An Industry Trying to Survive: Musical Theatre in Turkey

In Turkey, musical theatre is a self-made industry that amateurs are trying to re-establish. Although tours of Broadway musicals or selections of State Theatres sometimes surprise us, that is all as far as professionals are concerned, while various amateur or semi-professional musical theatre communities try to make up for this shortcoming. As a result of this sincere effort, these communities have formed a unique and loyal audience over the years. It is difficult to understand the reason why this branch has not attracted the attention of professionals in recent years and why it has not become more popular in a country with such diverse cultures intertwined with music. In the past, Turkey had a musical theatre culture which then disappeared.

Haldun Dormen and Cemal Reşit Rey played perhaps the most important role in the creation of the musical theatre culture in Turkey. Rey composed songs for the scripts his brother Ekrem Reşit Rey wrote as he was interested in musical theatre. The most popular musical he composed is Lüküs Hayat (The Luxury Life), an “operetta” (simply, half musical, half opera) which every person from Turkey has at least heard of once, written by Nâzım Hikmet.

Here’s the most known song Lüküs Hayat, which named the musical, from Cemal Reşit Rey himself;

Lüküs Hayat later became a musical movie directed by Dormen. It is believed that the evolution of Turkish musicals started with Lüküs Hayat. Dormen not only laid the foundation for the staging of Western musicals in Turkey with Sokak Kızı İrma (Irma La Douce) in 1961, but also contributed many pieces to Turkish musicals such as Hisseli Harikalar Kumpanyası (The Joint Venture Company of Wonders), which was later performed on Broadway. Under the leadership of Dormen, musical theatre gained momentum in the 60s. However, due to the efforts of state theatre institutions not to lose the “old concept of theatre”, these musicals lost their regularity and popularity over time.

A photo from Hisseli Harikalar Kumpanyası, performed by Samsun State Opera and Ballet.

You can take a look at the opening song of Hisseli Harikalar Kumpanyası;

While musicals produced by professionals have been rare in recent years, Urinetown, West Side Story and Hedwig and the Angry Inch are examples of adapted productions.

A photo from the adaption of Urinetown, Sidikli Kasabası Müzikali by İstanbul State Theatre.
The poster of Hedwig and the Angry Inch’s Turkey adaptation.

I believe that the ideological transformation Turkey has undergone since the beginning of the 2000s has also caused the downfall of musical theatre. It is only possible with an isolated audience to fully adapt most Western musicals in today’s Turkey, since the sense of embracing differences is disappearing, and that is what most musicals emphasize. Even so, the number of musicals produced by amateur or semi-professional ensembles who put their heart and soul into it, are too high to even be compared with professionals. I hope that in the coming years, these passionate people who try to undertake this industry will be rewarded for their efforts and create a permanent culture.

Photos from various musicals performed by the Company Musicals, (Middle East Technical University Musical Theatre Community) taken by İlkin İlkay Tokaç.

Bibliography:

Uyar, T., 2016. Cemal Reşit Rey’in Müzikal Tarihindeki Yeri ve Önemi. Ekev Akademi Dergisi, 20(68).