Magazine article The Sondheim Review

Sustaining Impact

Magazine article The Sondheim Review

Sustaining Impact

Article excerpt

British director offers his take on Hungarian productions of Sondheim's shows

Culturally, Hungary was always the least repressed of the Soviet-bloc countries. Prior to the 1989 collapse of Communism, the capital Budapest had already staged Western shows such as Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita. Budapest even had its own Rock Theatre Company, which staged Hungarian-language original musicals.

In early 1990, during the first few months of "freedom," I staged a revue of songs from musicals never before heard in Hungary. Performed in English by Hungarian artists, the songs were introduced in Hungarian with brief synopses and plot summaries. This show included several songs by Sondheim, possibly the very first performances of his music in Hungary.

Three years later the U.K.'s National Theatre played a few guest performances of Sweeney Todd in Budapest - in English, of course. This created enough interest to lead to a full-length Sondheim show, Assassins, which premiered in Budapest in October 1993.

As far as I am aware, this was the first Sondheim show to be translated into Hungarian. Assassins ("Orgyilkosok" in Hungarian) was performed in an old suburban cinema that had been converted into a studio theatre. It was a most exciting and different production, and in spite of being staged a long way out of the city center, it attracted a large audience of young people.

It was quite bizarre to watch the show in Hungarian. The piece was played without an interval and lasted for one hour and 50 minutes. (Maybe it takes longer to say everything in Hungarian?) The Hungarian audience laughed at all the comic scenes and wildly applauded at the end; strangely, there was no applause whatsoever during the show. The level of audience concentration was very high.

I do not speak Hungarian, so it was impossible to know how well the translation by Miklos Tibor worked. A great deal of the lyric writer's art must inevitably be lost when the work goes into another language. However, the audience reacted at certain points in the songs exactly in the way they react in English-language productions. The Hungarian friend who was with me thought the lyrics were "very clever and complex." (Enough said?)

Tibor has since cornered much of the market in translating English musicals into Hungarian. Before Assassins he had worked extensively with the Rock Theatre in the Communist days; since then he has translated many major Western musicals and written lyrics for original musicals.

Since those early days, Budapest has regained much of its old theatre splendor, particularly in the musical theatre field. …

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