Brazil Goes Broadway Yet Keeps Its Own Beat – A Timely Reprint of a Timely Article

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Andrew Lloyd Webber is hot there, Stephen Sondheim too. An impresario pair fans the craze with some Buarque here, some Bacharach there.

July 31, 2005|Reed Johnson | Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Rio de Janeiro — Andrew Lloyd Webber fanatics in Brazil might seem as strange a subculture as samba enthusiasts in Anchorage. But don’t tell that to Claudio Botelho.

Charles Moeller & Claudio Botelho (istoe.com.br)
Charles Moeller & Claudio Botelho (istoe.com.br)

An actor, translator and bilingual bon vivant, Botelho, 40, is a confessed Broadway addict. So is his showbiz partner Charles Möeller. Both are self-made musical-theater authors and impresarios with a string of hit shows that have played on both sides of the Atlantic. “It’s like a virus,” Botelho says of his infatuation with the Great White Way, which began when as a child he saw the Oscar-winning movie version of “Oliver!”

In fact, many Brazilians have had a long-running affair with the Broadway-style musical, that most red-white-and-blue of theatrical genres. Perhaps in a country where irresistible rhythms are always pulsing somewhere and the interplay of tanned bodies along Copacabana beach can seem as carefully choreographed as a Jerome Robbins ballet, the notion of people breaking into spontaneous song and dance doesn’t appear all that far-fetched.

Two distinct but interrelated types of musical theater have won a following here over the decades: traditional imported Broadway musicals and home-grown, often quirky Brazilian musical shows that draw on a variety of sources but add distinctly local twists.

The preeminent work in this latter category is undoubtedly “Opera do Malandro,” which features a memorable samba- and jazz-tinged score by the sublime Brazilian tunesmith Francisco “Chico” Buarque de Hollanda (Botelho calls him “the Brazilian Sondheim”). Recently given a hit revival by Botelho and Möeller, the musical is an adaptation of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s “The Threepenny Opera.”

Cast of Opera do Malandro (musicaloperadomalandro.blogspot.com)
Cast of Opera do Malandro (musicaloperadomalandro.blogspot.com)

Audiences for Broadway imports and Brazilian musicals tend to overlap here, and there’s a fair amount of creative interbreeding among directors, producers and performers. Reflecting their hybrid ethnic-cultural heritage, Brazilians tend to care more about the quality of the finished product than the “purity” of its pedigree.

As it has throughout much of the Western world, Broadway has exerted a profound, if sometimes subtle, influence on Brazilian music and popular entertainment. The classic songbooks of Cole Porter, George and Ira Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein and other composers have swayed generations of Brazilian singer-songwriters, of many different stripes. Consider that on his 2004 disc of cover tunes, “A Foreign Sound,” the great Brazilian tropicalia artist Caetano Veloso included “So in Love” from Porter’s “Kiss Me, Kate” and “Summertime” from the Gershwins’ “Porgy and Bess.”

In the 1930s and ’40s, musical comedy revues, much like the follies shows on Broadway, thrived in Rio. During the 1960s and early ’70s, middle-class audiences flocked to “My Fair Lady,” “Hello, Dolly!” “Hair” and “Pippin.” But in more recent times, Broadway’s popularity here has ebbed and flowed with Brazil’s shifting political currents. During the country’s 20-year military dictatorship, which ended in 1985, many Brazilian theater artists turned toward a more political brand of stagecraft. Some felt the need to distance themselves from American culture because of the United States’ role in propping up the military regime, Botelho says.

But as Brazil has re-embraced democracy, the idea of entertainment-for-entertainment’s-sake has staged a comeback. A Portuguese-language version of Lloyd Webber’s “The Phantom of the Opera,” with a Brazilian cast, has been playing at a 2,000-seat São Paulo theater to sold-out houses, despite a top ticket price of $85, a small fortune for the average Brazilian. Brazilian productions of “Les Miserables” and “Beauty and the Beast” also have been hits in recent years. Like “Phantom,” those shows were brought here by La Corporacion Interamericana de Entretenimiento, which produces musical theater in the major Latin American capitals.

“The market is growing now,” says Botelho, who helped make his reputation in musical theater by translating the Brazilian productions of “Phantom,” “Les Miz,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “Kiss of the Spider Woman.”

Cole and ‘Company’

For many Brazilian Broadway buffs, these shows are simply part of a pop-music and entertainment continuum that knows few boundaries.

In addition to blockbuster imports, Brazilians are being drawn to lesser-known Broadway classics and a few ambitious home-grown stage musicals. The Botelho-Möeller partnership is behind several of these shows, including one about the life and work of Cole Porter that ran for three years in Rio, São Paulo and Lisbon. They reprised that success with a big production of “Company” and received the composer’s blessing. “He came down to see it, [Stephen] Sondheim, himself,” Botelho says. “He came and he was very enthusiastic about it. We were so happy that he came.”

Cristal Bacharach (roteirobrasilia.com.br)
Cristal Bacharach (roteirobrasilia.com.br)

This summer, Botelho and Möeller are rolling merrily along with “Cristal Bacharach,” a compendium of 20 Burt Bacharach-Hal David tunes wrapped around a featherweight romantic plot about a glamorous matriarch and her five sons. The score dips into “Promises, Promises,” the 1968 Broadway hit that Bacharach and David penned with Neil Simon, and includes the pop standard “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again” and the goofy Act 1-closer, “Turkey Lurkey Time.”

