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The first Norwegian production of WSS 
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Post The first Norwegian production of WSS
I borrowed a biography on Norwegian composer and music and pop culture "godfather" in Norway, Egil Monn-Iversen. It is written by Sverre Gunnar Haga, and describes how Monn-Iversen for a very long time almost was the only person making decisions in Norwegian music culture for decades. He was regarded for a while as the Norwegian Richard Rodgers for his musicals, among others Bør Børson and Ungen (The Child). He was almost responsible of banning Elvis music from being sold in Norway, and also seems to have been responsible for introducing modern musical theatre here.

The most interesting chapter is the one concerning West Side Story, and how it was the first modern musical to be produced in Norway (from Gudfaren - spillet i kulissene [The Godfather - the game behind the scenery] by Sverre Gunnar Haga) :

"Egil Monn-Iversen, jazz musician, arranger and conductor, and leader of the theatre, Tormod Skagestad were agreed how Det Norske Teater should be elevated into the top division of music theatres. Everything pointed towards West Side Story.

[...]

West Side Story for a Norwegian stage was a brave project. How could rivalling gangs of black and whites from fattest New York come on a stage in Norway – a land where one half of the population not yet ad seen an African? And in the New Norwegian language? Sceptics lined up to greet a Norwegian production. And how was it possible to put this scenically complext production into the old theatre building in Storgata? Several in the board were sceptical. Nothing affected theatre leader Tormod Skagestad.
– How many musicians do you need?
Egil Monn-iversen and Tormod Skagestad were observing the meek space for the orchestra at Det Norske Teater. Large productions like West Side Story had not been in the minds of the first leading board of theatre in Stortingsgata 16 at the start of the century. The present had a great problem. There was not enough space.
- Can I have 24? Monn-Iversen asks.
- How many were there in New York, then?
- 30, Monn Iversen answers.
- Yes, why don’t we have that, then?
- -We don’t have the space.
- What if we remove the first three rows of seats?
- Then we have the space.

And thus it was. Skagestad was willing to sacrifice potential sources of income to clear the problem away. The first three rows of audience seats were removed. Because West Side Story was to be mounted. After a while also the board joined. Perhaps more persuaded than convinced, but the thumbs were up. Skagestad and Monn-Iversenhad been in New York, to see a West Side Story-production at City Centre in 55th street. After the study tour they weren’t only inspired – but also convinced that it was possible to mount the piece in Storgata.

From a technical point of view it was not as simple. The theatre in the centre of Oslo was rather timidly endorsed compared to a mean Broadway theatre. It wasn’t only the orchestra grave that gave difficulties. But the will was stronger than the sensibility. More controversial was it that the leadership chose the un-Norwegian form of “auditions” to find dancers and actors for the roles. This was a well known mean of choosing in the US and in England, but almost unheard of in Norwegian theatres that were based on normal contracts and lasting employment. But, also this went through.

The theatre hired the South African director and choreograph Rikki Septimus to shake the young actors and dancers out of a Norwegian reality. He was already an experienced West Sider, and played the role of Bernardo when a British theatre company visited Folketeateret in Oslo with the play in 1962. Septimus was given six months to get them into the Jet and shars modus. The rented forces were young and inspired. But it came to confrontations during the try-out. Septimus claimed it was difficult to get these Norwegians to “hate”, which he meant was crucial for the production to have the correct intensity. He utilized shock treatment of the cast. The young and relatively inexperienced stage artists were driven hard with long periods of practising. Septimus did not back from insults, threats and offensive behaviour as work technique – all in the name of energy. He had to be brutal to those who themselves should be brutal. Not everybody was comfortable with the hard drive. Again and again dancers or singers run crying off the stage. Septimus also provided new Norwegian theatre record in cavalry exercise when a few days before the premiere April 5th 1965 forbade the dancers any intimate sidestep. All physical energy was to be canalised towards the premiere evening.

The older actors at Det Norske Teater was amazed by the youthful energy that blew through the building. One day one of the old heroes of the theatre, the actor Edvard Drabløs, met a young, blonde guy in the stairs.
- What are you doing here? Drabløs asked.
- I’m just engaged to join West Side Story, the man answered.
- But you aren’t black, are you? a bewildered Drabløs exclaimed.

Young stars were allowed in the main parts. Two person from the [Norwegian fifties pop group] Monn-Keys were in central parts, Per Asplin and Anne Nyborg played the main parts as Tony and Maria, Ola B. Johannessen was Riff, Rikki Septimus was Bernardo himself and Sølvi Wang [wife of Egil Monn-Iversen] had the part of Anita.

Despite all scepticism, West Side Story was a success. During 1965 the production was seen by over 60 000 people, for 126 shows. Much of the honour was bestowed on musical director Egil Monn-Iversen, who in the play bill got the following description: “The music sits tight in this small, contemplative Buddha figure. He is less willing to make any compromise in the demand for quality than perhaps any other artist we have the honour to know.” Play bill writer Ivar Eskeland also describes him as “the little Napoleon of joy”. The writing in the news papers after the premiere April 3rd aren’t less full of love: “An overwhelming victory”, “storm success”, “bursting with colour”, “full of fantasy”, “neck-breaking”.

“The curtain had barely had time to rise before the theatre knocked out its patrons with an opening so whirlingly full of speed, bursting with colour, full of fantasy and nervy that one was gasping for air. And later there was no time to get to oneself until the war on the stage fell quiet after almost three hours,” the Morgenposen wrote. VG also was on fire: “anyone who can sit untouched through the tornado against the human emotional apparatus that Rikki Septimus let wash over the small stage in Stortingsgata must for sure be a cold fish.” Arne Nordheim wrote about Egil Monn-Iversen in Dagbladet: “There is no doubt that this eminency not only swears to grey, as his sound-creating and fame-hungry talent so often breaks out in musical spirit. As was the case of his conducting of West Side Story, where one must admire his ability to co-conduct such a differed orchestra into a so unified sound.

