Germany Embraces The Broadway Musical
Casts are drawn from around the world for faithful reproductions of New York originals
FROM Hamburg in the north to Konstanz in the south, Germany offers the total mix of entertainment choices, now that the country has discovered the delight of Broadway. ''All they had was operettas,'' says Natalie Bombeck of Stella's Management, an aggressive producing firm that has successfully mounted four transplanted Broadway musicals around the country. Seated in her office upstairs from Hamburg's Neue Flora Theatre, where ''Phantom of the Opera'' entered its fifth year last June, she points out that Germans ''were used to singing and dancing, or singing and acting, but not all of it together.'' Eight times a week, nearly 1,800 patrons climb the yellow-brick stairway to one of Germany's largest theaters, specially renovated for this production, to watch the Phantom cast his spell over Christine and witness the crashing chandelier. Founded by real estate magnate Rolf Deyhle, Stella launched itself into European entertainment with the Hamburg production of ''Cats'' in 1986. After nine years, the musical still sells out. Two years later the company premiered the still-running ''Starlight Express'' in the relatively remote town of Bochum. And this year, ''Miss Saigon,'' the most expensive German musical ever produced, at more than $13 million, became the cornerstone attraction in a $333-million hotel, theater, restaurant, and entertainment complex in Stuttgart. Stella anticipates a 10-year run for the show, housed in a brand-new space built to accommodate its grand size and special effects, including a descending helicopter. ''You don't find anything like it in Germany, or in Europe,'' adds Stella's Stephanie Anhalt, explaining that the marketing department has worked with hundreds of travel agents to create package plans. Guests come to see the show and stay for the weekend, eating at one of the theme restaurants, browsing among the dozens of shops, and even sweating it out in the Finnish sauna spa, all in the same building. Ticket prices alone can range from $60 to $140. Because licensing agreements call for the shows to be faithfully reproduced versions of the Broadway originals, audiences see some of the most professional musical theater in Europe, sung in German, with casts drawn from all over the world since German performers had no experience with modern musical productions. But more-established attractions hold interest as well. Visitors stroll late into the night along the Reeperbahn (Hamburg's version of Times Square). Schmidt's Theatre and Cafe provides an amusing diversion: a belly dancer in royal-blue veils and silver bells snaking among the tables, bringing smiles to the faces of diners and passersby alike. Docked on the banks of the Elbe, one of Germany's popular ''dream theaters'' performs on a floating tent, featuring New Age music, circus acts such as twin teenage-girl contortionists, and a muscular juggler twirling tubes and cubes. Piano music, played on the deck during intermission, entertains audience members taking in the city skyline. In sharp contrast to the cosmopolitan nightlife of Hamburg, a century-old rural settlement southwest of the city maintains the spirit of its creative founders. Worpswede, a pastoral sanctuary of small cottages and open fields, protected by farms and forests, gave inspiration to the painter Fritz Mackenson in 1884. During the following decades, he invited other emerging artists such as Heinrich Voegler, Hans am Ende, and Paula Modersohn-Becker to forge a retreat among the birch-lined pathways and corn-planted hills. Today, a glass-and-stone museum displaying their works nestles at the foot of the main trail, which ends at the casual family-style restaurant Kaffeehaus Niedersachen, with its long wooden tables set under leafy linden trees. Chef Herbrod Schroder steers visitors away from the souvenir shops along the highway, advising them instead to ''walk to see Worpswede.'' The Peter Rieger Organization, a presenter of rock concerts, challenged Stella with its own Broadway musical in Offenbach: The company snagged the rights to ''Tommy'' and managed to lure Michael Cerveris, the Tony-nominated star of the original New York cast, for its opening. The 1,100 seat Musical-Theatre an der Goethestralle, a converted Jewish synagogue now playing host to Peter Townsend's legendary rock opera, premiered the show in April. ''I was told German audiences would be more reserved and standoffish, but that hasn't turned out to be true,'' Cerveris says. ''We had to add curtain calls because they continued to clap long after the curtain came down.'' Like the Stella productions, ''Tommy,'' performed in English, presents a first-class version of the Broadway show, complete with pulsating colored lights, high-tech video screens, fast-paced choreography, and a top-notch vocal ensemble. Offenbach, a suburb of Frankfurt, is in the middle of a construction boom and is trying to establish its own identity separate from its well-known neighbor. ''Tommy,'' and the first-rate Hotel Bismarckhof, a few blocks from the theater, are part of the city's plan to become a viable tourist destination. And following Stella's lead, a boutique in the theater lobby is stocked with show memorabilia. There is no lobby at Heidelberg Castle, where the annual Castle Festival attracts thousands each summer to the open-air, rustic courtyard on the edge of the famed Black Forest. Continuing a tradition that dates back to the early-17th century, festival organizer Helmut Hein directs musical works on a raised wooden platform stage, presenting Sigmund Romberg's ''Student Prince'' every August, in repertory with classical concerts and opera. Following the performance, audiences stream out onto the cobblestone walkway to catch a cable car down the mountainside, and stream into the student pubs that dot the alleyways near the university. This year's opera, Ambroise Thomas's ''Mignon,'' based on a Goethe story, featured a full orchestra, a cast of 52, a horse-drawn carriage, and a backdrop of stars. With a reputation built around Lake Konstanz, Europe's second-largest lake, southwestern Germany boasts its own versions of ''entertainment'': Following a breezy boat trip, visitors step off onto the island of Mainau, one of the most elaborate and well-developed botanical garden shows on the continent. From miniature pink roses to giant animal topiary sculptures, hundreds of species cover the gently rolling hills, a favorite of horticulture experts and windowsill gardeners alike. One local resident of Konstanz who has traveled north to see the musicals welcomes these and other additions to the country's cultural spectrum. ''They are bringing Broadway to Germany, which is wonderful,'' Bernd Seidemann says. ''We're proud of our artistic heritage, but we welcome the idea that the latest musical shows can be successful side by side with our classical works.'' Stella Management, counting on this cultural peaceful coexistence, plans to open productions of ''Les Miserables,'' ''Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,'' and ''Beauty and the Beast'' at various sites around the country during the next two years.