London, New York... Germany?
London and New York have always been and will most probably remain forevermore the theatre capitals of the world. But do you know which city would earn a bronze medal, if the theatre market was an Olympic sport? ...Hamburg! The German city attracts well over 2 million visitors each year to its musical productions and that's all thanks to one company, whose German headquarters are also located in Hamburg. The company, which was originally founded in the Netherlands by Joop van den Ende, goes by the name of Stage Entertainment. Its German wing enjoys (almost) a monopoly in the German musical theatre market, owning and operating several large theatres in Hamburg, Berlin, Stuttgart and Oberhausen and producing both resident and touring shows throughout Germany and Austria.
Stage Entertainment produces its own musicals specifically developed for German-speaking residents, as well as acquiring licenses for some of the top-brand titles in both the West End and Broadway scenes. Currently the company has 14 different shows on offer, it is launching the German premiere of Disney and Cameron Mackintosh's Mary Poppins this October in Stuttgart and according to Director of Communications Stephan Jaekel, there are another three future musicals in development.
Mr Jaekel commented: "Since we run and operate ten theatres throughout Germany, we are permanently searching for new shows with the potential to attract German audiences. It is our goal to have more productions to choose from than theatres to "fill", as this secures an intelligent programming in all of our venues. In aiming to do so we are and will be depending on great new shows coming from the West End and Broadway. We strive to secure licences for those musicals and shows which appear apt for local audiences' artstic tastes and behaviours. However, there are plenty of high quality international productions which we regrettably have to decline showing over here. Reasons for this are multiple: Sometimes the subject matter of the book lacks relevance for Germans, sometimes the score uses musical patterns too far away from what we are used to, sometimes the title just leaves German audiences bewildered - and most of the times it's a mixture of all."
Indeed the company has a proven history of titles which have garnered incredible commercial success in Germany, however have fared less well on Broadway, and vice versa there are a number of highly popular Broadway and West End musicals which have failed to capture the imaginations of the German people.
"A differentiated example is Wicked, undoubtedly one of the finest and best-woven musicals there is," explains Mr Jaekel. "German audiences liked it - but nowhere near as much as the people in the US or UK, as we do not grow up with 'The Wizard of Oz' in our DNA. So all the clever puns and references were totally missed by German audiences who widely just enjoyed the show for its great visual effects and for 'A Prince is loved by two women - one of which is green.' This is obviously way under Wicked's actual messages and artistic value, but it's a good example of cultural clashes."
Amongst Stage's German successes are the home-grown musical adaptation of the 1976 film Rocky (which also boasted the film's star Sylvester Stallone as a co-producer) and the Broadway transfer of Disney's Tarzan. Both shows only managed to enjoy short runs on the Great White Way in a market which boasts forty Broadway theatres, and both will presumably never be produced in the West End. But the German audiences have embraced them fully:
"As far as Tarzan is concerned, it's one of the rare examples where Disney Theatricals allowed us to do some artistic changes like more aerial moves and a more emancipated role for Jane. In terms of Rocky, we had hoped that the subject, the book and lyrics and the spectacular final boxing scene would all reach out to American audiences. It did, but not enough in a highly competitve Broadway season," admits Mr Jaekel.
EDITOR'S PICK: ROCKY - THE MUSICAL
Sometimes the most difficult demographic to conquer for musical theatre producers is the 25 to 40 years old, heterosexual male demographic. All too often, the only reason they might set foot inside a theatre is to appease their wives or girlfriends. Well, may I recommend a musical that is pumped full of testosterone and has some of the most eye-popping, boxing-themed choreography you're ever likely to see on stage? Rocky - The Musical pumps out the popular Rocky theme and the iconic "Eye of the Tiger" (from "Rocky III"), but the score is also brimming with musical numbers from the creative genius of Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens. The story of the classic underdog who "rises up to the challenge" and gets the girl along the way is an easy pill for anyone to swallow. The love story arc between Rocky and Adrian is enough to keep the interest of boxing non-enthusiasts and even they can't help being swept along by the finale as Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed step in the ring to face each other. At this point, in an unprecendented move, audience members in the front rows are invited on stage to take on the role of the boxing crowd as the ring moves out into the auditorium and the theatre morphs into a boxing arena. What a showdown! What a spectacle!
