American Musicals? Hello, “Schikaneder” and “Mozart!”

Mark Seibert as Emanuel Schikaneder. Photo credit: VBW.

When thinking about new original musical theatre, our immediate thoughts turn to the US, particularly New York, and London as centres of development. Whilst growing numbers of new musicals are being workshopped, tried out and mounted in cities away from the harsh lights of Broadway and the West End, few theatre fans grasp the extent of work produced for, and targeted to, the ever-growing markets of central Europe and Asia. With international faith in the US at an all time low, perhaps it’s time for musical theatre fans to widen their focus and look beyond traditional routes for the next hit. In Vienna, for example, something quite remarkable is continuing to grow.

Vereinigte Bühnen Wien, or VBW International, may not be instantly recognisable to US and UK theatre fans, but in Europe it’s synonymous with exceptional musical theatre. Based in Vienna, at the beautiful Ronacher and Raimund theatres, VBW’s original productions have been seen in 21 countries and by more than 22 million people in 16 languages.

There are, of course, German-language productions of familiar titles, such as Mamma Mia!, Evita and Mary Poppins, that bring a Broadway and West End stamp to VBW audiences. And the European and Asian markets are often easily dismissed by both critics and academics as favoring “Europop”-style shows that are out of touch with Broadway’s current brand, seemingly having more in common with 1980s-type mega-musicals. Shows like Dance of the Vampires and the ongoing saga of Rebecca the Musical threaten to turn American audiences off the brand anyway. But it’s certainly unfair to judge either European taste or creative productivity by controversy.

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Speaking to VBW’s artistic director and book writer, Christian Struppeck, I was inspired by his company’s commitment and international success. Speaking ahead of the opening of their latest musical, Don Camillo & Peppone, based on the legendary film versions of Giovannino Guareschi’s “Mondo Piccolo” novels, it was clear that this company prides itself on pushing boundaries.

“It’s the most challenging discipline to write a new musical that’s not based on a known title,” Struppeck told me. “We have this tradition of developing musicals over 28 years; this is the 10th show we’ve developed here — and we’re unique in Europe for that. We license our productions all over the world, into 16 languages, so in addition to our theatres here, between 700,000 and a million people see a VBW show around the world each year.”

I wonder if Vienna’s sense of musical history means that audiences here are more attracted to original work than elsewhere in the world.

“They are more open in Vienna because they’re used to it,” Struppeck says. “But it’s not like you announce a title and they storm the box office. But they expect it from us — that’s why we get subsidies,” he replies. “Our most successful show worldwide is Elisabeth; it’s the most popular musical in Japan. They come to this city because of the show. We’ve just opened Mozart! in Shanghai; they’re very interested in this style of show.”

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The company’s experience of growing to achieve an outstanding reputation has attracted Oscar-, Grammy- and Tony-winning creatives: Stephen Schwartz, Frank Wildhorn, Dave Steward and Trevor Nunn have all worked on successful original productions for VBW. After The New York Post broke the news that box-office gold Hugh Jackman was reportedly “interested” in starring in a yet-to-be-announced Broadway-run of VBW’s current success, Schikaneder, international attention was placed on the new musical, which explores the turbulent history of the creation of Mozart’s opera, The Magic Flute. With a tricky title and somewhat unknown source material, it’s an idea that has been met with some skepticism.

“If we ever take this show to New York or London, it will have to have a different title,” Struppeck admits. “We are talking to producers and there is interest in New York… There are some producers who think it could be very appealing because it’s unusual and new.”

The show boasts a mature and delicious score by Schwartz, an intricate book by Stuppeck and Nunn’s direction. .The scale is representative of VBW’s accomplished style, with a glorious mise en scene. Whether or not Schikaneder finds life in an English-speaking market, the piece is a triumph for Schwartz and Stuppeck.

Similar to the US and UK model, the company begins with “lab work,” which develops subject matter, book and music across a number of years. In many cases, the shows are written in English first, depending on the creative team involved, before being translated meticulously into German ahead of the première. It takes skill, craft and insight from creative teams to ensure that any show works in multiple languages, and Schikaneder is a prime example.

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Away from the strictly commercial pressures of Broadway, VBW musicals are also developed in a distinctly European style; there’s an openness to experimentation and the organic nature of theatre creation. With a deeper cultural history and an understanding of the core principals of dramaturgy, and with deep-rooted traditions stemming from national theatre models for nonprofit funding, they nurture their shows into fruition.

Sweeping and intelligent, Schikaneder remains remarkably “musical theatre” in its sound whilst employing a distinct feel musically, given its subject matter. Fans of Schwartz’s Godspell, Pippin, and of course Wicked, will appreciate his ability to create a modern score that sounds like something from the 18th century.

Vienna has music running through it like an artery. If most tourists come for a connection to Mozart, Haydn and the authentic classical sound, VBW should be on any theatre fan’s radar — especially those looking for a new classical sound.