I love musicals. Even if I can’t understand a word of them. Usually though there’s some sort of source material in English that I can look up and get more of a gist for the story. But in the case of Marie Antoinette, there’s practically none. It seems, at one point the script might’ve been written in English but it’s never been performed in English. If my hours of scouring the internet for information is correct then it is an adaptation to a Japanese novel called Queen Marie Antoinette (王妃マリーアントワネット) by Shūsaku Endō, an author who seemed to have specialized in historical fiction.
The adaptation was done by Sylvester Levay and Michael Kunze. They worked together on several musicals like Mozart!, Elizabeth, and Rebecca. All of which I only recognize because I’ve seen posters for them at various times while living in Korea. Marie Antoinette premiered in Tokyo in 2006, then hopped around Japan for awhile before going to be performed in Germany in 2009. Eventually it made it’s way to Seoul at which point it was rewritten into a vastly different musical.
How do I know it was drastically rewritten? The synopsis of Marie Antoinette is about a woman named Margrid Arnaud who lives on the street and rises through the revolutionary ranks while Marie Antoinette falls. This is the same. But online you can find the first act of the musical with English translations. You can also find maybe only a third of the original songs online to even try to listen to it, half of which vary from title and content depending on what list you’re looking at and which version. It was very frustrating. Which is why I’ll explain a bit of the plot and some of the bigger differences between the different versions I could find.
With the German version, the only one I could find much of, it opens with a song called “Illusionen” and introduces a semi-uncaring mischievous alchemist narrator who might also just be a time traveler called The Great Cagliostro. He meets a noble in a hurry to a ball where the queen will be and we follow the noble who leads us through the neighborhood of the poor where Margrid Arnaud is trying to sell flowers. The noble buys one but Margrids learns it’s fake, a button, and enraged she goes to the ball to try and get what is rightfully hers. At the ball we meet Marie Antoinette as she dances around the ball and people think she’s a delight but also speak about her family and gossip. Marie Antoinette is a girl who just wants to have fun and gets bored easily.
When Margrid Arnaud appears she beseeches them for what’s hers, she entreats the rich to look beyond their gilded palace to realize the poor don’t have bread. Marie Antoinette laughs and suggests they eat cake instead then, and offers the poor girl some champagne. When she reaches for it Marie Antoinette throws it in her face and spins off to dance laughing.
When we follow Margrid Arnaud she’s living on the street and talks to a nun who use to be in charge of her studies until her mysterious benefactor stopped sending money. The nun believes that Margrid’s father is Francis the I, since when he died the money stopped coming. They sing the song that her father sang, a little lullaby to the children at the school and then the Great Caglistro comes by with a woman on his arm and suggests that the woman would hold an interest in Margrid Arnaud since she looks so much like the queen. This woman it turns out is a madam of a brothel and Margrid Arnaud jumps at the chance despite her nun friend’s horror because it means clean clothes, food, and not sleeping on the streets.
In the rewritten one shown in Seoul, the character The Great Cagliostro doesn’t exist. He’s been completely scrapped, along with the Madam and the Nun. Instead the opening is done by Axel von Fersen, the man that Marie Antoinette is having her affair with. He sings about her life introducing everyone to who she was and how she ended up as queen in France. By making this change I think their goal was to try and make the musical more romantic and tragic and the character of Marie Antoinette more sympathetic. And it opens with the dance, there is no thieft and we meet the gossiping upper class while Marie Antoinette dancing with Axel von Fersen. Margrid Arnaud still sneaks in and demands change for the people and the upper class suggest she eat cake, Marie Antoinette doesn’t say it. And they offer her cake this time which she grabs and shoves in her bag, as many cupcakes as she can. Marie Antoinette even gives her the champagne which Margrid Arnaud throws in her face. A complete reversal of the original.
Margrid Arnaud goes back to the poor, sees children and people in need, starving everywhere and gives away her cakes. Every time we see her she’s with the masses trying to help or persuade them. She steals bread, befriends Jacques Herbert a poet, who I don’t believe was in the original, and helps him with newspapers to try and get a rebellion started. People spend most of their time ignoring her right up to the point they start rallying behind her. Usually when the spurned Louis Phillipe Duke of Orleans starts his mischievous plans. There’s no nun friends or brothels in this version, just regular old fashion Newsies style rebellion with silly hats.
Also the way Marie Antoinette interacts with her husband changes. In the German version she makes fun of her husband who seems to just wish her well. She throws tantrums demanding her way and that people are punished for slighting her and he caves to her whims. He’s so busy that he wears two different shoes, of vastly different colors on his feet when meeting her at a shop to try and remind her of their budget and she laughs at him for being so stupid to wear two different colored shoes.
In the Seoul version he’s kind and sweet to her and she’s the same back. She doesn’t demand things, she listens about the budget and turns down a beautiful expensive necklace she wants while in the German one she continues shopping and only later turns down the necklace. When she sees her husbands shoes, it’s on his way out and it’s more of an endearing “oh husband,” and points at his feet, and they laugh together over it, rather than her and the shop keepers laughing at him. The Seoul version also includes children, a young boy and a young girl and it includes very loving scenes with both parents and one of Marie Antoinette’s friends (one assumes) who seems to be their nanny.
As the story continues, following along partially the path of history towards it’s (arguably) tragic end the big difference between the two versions is the sympathy created in the Seoul version for Marie Antoinette. They’ve softened her sharper childish and haughty points, making her more of a tragic heroine. They’ve removed characters and added or changed new ones that give her more sympathy then the ones that gave Margrid Arnaud motivation.
The mechanics and design is different as well. There’s a rotating stage that is used with with various stunning sets. The costumes are vibrant and beautiful and showcase what one thinks of with the excess of the nobility of that time.
While in the original the goal was for Margrid Arnaud and Marie Antoinette to look virtually the same in a “Prince and the Pauper” style for the b plot that they’re related, the Seoul version skips that, allowing Margrid Arnaud to keep dark hair and sharper features while Marie Antoinette keeps her blonde and softer features. Their clothes reflect this as well. Only once, in a trick of deceit do they dress Margrid Arnaud up in fancy clothes and a wig to look like Marie Antoinette. They also drop the plot line of Louis Phillipe Duke of Orleans determined that the things he must have in life for his villain song are the crown and also Margrid Arnaud, his own version of Marie Antoinette. In the Seoul version there is no b love plot line for Margrid Arnaud and I found it refreshing.
Overall I think, even without fully understanding the revised Seoul version verses the first act I found elsewhere, I think I liked the story better. I think they cut unnecessary characters and it made it stronger, like a good rewrite. The updates in set design and costuming were also breathtakingly beautiful. Every outfit the upper class wore was insanely intricate and dazzling. It felt just as ridiculous as I would have expected. The music was quite good too, the song “Enough is Enough” was strung throughout the entire musical and it’s feelings changed from a plea, to a war cry to that of lament and it wormed it’s way into my mind for the rest of the day as I wandered around the mall attached to the D cube art center humming it to myself.
Marie Antoinette has a running time of 180 minutes (2 hours) with an intermission between act 1 and act 2. It was shown from August 24, 2019 until November 17, 2019. While it is for sure no longer playing in Seoul, I’m sure it will be back and if you’re in town it’s quite fun to see. It’s only shown in Korean. Do note that generally tickets aren’t cheap, ours were 84,000 won for second level seating but we got a discount by going on the last Wednesday of the month which is Culture Day in Korea.