BWW INTERVIEWS: Writer And Interpreter Michael Kunze

By: Oct. 02, 2009
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Jonathon Collis

There are few names in German musicals bigger than Michael Kunze (picture: Alexander Wulz) - responsible for the German speaking scene's biggest hits, such as his series of "dramamusicals", including Elisabeth and Tanz der Vampire in addition to providing translations for the German productions of Aida, Wicked, and The Lion King.

Aiming to bring his work to the English speaking stage, Global Broadway Productions are workshopping an English version of Kunze's newest show, Rebecca, based on the Daphne Du Maurier novel, with a reading today (Friday October 2) starring Sierra Boggess, Pia Douwes, and Brent Barrett.

When Rebecca was first announced, there were plans to take it to Toronto, and then Broadway. Is that still the plan?

At the moment there are discussions to do it in London first, I think, after Toronto, but this has a lot to do with the plans of the producer, but it hasn't been decided yet.

Do you think it would do well in the West End?

I have two answers to that. I admire Daphne Du Maurier and her novel, and I really love the piece and think it belongs to England so it would be the natural thing to do it here and I think it's what she would prefer. On the other hand, it is also a most critical audience because it's kind of a treasure, this novel, and although I [think] we treated it very well and respectfully, you never know how people react, so it would make it more exciting if it would open in London.

You call your works "dramamusicals." Could you describe what makes a "dramamusical?"

The dramamusical is a tool to make clear that this is not a typical Broadway-type musical, which is more a musical-comedy. In what I do, we do drama with music. The way I write the shows is that I basically write the drama, of course with the music in mind, but the music is something that comes next, like a movie. The music is a very important element, but the most important element of the drama is the story, so the music really serves the story, and the music doesn't really have a right in its own beside the story, like a number that is just made for the music and the dance.

It really isn't something that I've invented. Jesus Christ Superstar [and] the other Andrew Lloyd Webber stuff, if you exclude Cats, follows the same kind of basic idea. Well, Andrew would never say that the music only serves the story, but that's what it really is. He uses the music to tell the story, and that's what all dramamusicals do.

If you look around the West End, what other shows would you classify as dramamusicals?

I think all the shows that concentrate on a dramatic story are dramamusicals. Billy Elliot is a dramamusical. Wicked is a dramamusical. I just want to distinguish where theatre is more theatrical than in a classical Broadway musical which is based on the vaudeville tradition, on dance, on spectacular things happening, and this is not what I look for. I believe in drama as the key entertainment in theatre, and I think I'm not the only one who does. I didn't even invent the name dramamusical, that was invented by a journalist.

I just think it's more European because I think the tradition of opera with the highly dramatic stories lent more to that kind of art-form, and I think that also our audiences in Europe, and I really include here in England, are more interested in going to theatre and have a real theatrical experience, a real emotional experience at last, not just an entertaining evening, but something they can discuss after the show.

You mentioned Wicked, for which which you translated the score. What drew you to it as a project, and did you feel any extra pressure on it because of the hype?

Not really, because the hype did not happen in Germany. As a matter of fact, I didn't want to adapt any more foreign musicals, but I've known Stephen Schwartz [for a long time] and he asked me to at least do the lyrics, and it was fun to do and I admire the show. I think it's a milestone in the development of the musical, because in the history of the musical, this show will be regarded as the first one that really combines the European tradition with the Broadway tradition.

You've done many, many translations, and this is your first time being properly translated into English. Do you find it difficult being on the other side of the translation fence?

No, I do think that it's also very good for my collaborators to have someone who is used to this procedure, and I know the problems of adapting a show, and I see the freedom he needs. On the other hand, it's easier for me to work with an English adapter - I don't think it's a translation, it's more of an adapting - it's easier for me than [working with] a Japanese or Korean or Hungarian translator because I know English well enough to work with the guy. And I have the great fortune to work with Christopher Hampton.

Is there any hope of seeing a West End production of Tanz der Vampire which is true to the original?

I think, at the moment, there is not such a chance to do it. We always discuss it a lot, but I don't have to explain to you that the influence of Broadway is stronger on the West End than on continental Europe, and we (the European productions) were not hurt at all by the Broadway failure of that version of Tanz der Vampire, but you have to keep the title and it is not a good start for a show if it had such a Broadway history. I think you need very daring producers to do that, and even if you tell people it's a completely different show, I doubt if someone would do that at the moment.

Are you surprised that your shows have developed such a dedicated base, despite its size, of English speaking fans?

In a way, of course, I feel satisfied. I didn't write them with the intention to get that, but on the other hand, if a show really reaches people then there is no reason why it shouldn't reach a lot of people. I am surprised, yes. It's a moment when you feel that the story and the whole show reaches people [when] people come up to you. A lot of people don't get it, and there are people who react differently, but If there are people that are so moved by a show, all human beings are similar, and there are a lot of people who would have the same experience if they get a chance to see it - and that's the wonderful thing about a live show, that you can really reach people and it's more rewarding than doing a movie because you never get the reactions.

Is there anything you want people in the UK who aren't familiar with your work to say?

What makes me nervous is not the fact that the show is being produced in another country, but to meet the expectations of the people who treasure Rebecca, the novel, have when they come to the show. If we get the feeling that we kept the atmosphere of the book and that we stayed true to the characters, then I am already very happy. They must not expect that they'll see the book on stage, that's not possible. I know Daphne Du Maurier's children would be very happy, because they really believe it meets the expectations that their mother would have, and that is something that encourages me and makes me optimistic, but to win over the British audience will be very difficult - especially if you come from continental Europe and tell them to watch the dramatisation of one of their literary treasures. On the other hand, I believe a book like that belongs to the whole world, and if it's done respectfully, it can also be done by people who are not English.



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