"Finding Neverland": 8 Lessons Broadway Can Learn From Eurovision

Before Chris and I fell in love with Eurovision, there was Broadway. As Americans, Eurovision isn’t part of our shared cultural vocabulary, but musical theater is. Well, for some of us, musical theater is. When discussing Eurovision on this blog, we’ve often turned to live theater for a framework to understand artistic choices and common cultural points of reference.

The 69th Tony Awards, which celebrate the best of the Broadway season, aired on Sunday night. Chris and I love the Tony Awards. They expose us to native stars that don’t cross over into other entertainment realms, we see actors known from film and TV take on unexpected roles, and we witness inspiring, creative performances with the original casts. As we don’t live in New York, the Tonys are our one chance each year to see what Broadway has to offer. We never miss it. In fact, we have VHS tapes of old Tony Award broadcasts that date back to the 1980s. Over the years, Broadway has figured out that a memorable Tony performance can give a box office bump to a flagging show, so the awards broadcast has increasingly become a commercial showcase to maximize those chances. This year’s telecast not only included live performances from the Best Musical and Best Musical Revival nominees but also a handful of shows open but not nominated. Get those tickets now, folks.

One of the performances at this year’s Tonys was from “Finding Neverland”. “Finding Neverland,” you may recall, was first a play and then a movie about J.M. Barrie and the inspiration that led to his writing Peter Pan. “Finding Neverland” has since been musicalized and is currently playing on Broadway. It might even stay open for a couple more weeks. Matthew Morrison (Glee) plays J.M. Barrie and Kelsey Grammer (Frasier and Cheers, which naturally they reference in the musical) is Captain Hook. Choreography by Mia Michaels (So You Think You Can Dance).

Turns out, after following Eurovision for so long, we’ve finally come full circle. Eurovision provides a framework for us to understand theater.

The song they performed at the Tonys was “Stronger,” the closing number to the first act. This sucker was more cheesy and more clueless than anything we saw at Eurovision this year. Here’s the full number in all its hamfisted glory. Since Tony clips get taken down way too soon, here is a clip instead:

What’s amazing is how many Eurovision mistakes are rolled up into this mess. Any one of them would probably have been fine. But, no, when something isn’t working, the temptation is to add. “If we just add one more thing, then it’ll all be ok”. It’s the same mistake we see in many of the great Eurovision misfires. Let’s break it down.

Lesson #1: Use thematic content so visual that it stages itself. Because “Pirates of the Sea” (Latvia 2008) qualified, amiright? Also, “Love Me Back” (Turkey 2012), but that was actually good. Still, thanks to Eurovision, we’ve seen these visuals before.

Screen Shot 2015-06-08 at 10.41.30 PM
Your Jolly Roger Looks Familiar

Screen Shot 2015-06-08 at 10.34.47 PM

Lesson #2: Use dry ice whenever possible, and as much as possible. Can you see your knees through the smoke? Not enough.

Lesson #3: Use a generic song title. “Stronger” is admittedly tad more original than “Shine”, but it’s not exactly setting new standards for innovation. “Stronger Every Minute” (Cyprus 2004) and “Hold On Be Strong” (Norway 2008) come to mind.

Lesson #4: Ignore fit of song to thematic content. With Loreen (Sweden 2012) and Mäns Zelmerlöw (Sweden 2015) we pointed out how important a fit the song was with the artist. In what world is a bombastic pop song appropriate for an Edwardian biography?

Lesson #5: Have an old guy yell at us for no apparent reason. Kelsey Grammer is giving us gruff Captain Hook, which in principle isn’t a bad thing. But as Matthew Morrison is trying to sing, Kelsey Grammer keeps yelling at him. It’s supposed to be encouraging, but Kelsey Grammer JUST KEEPS YELLING AT HIM. Remember when 75 cents did this (Croatia 2008)? It didn’t work then either.

