Though local directors have made immense efforts to develop Vietnam’s fledgling musical theater scene in recent years, the genre has yet to take a firm foothold in the country’s art community.
According to Wikipedia, musical theater is a form of theatrical performance which combines songs, spoken dialogue, acting, and dance.
The story and emotional content of a musical are conveyed through the words, music, movement, and technical aspects which the genre adopts as an integrated whole.
While musical theater is hugely popular in European countries and the U.S., the form has yet to take root in the Southeast Asian country.
The overwhelming hurdles faced by those who wish to produce musicals include exorbitant costs, which are several times higher than a conventional drama play, and local audiences’ limited knowledge of, and low interest in, the genre.
Casting also proves a challenge for directors, as unlike opera and drama in which performers are supposed to be good at either singing or acting, a candidate for musicals must be equally brilliant in singing, acting and/or dancing.
According to the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism, though the first Vietnamese musical was staged some 50 years ago, the country has had fewer than 10 plays in the genre so far.
“Co Sao,” the country’s first-ever musical, written by late composer Do Nhuan, was first performed in Hanoi in 1965 with more than 150 actors and musicians.
Over the following 49 years, the play has been staged only two times, according to the culture ministry.
Further efforts to bring musicals to local audiences
In recent years, some Vietnamese directors have tried their hand at composing and staging musicals.
In January veteran Vietnamese composer Huy Tien staged the Vietnamese version of “Notre-Dame de Paris,” a French musical which is based upon the classic novel “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame” by world-renowned French novelist Victor Hugo.
Tien spent up to 30 years working on his musical’s music, lyrics, and storyline, which he said are independent of the original play.
The composer shared that he encountered immense difficulties while creating the play, including funding and casting.
He repeatedly searched for replacement actors, though the play has only eight roles, as several gave up their parts for different reasons after over one year of working on the play.
According to Tien, the actors received almost no pay. They participated just to create a worthwhile musical for local audiences to enjoy.
The music in his play was quite different from that of the original.
“Local audiences would find it quite hard to appreciate opera-style musicals, so I fused a variety of music genres including jazz, blues, and pop to make my play catchier and more enjoyable,” Tien explained.
The 90-minute musical was quite a success. The first Vietnamese version of Broadway musicals was staged by young director Nguyen Khac Duy.
He shared that apart from difficulty in funding and casting, the unprecedented copyright purchase of a Broadway musical was also a challenge, as the copyright holder produced a slew of demands to be met.
“Translating the lyrics was also hard, as the translation needs to be both comprehensible and relatable to local audiences, particularly youths, and faithful to the original’s discourse and style,” Duy shared.
The hard work of the young man and his cast from Buffalo Group – an independent group of young actors – finally paid off, as the show was successful in its debut in mid-2013 and earned Duy a local directing prize.
The Vietnamese version of “High School Musical,” a 2006 American teen/children's romantic comedy musical television film, also made it to local theaters around Tet (Vietnam’s Lunar New Year) in early February 2014.
Its 30-member cast, which was hand-picked from over 200 candidates, worked on the play for almost five months.
“Chuyen Chang Dung Si” (The Story of a Valiant Man), directed by seasoned artist Anh Tu – vice head of the Vietnam National Drama Theater – and staged last month, was the latest attempt to bring musical theater to Vietnamese viewers.
Its purely Vietnamese storyline revolves around Dam San, a legendary hero in the famed epic of “Bai Ca Chang Dam San” (The Song of Dam San).
The epic was created by the Ede ethnic minority in the Central Highlands.
By adopting entirely Vietnamese content, Tu hoped to make his musical more appealing and accessible to local audiences.
“Chuyen Chang Dung Si” earned an award of excellence at the 2nd ASEAN-China Stage Forum, which ran late last month in Nanning, China.
“There remains a long way to go in order to familiarize Vietnamese audiences with Broadway musicals. I’m infatuated with Nguyen Khac Duy’s version of ‘Chicago,’ which I considered a groundbreaking step toward the dream of bridging the gap between foreign and local musical theater,” veteran artist Le Khanh said.