Czech musical Hamlet aims to conquer Broadway

Hamlet - an original Czech musical composed and written by Czech hit maker Janek Ledecky. It's based on Shakespeare's classic and was a great success with Czech audiences when it was premiered six years ago - instead of the 300 performances that were originally planned, its run extended to no less than 600. The musical was also a hit in the Slovak capital Bratislava and has been now also adapted into an English version. There are plans to bring it to the United States next year.

This was the initiative of the American sociologist and theater producer Vince Parillo who happened to see the musical in Prague.

"My wife Beth and I were visiting Prague after teaching here the year before, we saw the show and we just felt in love with it. We loved the music, we loved the play action and it was Beth's idea that maybe we should try to do something in English and bring it to the United States. One of the good things about the show that we liked so much was the blend of the music; there was these beautiful ballets and then the pop-rock music and swing etc., so we liked the variety of it."

"But it was also beautifully composed. Janek Ledecky did a very fine job with the words and the music. I think it is unique. I think while there are similarities one can always fin in other shows, it was the combination of the beautiful music that intrigued us so much."

Vince Parillo believed that this kind of musical would suit Broadway and he offered to produce Hamlet's American version. To check the taste of the American audience they prepared a couple of stage readings of Hamlet in the United States last year.

"We have done two concert versions in the United States in New York City and we used professional singers from Broadway who are in shows - people who are in the industry, do this for living - and they thought the music was just beautiful. Much of the musicals in the United States these days are lighter musicals. They are not serious. Broadway is now ready for a serious musical and this seems to fill the bill."

The author of the show, Janek Ledecky, is a very popular Czech rock and pop singer. As a Shakespeare lover, he wrote both the music and the lyrics.

"I think it was such a strong inspiration that the music came very easily. Since I've got a very good contract with the recording company I was able to have such a comfort that I spent just one year doing nothing else but reading all Czech translations of all Shakespeare's plays. I have to say it was really exciting to observe the development of Czech language in it. All these translations were made by top poets and top writers. So I was searching the right language there but in the end I decided to write it in contemporary pop and rock poetry."

American poet George Havrilla has now been given a difficult job. He is to translate or transfer Hamlet - a cornerstone of English literature - from Czech into English. But as he says, it does not mean he is putting it back into Shakespeare's language.

"Janek's version is really more modern poetry. It's modern poetry set to music. The Czech language is obviously substantially different from English. It was very difficult. Not only do you have to make the lyrics singable, not only do you have to have them palatable to the ear but they also have to tell the story. They cannot miss any piece of information, you can't add a superfluous, irrelevant piece of information, just for the sake of taking up space."

"So you really dig into the language and love the language. You really need to love the words and love the subject matter. Janek's Hamlet is easy to love, it's a beautiful peace of work."

On the other hand the director of the American version, Robert Johanson tried to bring Hamlet little bit back to Shakespeare and leave out some of the Czech fairytale connotations to make the story more internationally understandable.

"Since we were presenting it now to English speaking people, we thought that we had an obligation to be a little more true to Shakespeare's Hamlet - it is one of the greatest plays in the English language."

"So we put more of the plot elements back into the story that people are familiar with and emphasized the duel of love interests - the Claudius and Gertrude mature love interest - and than the Ophelia and Hamlet kind of virginal love interest. We also focused on the whole structure, so that it was dealing with the revenge tragedy of Hamlet killing Claudius."

Sebastian Arcelus is a popular Broadway actor who has played in a number of well know musicals. In Hamlet he is playing the main role. He says he feels close to this kind of music.

"Well I love this music. I love it in general and I love what Janek has written. I think that I specifically have a great affinity for the pop-rock genre in general and transference of that style to musical theatre - in a way to melt rock-and-roll with theatre. That in general is very exciting to me. I think that Janek has done a great job of putting together a show that works in much the same way musically as something like 'Jesus Christ Superstar' or the 'Who's Tommy' or even now recently 'We Will Rock You' based on the music of Queen."

Even though the producers of Hamlet's American version managed to get together a group of good Broadway actors, the show still has a long way to go before its Broadway debut can be guaranteed. First there will be a number of performances in Prague in August, starting next Tuesday. Only after that will the producers decide where and when to take it in the United States, and possibly also other countries.