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A tale of two musicals

DEV S. SUKUMAR

The English musical, The Sound of Music, played to packed houses. But a Kannada musical doesn't generate the same corporate and audience interest. Why?



DYNAMICThe Sound of Music, directed by Leila Alvares, was an adaptation of the original hit musical of the same name

A full-house on five successive days at Chowdiah Hall for The Sound of Music? Who could say theatre was on the wane after seeing all those eager folks filling up the auditorium? Now, if only the recent Kannada musical Sangya Balya had attracted such attention...

There was little in common between the two plays — The Sound of Music and Sangya Balya — that was staged last month at Chowdiah Hall. The audience reception too was very different. While the English musical ran to full house from July 29 to August 2, the Kannada musical barely filled up a quarter of the hall when it was staged on June 17.

The Sound of Music, directed by Leila Alvares, was an adaptation of the original hit musical. The story is of a nun, Maria, who brings music and cheer into the regimented life of Capt. von Trapp and his seven children. Love and music triumph at a time of strife — for the Nazis have taken over Austria, and Capt. von Trapp is in danger unless he aligns with them.

Leila Alvares had a difficult task because, as she said, "everybody had seen the movie" and would compare her effort with it. The movie, directed by Robert Wise, is one of the most-acclaimed Western musicals ever, and any deficiencies were likely to be magnified. But Alvares pulled off a fine job.

So did the cast. Debra Pais as Maria brings the energy and verve; Arvind Kasturi as Capt. von Trapp remains the stentorian figure until music and love melt him; Prem Koshy (Max Detweiler) and Sharon White (Elsa Schraeder) perform their roles with panache. So does Anaitha Nair (Liesl) who exudes an abundance of vivacity and talent.

Alvares sticks to the script, with just an odd tweak here and there. A good show all around, particularly impressive since the actors — none of them a trained singer — sang their pieces.

Which brings us to another point: how come Sangya Balya played to a near-empty hall? Director Ekbal Ahmed's brilliant interpretation of Chandrashekar Kambar's play is reckoned to be one of the most unique experiments on the Kannada stage. But it wasn't just in terms of experimentation that this stood out — as entertainment, it was marvellous stuff.

Was the last show of Sangya Balya at Chowdiah ignored by the English theatre-going crowd because it was a Kannada musical? If so, that was a pity, since the language would never have been a barrier. Its haunting scores and imaginative choreography would have eclipsed any lack of understanding of the language.

Perhaps there are lessons for musicals like Sangya Balya in The Sound of Music's success. Leila Alvares had presented a play every year for the last seven years, so there was a fair degree of anticipation that worked in her favour. Still, with increasing costs and declining newspaper space for theatre, making it commercially successful was always going to be a challenge. The Cause Foundation, which presented the play, tied up with Spice Telecom and Radio City for publicity. The main sponsor was insurance company Aviva, who "provided around 30 to 40 per cent" of the expenses. Although the group had to pay Rs. 1.5 lakh for the rights to stage the musical, they were sure it would generate enough money to cover expenses. The surplus would go to charity.

The question is: will only English musicals generate corporate interest? Vivek Khanna, Director of Marketing, Aviva Life Insurance, made the usual noises about "corporate social responsibility" that had inspired the company's sponsorship of this play. Asked if a Kannada musical would likewise evoke their interest, Khanna was gracious enough to admit he didn't know enough about theatre, but if the proposal was routed through the right channels, it would be worth a look.

Irrespective of the commercial success of either play, Sangya Balya and The Sound of Music were celebrations of the human spirit. Maria in Austria and Gangi in North Karnataka sang but different versions of the same song.

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