Can Broadway Be Far Away?
Over the past few seasons, there has been an explosion of films, television series, stage treatments, and animated features exploring the make-believe world of fairy tales – with more still to come.
A casual stroll through the neighborhood multiplex will reveal such titles as Mirror, Mirror (with Julia Roberts and Nathan Lane) and Snow White and the Huntsman (featuring Kristen Stewart, of Twilight fame, and Charlize Theron), both major studio releases. The previous year brought us the short-lived Red Riding Hood, with rising starlet Amanda Seyfried and veteran scene-stealer Gary Oldman, while the ABC-TV network took a giant step forward in bringing Once Upon a Time to the sparse Sunday-night lineup.
Even the Great White Way – no stranger to the fantasy genre – has served as host to a revival of Stephen Schwartz’s Wicked, a musical variation on the fairy-tale theme, albeit one based on the “early life experiences” of the Wicked Witch of the West, a character straight out of the 1939 film classic, The Wizard of Oz.
Let’s not forget the pièce de résistance of theatrical showpieces: Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Into the Woods, a modern reincarnation of several classic tales, as interpreted by child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim – revived anew at New York’s Delacorte Theater, in Central Park, during August 2012.
And don’t get me started on all those animated varieties out there, including such past triumphs as The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and DreamWorks’ Shrek and Puss in Boots, as well as Disney Studio’s Tangled, a delightfully daffy rendition of the Rapunzel story.
So why are we being bombarded with so many fairy tales? There are several reasons for this feast of storybook retellings, some having to do with the poor state of the economy and the longing for simpler, less troubled times.
Built-in to their success is the high recognition factor these stories hold for viewers, along with nostalgia for the lost innocence of youth, which fairy tales seem particularly adept at exploiting – the perfect family-friendly combination, one would think.
What most audiences fail to realize, however, is that fairy tales, while appearing to favor children as their target audience, were in fact written by grownups – grownups with a grave message to convey. That message, whether it be “Beware of strangers,” or “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” has been seen (in this country, at least) through uniquely American eyes.
This begs the question, then, of how other nationalities view these same tales and how they come to grips with their cautionary message.
The answer, if there is any, may be found in Brazil, in what has become one of the most significant and far-reaching theatrical developments of the new millennium: that of the country’s own musical “explosion.”
By this, we do not mean the ceaseless pounding of the samba drum at Carnival time. No, this musical explosion refers to more tuneful matters, i.e., such stage-worthy items as Gypsy, Hair, Sweet Charity, Company, Fiddler on the Roof, The Sound of Music, The Witches of Eastwick, Avenue Q, Spring Awakening and, quite unavoidably, the ever popular Wizard of Oz.
Charles Möeller and Claudio Botelho, the Brazilian team responsible for this renewed interest in the above classic and/or modern stage musicals, have been thriving in Rio de Janeiro for the better part of two decades. So why have we heard so little about them, especially since they happen to be involved with Broadway musicals?
In this writer’s opinion, they are Brazil’s best kept secret. Like most such secrets, however (including the name of the mysterious Rumpelstiltskin), sooner or later the ground-breaking work of Möeller and Botelho is destined to break out from their Brazilian boundaries.
But the question still remains: what can this award-winning team bring to the fore – in the way of musicals, of course – that is uniquely and authentically Brazilian?
Where Have All the Musicals Gone?
Regrettably, there are relatively few of what can be called “Brazilian musicals” to please the paying public. The most logical candidate, Magdalena, by native-born composer Heitor Villa-Lobos, whose music was adapted for the stage by Chet Forrest and Robert Wright (Song of Norway, Kismet, Grand Hotel), was an unfortunate flop at its 1948 Broadway premiere – although the work’s gorgeous showtunes practically call out for a rehearing.
Those other “stage plays with music,” by singer/songwriter Chico Buarque de Hollanda (Roda viva, Calabar, Gota d’água, Ópera do Malandro), were written in the 1960s and ‘70s during more troubled times – that is, those of the Brazilian military dictatorship years, with their government restrictions and concerns over language and content.