It must have made Monn-Iversen particularly happy that the paper Folket, the paper for the movement against alcohol in Norway, thought that “with West Side Story, the theatre has achieved it’s greatest accomplishment hitherto”.

Happiest of all was Tormod Skagestad. He had been under an enormous pressure. In the play bill he wrote: “If we break our necks in the experiment, it will please many”. Therefore it was a very relieved theatre manager who said to VG after the premiere: “No, it was fun that it proved to be a success when I think of all the intense scepticism we have met during the process, all the condescending premature triumph over an unavoidable loss. Vi had to make it, and made it well – it would have mattered very little if we hade made it relatively well”.

Another who was overwhelmed was the composer himself. Leonard Bernstein enjoyed travelling around the world and follow different productions of West Side Story. A vain composer willingly lets himself be praised in different tongues. At the premiere night he was present as guest of honour in Stortingsgata.

God knows what he thought about Norway. In 1965 Norway appeared as anything but a believable set piece for a New York drama.

[…]

But it was little glamour over the stage, auditorium and building associated with Det Norske Teatret that could be offered the guest of honour the premiere evening April 5th. And West Side Story should be played in new Norwegian, which for Bernstein was as incomprehensible as regular Norwegian. Egil Monn-Iversen and his team were joyously scared over having the composer of the piece in the audience. But Bernstein was overjoyed and was obviously looking forward to the show. Some time into the show conductor Monn-Iversen heard noise from the audience. Everyone was turning towards a man who was sitting yelling loudly. Was a scandal taking place? But it was Bernstein himself jumping up and down in his chair: “I love this music! I love this music!”

If it was his own music or the particular production he was praising is not known. After the performance he came back stage and sent the cast into the skies: “This is the best West Side Story I have seen!” he hollered.

Bernstains belief in Monn-Iversten should sustain. A few years later Monn-Iversen was a gueat of the composer when The New York State Theatre produced his musical Candide. Monn-Iversen was in New York for business. He wanted Bernstein to look over the sheet music for a piano concert version of West Side Story Monn-Iversen had rearranged, that was to be recorded by [famous Norwegian pianist] Kjell Bækkelund and Filharmonisk Selskaps Orkester. Bernstein promptly gave the stamp of approval and added with a smile: “You can perform that one when and where you want. But the royalty money belongs to me!”

Copyright holders have nevertheless not always been as friendly to Egil Monn-Iversen. Many years later Andrew Lloyd Webber came to Stockholm to attend the premiere of Cats in 1993, where Monn-Iversen was musical manager. To production assistants were leading Lloyd Webber into the auditorium the premiere night and handed him a play bill. The composer rapidly read through it and returned it to the assistants. “You can just maculate the entire set of this. There is only half a page about me here. It must be an entire page.” Also Lloyd Webber was unable to sit still in the audience during the premiere. During a difficult part whene the rock cat was flirting with the female felines, Monn-Iversen had allowed himself to improvise in a bit of jazz. The musical manager immediately got correction from the composer who was yelling out among the audience in the theatre: “This is not my music!”"

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Wed Sep 07, 2011 6:36 am
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Post Re: The first Norwegian production of WSS
Hans wrote:
How could rivalling gangs of black and whites from fattest New York come on a stage in Norway – a land where one half of the population not yet ad seen an African?

Nor a Puerto Rican, obviously.


Wed Sep 07, 2011 8:31 am
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Post Re: The first Norwegian production of WSS
Pannic wrote:
Hans wrote:
How could rivalling gangs of black and whites from fattest New York come on a stage in Norway – a land where one half of the population not yet ad seen an African?

Nor a Puerto Rican, obviously.


Haha, true. It was a very strange comment. Either it is a misunderstanding of WSS being about whites against Afro-American, or it alludes possibly to the origin of the director?

In general, I didn't like this book very much, it was very superficial and lightly written, but I found this particular passage of interest.

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Wed Sep 07, 2011 12:53 pm
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Post Re: The first Norwegian production of WSS
Puerto Ricans are more racially diverse than other Hispanic groups visually with a very large population of individuals with strong African background. Try to have a black person represent a Mexican and you'll get a whole bunch of WTF looks since African ancestry is virtually non-existent in Mexico. But you've got PR's who look like Ricky Martin who are considered "white" in their country but anything but white in the US, lol. And Afro-Latinos are considered black everywhere and Latino nowhere even though they're both! LOL. But, yes, there is enough African genes there to perceive many as "black" and be accurate at the same time. So the parallel is understandable.

If the West Side Story orchestra was anything like the Les Miserables one at the same theatre (I have a full audio of it), then I can see how it would send Bernstein into joyful hysterics. And Cammack could take a lesson from the Norwegians and quit using "it's too small!!" as an excuse to dumb down an orchestra and eventually redo the whole thing to get his way. XD

That was extremely interesting. I had no clue you people were such musical theatre novices during its heyday! I always think of Norwegians as a very placid people and it says a lot of them that the main concern in mounting the show was to teach them how to hate convincingly. I think that's sorta cuuuute! LOL.

Wow, ALW. Douche!

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Thu Sep 08, 2011 3:03 am
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Post Re: The first Norwegian production of WSS
Fun fact: The dance teacher I had my year at folk high school was in that production. In her version of the story, they'd learnt the choreography directly from Jerome Robbins.

But she was a racist and insane.

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Thu Sep 08, 2011 3:27 am
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