Korean ’Zhivago’ inspires director
Des McAnuff, two-time Tony Award-winning director, arrived in Korea to add final touches to the new musical “Doctor Zhivago,” which raised its curtain Friday.
“Zhivago is a witness to history and also a courageous man. He ultimately discovers that love can survive through the worst of times by living on art. He captivates Lara and his love for her in his poetry,” he said in an interview with The Korea Times.
He joined the project of staging Boris Pasternak’s 1957 novel of the same name a few years ago at the request of Lucy Simon, the composer of “Doctor Zhivago,” who first had the idea.
“We assembled a creative team and spent about a solid year and a half just trying to figure out whether it was possible to adapt the novel, before a word was written or a note composed,” he said. “I confess that I liked the idea but I wasn’t entirely sure how easy it would be to adapt until we put the time in. It gradually became clear.”
The original novel explores the history of Russia in the early 20th century and the people whose lives are swept up by revolution and war but the musical takes the focus on the five major characters — poet-doctor Zhivago, his lover Lara, his wife Tonya, an idealist Pasha and corrupt lawyer Komarovsky.
“The revolution is certainly in there but emotionally we focus on following these five characters across the vast geographic steps of Russia throughout the decades,” he said. “We are mostly interested in them and the effect of history on their relationships. I think the novel is about three men in love with a woman and two women in love with a man.”
Though it was a daunting challenge to transform the epic novel to a musical, McAnuff said the creative team was diligent enough to try various things in the process of development.
“We’ve employed a certain amount of experimentation. If something didn’t work, we were happy to change it and move on. There is a place in the musical where we have had four different songs before arriving in Seoul,” the director said.
“Fairly early on, we came up with the insight that we should be able to tell the story essentially with five characters in one room. While historical events are going on right outside the door, we wanted the intimacy of the characters in a room and stuck to the idea.”
This inspired the design of the set, with walls and window units moving in and out to create locations including a ballroom for Zhivago’s engagement party, Russian battlefield and a hospital tent.
“The concept is that we continue to transform the ballroom from the opening sequence to a series of different exteriors and interiors as it is damaged by war, but still the five characters are in a room,” McAnuff said.
As he spent a long time developing the musical, he showed even affection to all five characters. “This is a story about young love and I think the characters are very recognizable for anyone who has been or dreamt of being in love,” he said. “Audiences are introduced to an aristocratic family in Russia in the beginning and see the Russian Revolution partly through their eyes and partly through poet Zhivago, student activist Pasha, dressmaker’s daughter Lara and attorney Komarovsky. So I think they get to see these events through the eyes of the characters.”
He also tried to be clear in describing historical events. “There were striking, dramatic changes between 1917 and 1927 and I think it is true to the story to see these transformations rather swiftly onstage.”
The musical premiered in Australia in February 2011 and then headed to Korea. McAnuff said there is no significant difference between the Australian and the Korean production.
“Basically, it is an extension of the Australian production,” he said. “In the scenes describing the trenches and hospital tent during World War I in the first act, I changed the lighting and the projection to create a starker atmosphere and I think it made dramatic changes to the sequence. Audiences might think these changes relatively minor, but they are important to me.”
He also said the Korean cast is talented enough to portray the history of Russia after watching rehearsals. “Frankly, it took about 30 minutes for Korean actors to transform into Russians in my mind. Since then, when I look at them, I see Russians,” he said. “Koreans fought a civil war more recently and lived next door to the shadow of communism. I think there is a pertinence of Koreans in portraying Russians.”
McAnuff’s time in Korea was tight as he has to fly back to New York soon to work on “Jesus Christ Superstar” on Broadway and “Faust” with the Metropolitan Opera. But he seemed delighted with his visit to Korea though short.
“I hope we have success with ‘Doctor Zhivago’ and keep working with Shin Chun-soo, the Korean producer of the show,” he said. “Seoul is one of the most exciting places in the world. If I can be a part of its bright future, I would be thrilled.”