April 13 is a big day for theatergoers in Tokyo, as it sees the world premiere of “Lady Bess,” a musical by the world-renowned team of German writer Michael Kunze and Hungarian composer Sylvester Levay, with famed hit-maker Shuichiro Koike directing.
Considering the play is based on the life of Elizabeth I, the Queen of England from 1558-1603, before she was crowned at the tender age of 25, it’s exciting to imagine just how her astonishing tale might be staged. After all, when she was just 2½, her mother, Anne Boleyn, was beheaded by order of King Henry VIII, her husband and Elizabeth’s father, who then had their marriage annulled — which led to the girl being declared shamefully illegitimate. Then, with religious strife wracking the nation, Elizabeth’s own Catholic half-sister, Queen Mary I — who is notorious for having Protestants like Elizabeth burned at the stake — had her imprisoned for nearly a year.
Already four musicals by Kunze and Levay have been performed in Japan, with one in particular, “Elisabeth,” about the wife of Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria, a major hit. After its Vienna premier in 1992, directed by Harry Kupfer, the show — in which the character Death plays a key role — was staged here in 1996 by the all-female Takarazuka Revue before being taken up, with a mixed cast, by the Tokyo-based Toho company. The former version has currently been performed 799 times, and the latter 1,067 times — with Koike directing both productions.
When I asked Kunze, 70, and 68-year-old Levay why they chose Elizabeth — one of whose nicknames as monarch was “Good Queen Bess” — as their subject this time, Kunze replied. “Well, the reason she brought glory to England is connected to the kind of wisdom that is needed even today. We want to show that if a talented woman can gain power, she can change the world.
“In the 16th century, the tolerance and open-mindedness to not force a religion on the citizens was a common sense Bess had acquired to avoid conflict and discrimination.”
In terms of his score, Levay explained, “I included Celtic music to evoke the atmosphere of the time and the region, though I wove in modern elements — just as Kunze, to create an image of a person that resonates with people today, didn’t stick strictly to history. So our goal was to create a stage with universality.”
As a result, the cast features both real characters and fictional ones such as Robin, a minstrel Bess falls in love with who seems to embody the exciting spirit of this era with its great voyages of discovery and the likes of William Shakespeare reshaping English culture.
“The free-spirited Robin is an artist who follows his heart. When Bess, then heir to the throne, meets him, he represents to her a different set of values from any she’s known. Of the characters in this work, he’s the one I’d like to become,” Kunze adds with a laugh. To which Levay dryly responds: “I’d like to be Robin’s best friend!”
Last year, I saw “Elisabeth” in Vienna and was surprised how formally the characters were portrayed compared with the romantic and mysterious productions I’d seen in Japan. So I asked its creators to what extent their works changed depending on where they were staged.
They explained, “As long as the essence of the story isn’t distorted, we can accept variations that are suited to the culture of each place. And as you will realize — because a number Mr. Koike asked us to write for Tokyo was added to the Vienna version in 2012 — we also learn from the new outcomes of different directing styles.”
Then, turning to Koike, I asked what he saw as the appeal of “Lady Bess.”
“Kunze and Levay still have that spirit of rebelling against rigid systems that young people had in the 1970s,” he observed. “So their flexible mentality that allows them to both exhibit intelligence and enjoy popularity is crystallized in the character of Bess, whose conflict between love and responsibility brings her to maturity.”
He then enticingly added: “And the song titled ‘Growing Up’ will surely be an encouragement to all those looking for the meaning of life amidst pain and joy.”
“Lady Bess” runs April 13-May 24 at the Imperial Theatre, Tokyo. For details, visit www.tohostage.com/ladybess. This article, written in Japanese for The Japan Times, was translated by Claire Tanaka.