Musical Country

Oslo has become the Broadway of the North in the held of musical theatre and Norwegian musical productions are among the best in the world.

Mona Levin

Music and theatre have always been closely related; not only in opera, where music is necessarily the dominant element, but also in the spoken theatre, and of course in films and television where it has a subsidiary function. With the advent of the musical this century and its increasingly strong position since the 1960s, the term “musical theatre” has acquired new meaning.

“Musical” is an abbreviation of “musical play” or “musical comedy” - expressions used on Broadway from the 1920s onwards. The musical was developed in the US as a simplified version of the European operetta, which had fossilized into a succession of silly plots about gods and princes in imaginary countries embroiled in a series of highly unlikely events. Musicals usually deal with ordinary people in believable situations and more realistic settings.

Under the influence of jazz, frivolous vaudeville and 19th century minstrel shows, the musical evolved into a specifically American art form. With the addition of the American enthusiasm for spectacle (which has since become international and has experienced a new lease of life in London’s West End), you have the recipe for the typical early musicals: light entertainment and thin, romantic plots of the type boy meets girl, boy looses girl, boy gets girl, interspersed with glittering song and dance acts or tear-jerking ballads. Under the influence of writers and composers like Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Lerner and Loewe, Lorentz Hart, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Cole Porter - and later Jules Styne, Jerry Herman, Leonard Bemstein, Cy Coleman, John Kander, Frank Loesser, Marvin Hamlisch and many others, the musical was developed and defined.

Form and content merged, the songs became integrated in and furthered the action, and with Oklahoma! in -1943 the dance sequences also began to serve the same function. The characters were better defined and the plot addressed more serious matters than falling in love with the boy next door in springtime. However, we should not forget that Showboat took up racist issues as early as 1928.

Stephen Sondheim was the first to introduce the through-composed musical, and without his pioneering achievements it is unlikely that British Andrew Lloyd Webber or French Claude-Michel Schönberg (Les Misérables, Miss Saigon) would have had the success they enjoy today. The musical has now become a kind of contemporary opera, primarily developed in Europe where opera first originated. None of this would have been possible if the composers had not possessed considerable musical expertise and talent.

Norwegian musical theatre holds a special position in Europe today for exactly the same reason. Top professional musicians were involved from the start.

In the beginning was the Word! But music was a natural part of the repertoires of Norwegian theatres from the beginning too. Master violinist Ole Bull founded Den Nationale Scene in Bergen in 1850. (He also appointed 23-year old Henrik Ibsen as a director in 1851!). Musicians from the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra, founded in 1765, still play in the theatre from time to time.

Composer Johan Halvorsen was a major influence on the position of music in the theatre. He conducted the large orchestra at the National Theatre from its opening in 1899 and composed a considerable quantity of fine music for plays and ballets. Det Norske Teatret opened its doors in 1913 with Michael Flagstad (Kirsten Flagstad’s father) as conductor and six permanent musicians. Det Nye Teater often staged operettas, and even operas now and then. Kirsten Flagstad sang there in Dido and Aeneas as late as 1953.

Norwegian theatres had permanent orchestras until the 1950s, when they were hit by financial crisis. In the 60s and 70s, however, as modern musical theatre became an increasingly important part of repertoires, musicians were gradually employed again, and dancers too.

Det Norske Teatret has played a major role in this development, and Norwegian musical productions are closely associated with the name of Egil Monn-Iversen, the theatre's Musical Advisor for over thirty years. During this period it has become one of Europe's major musical theatres, one of the few to be offered new musicals that producers all over the world are begging to be allowed to stage, for instance Phantom of the Opera and Miss Saigon.

"Happy is the theatre that has an Egil Monn-Iversen!" said leading British producer Cameron Mackintosh after the Norwegian premiere of Les Misérables in 1988. Det Norske Teatret was one of the first in the world to stage the musical after London and New York, and when Mackintosh, Schönberg and Boublil attended the premiere it was a feather in the cap of the whole ensemble.

The respect in which Monn-Iversen is held by this British producer, who also uses him as his adviser in the other Scandinavian countries, is not least due to Det Norske Teatret's production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cats, one of the opening performances when, in 1985, it moved from its former rather primitive quarters to one of the most advanced theatre buildings in northern Europe.

