Let's do the show in Aarhus

Denmark's bid for global cultural recognition - the first Musical of the Year competition - might have been Eurovision hell. In fact, it could have a hit on its hands. By James Rampton
Your marks, please, Aarhus. The first-ever Musical of the Year competition, held in Denmark's second city last weekend, had all the makings of another Eurovision Song Contest - only naffer. Why, they had even drafted in Bjorn Ulvaeus, the bearded one from Abba, to join the judges. We were fully expecting a load of Scandinavians in gold lame costumes and hairdos to warble through songs with titles like "Ring-Ding-a-Ding" (one was indeed called "Snippety Snap").

Imagine our disappointment, then, to discover at the splendid modern Musikhuset a slickly produced, wholly English-language show hosted by Sir Peter Ustinov, directed by Julia Mckenzie and featuring such notables as Dennis Quilley and Al Jarreau. Beneath a set of artful squiggles made out of sheet metal, it had its deliciously kitsch moments - US soap star John Barrowman's bekilted impersonation of a crooning Robbie Burns and Bonnie Langford done up as a goblin singing "eels and seahorses, they swim around me, / How you astound me" are particularly to be treasured. We also revelled in some Live from the Palladium-style formation-dancing and such cliched song titles as "Sea of Emotion", the unhappily named "Heard It All Before" and "Personal Mountain" (a paean to a major outbreak of boils?). But, all in all, the Musical of the Year competition was a let-down: it was actually pretty good.

Ulvaeus himself - dressed, to our surprise, in a sober black suit rather than the spangly silver jumpsuit slashed to the navel with which he graced many an Abba album cover - knows better than anyone about the curse of the Euro contest. "I'm very happy that people don't connect Abba with Eurovision any more," smiled the singer-songwriter, who seems to have aged not one day since he was wowing the youth of Europe with "Waterloo" more than 20 years ago. "It was terrible in the beginning. People said, `they're one-hit wonders'. In our first year, DJs assumed we wouldn't exist for much longer. We had to fight that."

When asked in the bar before the show if the Musical of the Year competition could be equated with the Eurovision Song Contest, he replied succinctly -"Aaargh!" - before going on to explain that "this doesn't compare. You find people who write for this are musicals freaks, which means they're devoted to dance and drama as well as music. The Eurovision is about trying to write a commercial song."

Kim Bohr-Christensen, the artistic director of the competition, chimes in. "The words in the Eurovision are all just `I love you'. I won't be impolite, but it takes time to make a good song. This competition is entirely different from the Eurovision because songs are only one part of musicals."

So how did the whole Musical of the Year business come about? And in Aarhus, of all places? Christian Nissen, the general director of one of the event's main sponsors, Danish Radio, was asking himself the same questions. "Why did a small country with a tribal language undertake this project? Why should Danish licence-fee-payers fund a show in a language they won't understand? I thought this would cause parliamentary trouble. But we've been overwhelmed by the number and quality of the writers who've entered from all over the world."

Don Black, the highly regarded British songwriter of Sunset Boulevard, Aspects of Love and Diamonds Are Forever, was also initially sceptical, before being persuaded to chair the grand jury. "The whole competition has to be admired, considering where it is," he told me while being jostled by a gaggle of paparazzi on stage after the prize-giving. "It has given fresh meaning to the phrase `out of town'. Not many people could even spell Aarhus. It was inspired to have it here. It was brave and pioneering - or perhaps just folly. I hope it'll be seen as pioneering."

The competition - broadcast live in Denmark and picked up by countries as diverse as China and Iceland - was the brainchild of Bohr-Christensen, the producer of the Danish Radio Concert Orchestra, who was fed up with having to get on a plane to London every time he wanted to see a top-class musical. "I wanted to put Denmark on the map for musicals," he affirmed as he nervously awaited the birth of his artistic baby. "The world is getting smaller and smaller, and such a small country as Denmark could sit cowering in the corner and never be recognised. This is a good way to get us recognised. All the people here have been working like small horses to get this on. I wanted to tell new talent, `Come on, guys, show us what you can do'."

