Monday, December 15, 2008

Engel On Musical Adaptations

The composer Lehman Engel (1910-1982), a legendary critic of the musical theatre, was arguably the first one to develop a theory on the structure of the stage musical. In his book on the subject, "Words With Music", he wonders why some American musicals are more successful abroad than others. He comes to the conclusion that all depends on the quality of what he calls "the transformation" of the original material. It must be based on a profound understanding of the mentality of the country where the musical is exported to. "This transformation process is a far more complex one than the word translation would indicate, because the adaptor has the problem of preserving the spirit of the original while making no effort to achieve a word-for-word rendering. In my opinion, the successful outcome of a transformation can only be accomplished when the original material is indeed universal and the adaptor is sufficiently creative to see it through the eyes of the local audience."


  1. Ernst J√ľnger once said there are sometimes books which fit better with a language which is not the one the book was written in. I can confirm this perception and experience! I prefer to read Nietzsche in italian. And I think it is not just a case that Nietzsche is that popular in Italy and quite unpopular in Germany.
    Every language has its own spirit. And a person expressing a perception which lies beyond the spirit of his own language can happen to get into a kind of resonance with the spirit of another language. Only the translation will make know this yet.

    I cannot prove this. There is no correlation of bestselling and spiritscreening to show. And I think this experience is rare. But it occurs and it is striking and interesting: something not universal gets perceivable by very specific interaction, teases our attention and teaches us something important about reality and mysterious affinities.
    I agree that a successful transformation will usually only be accomplished by seeing something universal through the eyes of the local audience.

    But why fits the eye of the local audience sometimes better with the original material? Did the translater a better job than the author did? Did he actually improve the text? There remains something unponderable

  2. @epitimaios
    You may find this phenomenon at the desk of a composer working with a computerized sequencer system. While repeatedly recording different tracks of music the composer is used to change the language of different music instruments, which are virtual and mostly to be played on a keyboard. It is interesting to look how your fingers run differently when playing different instruments but same phrase.

  3. Very interesting transfer. Thank you very much

  4. But let us consider transformation and adaptation!

    Yes, this work needs a great attention and respect for people's life. But I dislike a little bit the idea of feeding people like a baby. Too much transformation might take away the chance of learning something about another country, mentality and culture.
    There should flicker from time to time - among the local eyes looking at the universal material - a glance through the remote eye, surprising us with the not universal.