Featuring interviews with Alexandra Munroe, Maria Andreoli, and Lorrie Doriza. Special thanks to Angelique Mouyis for her support.
When thinking of musical theatre and Greece, Ancient Greek theatre is perhaps one of the first images that springs to mind. Dating back to 700 B.C. in the flourishing city of Athens, Ancient Greek theatre contained elements of Greek mythology, often featured music which included choral work and the use of the aulos and the lyre, and gave birth to genres such as tragedy, comedy, and drama that continue to influence theatre to this day.
In more contemporary times, the Greek music scene has been influenced by various genres of music, one of them being rebetiko. Rebetiko (alternatively spelled rembetiko) came into existence in the early 20th century, primarily during late 1910s and early 1920s in response to the harsh living conditions Greeks were subjected to as a result of the Greco-Turkish War (1919-1922) and the compulsory Greek-Turkish population exchange.
Containing themes such as war, poverty, love, as well as everyday matters, and often politically-charged, rebetiko is mostly associated with the working class, social outcasts, and outlaws.
Rebetiko features traditional instruments such as bouzouki and baglama, and is recognized by UNESCO as a part of the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
One example of rebetiko’s influence on Greek musical theatre is the movie musical Rembetiko, based on the life of legendary rebetiko singer Marika Ninou. The movie musical, written by Costas Ferris and Sotiria Leonardou, also went on to have a staged version with music composed by Thesia Panayiotou.
At around the same time as the rise of rebetiko, the lesser-known “Old Athens” style of music came about as the result of Western European influences, from Italy to Spain to France. In stark contrast to rebetiko, Greek composers were writing in various international genres such as tango, samba, foxtrot, swing, latin, bossa nova, and bolero.
The leader of this movement was a composer named Kleon Triandafillou who went by the stage name Attik. He opened up his own venue called “I Mantra tou Attik” (translating to “Attik’s Pen”) and started a new movement of vaudeville theatre, revues, and cabaret shows. The music and the culture associated with this style was romantic, forlorn, sentimental, and featured none of the traditional instruments of rebetiko music – like the bouzouki or baglama – but instead Western instruments like the piano, guitar, violin, and upright bass.
Both rebetiko and Old Athens music eventually became mainstream, sung and loved by everyone, and a blend of the two styles paved the way for the emergence of Éntekhno: orchestral music featuring elements of Greek folk melodies and rhythm. One of the most prominent composers of this genre was Mikis Theodorakis, who also worked as a film scorer for many movies including Zorba the Greek, which was adapted into a musical that premiered on Broadway in 1968.
Then came the country’s golden age of movie musicals which had incredible impact and success in the 60s and 70s. The songs were on the radio, the fashion was trendsetting, and the choreography was danced at parties everywhere. The movies that featured Aliki Vougiouklaki, who was known as “The National Star of Greece”, were especially popular.
These movies were influential not only in Greece, but in the whole world. Manos Hadjidakis, a popular composer from that period, wrote the music for the movie musical Never on Sunday, and the title song from the movie won the Academy Award for Best Original Song in 1960, a first for a foreign language film.
Musical theatre in Greece has such a rich history and culture, it has undeniably been a source of inspiration for theatre all around the world. In honor of Greek and Greek American Heritage Month, we interviewed three brilliant Greek American Maestras – Alexandra Munroe, Maria Andreoli, and Lorrie Doriza – as a way of celebrating this history and culture of Greek theatre and discussing how it influences today’s Greek American artists to tell their stories.
Responses have been condensed and edited for clarity.
1. How did you first discover musical theatre and what made you want to pursue it as a career?
ALEX: My earliest memory of musical theatre was when I went to see Beauty and the Beast on Broadway with my mom and my nana and I just thought it was so cool. I already loved the movie at that point, but seeing it on stage was pretty amazing. I grew up watching a lot of movies, mostly Disney movies, but my favorite was The Wizard of Oz. I still have the VHS somewhere. Most of my musical exposure came from movies, really, so I initially wanted to be an actor, but I always found myself writing stories instead.
I took a class in undergrad that was an introduction to lyric writing and really enjoyed it. The following year I was in a class that focused on collaboration between composers and lyricists, and every week we would bring in a song. At the time it was really exciting to hear my words put to music (it still is!).
The exact moment I knew I wanted to pursue it was when we were rehearsing for an end-of-year cabaret, and the performers were working out the song. I just loved being in the room for that and working with them. I ended up going to grad school for musical theatre writing, and in that time I learned so much about myself as a writer and how important the art of storytelling is.
