An American Musical in Czech
You know you're a serious theater nut when traveling 4,279 miles to see a show seems like a rational proposition.
Still, when the city at the end of those thousands of miles happens to be Prague, capitol of the Czech Republic, and the show happens to be a brand new musical by a Washington playwright and the American composer of Jekyll & Hyde and The Civil War, the trip, as extravagant as it might have been, was definitely an oh-so-theatrical delight.
Carmen is a big, bold and often beautiful musical taking a contemporary turn on the 1845 story by Prosper Mérimée, which was the basis of the famous opera by Bizet as well as the recent adaptation by our own Synetic Theater.
The book (or, as it is billed in Europe, libretto) is by Washington's own Norman Allen. That means he structured the story, plotted out the scenes, determined what could be communicated through song and dance and what should be covered in spoken dialogue, which he then wrote.
Of course, this is all done in collaboration with the composer and the lyricist. Still, a solid book is the foundation of a successful show, and Allen has provided just that: a clear and compelling telling of an intriguing tale that makes sense as it unfolds. This gives the composer and lyric write a solid foundation, and both composer Frank Wildhorn and lyricist Jack Murphy provide quality material. The songs and dance music are all infused with the Spanish/Gypsy atmosphere of the setting and soar with the elevated emotional levels of the characters.
The European setting of the story and the use of a circus as the environment for key events are natural selections for Allen. He is a playwright who has written a number of dramas dealing with distinctly European stories, but perhaps it is his work on a different kind of project that is most important here. He was the author of the book for a circus show called Cirque Ingenieux which toured the country (the United States of America, not the Czech Republic) for three years.
Mérimée's short story of Carmen, the gypsy woman who brings a policeman to grief through the magnetic force of her sexuality wasn't exactly a circus story. This new treatment places much of the action in a gypsy camp and a traveling carnival, which by the second act, has become a full-fledged circus complete with lions, a camel and a llama on stage.
Still, Allen hews close to Mérimée's basic story of Carmen's fascination for a policeman and the complications that come about when her abusive lover arrives on the scene. Allen gives it a contemporary feel. There's even a beach scene where girls wear bikinis - not exactly the image one gets from the old version of Carmen where a flash of ankle below the skirt was enough to start a scandal.
Allen's words have been translated into Czech, but there are surtitles projected over the stage for those who read English. This isn't as distracting as it may sound because Allen's book is very economical in its use of language. He has structured the show so that many of the details of character and situation are communicated in song (and, occasionally, dance). This is an effective technique for such a high-emotion musical.
The lyrics are another thing entirely. You can do a straight translation of prose from one langue to another, but the poetry of song lyrics requires something more. Not only must meaning be conveyed, the rhyme scheme and the meter must match the music in Czech just as it does in English. Also, there are shades of meaning and allusions in turns of phrase that may not translate cleanly and clearly. Thus, Jack Murphy's lyrics aren't just translated, they are adapted into Czech.
One thing will strike you no matter what language you speak. The orchestra pit is filled with ... well ... musicians! It isn't a bank of computerized synthesizers and "keyboards" with a few actual instruments thrown in for color. With a full orchestra, the sound is lush and luscious, especially in the love duets. The duet sung by the policeman and his fiencée before his first encounter with Carmen, "My Only Prayer" (or "Já Vémost Ti Prisahám" in Czech) uses a repeated triple theme that soars to the almost-patented Wildhorn build that is recognizable to all who remember "Only Love" from The Scarlet Pimpernel. Later, there is a nifty piece that pays homage to the comic list songs of Cole Porter, and a tender song of religious passion, "Saint Theresa" ("Svatá Terezo").
Wildhorn saves his flashiest numbers, however, for the star of the show, the woman playing the title character, a Czech superstar by the name of Lucie Bílá.
She's a six-time Femaile Singer of the Year in the Czech Grammy Awards with her own "Greatest Hits" album, has starred in some of the biggest musical hits in the Czech Republic and has been in first or second place every year for the past dozen years in the Czech equivalent of the People's Choice Awards (The "Českÿ slavík" or "Czech Nightingale" awards). What is more, she looks the part of Carmen - she has a dark and sultry sexuality that fits the role.
As "Carmen-ish" as Bílá is by nature, she never seems to sink into the character. Instead, Bílá almost always seems to be Bílá playing Carmen. She even turns to the audience to solicit additional applause at the end of some of her songs. This is a decided distraction for those not used to it. It is one thing for a Martin Short to ham it up in a musical comedy designed to highlight his foolishness as he did in Fame Becomes Me. It's another for a star to break the mood in a dramatic, romantic musical tragedy like this one.
But, for all the challenges of different performing styles and a different language, this Carmen can tempt - which is just what a grand musical romance should do no matter which continent you happen to be on.
---SIDE BAR ---
HOW FAR WOULD YOU GO FOR A SHOW?
Carmen is currently playing at the Hubedni divadlo in Prague, Czech Republic. Tickets are only $13 to $38, but the price of an airline ticket might run to a considerable sum. If you are going to fly all the way to central Europe, you might as well see more than just one of Frank Wildhorn's musicals. Consider another sample of Wildhorns work, which could give you another destination of note. Wildhorn and Jack Murphy (without Norman Allen this time) have also written a romantic pop-operatta piece based on the tale of Rudolf, Crown Prince of the Empire of Austria-Hungary who killed himself and his mistress at his hunting lodge in Meyerling in 1889. Rudolf premiered at the Budapest Operetta and Musial Theatre (Budapesti Operettszinház), a beautiful theater in the most fashionable section of Budapest. It is still performed as part of that theater's repertory with tickets ranging from $12 to $42. If you have the time to plan ahead, consider that Rudolf will have a brand new production next year at the raimund theater of the Theater an der Wien in Vienna, Austria, beginning in February. Tickets are $60 - $165. Then there will be two new musicals by Frank Wildhorn which will premiere in Europe in 2009. Cyrano de Bergerac, with lyrics by Leslie Bricusse, will premiere in Spain, and The Count of Monte Cristo, another piece with lyricist Jack Murphy, debuts in March in the "oldest professional theater still playing in Switzerland," Theatre St. Gallen. Tickets for that one are going for $43 - $83.