How We Do It in Germany: (New) Musical Theatre in Suburbia

From my last posts here you might have gotten the impression that in Germany we don’t really value contemporary musical theatre as in ‘new musicals.’ And for the most people from the academic theatre studies field it might be true.

I earned my Bachelor’s degree in theatre studies last fall (my minors were as amazing as German literature and Hebrew language). I am still working at my school and will continue to do so until I change to another university in another city this fall. My new school will be mostly about music anyway, so musical theatre (mainly opera) is not really a problem – however, in at my current school people usually give a weird look when you say you work on musical theatre. When I specify and say “I’m writing about musicals!” they are very close just to shaking their heads and walking away.

Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present - MOMA, 2010.

Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present – MOMA, 2010.

This might be a little exaggerated, but still most theatre scholars – at least where I have studied for the most time – like to think of theatre as straight plays and performances/happenings as in Marina Abramović and her colleagues. This is not a bad thing because these theatrical forms are very important to what we do these days. Because of their direct appearance, they are very good to work with.

While researchers and scholars don’t seem to value musical theatre in general and musicals more specifically, many German theatregoers seem to love it. Although there are very clear distinctions between opera-lovers, and people who only go and see operettas or plays or classical concerts, most of the ‘common people’ seem to enjoy musicals. It’s not only easily recognizable when you go and see a performance of West Side Story or Kiss me, Kate at Komische Oper Berlin, but also looking at the season of summer (open air) theatre events.

Throughout the country, especially in smaller cities there are many (countless – I’m not kidding on this one!) open air festivals producing shows, mostly new productions of classics – a lot of them known for high quality musical theatre. One of these takes place in the city of Tecklenburg, which is such a small city that it does not even have a train station – but each and every year the city is packed in the summer with theatregoers. When I look up accommodations now for Sunday night in mid-August my online booking website of choice proudly tells me “Tecklenburg is booked 100% in your chosen time frame!” – and the people staying there over night certainly don’t come to see the sights.

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat in Tecklenburg.

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat in Tecklenburg.

Another example of it (although indoors) takes place in Fulda, another small city in Western German suburbia. For the last three years every summer a small production company rents the local theatre to show their original musicals in the theatre they opened their very first production ten years ago.

In these ten years they have written and produced five new musicals, mostly focusing on historic and/or Christian religious characters and events, with the most successful one being a musical version of the novel Pope Joan. The performances are usually sold out so early that they schedule additional performances, which leads to 10 (probably sold out) performances in six days.

As a theatre scholar my perspective on these productions actually is quite different from what I hear from other musical theatre enthusiasts. To me, each and every one of their shows more or less looks the same, with the same (or at least very similar) characters and with very similar music every time. Last but not least, all the instrumentals as well as some of the vocal backups are not live.

Watch this video on YouTube.

Trailer for Die Päpstin, the Pope Joan musical.

While many of our state funded theatres are struggling to find audiences during the season, these summer productions are selling out.

Probably it is the same in other countries, too. Isn’t it?

I mean you have to ask “Where are these people during the season?” or – if theatres’ arguments focus on the fact that there aren’t many people living in their areas – “Where do they come from in the summers?”

Actually the reason for the sold out musical productions in the summer might be as banal as people having more time to spend on entertainment that require leaving the house (opposite to watching TV) or saving special events like going to see shows for summer. But regardless of the actual reason, these sold out performances show that many Germans seem to like musicals for entertainment purposes.

It could be worse, right?

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