“Jetzt bin ich frei / So frei und schwerelos / Aus und vorbei / Ich bin frei und schwerelos / Und niemand fängt mich ein,” sings the chorus of “Defying Gravity” from the German production of the popular Broadway musical Wicked.The show originally opened on Broadway in New York City in October 2013 at the George Gershwin Theatre and is currently running there today. It has also spawned a multitude of international tours, productions in 13 countries around the world, and has been translated into five languages.
Wicked is hardly alone in it’s many foreign language productions. Many successful American musicals have been translated to delight international audiences including The Phantom of the Opera, Mamma Mia!, and The Lion King. Subsequently, international shows, such as Les Miserables, have been translated into English, as well as several other languages.
Lyric translation is one of the most challenging aspects of converting a show for international audiences. On a much smaller scale, earlier this year a four minute video by TED Talks called “It’s TED, the Musical” was created and translated into over 30 languages. However, the volunteer lyric translators were faced with a daunting task.
“There’s so much work that goes into translating lyrics,” said Krystian Aparta, a TED employee who has also translated songs for many Polish bands. “You need to think about the connotations of the words, rhymes, alliteration, which words will be stressed by the singer, how to adapt the song to make as much sense in the target culture.. By translating these lyrics and bringing the fun and humor in this video to so many audiences all over the world, these guys are truly proving that music can be the universal language.”
Though the undertaking of translating an entire show into another language is enormous in and of itself, the costumes, set, lighting, and general feel of the show are often changed as well.
A performance in another language often means a very different cultural experience when performed for an international audience. Wilemijn Verkaik, a Dutch actress, has played the role of Elphaba in the Germany, Holland, and Broadway productions of Wicked.
“It’s a tremendous feat,” Lisa Leguillou, the associate director of Wicked on Broadway, told the Huffington Post. “It’s her third language. Who else can do that? I have a tremendous amount of respect for her. I’m seeing a whole other performance here. It’s taking her out of her comfort zone and it’s allowing her to find new things in her Elphaba.”
Differences in dialogue and cultural references vary from country to country. One challenge in translating a story from one language to another is the cultural nuances that do not change as fluently as words. It is something that must come natural, and can not necessarily be learned in the classroom. Despite staying very true to the source material, the 2011 Shanghai production of Mamma Mia! in Mandarin did have a cultural impact. British director Paul Garrington knew the audience would enjoy the show nonetheless.
“Let’s face it, [a story] about a woman who sleeps with three men 20 years ago and the consequences of that, it’s not a particularly Chinese story,” Garrington told Time Magazine. “But there’s something infectious in the music and something about the other relationships in the story – it’s a story about strong friendships and it’s a story about mothers and daughters.”
In fact, translated shows are even able to bring new, or even previously snubbed, theater aspects to light in counties around the globe.
Le Roi Lion, the French language production of The Lion King in Paris, opened in 2007 and ran successfully for two years at the Mogador theatre. The last musical the theatre had hosted was Les Miserables, which, despite being of French origin, did not manage to do well with audiences in Paris. However, with a few tweaks and cultural changes from Stephane Laporte, who adapted and translated the show, Le Roi Lion was easily able to delight.
“I think the French are getting accustomed to the idea that it’s possible to have theatre that sings,” Laporte told BBC. “We’ve adapted the show a bit for the French audience – where there’s a Charleston dance for example, we’ve put in a cancan. The French audience appreciates seeing a bit of their own culture in the show!”
The market for internationally adapted Broadway musicals is growing incredibly popular with each new adaption and audiences are demanding more. Ada Yao, a woman from Shanghai, enjoyed the Mandarin production of Mamma Mia! and looks forward to seeing new types of entertainment she can relate to.
“I’m not sure if people can get used to this style,” said Yao. “But I like it – this is my style, too.”