EDITOR'S PICK: DISNEY'S TARZAN
Perhaps one of the most underated of Disney Theatrical's titles is the musical adaptation of the 1999 animated classic Tarzan, featuring songs by Phil Collins. After it's brief run on Broadway, the show first landed in The Netherlands in 2007 and was closely followed by the German production. Cleverly, Stage Entertainment launched a Reality TV casting show "Ich Tarzan, Du Jane" (much like our own TV formats "How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?," "Any Dream Will Do," "I'd Do Anything," etc.) to cast the lead roles of Tarzan and Jane. This was the perfect opportunuity to drum up media interest for the show which then opened in Hamburg 2008 to great acclaim. The show moved to Stuttgart in 2013 and will move again to Oberhausen in November. The highlights of this production over its Broadway counterpart are undoubtedly the aerial and acrobatic stunts performed by perhaps the most athletic cast in Germany. Indeed the production feels at times like a hybrid with a Cirque du Soleil show as actors fall from the ceiling on bungee ropes and swing over our heads from the sides and back of the auditorium. The 360-degree element makes it a truly unique and unforgettable experience. Phil Collins' score is also a well-balanced mix of power ballads and uptempo pop-rock tracks and the "Trashin' the Camp" number (where the apes literally ransack a British expedition camp, whilst making music out of the inanimate objects they find there) is my own personal highlight of the night.
For those of you wondering how accessible these shows are for people, who don't quite have the grasp of the German language, fear not. Stage Entertainment also caters to international visitors with shows like Blue Man Group and one of its own productions Hinterm Horizont., which offers surtitles in English.
"We have all our shows in German. Despite a fair command of English, German audiences would miss out on a lot of details which often make a difference between having a good and having a great experience," explains Mr Jaekel. "English surtitles like used for Hinterm Horizont are indeed helpful reaching out to international guests, which we do regard as a good target group for future growth. So yes: There will be more of this coming."
EDITOR'S PICK: HINTERM HORIZONT
For those interested in German history and experiencing a truly organic German musical, Hinterm Horizont may well be the one for you. Stage has taken a winning formula that has proven commercially successful in London with titles such as We Will Rock You and Mamma Mia! and adapted this for the German market. The writers and producers have taken songs by one of Germany's favourite rock legends Udo Lindenberg and have woven them into a story line which depicts two star-crossed lovers - Udo himself and Jessie, a girl from East Berlin - seperated by the iconic Berlin wall. The musical offers an insight to what life was like in the communist GDR and what I found most moving was the inclusion of actual archive footage from both the erection and eventual collape of the wall. It's hard not to become emotional seeing projections of real people and a real city historically torn apart. Hinterm Horizont also has enough comic elements to make your evening still feel like a healthy dose of entertainment and not just a history lesson. The jukebox musical will play its final performance in Berlin at the end of this month before moving on to Hamburg in November.
EDITOR'S PICK: TANZ DER VAMPIRE
My final Editor's Pick comes in the form of one of the most popular German musicals of all-time. Tanz der Vampire originally premiered in Vienna, Austria in 1997 before landing in Germany in 2000. The current production is Stage Entertainment's third revival, playing in Berlin until the end of September and then touring down to Munich from October. A misjudged, comedy interpretation called Dance of the Vampires (which starred Michael Crawford) became one of the most costly flops in Broadway history in 2002. Nevertheless, the far superior original which, although has some comic elements, defines itself more as a gothic, romantic thriller and continues to draw crowds night after night in Germany. I would even go so far as to say it has a strong cult following in the country. With music by Jim Steinman (whose work includes hits for Meat Loaf and Bonnie Tyler) and lyrics by Michael Kunze, the musical is an adaptation of the 1967 Roman Polanski film of the same name. The lighting and set design is atmospherically gloomy and opulent at the same time and the fabulously gothic costumes are standard bearers in the industry, even over fifteen years after their first conception. International visitors are sure to recognise the "Totale Finsternis" number as the melody of "Total Eclipse of the Heart," but there are also a plethora of original songs that our typical of Steinman's sound and the choreography during the finale as the stage is filled with vampires in black PVC is stunning and something that will remain with me for the rest of my mortal days. It is a crying shame that Tanz der Vampire has never been given the opportunity to shine in London's West End (largely due to the Broadway mishap), so I would urge all musical theatre fans to experience this original production, whilst Stage Entertainment is still behind it.
In summary, if you are planning on a European vacation this year or in the near future and, like me, you live for new theatrical experiences, then I can heartily recommend a trip to Germany and a visit to one of Stage Enterainment's productions. My four Editor's Picks are shows that you can only see right now (at this high production level) in Germany and for information on all of the company's other shows, please visit the official website.