Lesson #6: Say yes to Crazy Eyes. What better Eurovision trope is there? Alyona Lanskaya, Charlotte Pirelli, Malena Ernman, really so many that have come before.

Screen Shot 2015-06-08 at 10.53.01 PM

Lesson #7: A chest hair reveal is the best way to bring home the final chorus. If you’re a man and you’re manly, Dima Bilan (Russia 2008)Sakis Rouvas (Greece 2008), and more recently Eduard Romanyuta (Moldova 2015) taught us that you should tear open your shirt at the 2:00 mark.

jmbarrie

Lesson #8: At the climactic moment, hold aloft your magic sword. Oh wait, that’s not Eurovison, that’s He-Man.

lofty sword

he man

 

Highlights from 2015

It’s once again time for us to ask the big questions: which diva reigned supreme? Where was the kitsch? How clueless were San Marino? And did anyone misfire as badly as The Netherlands?

Biggest Misfire

For our consideration

Netherlands: Trijntje Oosterhuis – “Walk Along
Macedonia: Daniel Kajmakoski – “Autumn Leaves
Belarus: Uzari & Maimuna – “Time
Malta: Amber – “Warrior

Our pick: “Walk Along.” How can a song written by a successful former Eurovision entrant, staged by a team that achieved top 10 finishes for two years running, and performed by a preeminent Dutch singer go so awry? Perhaps Anouk’s song wasn’t the best fit for Trijntje, but the trouble really started during rehearsals. The press room proclaimed after the very first rehearsal that Trijntje would win the Barbara Dex award for worst dressed performer (updated: And indeed she did). Even though she had an array of outfits to try out, she and the rest of the Netherlands delegation seemed to be rattled by the bad press.

TOO CLOSE

The staging made matters worse. The first image was an uncomfortably long close-up on Trijntje’s veiled eyes. Later there was a blacklight effect so subtle that if you blinked you would miss it. The package never came together for the Dutch in Vienna, and the team knew it. Trijntje gave a subdued, resigned performance of “Walk Along” and was eliminated at the end of the first Semi. The Dutch ultimately showed a sense of humor about their fate when Edsilia Rombley presented the Netherlands’ results wearing the much maligned costume.

TrijntjeEdsilia

Trijntje Oosterhuis photo by Andres Putting

Least Self-Aware

As usual, we only have one real candidate for this category, and this year that candidate is San Marino’s “Chain of Lights.” There were no signs of critical thought at any point in the proceedings. Did no one ask, for example, “Hey, should we stop having Anita Simoncini spit out that awkward spoken word bit?” Or, “Hey, should we tell the songwriters that these lyrics are really trite?” Or, “Hey, should we hitch our wagon to someone who has heard pop music from the past decade?” Anita Simoncini & Michele Perniola gave a smiley, blank performance of what little staging there was, and the whole thing landed like a thud in the Stadthalle.

Legitimately Good Song

For our consideration

Sweden: Måns Zelmerlöw – “Heroes
Australia: Guy Sebastian – “Tonight Again
Belgium: Loïc Nottet – “Rhythm Inside
Latvia: Aminata – “Love Injected

Our pick: “Rhythm Inside.” If you told us early on that Loïc Nottet was going to co-write his Eurovision entry and have a hand in the choreography and costuming, we’d have worried we had another Sofi Marinova on our hands. Fortunately, Loïc has a strong sense of who he is an artist and “Rhythm Inside” is his mission statement. And it is catchy as hell.

Campiest Performance

For our consideration

Moldova: Eduard Romanyuta – “I Want Your Love
San Marino: Michele Perniola and Anita Simoncini – “Chain of Lights
Azerbaijan: Elnur Hüseynov – “Hour of the Wolf
United Kingdom: Electro Velvet – “Still In Love with You
Spain: Edurne – “Amanecer

Our pick: None. We define a camp Eurovision entry as having misplaced ambition, a lack of self-awareness, a whiff of failure, and innate hilariousness. We struggled to come up with a list of entries this year that would truly fit that definition. We’ve not been shy about ragging on “Still In Love with You,” but to its credit it failed at being a failure, which is kind of like being successful. Besides, we’re planning strategic use of “Sounding good, sugar” when we live-tweet national finals on our Twitter account.