But the real breakthrough for Det Norske Teatret and the beginning of major musical production in Norway came with West Side Story in 1965. Leonard Bemstein himself sat in the audience and applauded at the première! Outside, the ticket queues stretched all around the block.

One important point should be mentioned in this connection. Det Norske Teatret plays only in New Norwegian, a minority language based on rural dialects. The idea that this “country bumpkin” theatre was to stage an American musical was greeted with scornful smiles by the urban elite. However, language prejudice was confounded by quality.

Any theatre that has had to make its way in a hostile world, that has been the target of whistles, rotten eggs and tomatoes as Det Norske Teatret has done, knows that criticism can only be silenced by quality. The theatre's success was due to the fact that director Tormod Skagestad accepted the musical as a serious art form and found top professionals to foster it, with Monn-Iversen leading the way.

The demand for quality was inexorable, related not only to the music but also to the literary content. Zorba, The Man from La Mancha, and Fiddler on the Roof are all based on excellent literary material. After West Side Story nothing was impossible.

One magnificent musical after another was produced on Det Norske Teatret's stage; it became synonymous with a level of musical expertise previously unknown in Scandinavia. The expertise was created by long-term co-operation between professionals, and by consciously deve1oping an ensemble capable of achieving high singing, dancing and acting standards. (Norwegian institutional theatres have permanent ensembles and seldom use freelancers).

The Norwegian State Academy of Music, the National College of Ballet and Dance and the National College of Operatic Art were all established during the same period, centuries later than in neighbouring countries but in time to provide the theatres with a generation of classically-trained musicians, singers and dancers. Monn-Iversen collected the most versatile of them at Det Norske Teatret.

Egil Monn-Iversen holds many top positions in Norwegian musical life and his name figures as Musical Director on nine out of ten theatre programmes at institutional or private theatres - and not only here in Norway. Both Sweden and Denmark have adopted him and his team, the "Monn-Iversen stable", which primarily includes director and choreographer Runar Borge and scenographer Svein Lund-Roland. Producing musicals in Norway outside the institutional theatres has become prohibitively expensive. The population is just too small. But a production that can use the same sets and costumes in Stockholm, Copenhagen, Gothenburg and Oslo can pay its way.

The rights for the team's latest Stockholm success, the first stage version of the film Fame, have now been acquired by the American Fame group, and Runar Borge will initially be directing his own version in Hollywood, Frankfurt, Amsterdam and Sydney, Australia. While Monn-Iversen formerly travelled to New York and London to acquire musical rights, people are now coming to him!

In contrast with most other countries, the state-funded institutional theatres in Norway also stage musicals. In 1953, however, on the initiative of Egil Monn-Iversen, musical theatre finally made its breakthrough in the private sector with – A Chorus Line.

This was a collective effort where all the participants, onstage, backstage and in the orchestra pit, had shares in the production. A Chorus Line was a fantastic success, paving the way for a series of classical musicals produced on a commercial basis, such as My Fair Lady, La Cage aux Folles, The Sound of Music, Annie, Sweet Charity and Hello Dolly.

The Sound of Music and Annie beat all previous records. They were both directed by Daniel Bohr, the Danish-Argentinian who in 1985 became head of the Bergen International Festival, where he presented Leif Ove Andsnes and Truls Mørk - currently our two greatest international musicians - and commissioned the musical Which Witch from the Dollie de Luxe duo. It failed miserably in London but is still popular in Norway after almost ten years. Incidentally, Ingrid Bjørnov of Dollie de Luxe studied conducting under Egil Monn-Iversen.

Before Monn-Iversen, who had a jazz background and originally intended to be a church musician, had reached the age of 25, he was a director of Chat Noir, Norway's most famous traditional variety theatre. He started his own company, which gradually expanded to 200 employees and included recording and film companies, variety shows, regular theatres and impresario activities.

When his administrative responsibilities became too time-consuming he left it all, after hand-picking successors who have now all become influential on the Norwegian entertainment scene.

If you ask this versatile gentleman what he really is, he will answer “a musician”. If you ask him if he has power, he will answer that he has influence. He is driven by enormous enthusiasm, almost fanaticism, in his uncompromising quest for artistic quality. Art is not democratic. The primary target is the public, and they have the right to the best possible performances.

