The musical version of Kalevala, the Finnish national epic, is slowly working its way towards Broadway. What prompted the musician Johanna Telander to introduce this piece of Finnish cultural history to the world?
More than ten years ago, Johanna Telander had a dream that would change the course of her career.
In the dream, she walked up to a haunted tree whose leaves were falling off and each of the leaves had messages on them. The idea of a forest with stories to tell was an idea so fascinating that it inspired the budding composer to put it into songs.
At the time Johanna was studying at The American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York and she played these newly written songs for her class. However, it took nearly a decade for the songs to resurface. Last year, when Finland celebrated 100 years of independence, she became aware of the link between Finland's national epic Kalevala and her nature-themed songs that were set in a fantasy world.
After she noticed the similarities, Johanna began altering the songs. She wanted to create music that would tell the story of Kalevala while taking people on a mental journey to the same forest she saw in her dream. This is how she came up with the idea of Kalevala the Musical, which is currently in production in New York City.
Johanna Telander is a Finnish musician and actress who has lived in the United States for more than 10 years. Despite having traveled far and wide her whole life – or perhaps precisely because of that – she still strongly identifies as a Finn.
"My Finnish identity has gotten new forms here. For instance, back in Finland, I just thought of Kalevala as something that teachers would force down children's throats in school, but my attitude towards it changed when I moved abroad." She has read multiple translations of the national epic since.
One reason why Johanna wanted to work with Kalevala is to familiarize her children with an essential aspect of Finnish culture. Johanna's husband is American, so their kids are both American and Finnish. Because they are raised in the U.S. and they plan to stay here, Johanna has to work a bit harder to ensure that her kids don't lose the connection to their Finnish heritage. If they aren't told what it means to be Finnish, they will never know its value.
"As we were speaking Finnish one day, my son asked me: 'Mom, why do we have to use this funny language?' I explained to him that on the other side of the world, there's a faraway land where people speak this magical language and can understand you. I wanted make him understand how great and special it is to be able to speak a secret language that only very few people know."
In addition to teaching her children, what also prompted Johanna to share the story of Kalevala is the lack of respect for nature that she says is prevalent in the world today. Nature has an enormous role in the story of Kalevala, and in her opinion, Finnish people still care deeply about the environment.
The musical is set in a haunted Kalevala forest which the theater-goers enter in the shoes of Elias Lönnrot, the creator of Kalevala. Johanna describes it as a fantasy musical that has its roots in Finland but says that it appeals to people universally.
Not surprisingly, some changes had to be made when transforming a 500-page book into a musical that lasts less than three hours. Although some stories are cut short or left out completely, she assures that the musical offers something for Kalevala fans as well as for those who haven't heard of the epic before.
The full musical version hasn't hit the theater stages quite yet, but the team has concrete plans in place for getting it on Broadway. They have a stage reading planned for next autumn. For now, they are showcasing the music in a concert form, with their next show set for March 5 in Scandinavia House in New York. If you want more information on the production, you can take a look at the musical's website!
Text: Taru Inkinen