Biggest Diva Performance

For our consideration

Serbia: Bojana Stamenov – “Beauty Never Lies
Belgium: Loïc Nottet – “Rhythm Inside
Latvia: Aminata – “Love Injected
Georgia: Nina Sublatti – “Warrior
Russia: Polina Gagarina – “A Million Voices

Our pick: Nina Sublatti. This is always the hardest category to compile, because Eurovision attracts divas of all kinds. Whether you are a Latvian powerhouse, a Serbian soul queen, a Russian pop idol, or a Belgian rennaissance man, there is room for you all to shine, darlings. But in our minds, Nina Sublatti is the diva of the year. Look into her eyes and tell us we’re wrong.

Nina eyes

Eurovision 2015 Superlatives

It’s time once again for us to bestow honor upon all of the songs that competed for this year’s Eurovision title. Everyone’s a winner, which we hope will make Austria and Germany feel better.

  • Most reassuring statement to a spelunker: “When you’re down, down low and there’s no place you can go/When you’re down, down low, you know that I am here for you” (Slovenia, Maraaya – “Here for You”)
  • Annual award for most successful theft of France’s thunder: The dreaded number two slot (Lisa Angell – “N’oubliez pas”)
  • Best new motto for Israel tourism: “And before you leave, let us show you Tel Aviv”(Nadav Guedj – “Golden Boy”)
  • Best application of film noir mise-en-scène: Estonia (Elina Born & Stig Rästa – “Goodbye to Yesterday”)
  • Most “fun”: United Kingdom (Electro Velvet – “Still in Love with You”)
  • Most diasporaspastastic: Armenia (Genealogy – “Face the Shadow”)
  • Worst ability to control their adrenaline (or their hormones): Lithuania (Monika Linkytė & Vaidas Baumila – “This Time”)
  • Best song when the time has come for you to lip sync for your life: Serbia (Bojana Stamenov – “Beauty Never Lies”)
  • Best emo interpretation of “The Monster Mash”: Norway (Mørland & Debrah Scarlett – “A Monster Like Me”)
  • Most forgone conclusion: Sweden (Måns Zelmerlöw – “Heroes”)
  • Most sensitive ex-boyfriend: Cyprus (John Karayiannis – “One Thing I Should Have Done”)
  • Most casual evening stroll through a dystopian urban landscape: Australia (Guy Sebastian – “Tonight Again”)
  • Best template for Minecraft Eurovision: Belgium (Loïc Nottet – “Rhythm Inside”)
Get on this, Stampy Cat!
  • German-speaking country that was least deserving of its fate: (tieAustria and Germany
  • Worst Eurovision Lemurs prediction: In regards to Austria – “It’s a solid, respectable staging for a solid, respectable song that should give the hosts a solid, respectable result in the voting.” (The Makemakes – “I Am Yours”)
  • Best ability to sing during a hurricane: Greece (Maria Elena Kyriakou – “One Last Breath”)
  • Best new wedding dance craze: Montenegro (Knez – “Adio”)
Courtesy of Eurovision Gifs
Courtesy of Eurovision Gifs
  • Best Rorschach test (or worst, depending on how you look at it): Germany (Ann Sophie – “Black Smoke”)
  • Most helpful household tip: Poland, showing everyone the best way to dry sheets (Monika Kuszyńska – “In the Name of Love”)
  • Greatest lung capacity: Latvia (Aminata – “Love Injected”)
  • Least effective plea to get someone to think of the children: Romania finishing in 15th place (Voltaj – “De la capat”)
  • Best pas-de-deux involving the Virgin Mary: Warrior Princess: Spain (Edurne -“Amanecer”)
  • Best call to go walk children in nature: Hungary (Boggie – “Wars for Nothing”)
  • Best audition for the part of Zuul in the Ghostbusters reboot: Georgia (Nina Sublatti – “Warrior”)
  • Best eleven o’clock number from Little Red Riding Hood: The Musical!Azerbaijan (Elnur Huseynov – “Hour of the Wolf”)
  • Best performance under duress: Russia (Polina Gagarina – “A Million Voices”)
  • Best rebound from a rough Semifinal performance: Albania (Elhaida Dani – “I’m Alive”)
  • Best distillation of 400 years of Italian opera tradition into a three-minute pop song: Italy (Il Volo – “Grande amore”)
  • Most likely to get there, popular: Sweden
But do hummingbirds even sing?