They say Egil Monn-Iversen does more in one day than others do in three, but in fact he is probably just one day ahead of everyone else. He is controversial and used to getting his own way but accepts opposing views from people he respects.

There are numerous myths about this apparently so phlegmatic man most of them are true, at least those that tell of volcanic outbursts of temper. In Bergen in 1984, where a strike among orchestra musicians threatened to stop Grieg's until then unknown symphony five minutes before it went on the air to 500 million people, Egil Monn-Iversen exploded. The programme went according to plan. But he is also a man who conducts his orchestra with tears in his eyes where he feels the kick that he invests everything in ensuring the public shall experience.

When Broadway dried up at the end of the 60s and kicks were few and far between, he created the Norwegian musical. Sporadic efforts had been made in the 50s. Finn Ludt started the Norwegian musical tradition with his version of Aristophanes' Lysistrata in 1951 at Oslo Nye Teater, following it the next year with Trost i Taklampa, an enormous success at Det Norske Teatret.

On the basis of good Norwegian literature and a structure similar to Fiddler on the Roof, Egil Monn-Iversen wrote a number of extremely successful musicals in the 1970s - the most well known being Bør Børson Jr. about a speculator during the 1920s boom and Ungen (The Kid) about love and single mothers in the poor working classes. Musically, he combines international light music with a Norwegian sound. He may choose country dances, street ballads or Norwegian folk music as his musical base, but he includes elements of European baroque, jazz or intricate Sondheim-style melody and rhythm as well. Monn-Iversen's musical humour is also demonstrated in hysterically funny parodies, and guess who laughs his head off when they top the hit lists!

At Det Norske Teatret a new variation of musical theatre also emerged under his influence; cabaret performances based on popular composers such as French Jacques Brel and Gilbert Becaud, Swedish Evert Taube or Greek Theodorakis. Piaf was one of the greatest successes ever. With Stephen Sondheim and Andrew Lloyd Webber, the English language musical returned in the 80’s, and the theatre's most famous productions in recent years are Sweeny Todd, Cats and Les Misérables.

Audiences have become accustomed to finding grandiose dramatic musicals at Det Norske and charming 1940s classics at Oslo Nye, which has chosen its own route and produces entertaining musical comedies such as Kiss Me, Kate, Guys and Dolls Pal Joey and Anything Goes- good old shows in fresh, modern packaging. Conductors Magne Amdahl and Roy Hellvin, and particularly director and choreographer Wayne McKnight have a unique talent for this genre, which spreads laughter and happiness rather than floods of tears!

In recent years, a new generation of composers has begun to make its name in the field of musical theatre, and many of them started out at Det Norske Teatret, where they were encouraged to find their feet as composers or conductors. Henning Sommerro is a prolific musician who bases his work on folk songs from central Norway. His music reflects his experience as both church organist and pop musician, and he is a creative composer of melodic modem folk songs. Musicals by Sommerro, who is extremely talented and of whom great things are expected, have been performed at several Oslo theatres as well as in Bergen and Trondheim, his home base.

Knut Skodvin used to play double bass in the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra and is presently conductor and in-house composer at Den Nationale Scene in Bergen. In addition to composing music in all genres from pop to opera, Skodvin has written several successful musicals.

Originally a bass-player in a rock band, Svein Gundersen is another important name in musical theatre. His children's musical Jungelboken (The Jungle Book, based on Kipling's hovel) has achieved formidable success, and in Isfront (Icy Front) he also dared to tackle the sensitive issue of the fate of women who fraternised with Germans during the occupation. He writes commercially in the best sense of the term, and Sondheim may lurk somewhere in the background. Several of his singles have figured high on the hit lists.

Ketil Bjørnstad's background is diametrically opposed to Gundersen’s. Raised in the classical tradition, he has been involved in all types of music, from jazz to Beethoven. His style is romantic but clearly influenced by jazz.

The future fate of musicals in Norway is uncertain. Judging by previous experience they are too expensive for the private theatres and only the institutional theatres seem to have the necessary resources to stage either classical musicals or new productions. It is equally certain, however, that musical-addicted producers will stake everything time and time again on the belief that this time! There's no business like show business…

Translation: Virginia Siger ©
Printed in the music magazine Listen to Norway, Vol.2 - 1994 No. 1
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