Tapping Across the Tundra: Drama Professor Robert Chapel and his Boffo Broadway X Three troupe Take Russia by Storm

January 23, 2008
January 23, 2008 — While teaching on the MV Explorer throughout Central and South America for Semester at Sea last summer, I received an e-mail from Debra Guido O’Grady, cultural exchange officer for the United States Embassy in Moscow, inviting me to put together a three-person Broadway musical revue to tour eight cities in Russia from Dec. 9-23, 2007. The U.S. State Department had budgeted $50,000 for this project, the finale in a year of many projects celebrating the 200th anniversary of diplomatic relations between our country and Russia.

This would be my third trip to Russia over the past two years, having taught workshops as a “U.S. Senior Specialist” in musical theater performance at the Russian Academy of Theatre Arts (GITIS) and the Cinematography Institute (VGIK) in the fall of 2005, and returning to Moscow in November/December 2006 to direct Sweeney Todd for GITIS via a Fulbright grant. (The show ran from Dec. 23, 2006, to June 25, 2007, in Moscow.) A Fulbright Emeritus grant [Fulbright Senior Specialist Program] was created to fund this 2007 tour.

Many e-mails followed among Debi, Jim Kenny (head of cultural exchange for the U.S./Moscow Embassy) and Masha Shustina, cultural exchange specialist in the Public Affairs Section of the U.S. Embassy. Masha was charged with putting the entire tour together. A debate ensued regarding the type of show to present. We finally decided to create a revue with little or no speaking — just move from song to song with music representing a panoramic history of some of the best songs from 20th-century American musicals. Another important criterion: that it include many musical numbers that involved tap dancing, which, although not unknown to Russian audiences, is considered an American art form and something especially popular with the Russian people. Our audiences everywhere would be the local people from each city.

For my cast, I turned to three young performers already out of school who had given wonderful performances for U.Va.’s Heritage Repertory Theatre in the summers of 2005 and 2006 — Rob Marnell and Kelly Schmidt from New York and Sarah Stevens from Harrisonburg, Va. All three possess beautiful singing voices (Rob a tenor and Kelly and Sarah sopranos) and, most important — all three could tap! As our accompanist, I hired one of my oldest friends, Frank Kuntz, who lives in Montana, one of the most accomplished ragtime piano players in the U.S.

After three weeks of rather intense rehearsals in Charlottesville, we flew to Moscow on Dec. 8. The tour that Masha set up for us was daunting indeed — eight cities in 14 days, with overnight planes, trains, buses and automobiles between performances. Arriving in Moscow the morning of Dec. 9, we spent the day resting in an airport hotel and then, at 2 a.m., boarded a plane for Novy Urengoy, a town created in 1973 in one of Russia’s major gas-producing regions — one hour south of the Arctic Circle.

Surprisingly, when we arrived we found an absolutely beautiful and modern theater complex, the “House of Culture” as it is called, recently constructed for this town of 160,000 people by Russia’s largest natural gas company, Gazprom. That first night was quite a test for our performers who were suffering from severe jet lag, but somehow they made it through and we were greeted by a wonderful response from our first Russian audience. After the show, we were treated to a splendid “Russian dinner” — very hot Russian soup, fish, potatoes and vegetables — a practice that was repeated wherever we went over the next two weeks.

After this initial performance, we sensed that the show was playing a bit long and decided to cut three duets, but we kept 36 songs, including eight major tap numbers. Over the course of the tour, we cut no more numbers, but as the show became tighter — as all shows do — rehearsal time diminished and we dropped the intermission. Each time we arrived in a new city, we scheduled a 3 p.m. rehearsal to put in the lights and sound and get used to the stage. Over time, the show evolved to require using less “theatrical” and more “concert” lighting, i.e., fewer special lighting effects — the music itself was carrying the show.

After these first two exhausting days, Masha’s schedule for us did not let up. Returning to the Urengoy hotel after our first performance, we were allowed to rest for about three hours and then, again at 2 a.m. on Dec. 11, we boarded a bus that drove us, complete with a two-car police escort, across the frozen roads (with the temperature outside our windows well below zero) to a small town called Nadym, where at about 7 a.m. we boarded a plane and flew across the Ural Mountains into western Siberia to the town of Tyumen, where we were to give our second performance in two days. The plane’s landing gear would not go down on our first descent into Tyumen and there were some tense moments as they suddenly “throttled up” and flew around the airport to try again. I am writing this several weeks later so, as you might surmise, the landing gear did indeed descend on our second attempt to land.

Tyumen is beautiful, with wide streets, many monuments and, at that time of year, many ice sculptures. However, Tyumen’s Drama Theatre is ancient — we were told it was over 150 years old, 180 degrees opposite from Novy Urengoy’s House of Culture. The floor was worn, complete with holes that would prove dangerous to dance upon; at the last minute, through a mutual decision between me and the theatre’s director, plywood planks were screwed into the entire stage, not only so the audience could hear the taps of our dancing feet but so our cast could even perform that part of the show. In addition to that evening’s performance, Kelly led a tap class in the late afternoon attended by many students and others who observed. We also gave a press conference for the local television and newspapers — another thing that repeated itself in every city we visited, including Moscow. We felt like “rock stars” in Siberia! Following that evening’s performance, we were treated to a delicious Ukrainian dinner (although we were far from the Ukraine) hosted by a joyous man, Sergey Prokorchuk, deputy director of the Drama Theatre. Afterwards, finally, we were able to check into a hotel and sleep through the night!