Recap of Eurovision Song Contest 2015

Congratulations to Måns Zelmerlöw, who won the 2015 Eurovision Song Contest for Sweden with “Heroes”! And damn you, Jon Ola Sand! You nearly gave us (and Swedish head of delegation Christer Björkman) heart attacks by making it look early on like Russia was going to snag the victory.

Christer Björkman
Christer Björkman (left) has ground his teeth to dust.

We are pleased with the outcome for two reasons. One, it’s nice to see after nine years of writing this blog, we’ve actually learned something. We went out on a limb  early for Sweden and subsequently dug in our heels. Our credibility is preserved!

Two, we would like to see Sweden overtake Ireland as the winningest country in Eurovision history. This is no offense to Ireland. Their success was well-deserved during the era when they dominated. However, the era we live in now is dominated by Swedish pop music. Even when Sweden doesn’t win, they win: just look at the names of the songwriters in the competition.

Let’s look at the results of our predictions.

Jen:

  • Sweden
  • Russia
  • Italy
  • Estonia
  • Australia
  • Latvia
  • Georgia
  • Romania
  • Israel
  • Belgium

Last place: United Kingdom

Chris:

  • Sweden
  • Italy
  • Estonia
  • Australia
  • Russia
  • Georgia
  • Romania
  • Belgium
  • Slovenia
  • Latvia

Last place: United Kingdom

Europe:

  • Sweden
  • Russia
  • Italy
  • Belgium
  • Australia
  • Latvia
  • Estonia
  • Norway
  • Israel
  • Serbia

Last place: Germany and Austria

Pretty good! We both picked the winner, and Jen correctly called 6 of the top 10 placements. It’s nice to have a year that flatters us!

Our both picking Georgia in the top 10 was not far off since Nina Sublatti finished eleventh, and only two points out of tenth place. But our pick of Romania was off the mark. We usually have at least one pick that goes off the rails, but man, we did not expect it to be that one.

Let’s start playing with numbers:

  • Sweden and Russia both passed 300 points, and Italy fell just shy of the 300 mark. That’s three songs that got more points than Austria did when it won last year.
  • There was a lot of agreement this year on what everyone thought were the top songs. Six songs got points from almost every country. Sweden and Italy received points from everybody.
  • Italy won the televote and Sweden came third. But Sweden won the jury vote and Italy only came sixth. This is the first time since the juries were reintroduced in 2009 that the jury decided the winner. We’re sure this will not go down well with a lot of people.
  • Israel finished 9th with 97 points but Serbia finished 10th with only 53 points, the lowest point total by a 10th place finisher in the past 10 Song Contests. That’s also a pretty big drop-off between 9th and 10th place. Again, the lion’s share of points went to just a few countries.
  • Germany and Austria both finished with nul points. Technically, Germany finished ahead of Austria because Austria performed worse in the televote, but we’re sure that’s cold comfort for the German delegation.
  • It’s the first time the defending champion country has gotten nul points, but at least The Makemakes took their loss well. Ann Sophie did too.

