How we do it in Germany: We might have overcome the ‘classic drama-musical’

Do you remember when Rebecca – The Musical was to open on Broadway and then didn’t? If you remember that you probably also remember that it premiered in Vienna, Austria, in 2006, and has since then played in various cities in Japan, South Korea, Sweden, Finland, Russia, the Ukraine, Hungary, Romania as well as Germany and Switzerland.

Pia Douwes and Markus Pol in the Berlin production of Kunze & Levay's Elisabeth.

Pia Douwes and Markus Pol in the Berlin production of Kunze & Levay’s Elisabeth.

The writers of the show, Michael Kunze and Sylvester Levay, have been kind of THE writers for (original) musical theatre in Germany for a long time. Especially Michael Kunze still does quite some work within the German musical theatre ‘community’ – mainly translations. Anyway – they have written a number of ‘drama-musicals’ as they call it (if I quote Kunze correctly it’s because they have the structure of an Aristotelian drama), all of them being very much alike. Two of them premiered in Vienna and two of them in Japan. Each of these have an authentic protagonist – such as Empress Elisabeth ‘Sissi’ of Austria, the composer Mozart or Marie Antoinette – and opposite them a (more or less) fictional character. They can be either a fictional variation of the protagonist’s murderer (in the case of Elisabeth), a child alter ego of the protagonist himself (Mozart fantasizing about his childhood) or a kind of political activist poor girl like Magrid Arnaud opposite Marie Antoinette.

However, Rebecca doesn’t quite fit in. Obviously it does not feature a real-life-person as a protagonist, as it is based on a novel. And although fiction plays its part in this show as well as in the book, there can be no such a thing as a fictional counterpart right on stage in the same way as the other shows I mentioned. In a way this type of antagonist is taken to a whole new level with Rebecca being dead as she is and with her mostly being powerful because people think about her the way they think about her – I mean is this one of the central topics of the book.

A scene from the Stuttgart production of Rebecca. (Photo: Morris Mac Matzen)

A scene from the Stuttgart production of Rebecca. (Photo: Morris Mac Matzen)

Thinking about it, adapting the novel for the stage probably was a risky move mostly for the producers in Vienna (although they are funded by the Austrian government/the city of Vienna) – although the novel is known in the German speaking countries it really wasn’t a big hit that everyone knew. Of course the writers were known especially in Vienna since their big hit Elisabeth (which I mentioned in my very first post here) premiered there – but how many people come and see a show just because the writers wrote another (hit) show back in the early 90s?

Just being able to produce a new show like this is a huge benefit of state funded theatre, right? – At least in 2006 the Vereinigten Bühnen Wien (Joined Theatres of Vienna) were able to and Rebecca probably was their last (kind of) long running show.

What brings me back to the title of this post. When I think of Rebecca and other shows just like this I really want to think of the 90s. In its dramatic aspects most of the Kunze/Levay shows are very much like the more dramatic Broadway shows from this decade, like Parade or Ragtime. When I think about all the bigger scale shows currently running in Germany and the German speaking countries, the pre-Broadway production of Rocky, which is still open in Hamburg, is probably the closest we get to a more serious, ‘dramatic’ musical right now.

In most of the other cases it’s all about fun.

And as a small bonus, here comes a song from Rebecca – it basically was one of the two songs that kept me worrying for quite some time when I heard it was Broadway-bound. I kind of really did not want the American audiences to think that Europeans think Americans are all the way over the top as shown in the clip below. Have fun with “I’m an American woman”!

Watch this video on YouTube.

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