In 1988 the career of Saverio Marconi, who had by then achieved a considerable popularity as an actor, starring in many successful plays and films, knew a sudden change: Marconi directed Alan Menken's Little Shop of Horrors, perhaps the first important Italian production of an American musical. Following the overwhelming success of that mounting, Marconi and his company, Tolentino's Compagnia della Rancia, decided to specialize in the musical theatre. A Chorus Line, West Side Story, La Cage aux Folles, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Forum, Singin' in the Rain and Cabaret are some of the titles that came in the following years. All the shows were performed in Italian and were directed by Saverio Marconi.
Then came the 1997 mounting of Grease, the first Italian musical production to be conceived as a long-running show for large cities only. In Milan the planned 8 weeks quickly became 25, and now Grease is playing to sell-out audiences at Rome's Teatro Sistina, where the original eight weeks have already been extended to ten (and further extensions are in the air).
Meanwhile, A Chorus Line, originally produced in 1990, played a successful three weeks revival at Milan's Teatro Nazionale, and will tour extensively in the next season.
All this is a confirmation that Marconi's pioneering work on the musical theatre has given its results: the demand for musicals in Italy is now booming, new productions are constantly announced (Hollywood - Portrait of a Star, the first sung-through Italian musical, has received fabulous reviews after its Milan opening), and foreign productions are beginning to visit Italy more and more frequently (The Rocky Horror Show is now touring Italy for the third consecutive season and the touring production of Cats grossed over 4 billion lire in its four weeks residence in Milan back in 1995). Even "serious" institutions like the "teatri stabili" and, in some special occasions, the opera houses, are opening their doors to the genre.
Playbill On-Line met Saverio Marconi at Teatro Sistina the day after the successful opening of Grease in the Eternal City, where the show received a standing ovation from an audience which included, among many others, film stars Gina Lollobrigida, Christian De Sica and Ciccio Ingrassia (Giampiero's father, who plays Danny in the musical), and TV conductor Pippo Baudo. PBOL: Did you expect these record breaking results from Grease?
SAVERIO MARCONI: Absolutely not. This is why we initially planned the show for eight weeks only! Anyway, I think that Grease, with its re-telling the Fifties from a Seventies point of view, is becoming more and more popular in the late Nineties: look at the success of the film, which was re-released in the States only a few weeks ago, and grossed almost as much as Titanic!
PBOL: What is the target of your production?
S.M.: I think that the Italian production has its own peculiarity: the audience is not as young as the ones I have seen in other countries where Grease was performing. We have of course many teenagers coming along, but we often see in the audience people in their sixties, seventies, and sometimes eighties: and they do not bring their children, or their grandchildren. They come because they simply want to enjoy the show and its rock'n'roll music...
PBOL: This might be due to your choosing of a popular television star like Lorella Cuccarini for the leading role of Sandy...
S.M.: She certainly helps to bring even more people to the theatre, but a television star is not enough to make a show so successful...
PBOL: The records Grease is breaking here in Italy are not so impressive if compared to American standards...
S.M.: Grossing a billion lire in Milan or two billion lire in Rome in advance sales is like grossing 40 million dollars on Broadway. One should consider that in Italy an advance sale is consider excellent when it grosses more than 200 million lire: here in Rome, we did ten times better!
PBOL: What are the projects you are working on now?
S.M.: My next musical will be Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, which will open at Trieste's Operetta Festival next July and then play in Milan and Rome next season.
PBOL: The show was a notorious flop on Broadway...
S.M.: It did not do well at all on Broadway, but like Singing in the Rain it was quite successful in London. We chose this show because we must keep in mind that we need to produce shows that are already popular among the Italian audiences. Chicago, for example, is a fabulous musical, but it is not popular at all in Italy, and it would be very risky to produce it right now. I am conceiving Seven Brides for Seven Brothers as a nice fairy tale: the show will have many special effects, there will be a live orchestra and a big cast led by Raffaele Paganini, who starred in Singing in the Rain, and pop singer Tosca, who recently dubbed the cartoon Anastasia. I am also working on a new musical based on Federico Fellini's Nights of Cabiria: it will be something like Sweet Charity, but from an Italian point of view. I want to try a different approach, and would like to create an all-Italian musical that could be exported abroad. The show will open next November at Cesena's Teatro Bonci.
PBOL: This will be the second time you work on a musical based upon a film by Fellini, after your production of Nine in Paris. Do you have any plans to bring that show to Italy?
S.M.: Not yet, because I still haven't found a suitable Italian actor for the key role of Guido. Anyway, the experience in Paris was absolutely fantastic: Maury Yeston came over and truly appreciated the show. Now we are planning to do something together: Maury loves Italy and speaks Italian fluently...
PBOL: When do you think Italy will become a mature country for large scale musicals like Phantom, or Les Miserables?
S.M.: There are two main problems we have to overcome: the first is the price of tickets. Top ticket prices in Italy amount to 60,000 lire (approximately 32 US dollars), which is less than half of top ticket prices in New York or London. The second problem is connected with the availability of theatres for long-running shows. If a foreign producer comes to Italy to establish a major show, he looks for a theatre that is available for at least three years: in this country, theatres are never available for longer than three months.
PBOL: The "Corriere della Sera" opera critic Francesco Maria Colombo recently wrote that opera houses should open their doors to the musical: do you agree with him?
S.M.: Of course I do, his argument was absolutely correct. A private company like ours will never be able to produce masterpieces of the musical theatre like Sondheim's Passion, or A Little Night Music. Opera houses have the means to do that: they have resident orchestras, ballets and choruses. They could keep musicals in their repertoire, like they do with operas. It is important, however, for them to treat musicals for what they are and not consider them like "minor" operas.
PBOL: Some critics do not approve of your translating the musicals into Italian.
S.M.: English and American musicals are currently being performed all over the world, in the most different languages. I think that translating and adapting a musical into a foreign language is much easier and less embarrassing for the audience than dubbing a film.
PBOL: What are the recent Broadway musicals you liked most?
S.M.: I loved Titanic and Chicago, and I was truly impressed by Disney's Lion King...
PBOL: What will happen to Grease after its Rome run?
S.M.: I have no idea: there are no plans of a touring production. We are actually going to discuss its future later on tonight: I have a meeting with other members of the production to talk about Grease. . .
--By Stefano Curti