Founder revolutionizing local scene
BERLIN — Musicals are back in a big way in Germany. A new major player has arrived to challenge primary German legit producer Stella Entertainment, and a slew of productions are packing in crowds around the country.The newcomer is Stage Holding Deutschland, founded by Joop van den Ende (of Endemol fame) last year as a German division of his Amsterdam-based Stage Holding Intl. Known for his hands-on involvement, van den Ende is revolutionizing the local scene and even teaching the competition a thing or two, industry watchers say. To head the new outfit, van den Ende lured Maik Klokow from his dual position as head of Berlin’s Stella Musical Theater at Potsdamer Platz and managing director of the venue’s production of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” Klokow has been busy: In December the company is bowing “The Lion King” in its revamped theater in Hamburg, and earlier this year it opened “Elisabeth,” about the ill-fated Bavarian princess and later empress of Austria, to soldout houses in Essen. Company also is gearing up for productions of “Aida,” “Cyrano de Bergerac” and “Titanic” as well as original German material it might showcase at Berlin’s legendary Metropol Theater, which it recently acquired. While the German public’s interest in musicals has never waned, Stage marketing director Michael Hildebrandt says musical theater is experiencing a renaissance of sorts. “It really depends on the quality of the productions. It’s like a great film: If a musical is good, well staged with a talented cast, people will undoubtedly go see it,” he adds. Marco Reuschel, publisher of German Web mag Mr. Musical, agrees. “Elisabeth” is a perfect example, Reuschel says. “Van den Ende is a perfectionist, and it’s apparent from the production. Technically, it’s a high-quality show and it’s doing excellent business. “Stage has brought in a lot of experience, new ideas and high standards to musicals,” he adds. Despite its very German subject matter, it didn’t make it to Germany until having become an international success in faraway places like Japan. “For (‘Elisabeth’ scribe and composer) Michael Kunze and Sylvester Levay, van den Ende turned out to be the perfect partner. They seemed to have an identical vision of what the production should be like,” Reuschel says. Hildebrandt plays down Stage’s role as a major rival to Stella. “It’s not about which company is better or more successful. In the end, it’s good for the public because there is more of a selection out there. We expect a big show like ‘The Lion King’ to be hugely successful. A production like (Stella’s Hamburg show) ‘Fosse,’ on the other hand, is of great interest to performers, to followers of Fosse, to insiders, but less so to the general public. That doesn’t take away from the show’s quality, however.” In Berlin, company is planning to stage upcoming productions in the Metropol Theater, built in 1929 in the historic theater district on Friedrichstrasse. Stage plans to invest about $30 million to renovate and enlarge the dilapidated venue, turning it into a state-of-the art theater for plays, musicals and other events. Stage is bidding against Stella for Berlin’s Schiller Theater, and a second venue in Hamburg is also in the cards. Part of Stage’s strategy is to have its own venues in urban hubs such as Berlin and Hamburg that can house a variety of productions. Industry watchers say one of Stella’s major mistakes was to tie its big productions to large, specially built theaters with expected runs of 10 to 15 years, like the failed theater in the remote town of Duisberg. Despite having dominated the German market for 15 years with long-running hits like “Cats” and “Starlight Express,” Stella filed for bankruptcy last year. Two years ago, Stella announced it would be producing “The Lion King” in Essen, but the company’s troubles, including layoffs, closings and, finally, a takeover, were enough to convince Disney that Stage should put on the show. Last year, Berlin-based concert promoter Deutsche Entertainment (DEAG) acquired the most profitable assets of the bankrupt Stella. For about $20 million, DEAG obtained the Stella moniker and six Stella musicals, including “Cats,” “The Phantom of the Opera” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” Productions later were valued at twice the purchase price. In the nine months following DEAG’s takeover last year, Stella posted revenues of DM250 million ($117 million) and profits of about $3 million. Company remains on course to meet its projections for this year of $163 million in revenues and profits of $3.7 million, execs say. In June, Stella was moved into DEAG’s publicly listed Hegener+Glaser subsidiary. In an effort to revive the well-known musical company, H+G was renamed Stella Entertainment earlier this month. “Stella is a recognized name that is synonymous with top-quality musicals,” says DEAG spokesman Conrad Rausch. Indeed, Stella execs are taking that pitch on the road in September with a European tour to present the new and improved company to potential investors around the continent. In Germany, Stella is looking to appeal to local tastes with Teutonic fare like its new Austrian musical “Mozart,” which premieres in Hamburg in September, and its upcoming tyke musical “Emil and the Detectives,” based on the popular book by Erich Kaestner. Show will share Berlin’s Stella Theater with the long-running “Hunchback of Notre Dame.” Company’s other current productions include Roman Polanski’s “Dance of the Vampires” and “Cats,” both in Stuttgart, and “Starlight Express” in Bochum.