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#13 - JRL 7170
Financial Times (UK)
May 7, 2003
Musical theatre: Trip from fame to infamy
By Andrew Jack

The final curtain will fall this week on Russia's first homegrown musical, Nord-Ost, which was a huge critical and commercial success before it hit headlines in October over the Chechen hostage crisis.

It may seem extraordinary to those who saw the terrible television and newspaper pictures of the siege, in which more than 100 died, that the show was revived in the same theatre at all.

It was the federal and city administrations that insisted on continuing Nord-Ost in the same venue, allocating money and persuading large business groups to follow suit. They wanted a symbol of their refusal to give in to terrorism. "I was against [the continuation]," said Georgy Vassiliev, the show's producer. "But we had no choice. It was a political choice of the government."

Uncertain whether the musical should restart at all, Vassiliev was definitely against a return to Dubrovka, near the city centre. "If we had gone to another venue there would have been a greater chance of reviving it successfully. But the authorities started rebuilding the theatre without even consulting us," he said.

The hall was repaired and upgraded impressively, although curiously there was no memorial plaque nor mention in the official programme of those who lost their lives.

Instead there were metal detectors and greater security at the entrance in an effort to reassure future customers that there would be no repetition of the October events. But from the relaunch in February it was clear from the forced smiles of the performers that they could not forget what had happened a few months before.

Nor could the audiences.

The show had been a great success, drawing more than 300,000 spectators during its first year and justifiably winning two national Golden Mask awards for best musical and best male role in a musical.

Based on the 20th century Russian classic The Two Captains by Venjamin Kaverin, a saga of betrayal and long unrequited - but ultimately satisfied - love, it combined Western musical-style songs, dance and high-tech sets with humorous jabs at Soviet-era bureaucracy and communal living.

Given Russia's rich musical culture, it also tapped the growing interest in recent years in musicals, following adaptations of Western shows such as Chicago, and the Polish musical Metro.

Nord-Ost also captured the spirit of the country's new-found renaissance since the late 1990s, combining renewed economic growth and national confidence after the gloom of the immediate post-Soviet period. Moscow's emerging middle class was willing to pay significant prices by local standards for tickets in the packed venue.

That made it the perfect target for the siege conducted by Chechen men wielding kalashnikovs and women with explosives strapped to their bodies. They threatened to blow up the building if the war in their conflict-torn republic was not halted. Of the 800 hostages, at least 129 died, including 17 cast members.

Most were killed by a knock-out gas used by Russian special services when they raided the theatre two days into the siege, and by the slow reaction of the emergency services in the aftermath.

But the Kremlin and the federal parliament refused a public inquiry, and Moscow's city authorities and local judges swiftly dismissed legal actions seeking compensation.

Another 100,000 people saw Nord-Ost after it reopened this year, but bookings by March were half the levels of the previous October. The organisers kept the seats full in part by offering places to the disadvantaged, who would not otherwise have been able to see the show. The modest operational profits made before the crisis were wiped out.

Nord-Ost remains a musical and theatrical success, and an innovation in Russia. Its organisers plan a tour of the show in the country's regions, beginning in St Petersburg by the end of this year and running for several months before moving to other centres such as Ekaterinberg and Samara.

But they need to find local producers to help with finance and organisation, in a venture that is unlikely to make money given the lower cost of tickets affordable to people outside Moscow.

They also plan to take Nord-Ost - Story of Love, a Russian-language concert based on the musical, on tour from the end of this month to Israel, Greece, the Baltics and eastern Europe.

Nord-Ost will live on, at least for a while. So, it seems, will the problems in Chechnya.

Details on www.thenordost.com or www.nordost.ru

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