Tuesday, April 25, 2017

A Little Danish in La La Land

In the City of the Angels (now newly known as City of Stars), April 25, 2017 has been officially proclaimed “La La Land Day.”  To celebrate this momentous event, dancers wearing bright primary colors will be dangled from bungee cords down the side of the L.A. City Hall tower. That seems a fitting salute to this award-winning film, on what is sure to be another day of sun. 

L.A. is clearly besotted by a movie that pays tribute to its own wacked-out glory. I know people who’ve already bought their tickets to a big event scheduled in late May for the Hollywood Bowl:  a La La Land Concert, with the movie accompanied by a hundred-piece live orchestra and (presumably) by anyone who cares to sing along. 

Personally, these events aren’t for me, even though I thrill to the excitement of musical theatre. I grew up with a strong appreciation for musicals performed live, on stage, and it’s rare for me to see a movie musical that outshines its stage version. I’ll make an exception for West Side Story (great film!), but I firmly believe that a true stage metamusical, like A Chorus Line, shouldn’t even try to work as cinema. 

Which makes it curious that today’s Broadway producers keep looking to Hollywood for new material. Check out how many of the current long-running Broadway musicals originated as films: Aladdin, Kinky Boots, School of Rock, Waitress, The Lion King. And this season’s new hopefuls include musicalized stage versions of Anastasia, Amélie, and Groundhog Day.  

I’m particularly obsessed with stage musicals right now because a young writer who’s near and dear to me, Jeff Bienstock, is just back from Denmark, where his original musical (with composer Andrea Daly) had its world premiere. Their Legendale moves in and out of the videogame universe, and its cast includes a Wild Warrior, a Cow Maiden, a creepy Alchemist, and several Zombie Robots, along with more everyday folk. The head of Denmark’s Fredericia Theater, Søren Møller, snapped up Legendale when he saw a workshop production in New York City. As he told the opening night Danish crowd, the show made him feel he was watching beloved films of his childhood: ET, Back to the Future, Raiders of the Lost Ark . He emphasized that he fell in love with the Legendale script partly because of its cinematic possibilities. 

The rear of the Fredericia Theater stage is spanned by huge curved panels encrusted with thousands of LED lights. Through the magic of technology, Legendale’s audiences could see behind the actors such glowingly realistic effects as a gushing waterfall, a fiery explosion, soaring birds, and trees swaying gently in the wind.  In Søren’s words, Legendale is “changing the perspective of what theatre can be.” Other musicals included on the Fredericia Theater’s roster of late are direct stage adaptations of big Hollywood animated musicals: Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame and DreamWorks’ The Prince of Egypt. These too take advantage of the Danish theater’s spectacular electronic wizardry. So little Denmark, where per capita funding for cultural activities far exceeds anything we’ve ever had (or are likely to have) in the U.S., is expanding the horizons of theatre production by way of the inspiration of the cinema.

For the youngest generation of playgoers it may occasionally be hard to tell the difference. Somewhere on  Facebook’s Fredericia Theater site, I spotted mention of an overheard comment in praise of Legendale – “En pige på omkring syv år sagde: ‘Det var en god film’” Which of course is Danish for “A seven-year-old girl said, ‘That was a good movie.’”  

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