From Brazil to Broadway: Marcel Camus’ Film Version of ‘Black Orpheus’ to Become a Major Musical

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By Ubiratan Brasil – O Estado de S. Paulo Newspaper – August 20, 2012

Directed by Charles Möeller and Claudio Botelho, the show is scheduled to premiere in London in 2014

Alia Jones-Harvey, Leonardo Ganem, Charles Moeller, Stephen Byrd, Claudio Botelho (Edgar Duvivier/Divulgacao)
Alia Jones-Harvey, Leonardo Ganem, Charles Moeller, Stephen Byrd, Claudio Botelho (Edgar Duvivier/Divulgacao)

When American producer Stephen Byrd first saw the movie Black Orpheus [known in Brazil as Orpheus of the Carnival], he was touched – the marvelous score by Tom Jobim and Luiz Bonfá, allied to the story fashioned by Vinicius de Moraes, made Frenchman Marcel Camus’ feature truly irresistible, despite the fact that the winner of the Palme d’Or at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival offered a more exotic view of carioca slum life.

“I immediately perceived a tremendous potential for a totally fabulous musical, the idea of which fermented in my mind for a number of years,” Byrd told this reporter. Our meeting occurred in the restaurant of a luxury carioca hotel, where Byrd, now president of Front Row Productions, was firming up plans to turn his dream into a reality. To make them workable, he is counting on two native specialists: the Brazilian team of Charles Möeller and Claudio Botelho.

The duo deemed responsible for the success of musical theater in Brazil will be taking an important step in their already successful career with the premiere, at the end of next year, of an English version of Orfeu da Conceição [“Orpheus of the Conception Hills”], an opera-samba written by Vinicius, which debuted in 1956 and was the inspiration for Camus’ film. The staging, to be produced by Byrd, will begin its run in London and, in 2014, will then reach Broadway. The producer’s intention is for a bilingual cast of Brazilian actors.

“Our coming together was a curious one,” relates Botelho, who will be providing a first draft of the musical in English. “For four years Stephen Byrd had been trying to contact Vinicius’ family members, at the same time he was looking for an American director. Julie Taymor, who directed The Lion King on Broadway, was on the short list, but Stephen discovered our work and became interested in working with us.”

Their encounter was facilitated by Möeller-Botelho’s recent appointment as creative directors for GEO Eventos. The company, affiliated with the American firm Base Entertainment, has invested massively in the production of musicals in Brazil. “We’ll be working as co-producers on the project,” explained Leonardo Ganem, general director of GEO, for whom Orpheus of the Carnival is a chance to rescue the musical from oblivion. “Bossa nova is no longer the deserved headliner in Brazil it once was due to the public’s fascination with a song’s melody rather than its lyrics.”

Indeed, Vinicius de Moraes’ ace in the hole was his idea for a musical, an idea that came to him on the eve of the Carnival celebration of 1942, when the sounds of distant samba reached his ears just as he was reading a book about the Greek myth of Orpheus, a musician who played his lyre with such perfection that he convinced the gods of the underworld, Hades and Persephone, to return his dead lover, Eurydice, to life. The combination of samba and myth seduced the poet.

The musical premiered in September 1956, at the Municipal Theater in Rio, with songs by Tom Jobim, sets by Oscar Niemeyer, costumes by Lila Bôscoli [Vinicius’ wife at the time], the live solo guitar of Luiz Bonfá, and poster art by Djanira. In the cast: Haroldo Costa, Daisy Paiva, Abdias do Nascimento, and Léa Garcia, the first time an all-black cast of actors mounted the stage of the carioca Municipal Theater.

This back story also bewitched Byrd, responsible for such Broadway showcases as A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, also with all-black casts. “With Orpheus, we intend to do something along the lines of the recent revival of West Side Story, which featured a combination of dialects, mixing English with Spanish,” observed producer Alia Jones-Harvey, who is also visiting Rio and, alongside Byrd, became enchanted with Möeller and Botelho’s style upon seeing their revue, Milton Nascimento – Nada Será Como Antes (“Nothing Is As It Was”), which premiered the previous week.

(English translation by Josmar F. Lopes, Copyright © 2012)

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