Escape Into Music

25 April 2023

Music and theatre have been intertwining for centuries, and in spite of the advent of musicals – and growing numbers of music stages – dramatic theatres regularly stage music-based performances. And since the last season, they are in great abundance in Kraków.

Justyna Skalska
Kraków Culture

What’s the difference between spectacles at music and drama theatres? “The great majority of music spectacles shown in Poland are stagings of Broadway and West End musicals. Their productions carry limitations which are unthinkable for many directors of non-music theatres. It’s standard for licence agreements to forbid any changes to the music and screenplay of the original. Additionally, theatres such as Syrena and VARIETE choose artists through castings, which makes the entire production process very time-consuming,” explains Jacek Mikołajczyk, stage director, translator, theatre scholar and managing and artistic director of the Syrena Theatre in Warsaw.

Cracovian music theatre

Kraków’s VARIETE Theatre, the only music and revue theatre in the city, rises the challenges listed by Jacek Mikołajczyk. The stage presents great productions of musicals such as Legally Blonde and Chicago. Paradoxically, during the last season the theatre also presented a few low-key drama performances, such as Barry Creyton’s Double Act starring Barbara Kurdej-Szatan and Michał Staszczak, filled with terrific music. “My mentor Kazimierz Dejmek said to me once, ‘when theatre has actors who can dance and sing, and better still they’d spent a couple of years at the circus, I can get them to put on any brilliant dramatic performance’,” says Janusz Szydłowski, director of the VARIETE Theatre, ahead of the premiere. His words cast a fresh light on the fascinating phenomenon of the blossoming of musicals in Kraków’s theatres.

Let’s make a Polish Hamilton!

Plenty has been written already about the coproduction between the Juliusz Słowacki Theatre in Kraków and the Shakespearean Theatre in Gdańsk. 1989, directed by Katarzyna Szyngiera and inspired by the revolutionary musical Hamilton with Lin-Manuel Miranda placing rap squarely on the style map of Broadway, is Poland’s first rap musical depicting the fall of Communism – an absolute must-see of the season!

Where did the idea come from? “I realised that political sagas can be expressed through rap – a language which in its very nature is rooted in rivalry, fun, altercations and clashes,” explains the author of the texts Marcin Napiórkowski. The composer Andrzej “Webber” Mikosz brings a hybrid of styles, mainly reaching for rap, soul, R&B and even disco polo. The whole package – music, choreography, acting and the terrific script – brings a sense of freshness and modernity rarely found in Polish music theatre.

1989 is not an imitation of the American classic, and the authors have worked hard to achieve commercial success. Supported by a few actors specialising in musicals, the team from the Juliusz Słowacki Theatre, especially the female cast, has risen to the challenge. The positive mythology is captivating!

Divine talent

In recent seasons, Kraków’s stages have been dominated by music monodramas, with the actress taking on a range of roles. The star of the shows, Katarzyna Chlebny, has been a phenomenon on Cracovian stages for many years. “She hasn’t suddenly fallen from the sky, although it may seem so at times. Her triumphs of 2022 come in the wake of many roles, meetings and spectacles from previous years. Her self-written monogram about Kora was a veritable eruption of individual talent. Katarzyna Chlebny is an outstanding singer and musician!” writes captivated theatre and film critic Łukasz Maciejewski. Her career has seen a meteoric rise since her moving performance as a matricide in Macabra Dolorosa, and she has been highly sought-after by Cracovian theatres since the pandemic. Chlebny’s most recent performances – at Teatr Nowy Proxima celebrating Kora and Ewa Demarczyk, at KTO Theatre in her role as Bob Marley’s wife Rita, and even at Teatr Bagatela in a sophisticated play exploring group therapy – all go to show her unquestionable musical and acting talent.

Spectacle within a spectacle

Since January, Stary Teatr has been presenting a large-scale, controversial interpretation of The Threepenny Opera directed by the German artist Ersan Mondtag. The spectacle is a perfect example of the fact that artists, in particular the acting team, aren’t afraid of the great challenges that come from a musical production.

“We have faced many different challenges. I should note that working with stage actors on singing has been one of the greatest experiences in my pedagogical career – they are not just talented, but incredibly dedicated, and usually very modest. They often think their singing is far worse than it actually is. And let’s not forget that The Threepenny Opera isn’t a classical operetta, and Brecht specifically intended it for stage actors,” explains Justyna Skoczek, music director of the spectacle.

The greatest problem of this interpretation has been the lack of room for musicians on the stage. “I’m disappointed that the audience can’t see the orchestra in action. Just like in the original we have a limited cast, so a single musician plays several instruments – at times they have just a couple of seconds to swap from one to another. Another issue is that we can’t see one another very well, and whenever the sets are being changed, we have a limited view of the stage. The tech staff carry bits and bobs, we stand up to try to see anything at all, and it all happens so fast… Perhaps some people would refuse to work under such conditions, but our team is having the time of our lives. It’s like a spectacle within a spectacle!” adds Justyna Skoczek.

Return to the sources

And that’s not all the music spectacles in Kraków this season! Teatr Nowy Proxima presents performances showcasing the lives and works of Kazik Staszewski and Ozzy Osbourne. Head to Teatr Ludowy for Ballads and Romances. Horror School Musical. Teatr KTO shows the latest performance directed by Józef “Żuk” Opalski. “We are living in interesting times, so we seek refuge in music. I think the fascination of drama theatres with musicals is a perfect example of this, and audiences simply need them in their lives,” explains Józef Opalski, stage director, close observer of Kraków’s theatre circles and accomplished pedagogue who has educated generations of actors at the Stanisław Wyspiański Academy of Theatre Arts. “And there’s another reason: most of Cracovian actors are talented people who simply love to sing. That’s one of the reasons behind the great success of these music performances, from Kasia Chlebny’s shows all the way to performances at the J. Słowacki Theatre. It’s incredible that theatre directors have realised that they have the performers and audiences for such spectacles.”

Perhaps, as Konrad Imiela once wrote, today’s theatre is shifting away from everyday journalistic language and aims to transport audiences to a more metaphorical space? Maybe the symbolic history has come full circle and – just as in Greek theatre – everything will be a chorus…


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