So when David decides to write a blog for Broadwayworld while living in Vienna for a month, he doesn't anticipate that finding a library will be difficult, because it is, or finding wifi that matter. Thus here he sits in Westbahnof, pretending to wait for a connection, eating a croissant, and typing his blog post on his airplane mode iPhone (to avoid roaming). That's right, there is no laptop when RyanAir (a cheap European airline) had the strictest weight restrictions imaginable.
Now, to business...
What am I doing here in Vienna for October 2013 (which, during my first week, has felt like January, which is tragic)? Thanks for asking! I am studying German and getting to know a different place and some people I collaborated with thanks to Skype (more on that in a later post).
After that quick intro, here's the scoop for this week- I saw the most oft produced German language musical of all time (twice!) since arriving here. 5th row on Tuesday night, and 2nd on Thursday. That show is called ELISABETH, based on the life of the 19th century Princess Diana equivalent, who, with personal strife, reluctantly held the title of Empress of Austria until her assassination at the age of 60. She wanted to be an artist, a free spirit. But the world did a number on her joi de vivre, and she grew into an embittered woman who welcomed Death openly. It's worth mentioning that the show personifies Death as a young man who comes in and out of the action to lure Elisabeth or torture toward him. InbrEd Roy
als were usually quite mad, to oversimplify her existence.
The show premiered in Vienna in 1992, running till 1998, and again from 2003-2005. Just like now, it was directed by Harry Kupfer (of the opera world) and choreographed by America's Dennis Callahan
. Callahan's work on the show is integrated so beautifully with the text; its staccato accentuations, its unrealistic yet expressive dynamics create a world of purpose and eroticism. It is difficult to imagine Elisabeth without work that similarly expresses mood and relationships.
There are musical theatre traditions, of course- the 'I want song' translated to "I Belong to Me" and a narrator (her assassin). It's a little bit like Evita, but with more streamlined information and action. The nearly sung through score would seem to be from the British mega musicals of the 80s, actually.
But in spite of those similarities, I really believe Broadway hasn't seen anything like this show, and it likely won't, since, apparently, the taste for such big mega musicals isn't current. The image of her assassin's body hanging from a noose both opens and closes the show. There's also an extraordinary moment when the complicated stage technology raises the entire cast up in the air and folds into a 'v' shape before sinking into the deck. It is a powerful moment. It would be considered mere spectacle if Callahan hadn't so ingeniously integrated body and stage movements.
The cast is international. Brits, Americans, Dutch, Flemish, German, Austrian, maybe a few others. It's extraordinary to see how these actors come from all walks of life, have huge fans, and yet are not recognized by our more mainstream community in the US. Especially when everyone here seems so aware of ours.
In the 80s and 90s, when musical theatre began to find footing in Germany and Austria, many casts were filled with Americans (look at the decade-long run of the Hamburg Phantom of the Opera, which at one point featured Shuler Hensley
). Nowadays, they have their own schools out here, like Joop van dan Ende's in Hamburg and Fontys.
Musical theatre is popular and important to a lot of people out here. But it goes without saying that it's not THE thing, and one doesn't think of it and Vienna as one. However, there is no denying that Elisabeth is 'Broadway' standard in terms of technology, money, size... But there's no Broadway-like destination, rather one would consider Vienna and Stuttgart and Hamburg to each have 2-5 large theatres for sit downs (which run between 2-10+ years). Collectively, they are the 'Broadway' destinations of the German-language world.
My writing colleague, Rory Six, went on for the male lead, Tod (Death) on Tuesday night. He is from Belgium, and it was such an amazing treat to see such a special artist I used to work with only on Skype performing in front of me with vocal prowess and sensational acting ability. And to see him in a show I've loved for a long time, from afar, was also sweet. Yes, I've been watching Elisabeth and other German-language musical bootlegs on YouTube since the early teenage years. Not just the Wicked ones...
There are musical fans here, of course. Not just expatriates like myself! On Thursday night, the standby for Tod was on, Oliver Arno, and he seems to have quite the fan base, if the screaming from both boxes during the curtain call had anything to indicate!
Thursday was also special because Marle Martens (from Holland) was on for the first time in the title role. It was a pre-planned holiday for first cast Annemieke van Dam
, and Marle was more than well prepared. She has the voice and grounded performance to prove that her Elisabeth will be one fans can enjoy these next few months as the show reaches its final days in January.
The last thing I'll mention is that Elisabeth's producers, the Vereinigte Bühnen Wien (VBW- United Stages of Vienna), has a large number of musicians in residence. Their productions have between 25-40 in the pit. The company runs two musical houses, the Raimund (Elisabeth) and the Ronaher (Legally Blonde, which is not doing very well at the box office). I ran into a lovely lady on my UBah ride home on Thursday night, and she has been with the company for 26 years. I told her I'd never heard an orchestra at a musical quite as in sync as at Elisabeth. She responded that nothing can beat a 'company on residence.' There are cuts to the orchestras coming up due to difficult finances, but hopefully the cuts are temporary, as recently stated by the VBW, as the orchestra truly sets the musical experience apart here.
The world here isn't perfect. It would be naive to call any industry so. Of course, there are some similar and different business practices, broken hearts, and big breaks, but they're all here to tell stories and share in the world of musicals. You should type them in on your YouTube feed sometime!
Upcoming: Legally Blonde in Vienna, Love Never Dies, Theatercouch (a new space for theatrical development), and a couple of interviews with local actors here.
David Nando is a recent graduate of the University of Minnesota/Guthrie Theater BFA Actor Training Program, and at the Globe Theatre, London. He recently collaborated with Vienna-based actor/composer Rory Six on the English adaptation of Six and Kai Hüsgen’s musical A Summer Rose in Winter (German title: Wenn Rosenblätter Fallen). Favorite onstage credits include Ned Blunt in The Rover (dir. Joel Sass) and in Sweet Revenge at the Minnesota Centennial Showboat.