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Taking musicals seriously

by Tove Djupsjöbacka

Is music theatre a cash cow or a quality art form, or something in between? Who should perform musicals and why? Some Finnish institutions have become a cog in the machine of the international music industry.

A lively debate boiled up last autumn when the Finnish National Opera announced that it was going to produce its first-ever musical, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera. Should Finland’s only opera house really spend its resources on a musical, when practically every other theatre in the country was already doing it? And then there is the training aspect: there is work available but very few opportunities to qualify for it. The music theatre programme at the Lahti University of Applied Sciences has been discontinued, and the Theatre Academy offers only occasional possibilities for specialising in the genre.

One of Finland’s most outspoken advocates of music theatre is Jussi Tuurna, a composer, conductor and musician who was also lecturer in music at the Theatre Academy from 2000 to 2012. As far back as 2008, he wrote in the Theatre Academy newsletter: “Music theatre is here to stay, whether we like it or not. Today’s student generation is independent of the ancient, value-laden pigeonholing of types and genres of theatre. … Music theatre is a demanding genre that requires professionals with competence in drama, dance and music. … What is interesting and important is that the hierarchical opposition of ‘serious’ drama and music theatre is finally collapsing under its own absurdity. In the end, it is all about the works: their substance and their arguments.”

Teatteri & Tanssi, Finland’s only specialist periodical focusing on stage arts, surveyed the country’s offering in musicals in a major feature (1::2014). Annukka Ruuskanen gave a thorough review of everything that was going on, from classics to newly written works. She appreciated the talents of the performers but found shortcomings in the productions and overall vision. “It would seem that musicals are not considered to require the same level of dramatic interpretation as drama.”

Guest performers and musicians cost money, and even with elevated ticket prices a musical production is not exactly a licence to print money. Music theatre is supposed to make money, but also to maintain a high standard of quality. “Theatres need good musicals, but so do audiences,” concludes Ruuskanen.

The colour of money

In Swedish-speaking circles in particular, the Swedish Theatre in Helsinki has been given a hard time for its expansive productions of Mamma mia! and Kristina från Duvemåla by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, even though they have received spectacular reviews in the press. Should Finland’s leading Swedish-speaking theatre really spend its resources on such extravagant musical productions? The company was the first in Finland to stage Kristina från Duvemåla, which ended up making a loss despite being an artistic triumph and completely sold out. The theatre building itself underwent an expensive renovation in the meantime, which naturally had an impact on the financial result.

Johan Storgård, director of the Swedish Theatre, is well used to talking about musicals – and money. He points out that there is no such thing as a purely commercial theatre in Finland.

“Most theatres in Finland are private enterprises in the sense that they are owned and operated by associations, foundations or business enterprises, but they all receive subsidies from both central and local government, covering up to 50% or 60% of their budgets.”

Without the government grant system, few theatres could even dream of staging large-scale productions, and in smaller communities it would not be possible for theatres to operate at all. The funding providers do not, however, have any say in what the theatres do.

“Theatres put on musicals to make money! We need the box-office income, but on the other hand the productions are also more expensive. If you can manage this sort of arithmetic, you are capable of running a non-profit private theatre company.”

In order to make enough money, theatres often opt for works that have proved a commercial success and that are already known to the public at large, such as The Sound of Music or Fiddler on the Roof. Theatres are free to create their own productions of such works; they are not obliged to follow a predetermined concept where everything has to look exactly like the original.

New works often emerge locally

New works for music theatre are created regularly in Finland. In recent years, the Finnish National Theatre has created two major premiere productions by author Pirkko Saisio and composer Jussi Tuurna: Homo! in 2011 and Slava – Oligarkkien ooppera (Oligarch opera) in 2015. The Tampere Workers’ Theatre created a new musical named Anna-Liisa, based on the classic play by Minna Canth, for its 110th anniversary. The production included a healthy dose of folk music and folk dancing. And these are only a few examples. Many of these productions were innovative and of high quality but short-lived, especially relative to the resources invested in them. The musical dedicated to the life of the legendary Finnish schlager singer Katri-Helena is one of the few that has been produced in several cities in Finland, e.g. Kouvola and Joensuu.

