest crop of Broadway shows has been a comfortable fit with a a European sensibility. So, they're kind starting to build their own identity.
Award winners: l.t.r. Brigitta Thelen (Musical Festival Graz),
Werner Midl (politician), Nina Schneider, Frank Wildhorn, Paul Graham Brown.
What about the caliber of musical theatre performer?
For the theatrical performers there, it's skills that have been passed around for generations. And, if you get the "A-cast," I'll tell you now, they're as good as anybody here. I'm telling you that right now, from an acting and from a singing standpoint, especially from a singing standpoint, that the best around the world is the best around the world.
What they DON'T have though is the depth, because they don't have 300 million people to pick from. As the overall populations are smaller, the number of potential performers is smaller.
What's happening is that it's become an exciting young business there and it doesn't have the cynicism that we have on Broadway. It's kind of more of a homogenization of pop music and theatre music, and I'm not talking about taking American Idol stars and putting them into shows when I say that.
I'm literally talking about kids growing up, saying that they love pop and they love theatre and are going to do both. They don't pigeonhole you as much there. I think that anybody from the music business will understand that. If you ever look at the pop charts in Europe, and even in London, you'll see Madonna, followed by Pavarotti. It is whatever it is. I always think this is very healthy, because it means that there's room for everything, not just some people telling you what the best things are.
It was neat doing the jury and seeing all these young creative talents getting it all together and starting out – very interesting.
"Wildhorn&Friends": bows (l.t.r.: Pia, Brandi, Frank, Thomas, Koen, Bernadett, Attila)
You alluded to the latest crop of Broadway shows not fitting a European sensibility. Could you expand on that?
Here, a lot of the trend these days seems to be about musicalzing movies and that's not what it's about there. It's more original ideas and things based much more on original books and other source material. They're also more interested in spectacle and big sweeping romance and sexuality. That audience is a little differently attuned to theatre, and I think that part of that is because opera and classical music is a bigger part of the world there. It's the land of Puccini. And so, as their musical theatre tastes go, they long for melody and great singers and "we're" doing our best. Thank God that the last few years have been such a big success and such a great adventure for me and the next few years are already looking just as great.
What are the chances or plans of us, here in the United States, seeing some of these new works that you've been premiering elsewhere?
I think that there's 2 or 3 of them that the European producers are talking here with their counterparts and discussing possible alliances. It's a new thing for a European producer to take on American partners. I've made a lot of introductions this year, and have the hope that some of them will yield the European or Asian productions coming this way.
Does this mean that your priorities have shifted from the US, as you've become more of a "citizen of the world?"
Obviously, I'm always creating things for here and I'm doing that in parallel right now. I've also learned, though, that the world is the stage, quite literally...it is. It's a lot of fun.
Just purely selfishly, any composer would love to go and hear his or her work done by a 40 or a 50 piece orchestra. The 26 piece orchestra that we had for Jekyll & Hyde in Austria was the SMALLEST orchestra that I've ever had in Europe. The orchestrations made it sound like 50 pieces, but that's the musical scope that you can achieve over there. In Prague we had 38, in Switzerland we had 42 and wherever we've gone, it has been grand. We had 40 musicians in Budapest, and 40 people on stage and you can do that...it's normal. To hear your stuff done like that is amazing.
I always say that music, like love, has no borders and if it works emotionally and if it works on the audience's ears.
So, what's next?
Listen, I come from the pop world and I certainly got lucky with the press when I started as coming from the pop world. But, coming from that world, the mentality was always that you wrote a song to share it with the world and not 14 blocks.
Music is open and there's room for everything and you try to communicate with as many people as you can. There's nothing in the world like having a show, or shows on Broadway and that becomes the flag bearer of the copyright. I think that it's also important, especially for young writers, to know that the world's a stage and that things can come from, or go, all over the place.
Look at the movies which were up for Best Picture last year at the Academy Awards – they were all independently funded films. One thing doesn't really have to do with the other, but I'm using it as an example that you don't necessarily know where something is going to come from, or where or how it's going to go. I am so grateful for the experiences that I had in New York especially. There's nothing like having a show…or shows running on Broadway and I'm working very hard to have some more. I want to, really, very much, but I've kind of learned that you have to be open to anything.
Jury Award: front row l.t.r.: Koen Schoots, Frank, Maik Klokow (Stage Entertainment)
back row: Michael Staringer (Agent), Werner Signer (director Theater St. Gallen, Switzerland),
Marika Lichter (Agent), Kathrin Zechner (director Vereinigte Bühnen Wien),
Stefano Curti (director Teatro Stabile; Triest, Italy)
What was it that first "turned you on" to this international adventure?
It was all Freddie Gershon of MTI. I had Victor/Victoria (The addtional songs "Trust Me," "Louis Says," and "Living in the Shadows" are by Frank Wildhorn and Leslie Bricusse), Jekyll & Hyde, Pimpernel and Dracula, so we had about 5 openings in 8 years, and, of course they were being licencsed via MTI all over the place.
Freddie would keep saying that "they're inviting to you go...go," and I always resisted. Freddie kept urging me, telling me that I'd meet new people and make new friends and new contacts and see the world and explore. Being such a New York, Queens kind of guy, that was not my usual mentality.
I only started going because Freddie convinced me to, and he was right. I started making friends and connections and meeting producers all over the world and that's what my life has turned into at the moment...and I'm loving it. It's extraordinary, as far as commissions for new works and working with artists around the world and just the life experiences. Whether you're working to come back to Broadway or working around the world, I think that all of those life experiences filter into your writing, and hopefully, make you grow and make you a better artist. I'm always trying to be a student.
That seems like a perfect place to end, but I need to sneak in 2 last questions that fans from BroadwayWorld.com have been clamoring to have answered. First, what's the status of the Jekyll & Hyde movie?
Mandalay Pictures and The Hatchery have the rights and are working on it out in Los Angeles. It took 17 years to go from USC to opening night on Broadway. I hope that it doesn't take that long to go to the screen, but we're working on it. We have producers working on it, and a great energy to make it happen. We're meeting with directors and stars and put it together.
It took 25 years for Chicago...any timeline?
No, there isn't a timeline and I'd say that it's a few years away. What I can say for sure though is that there are people actively working on it every day, as part of their jobs...so progress is being made!
Great – and the final question...When might we see a recording of Dracula?
There's going to be a recording of a cast from this past summer in Europe. Jeremy Roberts, my partner in Globalvision Records, and I, have done a concept recording, with a family of "Wildhorn singers"...and we're just waiting for the right time to release it here.
Thanks very much for
having me over to your apartment today and taking the time to chat and fill us in. We will look forward to charting your WORLDWIDE success here on BroadwayWORLD.com and don't be afraid to send us pictures and write us from wherever you are in the world, we're now becoming famous for that.
Photos: coypright: Musical Festival Graz, Rolf Bock.