MARIA: As a child, all I wanted was to be the next Hannah Montana. I started writing music on my keyboard and picked up the guitar, writing songs about heartache and loss (as if I had any experience with those topics). My mom got me into voice lessons and my vocal teacher introduced me to a community theater where I did my first show Really Rosie by Carole King. After that I was hooked. My love of music grew as I refined my skills on the guitar, piano, and flute. I continued writing songs and put on concerts for anyone who would listen. My love for theater has been a constant, but as I have gotten older, I have found my passion lies in writing for musical theater. I went to Pace University for Musical Theatre and met my writing partner EmmaLee Kidwell there.
LORRIE: It wasn’t until I was accepted at the BMI Musical Theater Workshop in 2019 as a composer that I ever connected the dots that the quirky, dramatic, and character-driven pop songs I was writing were actually perfectly suited for musical theatre.
I had a skewed outlook on what musical theatre “had” to sound like, until I realized it can sound like whatever I want it to, and that was liberating! The signs were all there even as a kid – obsessively remaking the puppet scene from The Sound of Music with sock puppets, performing The Lion King in my living room with paper plate masks, and of course the 20+ years of quoting Robin Hood: Men in Tights.
It’s laughable how long it took me to realize that musical theatre could be for me, but I’m here now and trying my best to catch up!
2. How does your Greek heritage contribute to your own writing and what has inspired you?
ALEX: I’m very influenced by my heritage but specifically by my family. I started working on a pilot recently, and the main character comes from a Greek family. I based her parents off of my own parents, as well as other members of my family.
I’m always trying to incorporate things from my heritage into my work, mostly because I don’t see it represented often, and I want to share it with other people. I love throwing in an “agapi mou” [Greek for “my love”] and a zeibekiko dance into my work because it’s what I grew up with.
I feel like I owe it to my family to show them how much they’ve influenced me, but I also just love them. One day I’d love to write about my yiayia [“grandma”] and her experience coming to America as a teenager. If anyone has inspired me the most, it’s her.
MARIA: I am very inspired by Greek music and stories about my yiayia’s life. She is from Sparta and emigrated to Canada before moving to the US. She had to make it on her own and learn a whole new language.
I am very moved by her life story and have started working on an animated musical project with EmmaLee called Petalouda (Butterfly) about Greek heritage and loss of cultural identity after immigration. It is directly inspired by my grandmother’s life and how she has impacted me.
LORRIE: The past few years have felt like a homecoming of sorts, where I’ve been re-embracing my roots and trying to feel closer to my family who’s in Greece; so a lot of my work lately has had a lot of Greek inspiration to it.
My most recent album, I Could Never Let You Leave Me is comprised of Greek cabaret songs. It’s a tribute to my grandfather, Tony Rais, who was a cabaret singer in the ‘30s in Athens. He had many songs written for him by prominent composers of the time, but he never got a chance to record them because he was diagnosed with throat cancer and had to have his vocal cords removed. It saved his life but ruined his career.
This part of his life had been (and still is) a big mystery for our family, but a few years ago I found a piece of sheet music with his portrait on the cover and I thought, “There aren’t any recordings but… could there be more sheet music?”
Then, when my brother and I did some more digging, asking music libraries and collectors, we found a few more songs and I decided to arrange and record them with the help of my good friend Dan Wilson so we could bring these songs to life. These songs haven’t been heard in over 70 years and the whole process of diving into my family’s past and connecting with my late grandfather through the songs he sang was really emotional and inspiring for me – almost like we were living parallel lives.
After working on this, Dan and I also paired up in our second year of BMI to work on musicalizing a few scenes from My Big Fat Greek Wedding, which was INCREDIBLY fun!
3. How do you think musical theatre can be impactful in terms of amplifying Greek voices and stories?
ALEX: Musical theatre has a lot of power because it is a form where stories can come to life in new and exciting ways. I think that for Greek voices and stories, there’s room to show other parts of our culture and history than just Ancient Greece specifically.
Writing about the gods is cool and all, and there are many different ways to tell those stories too, but why not something like My Big Fat Greek Wedding? A lot of people experience wedding planning, but what does a Greek wedding entail? We could have shows about the preparations that go into Greek Easter, and how baking Tsoureki takes days – especially if you’re making enough for your six kids and their kids like my yiayia did.
MARIA: Musical theatre can be impactful in amplifying Greek voices and stories by seeking out Greek artists to tell their own stories or the stories of their ancestors. I would love to see more original musicals written and performed by Greek artists.
LORRIE: You know when My Big Fat Greek Wedding came out, every immigrant family saw it and laughed along because that’s how it was in their family, too? As far as Greek American representation, that’s a story that was told with such genuine specificity and sincerity that, save for some details, it captured a universal feeling – all families are crazy!
When you want to tell a story or write a song, whether it’s from a Greek perspective or otherwise, it has to come from a place of genuine authenticity, specificity, and simplicity. We are more the same than we are different, so spare us the tropes and generalities and let’s see something truly new and genuine!
But also – there need to be more opportunities for these original stories to be workshopped, fostered, financially supported, and just believed in so they can be brought to life on stage.