To that end, he secured the pounds 600,000 needed to fund the show from his own orchestra, the Danish Broadcasting Corporation and Bang and Olufsen, the hi-fi company who are based nearby. Worldwide advertising brought in close on 300 previously unpublished and unperformed musicals. Entries arrived from such unlikely places as Andorra and Croatia. The judges were amused by one set in a natal clinic and another in which musical notes conversed with each other. They were also taken by a musical about a salmon talking to a tree, but it emerged that it had already been big in Alaska.

Otherwise, the subject-matter was largely unsurprising. "There's been some garbage," Black revealed. "You always get half a dozen Rasputins, two or three Jekyll and Hydes and the odd Crippen. After Phantom of the Opera, we got a slew of Hunchbacks."

Hitting his stride, he goes on to outline what he was looking for. "West Side Story is about gang warfare, but it's not the subject that matters. The key is that you feel something and care about the people. It must touch a nerve and make you laugh or cry. The writer must say something lyrically that's not been said before. Titles like `Don't Leave Me' are so predictable. You have to have fire in your belly to write musicals. A lot of people think it's like doing the Lottery - `let's have a go' - but you don't get landmark musicals that way. I have compared it to doing your own root canal work."

"There's just no formula," he continues. "There is this misconception that the world is full of Irving Berlins or Cole Porters. Believe me, it ain't. Even Rodgers and Hammerstein had as many flops as hits. For a musical to work is very rare."

Another judge known simply as Sebastian, a writer of Danish musicals, concurred. "Here in Denmark, we describe musicals as easy entertainment, but in fact it's the hardest form of all. It borrows from opera, rock, literature and dance. Making all these things match up is a hard job."

David Firman, the British conductor, was also on the panel. In his deliberations, he asked himself: "Are you interested in the characters? Does the music advance your interest in them? Is it infused in the characters? Let's take a good example - Les Miserables. You forgive the flagging music in that show because the characters pull you forward. Similarly, the music won't live in the context of the musical if you're not hooked by what's going on."

He admitted that the judging process had had its moments of heated debate. They eventually agreed that the not inconsiderable first prize of pounds 40,000 should go to Enter the Guardsman, a sophisticated musical reworking by Americans Scott Wentworth, Craig Bohmler and Marion Adler of Ferenc Molnar's play about an actor who disguises himself as a guardsman to seduce his own wife. Containing several tunes you could remember long after you left Aarhus city limits, it beat into second place a British entry, a roisterous adaptation by Peter Raby, George Stiles and Paul Leigh of The Three Musketeers. Another British entry, Anthony Drewe and George Stiles's reading of Peter Pan, picked up the Best Song award and a special commendation from the Danish Radio Concert Orchestra. The biggest cheer of the night, however, was reserved for one of the prize-givers: Bjorn Ulvaeus.

"The judging was quite painful," Firman recalled at the after-show party. "It took all day, but it seemed to take all year. There was some ferocious discussion, shall we say? The man who ameliorated the difficulties was Bjorn Ulvaeus. There was one wonderful moment when someone put forward a song and Bjorn said, `I've sold a few records, and this one isn't good enough'. As he's sold 40 million records, it was difficult to demur. We were conscious of the fact that we needed to make a statement about what the competiton is about. A more traditional musical might have sent out the wrong message. Should we have awarded the prize to a musical like Peter Pan, of which three or four versions already exist? That's why dark horses like Enter the Guardsman were paraded in the ring."

The bar after the show was abuzz with rumours of West End buy-ups of the top musicals. The leading producer Duncan Weldon informed me that he would "certainly be interested" in both Enter the Guardsman and The Three Musketeers. Bohn-Christensen was seen wandering around with a beatific grin on his face, and John Barrowman, still in Robbie Burns's wretched kilt, was treating us all to a one-man musical at the bar piano.

Like Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator, the message from the competition appeared to be: "I'll be back." Don Black certainly hoped so: "It's one of those things that could sweep around the world if the next one is ballyhooed a lot ... The musical is alive and well and living in Aarhus."