Have you ever tried to plant tulips in the Sahara desert, drain an ocean, or fly into outer space on a broom, like the Wicked Witch of the West?
All of these things are very similar to an attempt to stage a new musical in Russia.
The birthplace of Russian ballet, vodka and the balalaika has been quite skeptical of musicals in general for a long time. Opera? Yes, this is serious, this is deep. A dramatic play? Of course, no problem; we are, after all, the home of Stanislavsky — the theater he founded still stands in the heart of Moscow and is quite popular even today). But musicals…that is not very serious; it superficial and lighthearted and doesn’t seem to take root in Russian soil. And of course it has to be tacky — everything ablaze with fire, too many feathers and sequins, and complete razzle dazzle. I, personally, while studying at the theater school (the one at that famous Stanislavsky theater), was berated for a long time for loving the art form otherwise known here as theatrical “nonsense.” This was the case 15, even 10 years ago, when real Broadway musicals first made their way to the Moscow stages and buses with the famous logos of Chicago, Cats, Mamma Mia! and their French counterparts Notre Dame and Romeo and Juliet appeared on the streets. Fortunately, things change and people’s perceptions evolve. As proof, for example, just yesterday I stopped by the theater and found out that An O. Henry Christmas is sold out until the summer. The musical took root!
When our team was planning to stage a musical on the second stage of the Moscow Pushkin Drama Theatre, we didn’t know yet what the show would be. After I produced and co-directed the first professional Russian production of Spring Awakening, I really wanted to keep following that same path and show the Russian audiences a new side of my favorite genre. Musicals can be different. Huge sets, expensive costumes and a multi-million budget aren’t the key factors contributing to the success of a show. If there is a good story that touches our hearts and great music, the show can be played on a couple of chairs. Like Staniskavsky said, “If you have an actor and a mat, you have theater.” Right now Russia is going through a pretty hard time and I was looking for something a bit more positive than teenage suicide. What can be more uplifting and hopeful than the stories of O’Henry? It was ideal — the author is very well known in Russia and surely loved in his native America. There must be some musical written somewhere based on his writings!! And that’s how it all began — I just simply Googled “O’Henry musical” and in a matter of minutes I was on Samuel French’s website and the cursor was moving as if by itself, guided by some unseen force, toward my fate. And there it was — An O. Henry Christmas!
Fortunately, there was an audio track available online and by that evening I knew that this was the show I would stage. Peter Ekstrom’s unforgettable music, delicate and intricate at times and strong and forceful at other, fit the atmosphere of the play and its characters perfectly. It doesn’t overshadow the play (as is often the case with musicals); it doesn’t simply coexist with the story, it complements the plot and characters, making it fuller and richer, as if O’Henry and Peter sat down and wrote the show together.
My team started working. The tasks before us were not easy: a complex genre for Russia, a new and strange performance style (no one has ever staged a chamber musical in Moscow until now), the actors (considering the Russian’s love for drama, there is only a handful of “singing” actors in repertoire theater); and finally the stage — small but technically very complicated. However, these hurdles were overcome quite quickly. After all, we were doing what we love most! Our set designer, Timofey Ryabushinsky, built a wonderful ‘retro’ space, reminiscent of the brown paper used to wrap presents in the beginning of the twentieth century and of early illustrations of O’Henry. The costumes were designed by the best—if anybody in Russia loves and knows anything about American historical dress it’s our costume designer Biktoria Sevryukova. We were so close to success, the first show, and tickets were already sold out. That is until one of our actors became very ill. Just two days left, lots of nerves and a new actor comes in, has to learn the part, the staging and a German accent. And finally, opening night! I watched the audience (as I always do, because I’m just so curious to see their reactions), and I suddenly got chills — wait a minute, this play isn’t about world war, famine, this isn’t Hamlet. So why is everyone so still and serious? Did I put on a bad show? No, luckily, I was mistaken. They were all crying, and these tears were proof that I had chosen the right musical and that Peter Ekstrom’s brilliant music and O’Henry’s timeless stories had touched the audience’s hearts deeply and left no one indifferent.
At first we just wanted An O. Henry Christmas to be a good show. Nobody expected the critics and audiences to love it as much as they do, or that it would be nominated for the most important theatrical award in Russia, the “Golden Mask,” in six categories, including “Best Musical.” Some film producers are even considering the possibility of a film version now. But most importantly, the project has brought me so many wonderful new encounters and relationships. Peter Ekstrom, the composer, has not only become a good friend but a close collaborator. Our relationship grows stronger each day, despite the long distance. And very soon that same Stanislavsky theater will show the public a new musical with Peter’s music and my staging. I have come to know the Samuel French library, which I use regularly and found the wonderful musical End of the Rainbow, which I hope to begin working on very soon. And last but not least, An O. Henry Christmas has given me a creative team that doesn’t know the word “impossible” and with whom I wouldn’t be afraid to do the unthinkable, even plant tulips in the desert.
At time of publication, An O. Henry Christmas won Best Director and Best Designer in the Golden Mask Awards.
For the companion piece, click here. Photo Credit: Yuri Bogomaz.