4. Do you think Greece or Greek culture are represented well (or at all) in theatre? What are some good and bad examples of representation?
ALEX: Most of the musicals I know are based on Greek myths, and I personally don’t see a problem with that. For example, Hadestown: I love Hadestown! And of course there’s Mamma Mia! which I’ll admit is my guilty pleasure musical (I just really love ABBA). That show in particular has nothing to do with Greece except for the setting. It’s not necessarily a good or bad representation of Greek culture, but they don’t really show Greek people in everyday life.
MARIA: I don’t believe that my culture is represented well in theatre outside of Greece. There are many shows that use Greek mythology as an anchor to their story, but I am unaware of a show that is about the Greek or Greek American experience.
LORRIE: Greek mythology and ancient dramas have been inspiring new works and versions for centuries now. The stories are so rich and layered, but simple enough that they resonate regardless of the setting.
I saw Hadestown and The Lightning Thief within months of each other, and though they were both based on characters from Greek mythology, they couldn’t have been more stylistically different. Disney’s Hercules has been adapted for the stage, and as an Alan Menken fangirl, I’d love to see it! Though Hercules has Greek elements, I wouldn’t say it represents Greek culture – and that’s ok! A story doesn’t always need to be about the people who first told it; it can (and should) evolve. That’s what makes a story good and universal.
For other shows where modern Greek people are represented as “the locals in the background” (like in Mamma Mia!), I can’t say that it’s the best representation, and that sort of caricaturization doesn’t feel as good to see as, say, adaptations of mythological characters that you already don’t identify with.
I’d love to see more Greek people telling their own stories with authenticity, humor, and sure, a little gravitas, too. I think one of the people who come to mind who have recently crossed over into the mainstream and achieved global recognition for both authentic (and quirky) storytelling as well as introducing Greek music internationally has been Yorgos Lanthimos, the film director. I’d love to see more weird and wonderful Greek musical theatre cross over into the general zeitgeist.
5. Are there any changes you wish to see in the musical theatre industry (in Greece or in the world)?
ALEX: So many. I would definitely love to see Broadway make room for newer stories. I’m tired of seeing these “screen-to-stage” adaptations happening all the time. While I do believe there is hard work put into them, I think Broadway is thinking less about that and more about the money.
I want to see the stories we haven’t seen yet. Stories that pave the way for a future of musical theatre where everyone can feel like they belong, because theatre has always been a place of expression, freedom, and family. We’ve come so far, but we still have a long way to go.
MARIA: There are many changes I wish to see in the musical theatre industry. My writing partner and I are queer femme storytellers dedicated to creating change-making musical theatre that amplifies the voices of women and femme folks, queer artists, and underrepresented communities in the theatrical landscape.
We both have felt limited when trying to perform work that uplifts queer people – so much of the material centered on queerness is in relationship to queer suffering – and we want to create spaces and musicals that not only center around queer characters, but queer joy, love, and success. We believe that radical joy is one of the most powerful catalysts of empathy.
We are currently working on a new musical called The Waiting, where our central question of creative investigation right now is: “How can we create a score in which a variety of vocal types could sing and perform any of the roles?”
Genderqueer actors have been historically limited by the binary vocal options in musical theatre scores, constantly asked to play roles that correspond to their vocal range. Many queer actors have to choose which vocal “box” to fit in, forcing actors to conform to the industry, rather than the industry adjusting to the needs of the artist.
Creating a score made for any voice part results in writing a score multiple times over with many [different] options and pathways through the music. Many composers shy away from the prospect of writing multiple vocal lines due to the additional effort required, but we believe that this work is not only worthwhile, but entirely necessary.
We look forward to experimenting with and reinventing the form of musical theatre to create more inclusive and representative art that serves the queer community.
LORRIE: I would love to see more efforts and opportunities for female-identifying and nonbinary composers in Greece to write new musical theatre works. I hope that the gatekeepers and general public give them their chance to shine.
As far as musical theatre in the U.S., we’re drowning in revivals and film adaptations. Up-and-coming artists face an impossible climb in an oversaturated market with limited funding and support, even with the help of workshops, grants, and sponsors (if they can even find them or get accepted).
It’s hard to find opportunities, but the one thing I’ve found comfort in the musical theatre world that I didn’t have in the pop-rock world is this stronger sense of community. Whether through my time at the BMI Workshop, Maestra, or new collaborations, everyone in this community is so supportive, helpful, and generous with their time and talents that it continues to inspire and push me upwards and onwards (you know, like Sisyphus *wink*)!
There is still a long way to go in terms of having genuine and authentic Greek and Greek American representation in musical theatre, but these three incredible Maestras are among the artists who inspire change through the stories they tell and their passion, creativity, and hard work.
To keep up with the works of Alexandra Munroe, Maria Andreoli, and Lorrie Doriza, visit their Maestra page and follow their social media!