The double nul points illustrate that the worst songs do not necessarily finish last, only songs that for whatever reason did not resonate with voters. By the way, people of Germany and Austria, you all really need to embrace bloc voting. Grit your teeth and loop in Switzerland while you’re at it. They finished last in the second Semi and did not garner a single point from Germany.

Taking a look at the results of the two Semifinals, we found that there were decisively top 10 songs in both. Moldova finished 21 points out of 10th place in the first Semi, while Malta finished 10 points out of 10th place in the second Semi. We mentioned that Switzerland finished last in the second Semi. Finland finished last in the first Semi because juries don’t vote on a backstory, they vote on a song.

Stray observations from our Eurovision party:

  • On France’s backdrop: “Something better explode.”
  • On Israel: “They get super points!”
  • On Armenia’s costumes: “It’s Star Trek done by Joan Collins.”
  • On Norway’s Debrah Scarlett: “She’s a very emo Ariel.”
  • On Cyprus’s backdrop: “Roomful of stars, everybody drink.”
  • On Azerbaijan’s interpretive dancers: “I love everything about these werewolves. I want to keep them in my home.”
  • On Martin Grubinger’s interval performance: “Can I just say there is a serious French horn situation here?”

Our Predictions: 2015 Grand Final

Lest you think we are of one mind, here are our separate predictions for this year’s Eurovision Song Contest Grand Final, from first to tenth and then last place.

Jen:

  • Sweden
  • Russia
  • Italy
  • Estonia
  • Australia
  • Latvia
  • Georgia
  • Romania
  • Israel
  • Belgium

Last place: United Kingdom

Chris:

  • Sweden
  • Italy
  • Estonia
  • Australia
  • Russia
  • Georgia
  • Romania
  • Belgium
  • Slovenia
  • Latvia

Last place: United Kingdom

Okay, so there is only one real difference of opinion: Jen thinks Israel’s energy and joie de vive is going to pull them into the top 10, while Chris thinks Slovenia’s song is strong enough that it can still crack the top 10 even from the starting position.

We would posit that Sweden could win from any position, even second, and we can’t help but think their chances are helped by the ballad-heavy second half. (And the fact that their staging is awesome.) It’s a safe assumption Italy will close the show on a strong note, so even after a slog of a second half, they will stand out.

When Russia has a strong song, it can usually count on enough votes from Western countries to shore up the points their traditional Eastern voting allies give them. We saw no sign that the political tension between Russia and the West hurt them last year (when tensions were worse), so they are a safe bet for a top 5 finish.

We are both reasonably certain that Belgium and Latvia’s uniqueness will stand out. Loïc Nottet’s backing vocals need to improve on their Semifinal performance, but now that the pressure of qualifying is off, we have high hopes they will shine. Meanwhile, Aminata has commanded plenty of attention with that big ol’ voice of hers. We feel like she could pull a strong finish a la Rona Nishliu from Albania in 2012.

Looking at last place, we have two questions about “Still In Love With You”:

  1. If the United Kingdom wasn’t a part of the Big Five and had to qualify through the Semifinals, would they have ever considered this song?
  2. What country is going to place this song in their top 10? Australia’s participation may be the United Kingdom’s saving grace this year, assuming the objective is to avoid nul points.

Eurovision 2015: A Primer for Saturday Night Viewing

We are hosting our annual Eurovision party this weekend! For our guests and for anyone else engaging with the Contest in time for the Grand Final, here are our notes to get up to speed on this year’s competition.

Vienna is hosting Eurovision on the heels of Conchita Wurst’s victory last year. Conchita is our green room host this year and frankly, we’re wondering why she isn’t hosting the whole damned thing. Expect some delightful bon mots from the world’s reigning drag superstar.

The big story coming into this year’s Eurovision is that in honor of the Song Contest’s 60th anniversary, Australia has been given a one-time chance to participate. Australia took their opportunity seriously and picked one of their biggest pop stars, Guy Sebastian, as their representative. His song for Europe, “Tonight Again,” is cheeky fun and has kept Australia one of the odds leaders even after the novelty of their participation wore off.