Chico’s musical excursions were a by-product of that tumultuous era: except for a 2003 revival of Ópera do Malandro (done, coincidentally, by Möeller-Botelho), they have languished in unmerited anonymity.
Fortunately for us, Möeller and Botelho’s 7 – O Musical (henceforth known as 7 – The Musical), an original stage conception that premiered in Rio, in September 2007, at the Teatro João Caetano, has suffered no such concerns. An instant hit with critics and public alike, 7 – The Musical garnered several prestigious prizes in Brazil, including the APTR (Association of Theater Producers of Rio) Award and the Shell Musical Award for Best Direction, Best Costumes, and Best Lighting.
With an appropriately atmospheric score (bordering on the sinister) by prolific jazz-funk artist Ed Motta, remarkably cogent lyrics and musical direction by Claudio Botelho, and Charles Möeller’s exceptionally insightful book, 7 (or Sete, in Portuguese) steered a musically dark path, and psychologically inspired course, through the same fairy-tale minefield as Into the Woods.
To these ears, 7 – The Musical is much closer in story and looks (if not in sound) to the Grand Guignol realm of Sondheim’s earlier Sweeney Todd. Set in a fantasy-land “Rio de Janeiro of the mind” – not your grandfather’s Rio, we assure you – the show brilliantly captures the same late Victorian-era aesthetic (via sets, makeup, hair, and costume design) as Sweeney, with enough inventive dialogue and melodramatic plot machinations to satisfy the most rapacious Sondheim fan (this author among them). On the whole, the musical’s story line is made-to-order for this type of treatment.
But what of the plot? Staying true to our fairy-tale format, 7 – The Musical is an adult version of (you guessed it) the classic story of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, with additional material drawn from other thrice-told tales, most notably Rapunzel and Cinderella.
There are, in fact, a host of women to deal with here – seven, in all – as well as seven men, seven wishes, seven good years, seven bad years, seven musicians in the pit (including the conductor), and all manner of representations of the number “seven,” just as in the Brothers Grimm.
Let’s Hear It for the Boys
To enlighten readers further concerning the genesis of this fascinating work, I called upon 7 – The Musical’s lyricist and musical director, Claudio Botelho. A native of Araguari, Minas Gerais, and one of Brazil’s top translators and adapters of all things musically inclined, Claudio is an expert in the field of theater music and popular song. We discussed his musical’s development, including its standing as (quite possibly) one of the finest shows in Brazilian musical-theater memory.
“Ed Motta was a friend of ours,” Claudio recalled, “ever since he came to see our production of Sondheim’s Company in 2001. One day in 2004, Ed called me and said he had a few musical themes which he felt were very theatrical, so he invited [me and Charles] to his home to listen to them. He had about twelve songs with no lyrics at all, just melodies and harmonies… We were immediately ecstatic, with the feeling that we had something extraordinarily new in terms of music in our hands, but no plot, no story, nothing, just the music.”
So that’s it! Ed was the fellow responsible. Through Claudio’s help, I contacted Ed Motta directly and obtained his views on the project.
“I called Claudio and asked him that I really would like to show [him and Charles] my Broadway-inspired tunes,” Motta told me. “They liked the atmosphere and they know the language very well, so it makes me more than proud and happy [what they did].”
“Who got the idea of doing a story based on a modern version of Snow White?” I inquired.
“This idea was Charles and Claudio’s,” he responded. “I just wrote the tunes before and made some suggestions about the music. My thing was strictly musical, Charles [did] the direction and Claudio, like the Renaissance man that he is, did everything else. I wrote some instrumental passages and overture, underture, etc. I worked a little bit with the original cast, singing together and playing piano.”
Claudio concurred: “Charles went home with a CD of all those tunes and after two days, we started to talk about a story. It simply came out of the blue: Charles had in mind a woman who lost her lover and went to look for a witch to find a way to get him back through magic. That was the only story line. From there to Snow White, to Mistress A, to all it [eventually] became – it took three years of work. I started to write some lyrics to the songs based on the very tiny story line we had [developed]… You could say that the story grew around the songs.”
Ah, yes, those marvelous songs. I asked Ed Motta if he had any notion of the music’s dark and somber nature.
