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Heidi meets Andrew Lloyd Webber

Author Johanna Spyri joins her heroine on stage. TSW Event

In a few short weeks, a new Heidi musical will hit the stage on the shores of Lake Walen, in the eastern Swiss region where the novel was set.

This content was published on May 19, 2005 - 16:54

The producers of the multi-million franc production have adapted the winning formula used in countless Broadway and West End hits to ensure success at the box office.

When the show opens in late July, some members of the audience are sure to leave the open-air performance humming the catchy tunes to themselves, proud that the Swiss have been able to turn a classic Swiss novel into a popular musical.

The project was initiated by the tourist office of this part of eastern Switzerland, which markets itself as Heidiland. And the musical’s main sponsor is the Swiss retail chain, Migros. It sees the show as a vehicle to push sales of its Heidi brand of milk products.

But the musical’s Swiss label is misleading, since the task of writing the score and lyrics was outsourced to the British team of Stephen Keeling and Shaun McKenna.

They are best known for working together on the West End hit, Maddie, and McKenna has co-written the lyrics for the Lord of the Rings musical – an extravaganza set to debut in Toronto next year, before moving to London.

Anglicised

The creative producer of Heidi-The Musical, John Havu, is an American who has been involved for 14 years in musicals in Switzerland, including those of Andrew Lloyd Webber.

It is no surprise, therefore, that this quintessential Swiss story has been anglicised (listen to audio) - even though it has been conceived exclusively for the Swiss stage.

"It's a Swiss story but to create something really great I believe we have to take the best people we can find no matter where they come from," Stefan Mens, the Swiss artist credited with the concept for the new musical, told swissinfo.

With little knowledge of Switzerland, Keeling and McKenna were flown in for three days to derive inspiration for the story by visiting the places described in the novel and the hometown of Heidi author, Johanna Spyri.

Heroine upstaged

Back in London, they sat down to write the show, which puts the 19th century author on stage with her heroine for the first time.

Spyri’s relationship with her sick son, which inspired her to write the novel about the orphan girl, will be told parallel to the well-known story.

"Shaun McKenna and Stephen Keeling have a very good understanding of the musical tradition at the international level," Havu said, explaining his choice.

And by the time the musical hits the stage on July 23, McKenna’s English lyrics will have been translated into German.

"It had to be written in the language of the author," Mens said. "Of course it’s a Swiss story written in German, but McKenna is English and it’s amazing how he felt the spirit of Johanna Spyri and his English version is wonderful.

"I hope one day that there will be an English production."

Sell-out?

But although some may see the decision to bring in hired guns from the West End to interpret a Swiss classic for a Swiss audience as a sell-out, the producers are making no excuses or apologies.

In a statement they claim that "Stephen Keeling’s score is in the best tradition of the British musical. There is a combination of charm and suspense in the 19 songs which are sure to get an emotional response from the audience."

For Keeling, Heidi is a story that appeals to everyone. "It’s a story of learning, of growing up, of coming to terms with a world that is different from the world we know," he told swissinfo.

"There are universal themes in it as in all classic children’s writing... I wanted to write a symphonic type score. I never saw it as being something small. For me it was a big show to write."

In fact, the decision to use a tried and true West End formula is part of a larger trend in Switzerland to copy theatrical and small screen successes in Britain and the United States, instead of promoting home-grown projects.

In order to attract more visitors to the Lake Thun region, the local authorities put on a summer of open-air performances of Evita two years ago. The lakeside spectacle was such a huge success that they followed it up with Fiddler on the Roof last year and Miss Saigon this summer.

Swiss-German television has got in on the act, buying the rights to various American reality shows, including The Apprentice, renaming it Traumjob (Dream Job) and hiring a Swiss cast.

swissinfo, Dale Bechtel in Zurich

Key facts

There will be 33 performances of Heidi-The Musical on Lake Walen from July 23 to September 3.
The score and lyrics were written by the British duo, Sean McKenna and Stephen Keeling.
The lyrics were translated into German by Anja Hauptmann, who has also translated several Andrew Lloyd Webber productions for the German stage.
The musical was conceived by Swiss artist, Stefan Mens, and will be directed by Switzerland’s Stefan Huber.
The creative producer is American, John Havu.

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