The bookies’ (and our) top tip to win the 2015 Eurovision Song Contest is Måns Zelmerlöw of Sweden. His song “Heroes” is a David Guetta/Avicii-influenced pop song. It goes into the Song Contest with momentum thanks to a groundbreaking animated staging that wowed fans and juries alike during the Swedish national final. Seriously, it’s really cool.

Sweden’s closest rival appears to be Italy. They are represented by Il Volo, a youthful pop-opera trio who are more known internationally than in their home country. Their song “Grande Amore” is strongly aligned with their brand and seems custom fit for their next PBS pledge drive special.

Rounding out the other favorites, Russia has sent “A Million Voices,” a well-executed example of their standard plea for peace, love and understanding. Singer Polina Gagarina has been so good thus far that she was hardly booed after she sang in the Semis.

Meanwhile, Estonia has sent an atmospheric retro number evocative of Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra’s duets. We’re not big fans of the song, but we have to say it is helped greatly by a gorgeous, heartbreaking staging.

We’ve always said that as more countries enter Eurovision, the harder it is for anyone to get the dreaded nul point at the end of the evening. The United Kingdom has decided to challenge that theory this year. Their song is in the genre of electro swing, which the UK delegation heard was popular with the kids.

Other story lines:

  • Romania‘s entry Voltaj is performing the song “De la capăt” (“All Over Again”), which highlights the plight of Eastern European children who are left behind when their parents go to Western Europe for work.
  • Monika Kuszyńska of Poland was the singer for the band Varius Manx when she was paralyzed in a car accident. Her song “In the Name of Love” tries to tow the line between being autobiographical and universal.
  • Armenia caused a bit of a ruckus with their song “Face the Shadow.” It was originally called “Don’t Deny” and is a not-too-veiled statement about the Armenian Genocide. They changed the title before the Song Contest to avoid political backlash.
  • Latvia and Belgium are vying for the title “Song That’s Too Cool for Eurovision.”
  • The most interesting pre-selection story this year came out of Germany. Ann Sophie finished second in the German national selection show, but the winner Andreas Kümmert declined to represent Germany on live television immediately after he won.
  • Be prepared for a lot of ballads, particularly in the second half. Also, be on the lookout for trees and warrior princesses.

Recap of 2015 Semifinal 2

Us:

  • Lithuania
  • Ireland
  • Norway
  • Israel
  • Latvia
  • Azerbaijan
  • Iceland
  • Sweden
  • Cyprus
  • Slovenia
Europe:

  • Lithuania
  • Montenegro
  • Norway
  • Israel
  • Latvia
  • Azerbaijan
  • Sweden
  • Cyprus
  • Slovenia
  • Poland

8 out of 10 again. Par for the course.

The show ran a lot smoother tonight than on Tuesday. We still haven’t figured out why ORF needed to have three hosts plus Conchita. One host plus Conchita would have worked fine. Hell, Conchita could have done the whole thing herself the way Petra Mede did for Sweden in 2013.

As for the performances, Lithuania was a great opening act. We know “This Time” grates on some people, and we will admit it is relentlessly chipper and rather cheesy (especially when Vaidas Baumila asks “Eurovision” to make some noise), but it came off pretty well, especially when it was followed by a parade of ballads.

We had second thoughts about picking Ireland for the Final when we heard reports from the rehearsals. Indeed, Molly Sterling’s lack of connection with the audience was a detriment. She didn’t look at the camera enough, and all around the performance was too introverted. A spark was missing. Frankly, the placement of the upright piano was a mistake: it put a barrier between her and the audience that she couldn’t, or didn’t want to, overcome.

San Marino performed next.

We underestimated Knez as a performer and the power of a Željko Joksimović ballad. We still think it’s stale, but we admit we should have known better. We were impressed with how well “Adio” came together and we weren’t surprised when Montenegro was announced as a finalist.