“I think some of the tunes do have this dark atmosphere,” Motta replied, “but there are happy waltzes and classic Broadway ‘Can-Can’ as well. I have been writing these musical-esque tunes for a long time, usually it was just for my pleasure since my main audience knows me because of my soul-jazz tunes.”
“Who was it who decided on Snow White?” I asked.
Claudio answered: “Charles is the guy who created the characters and also the one who had the idea to approach our story to Snow White’s story, and especially trying to steer in the middle of it. ‘7’ had many versions before we arrived at the first cast reading. When we invited the main stars, we didn’t have the finished script yet. The idea of Mistress A came after we received a big ‘YES’ from Ida Gomes, who was very famous in Brazil for being the voice of many witches in Portuguese-dubbed TV movies. Ida was also the Brazilian voice of actress Bette Davis, so when she said she wanted to work with us, in spite of what we had for her – she never read one line of the play before the first day of rehearsals – we understood she would be an Old Witch in the story.”
That’s quite a vote of confidence, I thought, considering there were no lines whatsoever for a star of Ida Gomes’ magnitude to refer to, nor was there a finished plot to base her actions on.
“The same [thing] happened when Rogéria, the actress  who played Dona Odette, the owner of a bordello, accepted to do the show under the same conditions.”
“I’m telling you this to say that we didn’t know where the play would go at the very beginning. Having the cast – a dream cast for us! – inspired many of the characters. Mistress A was definitely written for Ida Gomes, a dear and wonderful friend, who died between the Rio and São Paulo run of the show. I miss her very much. She was one of the most excited companions we had in ‘7’.”
The other participants in Claudio’s “dream cast” were screen veteran Zezé Motta as Dona Carmen, jazz singer and performing artist Eliana Pittman as Dona Rosa, and powerhouse actress Alessandra Maestrini as Amelia.
“There is really no other Brazilian musical like this that I know of,” I cheerfully exclaimed.
“You’re right,” Claudio continued, “there’s nothing like ‘7’ here [in Brazil], and I dare to say it’s really something new in terms of writing for the musical stage. Of course, you can feel a Sondheim-esque atmosphere in everything, and also one can find traces of Into the Woods in the plot, but I think our story has nothing to do with that. It’s much more (in my opinion) a story like [Sondheim’s] Passion… It’s about love and loss, about being left by the one you love, about losing your mind for someone else.”
“Be careful what you wish for,” was my immediate reaction – a perfect way to end a fable by Aesop, but a theme for a Brazilian fairy-tale musical?
“There [are] also traces of Wicked,” he went on, “in the sense that it’s a story that tries to ‘explain’ why the witch is evil, or how she became evil in the same way Wicked [does] with The Wizard of Oz story. But I think those works – Into the Woods and Wicked – are sensational shows [in themselves] with the aim being the plot itself, not the characters.”
Elaborating on this key point, Claudio described the story further: “Our show is about this woman [Amelia] who’s abandoned by the man [Herculano] she loves, who is capable of doing anything – even killing – to get him back… the show plays inside of Amelia’s mind, like one long hallucination of hers… the whole story is just one ‘Memento’ [Author’s note: Spoiler Alert ahead!], of that old, destroyed woman waiting for a train with that young girl at the beginning.”
Having seen the show on DVD, read the original Portuguese script, translated it into English, and heard the music in my head – over and over and over again – I was convinced that Claudio and his partner, Charles, had a potential hit on their hands. Did I say hit? No, a masterpiece!
What’s in a Name?
The first thing that struck me about their show was how the story, dialogue, music and lyrics all worked off one another; how the situations they developed were guided along – first this way, then that way – by what the characters “imagined” they wanted from their lives.
Not only that, but the characters’ names and their individual quirks and personalities – I had no doubt these had some sort of relevance to the plot. Was I on to something here?
