How We Do It in Germany – an Introduction

A few years ago I had a ticket to attend a panel discussion with Stephen Schwartz and a couple of German ‘musical theatre experts’ in Berlin. I had the flu and wasn’t feeling all that well, but I went anyway – because, well: Stephen Schwartz.

The space where the discussion was held was the set of a current new musical performed by the students graduating from the musical theatre programme of Berlin’s university of the arts. All of that was at Neuköllner Oper – an off-theatre space with a rough, wild vibe. It is known for original productions – contemporary operas, musical theatre projects and said graduation shows. In a way you could imagine Neuköllner Oper as one of the hotspots of new musical theatre in Germany.

However – what I remember most about this discussion is that suddenly everyone in this panel was eager to answer Schwartz’ question about new German musical theatre. The answers varied from “We definitely should start doing more original productions!” and “But the writers don’t know who to work with!” to “We kind of don’t have enough good writers!” The answer I remember most clearly was: “The opera house in St. Gallen [which is not in Germany, but in the German-speaking part of Switzerland] is producing a new musical – Frank Wildhorn is writing it!” Clearly everyone was very excited about that fact. Except for Stephen Schwartz. His very un-excited yet very on the spot answer was: “Why are you getting Frank Wildhorn to do this – and not someone German?”

Well, Frank Wildhorn wrote The Count of Monte Cristo and it was a hit (in St. Gallen) and it has been produced several times in Germany ever since. This year a new collaboration between him and the opera house of St. Gallen opened, Artus Excalibur. Still not the German Stephen Schwartz asked for.

Not that there aren’t any new musicals by German writers. Just go back to 1992 when the musical Elisabeth about famous empress ‘Sissi’ of Austria by Michael Kunze (remember when Dance of the Vampires flopped on Broadway? He wrote the book) and Sylvester Levay opened in Vienna. It is probably one of the most successful German musicals – although Vienna (again) is not in Germany. For the last 22 year it more or less has been playing different theatre in several European and Asian countries. The same team later wrote Rebecca, which again opened in Vienna, came to Germany, wasn’t a huge success and then aimed for Broadway, but the producer was dead – or, better: Has he ever been alive?

Watch this video on YouTube.

Elisabeth in Vienna.

And even before 1992 there was a kind of German musical – at GRIPS Theater in Berlin, a famous left-wing children’s theatre, a very Berlin-ish musical came to life in the mid-80’s. Linie 1 [Line 1] is set in Berlin in said mid-80’s and telling the story of a girl coming from Western Germany and meeting all these crazy people on the subway line 1.

So we have German productions and we even try to get them shown in other countries, but then again: How many do we have?

Since this answer Stephen Schwartz gave in Neuköllner Oper, almost four years have passed and rather a lot has happened here. Hamburg became the place of Rocky’s out of town try-out and a number of smaller scale more or less original German musicals opened throughout the country. For example, the very charming Die Tagebücher von Adam und Eva [The Diaries of Adam and Eve], loosely based on Mark Twain’s short story Eve’s Diary, had several productions following the original one in Berlin. There was an open stage event happening every two to three month where writers could show their works to potential audiences and experts giving feedback – and last fall the Deutsche Musicalakademie [German Academy for Musical Theatre, a mixture of Drama League and Dramatists Guild] was founded.

But still most of most of the larger scale musical productions are produced by the German branch of Joop van den Ende’s Stage Entertainment while probably the most played musical in regional theatre probably is Les Miserables followed by Jekyll & Hyde.

Why is that? Let’s try to explore that over the next couple of posts from Germany!

Watch this video on YouTube.

A song from Die Tagebücher von Adam und Eva. Skip to around 1:00 to hear the song.

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