We were expecting to be underwhelmed by Malta and boy, did they deliver on that expectation. As we noted earlier, they just rehashed Conchita Wurst’s winning video background. Coupled with Amber’s uneven vocal, they had no shot of reaching the Final.

There is something vaguely stilted about how Norway has staged “A Monster Like Me.” The song really didn’t come alive until the end, but when it did it delivered the first goosebumps of the night. As in the national final, Debrah Scarlett had an off-night. We wonder about how well she can tame her nerves. But even if she lands her vocal on Saturday night, “A Monster Like Me” feels like it is missing something.

Our impression of Portugal was simply that Leonor Andrade was way too good for her song. She has a lot of talent. She just wasn’t given the chance to show it off. We would love to see her come back another year.

We kind of felt bad that Czech Republic didn’t qualify because Marta Jandová and Václav Noid Bárta looked like they had a lot of fun performing. Still, “Hope Never Dies” is rather morose, so it’s not surprising it didn’t garner enough support to see them through.

Israel’s staging for “Golden Boy” was very… well… Greek. Watching Nadav Guedj and his crew strut around the stage, we were reminded of Greece at its most macho. Nadav’s vocals were fine, and everyone exuded energy. The lighting change at the refrain elicited the second set of goosebumps on the night. Even the “Okay we gotta go” bit at the end of the song worked. We’re so happy to have Israel back in the Final. It’s about time.

Aminata from Latvia is a force of nature. She has a ton of vocal power, and the red and white backdrop just enhanced that. On stage, she comes across as a much bigger presence than her diminutive figure would suggest. It’s as if she’s a different person. While “Love Injected” may be an unconventional song for Eurovision, it was one of the more memorable performances we’ve seen across both Semis. It’s the first time that Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia have made the Final in the Semifinal era.

We cannot express enough how annoying we found Azerbaijan’s interpretive dancers. Not that they were bad, per se, but they were an unwelcome distraction. Elnur Hüseynov is a skilled singer and he doesn’t need the crutch. Our favorite moment of “Hour of the Wolf” was when Elnur shoved the dancers out of the way:

elnur

It was not surprising that Iceland failed to qualify for the Final. María Ólafs did not sing well at all, end of story.

We have seen the staging of “Heroes” over and over again and you know what? Måns Zelmerlöw makes us love him every single time. Haters can hate. We still say this is Sweden’s contest to lose.

Poor Switzerland. “Time to Shine” is not a bad song and Mélanie René sang it fine. They were hurt by an uninspired staging and by following one of the Song Contest’s clear front runners.

On the other hand, Cyprus was helped by having a simple but effective staging. John Karagiannis worked that camera for all it was worth, but never lost sight of the song. He was pretty terrific.

Slovenia generally kept the same staging that they had at their national final. Marjetka kept doing this weird head bobbing thing that was rather distracting. Hopefully she’ll be able to tone down some of that aimless movement for Saturday. Meanwhile, Raay was giving us a lot of face:

Raay

We weren’t particularly impressed with Monika Kuszyńska’s vocals tonight, but Poland did find a way to tell her story effectively. Coupled with a good Semifinal draw, it wasn’t entirely surprising that she punched a ticket to the Final on Saturday.

Our Predictions: 2015 Semifinal 2

It’s a Eurovision miracle, y’all: we once again made the exact same predictions! We can’t decide if this is a really easy year, Chris is getting better at this, or Jen is getting worse.

  • Lithuania
  • Ireland
  • Norway
  • Israel
  • Latvia
  • Azerbaijan
  • Iceland
  • Sweden
  • Cyprus
  • Slovenia

Lithuania: Monika Linkytė and Vaidas Baumila – “This Time”
Q. Confidence: medium. Even if that kiss seems a bit cheesy, the moment is memorable enough to stick with you the whole evening.

