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German theater producer packs punch

Stage Entertainment's 'Rocky' wows Hamburg, eyes Broadway

Joop van den Ende’s Hamburg-based production powerhouse Stage Entertainment has long dominated the live entertainment and musical scene in Germany, with wide-ranging productions that include not only local versions of international titles and homegrown shows, but innovative fare like “Rocky” — based on the 1976 Oscar-winning film — which premiered in November in Hamburg, and is expected to open on Broadway this year.

Stage partnered with Sylvester Stallone and boxing brothers Vladimir and Vitali Klitschko on the $20 million production, which premiered to rave reviews and has been drawing huge crowds.

Since its launch in 2000, the company has seen success across Germany with hugely popular international titles like “The Lion King” and “Tarzan” (with producing partner Disney Theatrical Prods.), “Dirty Dancing” (with partner Jacobsen Entertainment of Australia) and “Rebecca,” Michael Kunze and Sylvester Levay’s adaptation of the Daphne du Maurier novel. Stage partnered with “Rebecca’s” original producer, Vienna-based theater company Vereinigten Buehnen Wien, on the production. It also partnered with VBW on hit “Dance of the Vampires.”

“Rocky” marks Stage’s biggest homegrown production yet, and while the company will continue to team up with oversees partners, it’s also eager to put on its own shows. Stage Entertainment Germany managing director Johannes Mock-O’Hara says that whatever the international future of “Rocky” may be, the original “will always be from Hamburg.”

Stage’s other international partners include Littlestar, producer of “Mama Mia!”; Andrew Lloyd Webber’s the Really Useful Group (“Cats,” “The Phantom of the Opera”); and Cameron Mackintosh (“Les Miserables”).

Stage would not comment on the licensing fees it pays for productions, but it certainly needs content to fill its many venues.

Stage operates 11 theaters throughout Germany, including major concerns in Hamburg, where “Rocky,” “Tarzan” and “Lion King” are headlining, as well as in Berlin, Stuttgart, Oberhausen and Essen. The company is building a fourth theater in Hamburg, increasingly known as the “Broadway of Europe,” which is set to open in 2014.

While many British and American productions have enjoyed tremendous success in Germany, they must be relevant to local auds, Mock-O’Hara notes. Some hugely popular shows like “The Book of Mormon” and “Wicked” could not match the level of success they enjoyed in the U.S. due to the simple fact that German auds were much less familiar with the source material or cultural background of the stories.

This fall, Stage will partner with the U.K.’s National Theater to bring the National’s production of “War Horse” to Berlin.

“This will be the first non-English production of this exceptional piece,” Mock-O’Hara says.

He adds that Stage is approaching “War Horse” and its historical subject matter with tie-ins that include an exhibit at the German Historical Museum in Berlin, examining the role of horses in World War I.

In Hamburg, Stage is bringing “Tarzan” to an end next year, but the ape-man show, which has made some $225 million from nearly 3 million admissions since its 2008 premiere, will start swinging in Stuttgart in the fall.

Mock-O’Hara is keeping mum about Stage’s other upcoming new productions, but adds, “We are constantly monitoring which new musicals and shows, developed by other international producers, could be exciting for our markets.”

Among Stage’s current local hits are “Ich war noch niemals in New York,” based on the music of Austrian crooner Udo Juergens, and “Hinterm Horizon,” which similarly uses the songs of German rock singer Udo Lindenberg for an East Berlin-set love story.

Stage’s homegrown productions have not only enjoyed great success with German auds — nearly 1 million viewers have seen “Hinterm Horizon” in less than two years in Berlin — but also beyond Teuton borders. ” ‘Ich war noch niemals in New York’ has been an export success in Vienna, Zurich and even Tokyo,” says Mock-O’Hara.

Stage musicals and shows attract more than 3.5 million theatergoers a year in Germany, and Mock-O’Hara sees plenty of potential for growth.

While Stage remains the undisputed leader in Germany’s live entertainment sector, it has seen growing competition, not least from its former managing director, Maik Klokow, who left the group in 2008, and a year later launched Mehr! Entertainment, which operates venues in Berlin, Cologne, Dusseldorf, Bremen, and the “Starlight Express” theater in Bochum, as well as a touring production of “Cats” that premiered in 2010 in Hamburg.

Mock-O’Hara says Stage has always faced competition from state and municipal theaters, as well as touring productions and theater rentals — Mehr!’s main field of activity.

“We are not afraid of this competition,” Mock-O’Hara says.

In fact, given the success of “Rocky,” it’s clear Stage is always ready for a fight.

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