Johan Storgård, however, is of the opinion that very few new music-theatre works are being written. Many newcomers seem to be chips off the same block which, despite their initial success, are rarely revived. “Finnish stories of course always have an audience in Finland. But local is international: it is possible to frame a local story so that it has international relevance. The topic must be unique, something that an audience can relate to; then the work can be adapted to local circumstances wherever it is produced.”

Storgård notes that the creators of a musical do not necessarily even intend their work to attract wider interest. “But you also have to think: what are we writing and for what market? If you write for a Finnish audience, your work usually does not travel well. There are exceptions, of course. You have to have a story to tell and an audience interested in hearing it. Then you can recoup your investment. Creating a full-blown music-theatre work from scratch costs about €200,000 before you can even decide whether you are going to perform it or not.”

Productions are exportable

The Swedish Theatre has opted for a policy differing from that of other Finnish theatres. Founding its own production and export company, ACE-production, has enabled the Swedish Theatre to sell its productions and its expertise to other operators. Storgård is therefore used to looking at the music-theatre sector from the perspective of both buyer and seller.

“When I started in this job in 2002, I said that we would continue the tradition of creating new Finland-Swedish music-theatre works, but not as one-off productions. We must design our productions so that they can be exported: they have to be built so that they can be packed up and sent out and reassembled somewhere else. We can create a revenue stream with that. An investment is for life, not just for one production.”

And so it came to pass. Some of the Swedish Theatre’s major productions, such as Kick, Spin the Musical and PlayMe, have been performed abroad. PlayMe is a unique comprehensive experience involving virtual auditions and real-life talent hunts, a web-based community, an entertainment game offered online and of course the performance itself. It has been produced in Germany and China, and there are talks under way for further productions. Johan Storgård has just returned home from a week of negotiations in China about future music-theatre projects for children. “These are long and difficult processes,” he says. “What we are selling is knowledge, immaterial rights and design.”

ACE-production is also the licensing agent for the rights, for instance, to Kristina från Duvemåla in Finland, the Baltic States, Poland and Russia. And in addition to music theatre, the Swedish Theatre is making major investments in promoting Finnish drama. This year, the company is participating in the Fringe festival in Edinburgh for the sixth time with Finnish plays performed in English.

Show me the money

It is often difficult to fit art and money into the same sentence. Commercial success is a dubious quantity among artists.

“You must have the courage to look truth in the eye,” says Johan Storgård with equanimity. “All culture costs money. We easily take it for granted that the state supports us, that there is someone looking after us. If we use taxpayers’ money to make investments, who should profit?”

His answer is clear: “We must sell what we have, things that have already been financed and subsidised. The majority of musical productions in Finland are funded with public money. We must take responsibility for our funding and do something with it. In that way we can pay Finnish society back.” And as for commercial success in the musical world, Storgård says laconically: “All musicals are business. You are paying for your ticket, after all.”

Perhaps not all of his colleagues in the theatre world have understood the benefit of having an agency of one’s own. Johan Storgård has come up against all kinds of prejudice. “We are the only theatre company in Finland that operates like this. But the only way to grow is to open the window and look out, to find new challenges.”

Johan Storgårds has exactly the same day-to-day job as many others: finding money for his projects.

“There is a huge market out there, but it is difficult to find the private capital that you need to get to that market. There is some startup money available for cultural exports that you can apply for to the Ministry of Education and Culture, and it is a lifeline as such, but it is not enough to build a solid bridge to market.”

He criticises the fact that cultural exports often translate into sending Finnish productions on tour abroad. “Sure, if someone is willing to pay for that, then why not? But if we have to pay for it ourselves, there is no revenue in it for us. And if you want to have revenue, you have to have a product that you can reproduce and that people can get interested in. Performing rights are a concrete thing that you can sell. We have incredibly talented composers, authors, directors, set designers, and so on – and we are exporting practically nothing! Musicals are an international industry!”

Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi

Featured photo: PlayMe production in China.