Russian Musical Re-emerges after
By Andrew Jack
MOSCOW, 15 April 2003I
cannot admit to being much of a fan of musicals, but you would have to
be pretty hard-hearted not to be moved by Nord-Ost, the
all-Russian show that re-opened this month after its cast and audience
had been taken hostage by Chechen terrorists last autumn.
least within Russia, Nord-Ost acquired considerable fame long
before it gained notoriety. It attracted more than 300,000 spectators
over a year-long run, before the show and its Dubrovka venue in
central Moscow gained gobal attention because of the painful events of
last October 23.
Nord-Ost was the cynically perfect
target for a terrorist attack precisely because it was a symbol of the
new Russia, re-emerging with fresh confidence after more than a decade
of self-questioning and gloom following the collapse of the Soviet
Other international musicals made it to Moscow
during the 1990s, and many Russians took advantage of their new-found
freedom and wealth to travel and see shows abroad; but Nord-Ost was
the first truly home-grown exercise, conceived, casted and financed
within the country.
Nearly all the actors and many of the
musicians remain in the new version, which has been slightly modified
but remains largely intact, down to the venue itself. Security has
been tightened as the organisers try to anticipate the concerns of
future audiences, which since the revival have included survivors of
the siege and families of the victims.
based on the twentieth-century classic The Two Captains by
Venjamin Kaverin, a saga (somewhat convoluted in the stage version) of
long unstated and near-unrequited love eventually winning out over old
rivalries. For the uninitiated, the admirable bilingual programme
notes are indispensible though not entirely explicative.
the nature of musicals, the good and normal aspects of life which
existed alongside the (often reported) bad of Soviet times, and the
context in which the author himself was working, it is no surprise -
nor any great crime - that the first half of the twentieth century
that serves as backdrop is seen in terms of heroism, love and
There is no lingering over Stalin's legacy, but
some of the most enjoyable scenes light-heartedly portray difficult
aspects of life under Communism which rang true with the audience. The
crammed 'kommunalka' or communal apartment, with a range of
personalities stepping on each other's toes, was well done.
of all was the scene in which the hero Sanya attempts to struggle
through the bureaucracy of the (characteristically absurdly acronymed)
government department GlavSevMorPut, only to have his way blocked by a
series of officious secretaries busy doing nothing, pausing only to
let through another man proffering a bribe in the form of chocolates.
Perhaps given Russia's strong technical education system,
the promoters of the show are particularly proud of the substantial
tonnage of high-tech stage sets, which work to impressive effect when
a full-size plane lands on stage, and the lost Arctic exploration ship
at the origin of the plot rises between icebergs during the finale.
More simple but effective are a series of rising and falling
ramps employed during most of the performance, and especially
effective serving as platforms which drift upwards as Sanya's train is
about to depart. The movement intensifies the pressure as he hesitates
over whether to finally proclaim his love for his beloved Katya before
hauling himself up at the last possible second.
Some of the
cast, notably Yuri Mazikhin as the brother at the root of all the
troubles, sang well. I can't say much of the music left a lasting
impression, but the dancing is generally well performed. The child
street waifs do a good job, and the ethnic Nenets banging their sticks
add a populist touch, albeit somewhat reminiscent of the group
however, the smiles of the cast seem a little forced even by the
artificial standard of musicals, and the strained energy of the tap
dancing at the point where the Chechens stormed the stage was
discomforting. The legacy of the events of last October is still
There has been a debate about whether Nord-Ost
should have ceased out of respect for the victims, or the money for
its revival better spent on compensating their families. There was
certainly more than a little political opportunism in government
efforts to help the relaunch, as an implicit justification of the
existing approach to handling the crisis in Chechnya.
While the audience stood for a brief silence at the start of
the show, it is also a little surprising that there is no mention in
the programme - and no plaque the theatre - in memory of the dead.
The sad fact is that it will be difficult for future cast or
audience alike ever to fully dissociate Nord-Ost from what
happened. The positive side is that the quality of the musical makes
it worth seeing in any case.
Andrew Jack is a British
journalist based in Moscow and the author of The French Exception
(Profile Books, London). He is also a member of the editorial board of