Broadway brought to our own shores
By Shani Asokan
Ceylon Today Features
"The hills are alive with the sound of music!" There certainly weren't any hills at the Cinnamon Grand Colombo, but the Atrium, with its beautifully raised platform was filled with the sound of music as the melodious voices of the performers who took the stage throughout the evening belted out lyric after lyric.
Broadway theatre was an element that had long been missing from the performing arts scene in Sri Lanka, but not anymore! Cinnamon Life in collaboration with Broadway Asia brings a new addition to the aesthetics of Colombo – international casts performing award-winning musicals, right here, on home soil. This partnership was launched on 9 January 2018 and celebrated with a Broadway themed evening which managed to portray that fine balance between being informative and entertaining.
The first of many, this new initiative brings the hit musical, The Sound of Music to Sri Lanka on 14 – 18 February 2018. This Andrew Lloyd Webber and David Ian's Really Useful Group production, starring an international cast, is a first in all of South Asia. Set to take place at the Nelum Pokuna theatre, The Sound of Music stars Carmen Pretorius, a South African actress playing the lead role of Maria, a free-spirited young woman studying to be a nun, who is then sent to the home of a retired naval officer as a governess. Starring opposite her is Nicholas Maude, a LAMDA graduate in the role of Captain Von Trapp, the retired naval officer who practices strict military discipline in his house, requiring everyone, including his youngest children to obey his commands. What's more? The award-winning, opera singer and soprano Janelle Visagie stars as Mother Abbess, a German Catholic nun who is known for being the reigning Abbess of the Abbey in which Maria is training.
According to Lisa Fleming, General Manager for David Ian Productions, "This production of The Sound of Music has been touring internationally since 2014 and over the past six months it has played throughout Asia, in China, the Philippines and Singapore."
The launch kicked off with a nostalgia-inducing medley by the Soul Sounds choir. With a seamless fusion of Broadway hits from popular musicals like Wicked, Lion King, Jersey Boys, Chicago, Footloose and more, they managed to set the stage, for the rest of the evening, and for all the Broadway goodness that Colombo is soon to see.
This novel venture also gives twelve Sri Lankan children the opportunity to appear in the musical alongside the professional theatre company, thereby adding a Sri Lankan twist to the otherwise international cast. As the Minister of Tourism John Amaratunga said in his speech at the event, "This play, this musical event, is not only going to be entertaining to all Sri Lankans who are interested in witnessing it and enjoying the music, but has also paved the way for our younger generation to partake, participate and advance in their knowledge of performances. That is extremely important and is going to be extremely useful."
Speaking to the audience, Krishan Balendra, the Deputy Chairman of the John Keells Group highlighted the fact that Colombo's landscape is constantly changing, with a larger consumer base emerging. He described this collaboration to be "The first step in an ongoing endeavour to make Colombo a city that offers high quality entertainment on a regular basis and creates a platform to attract an international audience."
Banking on a pre-existing initiative to make Sri Lankan tourism the number one foreign exchange income earner for the country, with Colombo already becoming a regional hub for entertainment, he explained, "The Sound of Music is set to front our journey to bring world class entertainment home."
He further stated that Cinnamon Life, a city within a city aims to be the ultimate entertainment hub in South Asia, and bringing Broadway to Colombo is just the beginning. "In February 2018 this extraordinary theatrical performance will dazzle audiences in Sri Lanka, enabling them to experience a world class musical that has made its mark on some of the world's most renowned stages, including those on the West End and Broadway," he said.
Minister John Amaratunga, seemingly a theatre enthusiast, said "I would say that The Sound of Music has come not only to Colombo but to the whole of Sri Lanka. When I first saw it somewhere in the 1960s, I think I went to see it two to three times. It was so interesting and the music was so entertaining." The Sound of Music is definitely a household name in Colombo. Screened and performed in most schools, and watched by many right from the period in which VHS tapes were popular, this is not an opportunity that will go to waste.
He went on to say, "Sri Lanka tourism wholeheartedly welcomes this initiative. We are always looking for people who are willing to bring events that will entertain the tourists of Sri Lanka, and here you are bringing it at a time when the numbers of tourists are at its highest (January to February). It is indeed something that is going to promote tourism, since Sri Lanka is now coming up."
Taking this step, Sri Lanka joins an already extensive list of Asian countries in which Broadway musicals are performed on a regular basis. "It is really exciting to me that, we've brought shows to over 400 different cities around the world, and to 40 countries, so this becomes out 41st country to bring Broadway." Marc Routh, President and Executive Producer of Broadway Asia said, expressing his excitement and enthusiasm regarding this new partnership.
"I fell in love with Broadway when I was a young boy. I loved the versatility of the performers and the way that they could act and sing and dance and tell stories and The Sound of Music is actually a perfect story." He explained, in his speech. "It tells the story of a family through hardship, through tragedy, and through triumph through music... I was able to see the performers rehearsing a little bit earlier this evening and the company is really terrific, so we are very, very excited to be a part of this venture."
Echoing both Krishan Balendra's and Minister John Amaratunga's views on the economic impact of Broadway in Sri Lanka, he went on to say "The story of Broadway doesn't stop with the wonderful entertainment. It actually is a very interesting tale of the effect of the economy on Broadway. The economic impact of Broadway on the city of New York is actually 12.6 million dollars a year from our last study. But it doesn't just affect Broadway alone; it also affects the touring cities that Broadway goes to. So in North America alone the economic impact was 3.2 million dollars last year."
Lisa Fleming too, was quick to agree. "I hope this will be the beginning of many more musicals heading this way and open up yet another avenue for tourists to explore. Sri Lanka is a developing country and the city of Colombo seems to be literally exploding with many new opportunities. Providing western theatre will have put Colombo on the map in a way that Singapore and other Asian cities have successfully managed. Tourism and theatre have long since been intertwined and interlinked, you only have to look at Broadway, like my colleague Marc mentioned and the West End of London where tourists make up a large percentage of theatre audiences and are responsible for people travelling to those cities, purely to watch theatre."
She added, "Today we take the most enviable steps for western theatre to be brought to this most beautiful part of the world which I hope will enhance an already rich cultural environment here in Colombo. This is a very exciting project for all of us involved."
Minister Amaratunga ended his speech on a hopeful note. "I only wish and pray that you will not stop with this but continue to bring all of this other entertainment that you have mentioned...those who have in the past seen The Sound of Music will never miss this," he exclaimed.
The speeches were followed by a short panel discussion with some of the venture's main sponsors. The evening ended on a high note, with performances by both Maria (Carmen Pretorius) and Mother Abbess (Janelle Visagie), leaving the audience excited, and wanting to see the rest of the production right away!
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