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Russian Revelation

Selling Sondheim in Siberia

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By Ted Shen

Growing up in the 60s, Gregg Opelka bought 45s of the latest rock hits to keep up with his friends, but his heart belonged to the Broadway musical. He took piano lessons, learned most of Irving Berlin by heart, and went to shows in the Loop. "Julie Andrews live made a big impression," he recalls. He sang in the choruses of school musicals to "soak in the camaraderie and meet girls." While his friends were listening to the Beatles, Opelka spun Judy Garland albums. "I loved the sophistication of the lyrics and the knowing way she sang them," he explains. "Mine was not an adolescent hobby."

Now it's not a hobby at all. Opelka has written music and lyrics for several of his own shows, though he had to go to Siberia to get the first two produced. Two others are modest hits on the community-theater circuit, and his translation of Emmerich Kalman's operetta The Duchess of Chicago--a labor of love, in Opelka's words--premiered last week in Evanston, produced by Light Opera Works.

Opelka was raised in a family of ten in a house near 80th and Paulina. He majored in classical languages in college, then went on to graduate school at the University of Michigan. But in the early 80s he saw a revue at Victory Gardens Theater called The Decline and Fall of the Entire Civilization As Seen Through the Eyes of Cole Porter. "I heard 37 Porter songs in one sitting," he recalls. "I was in seventh heaven." Opelka found himself drawn back to the world of musical theater: he brushed up on his piano technique, learning how to glide across the keyboard like Fats Waller. A few years later he moved back to Chicago and got a job in Wicker Park at Fairfield Savings and Loan, which was owned by his uncle. In his spare time he started writing a show. The Best Year, about two high school seniors collaborating on a movie musical, was never produced. "It was mediocre," he admits, "but it taught me how much work goes into writing a musical."

In 1987 Opelka finally got his bearings when he discovered the New Tuners workshop, a group started by Byron Schaffer and Ruth Higgins at the Theatre Building to develop new musicals, mostly by local artists. "There were eight of us, using it more or less as a sounding board," he says. "We were taught things like how to break down songs into four categories." The categories, he explains, were ballads, comic songs, charm songs, and musical scenes; it's a scheme he uses to this day. "Basically, we learned how the new isn't all that different from the old." Working with Jane Boyd (who helped create the perennial Christmas hit Hans Brinker), Opelka wrote Charlie's Oasis, a musical about a Depression-era gangster hideout in Saint Petersburg, Florida, that's about to be turned into condominiums in the 80s. A good musical, he decided, "has just the right juxtaposition of moments of emotional import or discovery when characters burst into songs because mere words no longer suffice."

After New Tuners premiered Charlie's Oasis in the spring of 1990, Opelka was approached by a producer from Omsk, a city of 1.5 million near the border of Siberia and Kazakhstan. An avid fan of American musicals, Boris Rotberg wanted one for his own theater but couldn't afford a Broadway production. "Charlie's Oasis had the kind of Americana he was looking for," explains Opelka. "He said he'd like to bring over a staff of seven to Omsk to do it in Russian. We half believed him. Shortly after he left town we got phone calls from him, then a fax of the agreement arrived." Without knowing a word of Russian, Opelka flew to Moscow and then took a train to Omsk, along with director Warner Crocker and several other New Tuners.

The Omsk Musical Theatre occupied an ornate building and had a year-round staff of 200, yet everything in it seemed old to Opelka, "like it was stuck in the 30s." He was taken aback by the empty shelves in Omsk's stores, yet "the theater had all we needed in terms of decades-old sets and costumes." Its specialty was operetta, mostly Viennese fluff, though its repertory included a grand opera or two. When Opelka arrived the company was staging The Gypsy Princess by Emmerich Kalman, the Hungarian-born prince of the waltz. "The Russians go for the Gypsy-like eastern European melodies and all that minor-key stuff," he observes. "The plot doesn't matter as much. Biting satires, such as Gilbert and Sullivan, elude them. For the longest time, for obvious cold-war reasons, no American musicals were presented. It was mostly Viennese operettas, faithfully and stultifyingly staged. I felt I'd traveled through a time warp."

Charlie Bar--as Opelka's musical was known in Russian--debuted in November 1990, with opera-trained singers and a 36-piece orchestra. Rotberg was so happy with the collaboration that he offered to produce Opelka's next musical, and Crocker and Opelka found just the right story--Alexandre Dumas' adventure novel The Three Musketeers. "Even people in Siberia know about the Musketeers," explains Opelka, "so we didn't need to fill in the background. The music I composed was tailored to their immense theater and orchestra, and it's meant to approach an opera in scale."

He and Crocker spent nine months setting the story to music, and Opelka, who'd been unhappy with the translation of his earlier play, set out to learn Russian so he could better judge the next one. Charlie Bar enjoyed a second run at the Omsk, and Opelka was delighted to find it still in the repertory when he returned in November 1992 for the premiere of The Three Musketeers. That show received another full production too, at the Academic Theater of Musical Comedy in Yekaterinburg, a city at the foot of the Ural Mountains. Opelka loved the second production: the cast was better rehearsed, the direction more inventive, and the translation far superior to his previous play's.

Opelka is grateful to the Russian producers for "using the abundant resources at their disposal--huge cast, chorus, ballet corps, and orchestra--to do my musicals quickly and in high style." But after The Three Musketeers he wanted an American hit. "After all, I'm a lyricist writing in English," he explains. "Besides, I feel far more comfortable with our system. Despite its cruel tendencies, it still promotes talent and progress." Opelka wrote Hotel d'Amour, an adaptation of Georges Feydeau's farce A Flea in Her Ear, with playwright and Reader critic Jack Helbig. The Buffalo Theatre Ensemble staged a successful run at the College of DuPage, and the show had a noteworthy revival two years ago; Opelka would like to see it picked up by Marriott's Lincolnshire Theatre.

Lately he's been writing revues for smaller venues, collaborating with scriptwriter Todd Mueller and lyricist Hank Boland: Monky Business, a spoof about monks holding a radiothon to prevent their monastery from being turned into a casino, has played at over 50 community theaters across the country, and its sequel, Back in the Sandals Again, recently took to the dinner-theater circuit. The royalties from these shows now comprise almost half of Opelka's income, the rest coming from his steady gig as music director and pianist at Tommy Gun's Garage, a South Loop cabaret with a speakeasy theme. The job probably helped him when he set out to translate Kalman's The Duchess of Chicago, which mixes hot jazz with Viennese music.

Opelka still feels a bit out of touch with the times. "But not passe," he insists. "Look at Sondheim. He sticks to the old formulas but serves up fresh harmonic ideas. Look at Beauty and the Beast--the road show, not the movie. It has very contemporary songs that people can sing afterwards." Opelka is convinced that the genre is in transition, its first since he fell in love with it in the early 60s. "The audiences for Jerry Herman and Stephen Sondheim are dying out," he insists. "Hello, Dolly! is now as much a museum piece as The Merry Widow." Opelka doesn't know what might emerge next, but he wants to play a part.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Gregg Opelka photo by Nathan Mandell.

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