“The characters were named to create the idea of what’s good and what’s evil,” explained Claudio. “The ‘good’ is represented by Clara, Alvaro, and Bianca… Those are perfect people, beautiful, ageless… In opposition to all the other main characters are Amelia (the eternal sufferer), Odette (the fake French prostitute), Rosa (the fake good fairy), and Carmen (the gypsy who could die or kill for love). We were also inspired by this very Brazilian thing [of the] witches, who are called “mães de santo,” or those people who can ‘bring a man back in seven days.’ In one of Dona Carmen’s first lines, she says, ‘I’ll bring your man back in seven days’ (also her last line in the show). The audience used to simply laugh out loud [at this] because we see these kinds of things on every street corner in Rio.”
That’s fascinating! This brought up another issue: in the original Portuguese version, there are a couple of anachronisms. For example, Maracanã Stadium is mentioned; telephones are used in several key scenes; someone takes a photograph with a camera, etc. The question I had for Claudio was whether these anachronisms were done on purpose, because from the look of the costumes I concluded the period of the drama was set in the late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries.
Claudio was happy to elaborate: “The story should be ex-temporal, in other words favoring no specific time period. Our aim was to tell a fairy tale in a Rio de Janeiro where snowflakes fall and Guanabara Bay freezes over. The Big Clock without the hands (at the beginning of Act I and end of Act II), that is lowered onto the set, should transmit the idea there is no precise time period involved. It’s left open-ended, so I can see where there might be some confusion.”
Yes, that makes sense. What about the stadium and those other anachronisms?
“The [use of] Maracanã Stadium and other cultural references to Rio,” he continued, “are an attempt to keep Rio as the locale for the story where everything takes place. This is important, in that Amelia comes to Rio in search of her husband Herculano, in the same manner as Herculano keeps Bianca [the girl he left Amelia for] under lock and key in a suburb of Rio, away from the big city (or away from ‘temptation’) – much like Rapunzel locked away in her tower for her own ‘safety.’ It’s important as well that Bianca gets lost in Rio’s streets, as if she becomes seduced by a city that attracts her, so much so that she gets lost in it (in a spell weaved by Dona Carmen).”
“What about the young people who went to see the show?” I inquired. “Did they enjoy the challenge of trying to figure it all out, what actually was going on?”
“The São Paulo audience (a younger one than the public in Rio) came to see the show many, many times,” replied Claudio, “always looking for signs and hints of plot threads and twists, and information about the characters in it, writing about the story in blogs and online discussion groups about the symbols present, etc.”
Now that’s impressive! The fact that young people were interested in the outcome of a musical show told me that 7 – The Musical would have a thriving theatrical life outside of Brazil, and a financially prosperous one, at that.
“Making ‘7’ was an absolutely electric experience for all of us! It’s a fairy tale that takes place in a Rio de Janeiro of the imagination: a dark Rio, somber, evil, distrustful. Carmen’s song inviting Bianca in Act I to ‘lose herself’ in the city’s beauty is a type of siren song leading her to her own death (in the manner of Odysseus).”
We could all get “lost” in the score and story line of 7 — The Musical, I wondered aloud to myself. It was obvious from my conversation with both Ed Motta and Claudio Botelho that their musical was as rich, authentic and thoroughly Brazilian a work as any I’ve come to know.
In the program booklet to the original Rio run of the show, both Claudio and Charles expressed the challenge that lay before them in practical terms: “Does Brazilian musical theater exist? Is it possible to reach that point without excessive self-pride and/or nostalgia for the past? Without the necessity of placing samba on every platform? A mulata in every scene? The Brazilian ‘way of doing things’ as a reflection on what came before?
“I believe that everything we’ve done to this point was, in actuality, a preparation for where we arrived with 7 — The Musical. It’s our voice, our discourse, all of it is there. There will be other productions, for certain, but this work is our most important showcase because it’s ours, in every sense of the term.”
I had many more questions for Claudio Botelho, but they’ll have to wait. Right now, he’s working to put English-language subtitles on the DVD of 7 – The Musical. Who knows? Maybe some Broadway producer will take a fancy to his show. And maybe it will come to New York’s Great White Way… or London’s West End.
Then — and only then — will we see if fairy tales can come true. It’s definitely something to wish for. Φ
Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes
 Author’s note: Rogéria is the stage name of renowned female impersonator Astolfo Barroso Pinto.