Seven ways Siddhartha, The Musical is making history

Siddhartha, the Musical is a truly unique project. There are so many firsts relating to the production, it’s hard to decide what to tell you about first. Here are just some of the ways that, when you buy your ticket to see this show, you’re buying into a bit of theatrical history.


Giorgio Adamo stars as Siddhartha

Giorgio Adamo stars as Siddhartha

1. It’s the first major musical adaptation of Herman Hesse’s famous novel.
Inspired by his interest in Buddhist philosophy and his travel in India and Asia, Hesse’s 152-page novella, a fictionalized account of the story of the Buddha, was written in his native German and published in 1922. Its success contributed to Hesse being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1946. The book was first published in the US in 1951 and it, along with Hesse’s follow-up novel Steppenwolf, were embraced by the Sixties’ hippie counter-culture movement, fuelling their popularity internationally.

Siddhartha has been translated into dozens of languages and sold tens of millions of copies around the world. The Herman Hesse Society of India aims to have it translated into all the languages of India, where the story is set. The 1972 film version of Siddhartha, starring Shashi Kapoor, was shot in Northern India.


2. It’s the first Italian musical to transfer out of Italy.
Siddhartha, the Musical is created by Italians, performed by Italians and sung in Italian. Following a successful full-scale tour of Italy, concert presentations were mounted in New York, Los Angeles and Mexico. It receives its UK premiere in a shortened, 70-minute version at the Edinburgh Fringe, where there are English surtitles and an English-speaking narrator role, played by Hollywood’s Michael Nouri (NCIS, Damages, Flashdance) has been added.


3. It’s the first professional musical to come from the Italian prison system or the Mafia!
In 2006, writer and director Isabella Biffi, a well-known Italian singer who goes by the stage name Isabeau, started working in Opera, a maximum security men’s prison on the outskirts of Milan, regarded as the toughest of Italy’s 225 prisons. Of the 1400 men incarcerated at Opera, 1300 of them are serving life sentences. They hail almost exclusively from Mafia families in the south of the country: the most common conviction is for homicide.

Isabeau’s aim was to teach these hardened criminals about Buddhism – and to do so by stealth. As the inmates knew her as a singer, she launched her instruction by teaching them first how to ‘vocalise’, using sounds like ‘om-myo-ho’ … in other words, the Buddhist mantra. Through this, she realised that they could indeed sing and had the idea to stage musicals with the men.

The Laboratoria del Musical d’Opera workshop programme was founded. Isabeau, working with prisoner-only casts and crews, has staged four musicals to date in the 400-seat theatre inside the prison. On each musical, the inmates help write the book and create all of the sets, props and costumes. The performances are attended by other prisoners, and tickets are also put on public sale – every one to date has been a sell-out.

Siddhartha, the Musical is the most recent and most successful production. The prisoners were so proud of it and its message – that happiness, ultimately, can only be found within us – that they urged Isabeau to take it beyond the prison walls to the rest of the world. Together with Mexican-born model-turned-producer Gloria Grace Alanis, that’s just what she’s done. While the prison production continues to run inside Opera, the second, 1 million-Euro professional production – with trained actors and dancers and mesmerising video projections – has been touring for more than two years and now comes to Edinburgh.


4. It’s inspired a rehabilitation programme that’s now being rolled out in prisons across Europe.
Art aside, the Laboratoria del Musical d’Opera has been deemed a huge success in terms of rehabilitating some of Italy’s most notorious criminals. Prior to Isabeau’s arrival at Opera, the prisoners had undergone counseling and myriad other therapies to little demonstrable effect. They credit the musicals, and Buddhism, with changing their hearts and minds and saving their lives.

Of the current prison cast, the inmate who plays Siddhartha’s best friend Govinda speaks regularly to public interest groups about his reform and has been granted early release next year. The Laboratoria is now being rolled out in 28 more prisons across Italy and Europe over the next year.

Back at Opera, the next, much-anticipated production will be a docu-musical about the creation of the workshop programme, in which each prisoner will tell his own life story of crime and redemption.


5. It’s spreading the Buddhist message.
In addition to their newfound love of musical theatre, many of the Opera prisoners have converted to Buddhism through their involvement in Isabeau’s productions. Before each rehearsal, the company holds a Buddhist meeting with chanting. Both Isabeau and producer Gloria Grace Alanis have been Buddhists for more than ten years. Isabeau turned to the religion after battling drug addiction, while Gloria did so after a difficult divorce.


6. It has a very good-looking cast busting some impressive moves.
Okay, this may not exactly be a first, but you mustn’t think that because it’s about Buddha, this is an overly religious show or in any way prudish! Siddhartha, the Musical has an incredibly good-looking cast and amazing dancing. It’s choreographed by 25-year-old ensemble member Giordano Orchi ,who has incorporated a variety of dance styles, including contemporary, street jazz, jazz funk, Bollywood and Broadway, to accompany Isabeau’s eclectic score.


7. It has Broadway connections – and global ambitions.
The Edinburgh run of Siddhartha, the Musical is backed by New York-based Broadway International Entertainment, one of the world’s largest companies touring live entertainment globally. Founders Simone Genatt Haft and Marc Routh, both highly seasoned Broadway producers, have toured Tony Award-winning Broadway musical titles to more than 400 cities in 40 countries on five continents and collected more than 50 awards.

For the shortened Edinburgh version, they also brought on board as a creative consultant American director John Rando, whose Broadway credits include The Wedding Singer, Urinetown (for which he won the 2002 Tony for Best Direction of a Musical) and the forthcoming revival of Irving Berlin’s On the Town.

After the festival, Broadway International plans to tour Siddhartha extensively in Asia and beyond. An Italian musical based on a German novel about an Indian holy man, produced by a Mexican and two Americans, tried out by a British audience and then exported to Asia… that is definitely a first.


Siddhartha, the Musical is at the Assembly Rooms, until 24 August 2014 at 18:10 (runs 1 hour and 10 minutes).

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