It started life in 1929 as “Menschen im Hotel” (“People in the Hotel”), the first novel by Austrian writer Vicki Baum, but its storyline — set in the Grand Hotel in Berlin in 1928 — first became widely known through 1932’s Oscar-winning film “Grand Hotel” starring silver-screen idols John Barrymore, Greta Garbo and Joan Crawford.
In what’s now known as a “grand hotel” plot genre, Baum’s book and the various productions it has inspired all center around coincidental but fateful encounters between guests, staff and others — including fading prima ballerina Elizaveta Grusinskaya, ruined aristocrat-turned-thief Baron Felix Von Geigern, a terminally ill Jewish accountant named Otto Kringelein and Flammchen, an ambitious typist.
Despite the movie’s success, “Grand Hotel” didn’t resurface until 1989, when a Broadway musical by Luther Davis won five Tony awards, including best direction and choreography for Tommy Tune — the living legend invited over here in 1993 to help the all-female Takarazuka musical theater troupe stage this country’s first-ever “Grand Hotel.”
Now, 23 years on, “Grand Hotel” is back again, courtesy of Thom Southerland — the new darling of English theater who last year won the hearts of musicals lovers here with his all-Japanese production of “Titanic.” Amazingly, though, Southerland has created not just one, but two new all-Japanese versions, each with a different ending and separate casts.
Southerland actually swept the Offies (Off-West End Theatre Awards) last year with his new full-tilt “Grand Hotel” at London’s cozy, 240-seat Southwark Playhouse. There, his catwalk-style stage between banks of seating drew audiences in so closely that they were said to have felt like hotel guests sitting and watching the goings-on.
In light of such acclaim, it’s all the more amazing that Southerland has brought two entirely new productions to Japan. However, in conversation with this writer during the show’s Tokyo rehearsals, the director said he felt he should rise to the challenge of staging a grand-scale production in Japan, where the Akasaka Act Theatre’s 1,324 capacity, and those of the Nagoya and Osaka venues he’s playing, far exceed that in London.
In the Tokyo shows I saw, he delivered two wonderful, fast-moving works graced by choreographer Lee Proud’s beautifully natural, drifting movements that interleaved and overlapped with strong songs sung superbly — notably by Masaaki Fujioka as the concierge and Kanata Irei as the baron — to evoke powerful feelings of sadness, romance or sheer excitement.
The sumptuous, two-story set, meanwhile, drew on 1989’s Broadway musical, with guest-room doors on the floor above a lobby area with a big revolving door — and the cast themselves moving tables, chairs and other props around to perhaps create a bar and shift the action around.
However, besides all the singing and dancing and those moving tableaux, Southerland’s tailor-made direction for each actor is surely an unseen star of both versions. For example, when Grusinskaya is played by Tamiyo Kusakari — herself a former top ballerina — he has her emphasize the aging dancer’s artistically proud but rueful character; then, when it’s former Takarazuka star Mira Anju in that role, he has her play Grusinskaya more as a glittering celebrity.
Finally, there are the two shows’ different endings determined by the way we’ve seen the key players’ characters unfold — one in which they are intent on leaving Germany, the other in which they’re not.
Consequently, though each is highly entertaining on its own, the two versions of “Grand Hotel” together present a fascinating exploration of how people living in difficult times can respond in quite different ways to similar circumstances — and then in turn influence the future course of events.
In addition to all this, the chameleon actor Songha’s portrayal of petty-bourgeois Kringelein, Kusakari’s stubbornly independent Grusinskaya, and Wataru Kozuki as the Dancer of Death in a new role specially created for the Japan shows, are further unforgettable aspects of these remarkable twin stagings courtesy of the very gifted Mr. Southerland. What next, one wonders?
“Grand Hotel” runs April 27-28 at Aichi Arts Center in Nagoya, and May 5-8 at Umeda Arts Theater in Osaka. For more details, call 0570-077-039 or 06-6377-3888, or visit musical-grandhotel.com.