As usual, Botelho did the translations and even stepped into a supporting role for some performances. Möeller, who has acted in everything from avant-garde theater to soap operas, directed the 13-member cast and created the groovy circa-1970 sets and costumes.

The show played for seven months at a 350-seat theater in a downtown Rio hotel and then, in May, reopened at an 800-seat theater in an upscale shopping mall on the outskirts of Rio. The theater’s owners also operate the Plataforma 1 cabaret, which hosts one of Rio’s few remaining Vegas-style costumed samba shows — another flavor of musical theater, albeit one now mainly staged for tourists eager to shed their inhibitions and traveler’s checks.

That a Broadway-style show packed with easy-listening pop tunes could play big in Brazil says much about the country’s wide-open cultural tastes. Brazilians tend to have a love-hate relationship with the United States as a world power (lately, more of the latter sentiment than the former), but they’re generally wild for American pop culture. During the 1960s and ’70s in Brazil, Bacharach was part of an eclectic sonic landscape that included the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and tropicalia legends such as Veloso and Gilberto Gil.

“It’s part of our life, the soundtrack,” says soap opera star Totia Meireles, who took time off from shooting the popular Brazilian telenovela “America,” about Brazilian immigrants in the United States, to play the lead role in “Cristal Bacharach.”

Other “Cristal Bacharach” cast members include Marya Bravo, who got hooked on musical theater while studying at the Julia Richman Talent Unlimited High School for Performing Arts in New York and now plays in a psychedelic rock band, and Tobias Volkmann, an opera singer and conductor who moonlights in musicals when he’s not singing Verdi or Mozart. “The musical theater in Brazil sort of grew up,” Volkmann says. “Since four years [ago], I think it’s getting to a higher level and [there’s] more work.”

Looking to Home Talent Too

THEATER critics in the U.S. have been writing Broadway’s obit for decades or desperately searching for “the next Sondheim” to anoint as the musical theater’s savior.

But in Brazil, musical theater writers and producers, though admittedly small in number, seem too busy putting on shows to worry about the form’s long-range future. Though the budgets for most of these productions would barely cover the ad campaign for a 42nd Street blockbuster, their variety and ambition are impressive.

One of the biggest hits so far, Miguel Falabella’s “South American Way,” was an homage to Carmen Miranda, the Brazilian chanteuse and actor who rose to Hollywood celebrity more than a half-century ago. Another was the Botelho-Moeller production of Buarque’s “Opera do Malandro,” which the cast also recorded as a CD.

Bibi Ferreira in Gota a'Agua
Bibi Ferreira in Gota d’Agua

Buarque’s musical work “Gota d’Água” (variously translated as “Drop of Water” or “Last Straw”), a 1975 adaptation of Euripides’ ancient Greek tragedy “Medea,” was staged earlier this summer by students at Rio’s Casa das Artes das Laranjeiras, an arts college. In Buarque’s version, co-created with Paulo Pontes and originally starring Pontes’ wife, Bibi Ferreira, the action is updated to modern Brazil. Creon the king is transformed into a vicious loan shark; Medea’s husband Jason is a songwriter; and Medea (rechristened Joana) is a practitioner of the Afro-Caribbean religion called Macumba, similar to Santeria, which substitutes for the classical Greek cosmology.

The resurgent interest in Buarque’s work is significant both for artistic and political reasons. A steadfast critic of the military regime, Buarque constantly ran afoul of government censors who detected subversive meanings in some of his best-known songs.

Antonio de Bonis, who directed the production of “Gota d’Água,” says that he has been greatly influenced by Broadway musicals. “I love the American musical,” he says. “I have all the [recordings]: Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Gene Kelly. All.”

But he has chosen to devote his career to creating and staging musicals that recover the work of neglected Brazilian composers such as Buarque and Lamartine Babo. He says he avoids the Broadway and West End imports that come to São Paulo. “If I can pay the price for seeing one of these musicals in Brazil, I’d rather pay for a plane ticket and go see it in Broadway.”

Because work in musical theater is still relatively scarce in Brazil, the professional actors and students performing it usually hang on tightly to their day jobs. But training has improved. In the past, Bonis says, performing arts schools gave minimal, if any, instruction in musical theater, and Brazilian actors had to “learn by doing.” “Now there’s a larger concern for them to prepare specifically for the musical theater,” he says.

Bonis and others still struggle to obtain corporate underwriting for their shows, which are notoriously expensive to produce. But a handful of companies have stepped forward, such as Brasil Telecom, which co-sponsored “Cristal Bacharach.” So have Rio’s municipal authorities, who oversee 27 public theaters and other small performance spaces, and are actively promoting musical shows, Botelho and Bonis say.

Meanwhile, the Broadway show must go on, so Botelho and Möeller are planning to do “Side by Side by Sondheim” in September. Though Botelho admits that the composer is extremely tough to translate, let alone perform, he seems eager for the challenge. So does Möeller, who once leaned more toward fluffier musicals such as “Fame” and “Grease.”

“I think he knows more Sondheim, actually, than me now,” says Botelho, smiling at the thought.

(This is a reprint of a Los Angeles Times article that originally appeared in July 2005)

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