Our next stop was the town, Stary-Oskol, southwest of Moscow, near the Ukraine, a long way from Tyumen, which required a flight to Moscow and an all-night train to get there. Their theater, the Komsomolets, was spacious and old. We were welcomed by a large class of young dancers ages 10 to 16, who were tap-dancing specialists and had won awards in major international contests. Because they were already so accomplished in the basics of tap, I suggested that Kelly teach them one of the numbers from the show. She did. They mastered it in one hour and that evening, performed “I Got Rhythm” with us as our final encore. This, of course, brought down the house and ingratiated us to everyone.

One of the inherent problems with a tour such as this is that we seldom felt like we got a chance to see the cities we were visiting. However, our next stop was the city of Belgorod, close to Stary-Oskol, and so time allowed us to visit, on the way, an underground monastery near the village of Kholki dating back to the 17th century.

Our press conference in Belgorod was attended by the largest number of press representatives in any of the cities we visited — apparently not too much happens on a daily basis in Belgorod. After that evening’s performance (Dec. 14), we were again on an all-night train, back to Moscow and then to the resort town of Nahabino, where we spent two glorious days at Le Meridian Hotel and Spa, where we also performed. To my delight, a number of actors from my Moscow cast of Sweeney Todd came to see the show and it was a great pleasure to see my American actors get to know their Russian counterparts over a wonderful dinner at the hotel following the performance.

Another all-night train took us to Nishny-Novgorod, Russia’s third-largest city, where we experienced the most hectic day of our journey. On Dec. 17 at the House of Actors, a theater and drama school, I taught a “master class” in how to act a song. After the class, the school’s director gave me one of the greatest compliments I’ve ever received. He told me he had been trying to teach Stanislavsky’s acting method to these particular students for 18 months and that I had made it clearer to them “in two hours, while teaching them how to act a song — and in English no less!” Kelly also gave one of her master classes in tap assisted by Rob and Sarah and then we gave what was, up to then, possibly our finest performance. Maybe it was because the audience was primarily an invited one and consisted of many actors and musicians from the city, but a greater “connection” happened between our cast and the audience and that evening’s performance seemed electric. A lovely champagne reception followed, complete with many toasts, flowers, gifts and accolades for us all.

A day of sightseeing followed in Nishny-Novgorod, situated on the immense Volga River. Our host Natalya Arbuzova, a local producer, took us for a very long and very cold walk to their Kremlin (citadel with government offices) and to the city center, where our cast bought many gifts for their families and friends. We were soon back on the train for a 16-hour ride to Ulyanovsk and our final performance outside Moscow. We were met by an elegant woman, Marina Yashina, resplendent in fur, who must have looked a bit askance at this very tired and worn small troupe of players, their director and his wife, and Masha, who tirelessly accompanied us as our guide and translator during the entire tour, always with a smile on her face and a most positive spirit. If anyone deserves tumultuous applause, it is Masha.

Once again, we were confronted with a small, rather old theater, this time with a cloth-covered stage and once again, I implored them to alter the floor so that real tapping could occur. They eventually complied and because this theater was so very intimate (it seated no more than 150), the audience seemed to take an even greater part in the show. Marina treated us to yet another “traditional Russian dinner” following the performance — complete with herring; potatoes; pickles; beets and hot, steaming solanka soup. This evening was, again, for an invited audience of local artists, some of whom joined us for dinner. I believe that one of the most important things we were able to accomplish throughout the tour was “artistic exchange” — the chance for our young performers to get to know their fellow Russian actors, to talk about their work and the similar obstacles they face as professional artists. It became clear that working in the theater, whether in Moscow or New York, is mutually problematic.

Finally, we landed in Moscow — on a 55-year-old plane! The embassy booked us into a lovely hotel and we all enjoyed being in Russia’s capital city.

Much sightseeing and shopping ensued, coupled with two performances at the Vishnevskaya Opera Theatre, which was built five years ago by Galina Vishnevskaya, wife of acclaimed cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich. It is a little jewel box, with three tiers that seat just over 300 people, and perfect acoustics. This was the only theater in which we did not need the assistance of wireless microphones. As expected, we found the Moscow audience to be the most critical of the tour, with the Friday evening performance receiving a rather chilly response. However, Saturday evening’s performance — seemingly the same as the night before — was met most enthusiastically, with a standing ovation and calls for many encores. We could not have ended our tour on a higher note. Once again, a number of my Sweeney Todd cast came to the final show and took us all out for a final Russian dinner before we left for home the next morning. Again, our cast and the Russian Sweeney actors connected in a most positive way — and plotted how they all might work together in the future.

During our first full day in Moscow, we were invited to a reception celebrating this 200th anniversary of diplomatic relations between our two countries at Spaso House, home of U.S. Ambassador to Russia William Burns and his wife, Lisa. There we were told by Jim Kenny from the U.S. Embassy that we had truly “broken ground” with this tour — that we had played before hundreds of Russian people who had never seen Americans perform live before, who had never heard the music of Broadway, and he had been told that our show had been a “true hit” wherever we had gone. They deeply appreciated Kelly, Rob and Sarah’s beautiful singing of show music, they loved to watch them dance, and they applauded and applauded in the hope that Frank would play more “ragtime.” No American performers had ever visited most of the towns in which we performed. I have been blessed to have been given the chance to direct many shows over my career, but I have never felt that a show had done so much good in forging good relations and encouraging the exchange of ideas with different people than Broadway X Three. It was an exhausting and exhilarating journey.