Massive new musical about the First World War in Mechelen


For his major musical about the First World War, director Frank Van Laecke was determined to move audiences – quite literally

One performance in English

With its enormous stage, moveable seating and large, remote controlled set pieces, 14-18, the Studio 100 musical about the First World War, isn’t shy about wanting to outdo its general entertainment competitors.

With a €9 million budget and 110,000 tickets sold two weeks before opening night, 14-18 is doing everything big. “We’re taking the concept of musicals to another level,” says director Frank Van Laecke.

“Tomorrow, the horses will arrive,” he continues with sparkling eyes, before he takes me on a tour of the 18,500 square-metre Nekkerhal in Mechelen, where the production is taking place.

Van Laecke is known as the godfather of Flemish musicals. He has directed musical, theatre and opera productions, but he has never done anything quite as complex as this. The cast and crew come from across Europe and represent one of the few factors not controlled by computers in this hybrid spectacle.

After the major success of the Daens musical, which attracted 220,000 spectators over 2008 and 2009, Van Laecke was eager to work with the same team for this production: composer Dirk Brossé, songwriter Allard Blom and the Studio 100 duo Gert Verhulst and Hans Bourlon.

Three years ago, with the centenary of the First World Ward creeping closer, Van Laecke went to Verhulst to bounce ideas around. Verhulst immediately embraced Van Laecke’s plan to “make it big and epic”, the director remembers. “Pretty soon, we wanted to go for seating and scenery that could move, to give the audience the impression that they were part of a live film set.”

The show, continues Van Laecke, is not a history lesson. “We’re not a school, or a book. We will focus on the lives, the dreams and the ambitions of a bunch of young people, suddenly confronted with war and its impact on those very same dreams and ambitions.”

Emotional rollercoaster

To respect the historical details as much as possible, the director spent months talking to experts, watching documentaries, scrutinising photos and reading books and letters.

It’s always been my ambition to tell stories people are moved by

- Director Frank Van Laecke

“It was through reading the letters from soldiers and the answers from their friends and family that I got closer to the human story I wanted to tell,” Van Laecke says. “It’s always my ambition to tell stories people are moved by. Storytelling is the foundation of this rollercoaster of emotions. We all know what it means to miss someone. But it’s not only a story about hardship. There is love, unconditional friendship and the compelling human ability to rise up from catastrophe.”

Van Laecke’s desire to tell moving stories also posed a challenge to the musical’s cast and crew. How to keep it human. How would they make this massive set, with actors and audiences separated by large distances, feel personal?

Veteran Flemish TV and stage actor Jo De Meyere, who plays a general in the musical, was worried about that, too. He recently told the director that he usually becomes anxious when the scenery overwhelms the actors. “But he immediately added that there’s no reason to worry with me around,” Van Laecke says proudly. “Everyone knows it’s not an intimate play. It’s a spectacle; the music replaces the close-up of a camera here. Dirk’s symphonic score gives you a peek inside a character, generating the same basic emotion.”

Van Laecke and Brossé have been friends and creative partners for almost 25 years. “We don’t need words to understand each other,” says Van Laecke.

English-language show

14-18 isn’t the most expensive musical that Van Laecke has ever worked on. In 2006, he directed the €12-million musical Rembrandt in the Netherlands. But this is certainly the most complex production he has ever worked on.

We are taking the concept of musicals to another level here

- Frank Van Laecke

“Connecting the scenario to the technology was a very slow and nerve-racking process,” he admits. “First, we made computer simulations, with special attention to safety since the interaction between actors, scenery, lights, sounds and effects is strictly timed.”

Van Laecke leads me through one of the four-metre streets on both sides of the stage. “The actors have exactly two seconds to cross it. Otherwise, they could be hit by a moving tree or trench.”

Instructions given to the cast and extras are precise and firm. “Don’t smile while you’re dying.” Or: “That’s over the top.” But also: “Good job falling.”

Many extras were recruited as cannon fodder and have to run across a large battlefield while firing blanks at an imaginary enemy. Divided in three groups, they all have one thing in common: They will die in the scene and set the mood for the scenes to come.

Looking relaxed, Van Laecke says he is available for his crew 24/7. “One advantage of getting older is that you don’t get distracted or stressed out so easily.”

14-18 will also be performed in English during its run at Nekkerhal, and Van Laecke travelled to London to cast actors for this one show.

As a former opera and theatre director, he doesn’t want to compare the present tour de force with musicals such as Grease, which he describes as “enjoyable but one-dimensional entertainment.” No, Van Laecke, whose next project will be Verdi’s La Traviata, mentions Puccini as a model.

“He wrote the same sort of music, he tells the same multi-layered stories. I’m not so pretentious as to say we’re breaking new ground, but we are taking the concept of musicals to another level here.”

From 20 April
English show on 22 May
Nekkerspoel-Borcht 9999, Mechelen

First World War

Claiming the lives of more than nine million people and destroying entire cities and villages in Europe, the Great War was one of the most dramatic armed conflicts in human history. It lasted from 1914 to 1918.
Flanders Field - For four years, a tiny corner of Flanders known as the Westhoek became one of the war’s major battlefields.
Untouched - Poperinge, near Ypres, was one of the few towns in Flanders that remained unoccupied for most of the war.
Cemetery - The Tyne Cot graveyard in Passchendaele is the largest Commonwealth cemetery in the world.
550 000

lives lost in West Flanders

368 000

annual visitors to the Westhoek

1 914

First Battle of Ypres