For Belgium, World War I, which broke out 100 years ago this summer, is still a living, breathing thing.
But this year, it’s also a major tourism draw. The government has already spent at least $50 million on activities related to commemorating the centenary, and the activities are expected to last for four years.
These days, you can see signs of the anniversary all over Belgium — World War I-themed beer, T-shirts, replica uniforms.
There’s even a Flemish-language musical extravaganza set during the Great War. It’s called “14-18,” and it has been playing in a 2,000-seat arena in the city of Mechelen, north of Brussels, since April.
“14-18” is by far the largest musical Belgium has ever seen: a cast of 140, 11 gigantic set pieces moved around by laser-controlled hydraulics, explosions, fires, floods, army trucks and real horses. So far, the show, which has a budget of more than $12 million, has been an unparalleled success in Belgium, with more than 200,000 tickets sold.
“We are playing until July 20, [and then] maybe after the summer we can continue,” says Ann Janssens, communications director for Studio 100, the Flemish production company behind “14-18.”
Along with an extended run, the company has been exploring other revenue-generating possibilities, chief among them — mounting an English-language version of the musical.
For the English version, Studio 100 has kept the original Flemish ensemble cast, but they’ve brought over seven British actors to play the leads for a pilot show. The story and the songs remain the same; only the language has changed.
“This is more of a test, and then they’ll start discussing where to take it,” says Kayleigh McKnight, one of the British actors, during a break at a recent rehearsal. “It’d be a shame to do all this work for one show.”
When the lights went up on the English version of “14-18” on June 15, the actors played to a full house. Zoe Swiderski, a British woman in the audience, says she thinks it would go over well back in the UK.
“I would say 90 percent you could just take it and put it there because I think the show as a whole works,” Swiderski says.
That’s exactly what Studio 100 may do. This first test performance is likely to lead to more English-language performances in Belgium. And if those prove popular, they would like to move the show to London or even New York.
“It would be a dream come true if that would happen,” Janssens says.
However, musicals are a notoriously risky business, with only one in ten actually making money, says Terri Paddock, a London-based theatre commentator. She adds that musicals that originate outside the London-New York axis have a very checkered past on Broadway or in the West End.
“You have to really understand why it’s successful in its current market and why that would translate to the transfer market,” she says.
One of the reasons “14-18” is working so well in Belgium is the country’s deep connection to the First World War. This small country bore the brunt of the trench warfare. The UK also has its own vivid memories of the war and its losses. But in the US, which entered the war in the last year, a musical about World War I may have less crossover appeal.
That said, the World War I-themed hit show “War Horse” ran for two years on Broadway and is now on a North American tour.
“You’ve got a huge audience that’s seen “War Horse” to date,” Paddock says, “so if these producers can tap into the interest for that production, that could bode well for them.”
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