Thank You for the Music – Take a Chance on Mamma Mia!
What does it take to make a good musical? Great music, a touching and funny plot, charismatic actors. But success has many ingredients, and, as in the case with food, the same ingredients can make a delicious meal or a tasteless disaster. A lot depends on the chef and on the country where the food is served, with traditions, and national preferences. We met with Dmitry Bogachev, the general director of Stage Entertainment Russia, who brought the world famous musicals “Cats” and “Mamma Mia!” to Moscow.
By Natalia Shuvalova
“Mamma Mia!” is based on 22 songs by ABBA. It was first staged in 1999 in London and has been a great success throughout the world. On October 14th it opened its second year in Moscow.
“It is easy to make an event successful when it is on a stage once per month, or once a year. Good promotion and advertising can bring many people. People may find it horrible, but they already bought the ticket and brought in the income. With musicals it is different. We can attract by promotion the audience for the first 30, 60 or even 100 performances, but if people do not like it – there is nothing we can do about that. It is sort of a law in show business; if people’s talk is negative, you’d better close the show and not invest a ruble in further promotion as it would not work,” says Dmitry.
”...Russians love Abba! Everyone responds to their songs. At first, I was surprised to see people dancing in the isles at the end of the performance, now I take it for granted...”
He knows what he is talking about. There have been several glaring examples of failures (fortunately, not with the Stage Entertainment). “When Boris Krasnov brought ‘42nd Street’ here, he made every possible mistake. First, it was in English; second, the performing group was from New York City. Imagine that you build a space shuttle and then use it to fly from Moscow to Sochi, that’s the best comparison for his expenses. Filipp Kirkorov did a little better when he brought ‘Chicago’, but for some reason, the hall was half empty so they had to close down. The producer can’t think only about his personal preferences if he wants to make it profitable!”
‘Cats’ was not that popular with Russians. Stage Entertainment Russia did not expect much from that production. ‘Cats’ is more intellectual in terms of music and poetry; it is not for the big masses. Nonetheless, it already had become a tradition to open with ‘Cats’ in many countries. So they thought that Russia should not be an exception. But when choosing Mamma Mia! to be the next production, they didn’t have any doubts about its success.
“Russians love Abba! Everyone responds to their songs. At first, I was surprised to see people dancing in the aisles at the end of the performance, now I take it for granted. Besides, the story itself is so lovely, funny and touching. It speaks to everyone, as it is about love. The producers made a decision to choose the actors who look like common people, of different body shapes, so that the audience can identify with the story. On top of that, the story takes place on a sunny Greek island. It turns out that this is of great importance in our climate which lacks sun so much of the time. The only countries where Mamma Mia! did not get that hot response of the audience are warm and sunny Spain and Italy, which is understandable!”
The licensed production is under “tight control” of the Western producers. No changes are allowed in the foreign productions, not even a slight change in a vocal part or dance movement. However, Russian actors coming through the traditional drama school bring a special flavor into the show. Bjorn Ulvaeus and Anni-Frid Lingstad from ABBA came personally for the opening, took part in the rehearsals and even in the casting. Anni-Frid called Natalia Bystrova “the best Sophie in the world”. The songs were translated into Russian by the famous pop-songwriter and singer Alexey Kortnev.
“We had a kind of tender among poets (I will not mention their names) for ‘Cats’,” continues Mr. Bogachev, “Alexey won being an excellent poet with the good taste and the feeling of the music. As for Mamma Mia!, we called him straight away, because these are pop-songs that he is so good at. But it does not mean that we won’t work with any other poets.”
It takes about 1 year to complete the licensed production, including the time for casting. The standards for the actors are very high. Many Hollywood celebrities started with musicals. It gives an actor great training; learning how to sing, dance, act and do it live night after night.
“We have only one day off – Monday,” says Natalia Bystrova, who plays one of the main characters (Sophie). “The show lasts 3 hours, and on week-ends we perform twice. Besides, we have constant training sessions, vocal classes, and rehearsals. It really demands lots of stamina but, if you love what you do, it gives back a lot.”
Natalia moved to Moscow from Yekaterinburg a year ago, when she was finally OK’d for her role. The previous year she came to Moscow fi ve or six times for the casting. “I would arrive in the morning, spend the whole day at the casting and the very same evening I would take a flight back home and wait for the reply for the another three to six months. Then do it again, until I was given the role.”
Since childhood Natalia used to go in for figure-skating, gymnastics, theater studio, musical school, jazz studio. She graduated from drama school and performed in the local theater and was a host of an evening program on the local TV. “I tried all I could in my native town and I wanted to move beyond that so much. I like it in Moscow! Of course, we have to work hard. Many people cannot bear the stress, they want to go home, cry. For me, it is harder to sit at home and do nothing. I am happy being involved in this project,” she smiles.
”... Maybe, the difference is in our Russian soul, in how we always put too much of ourselves in every role, as if playing for the last time…”
Today she dreams to study to Europe. “Every time when I go to London to see a new musical, I am amazed by the actors’ skills. I wonder how they can technically bear such intense work. It seems they do not know what it means to get sick, to have some shots to keep the voice in good shape or any other manipulations that we have to go through to keep up. I want to learn how they do it! Maybe, the difference is in our Russian soul, in how we always put too much of ourselves in every role, as if playing for the last time…”
Though, maybe due to this Russian soul some call the production the best, even better than in London… “Coming to the show, some say that the music must be a recording. But if they look into the pit they will see 10 musicians. If they peek behind the curtains, they will see two big plasma screens so that the actors can see the conductors. Every singer has a microphone which is not noticeable because it is skin color. The fact that people think that it is recorded only proves the high quality of the job that the group does”, says Stage Entertainment Russia promotion manager, Andrey Orlov.
Hollywood is producing a screen version of the musical with Meryl Streep and Pierce Brosnan. The release is planned for next summer. That means that it might make Mamma Mia! stay in Russia for another or 3rd year. Bogachev has another, professional, opinion.
“It is hard to tell how the screen version will infl uence the live show. When ‘Chicago’ was screened, the musical lost its audience; with ‘Hairspray’ it is the opposite.” Anyway, this year the show goes on. By the way, one of the next musicals to come to Moscow might be ‘Lion King’.