Ireland: Molly Sterling – “Playing with Numbers”
Q. Confidence: low. If Molly can connect with the camera, she should qualify. However, that seems to be a big if.

San Marino: Michele Perniola and Anita Simoncini – “Chain of Lights”
NQ. Confidence: high. It’s not the worst song San Marino has contributed in the past five years, but that’s about the only nice thing we can say about it.

Montenegro: Knez – “Adio”
NQ. Confidence: low. We don’t predict great things for “Adio.” Knez doesn’t radiate a lot of warmth as a performer, and he’s paired with Željko on songwriting autopilot. It’s stale.

Malta: Amber – “Warrior”
NQ. Confidence: high. There is nothing inspired or inspiring about this “Warrior.”

Norway: Mørland and Debrah Scarlett – “A Monster Lke Me”
Q. Confidence: medium. Norway has dropped the memorable swirling steadicam shot they did in the National Final. But Mørland and Debrah sound great together and that should be enough to see them through.

Portugal: Leonor Andrade – “Há um mar que nos separa”
NQ. Confidence: high. We think this is going to be one of those entries that we will have forgotten about when we rewatch Semifinal 2 in a couple of years.

Czech Republic: Marta Jandová & Václav Noid Bárta – “Hope Never Dies”
NQ. Confidence: low. Watching clips of Marta and Václav in Vienna makes us wish that their natural charm and wit were on display on stage.

Israel: Nadav Guedj – “Golden Boy”
Q. Confidence: medium. Any energy, even if it might be a little unfocused, is welcome at this point in the evening.

Latvia: Aminata – “Love Injected”
Q. Confidence: medium. When Aminata blasts that chorus, we get goosebumps. We’re not going to be the only ones.

Azerbaijan: Elnur Hüseynov – “Hour of the Wolf”
Q. Confidence: medium. Elnur is in total control of his own performance while there is chaos dancing around him. He should tame this wolf enough to make the Final.

Iceland: María Ólafsdóttir – “Unbroken”
Q. Confidence: medium. It is relentlessly precious, but it is also a contemporary pop song should qualify easily if performed well.

Sweden: Måns Zelmerlöw – “Heroes”
Q. Confidence: high. Obviously.

Switzerland: Mélanie René – “Time to Shine”
NQ. Confidence: low. “Time to Shine” desperately needed a dynamic staging to stand out. That’s not what it got.

Cyprus: John Karagiannis – “One Thing I Should Have Done”
Q. Confidence: medium. Sigh, so dreamy.

Slovenia: Maraaya – “Here for You”
Q. Confidence: high. It’s got a beat and you can dance to it. Throw on some headphones and let’s have a party on Saturday night.

Poland: Monika Kuszyńska – “In the Name of Love”
NQ. Confidence: medium. We feel like Slovenia’s modern coolness is going to make “In the Name of Love” sound awfully old-fashioned. If Monika does not sing well, then Poland is going home Thursday night.

Rehearsal Roundup: The 2015 Big 7

Rather than trying to scamper around and live blog all the rehearsals, we’re simply doing one post per Semifinal to wrap up the goings on. These roundup posts summarize everything we have learned since the songs were selected by their respective countries, including the promotional live performances, the draw, and two rehearsal impressions. We’ll be doing separate posts for Semi 1 and Semi 2.

The Big 7 had their second rehearsals earlier today, and we have a clearer view of how Saturday night’s Grand Final is shaping up.

I want to hate Il Volo from Italy so much, because I hate the kind of PBS pledge drive pop-opera they peddle. But I find that I cannot: they sound really good. The staging is clean and simple so that all eyes are on the three heartthrobs. Italy may give Sweden a run for its money yet.

Austria is keeping the staging it did at its national final, presumably with the flaming piano on display when it is absolutely necessary to light a piano on fire. It’s a solid, respectable staging for a solid, respectable song that should give the hosts a solid, respectable result in the voting.

For those of us with no attention span whatsoever, there’s Spain. It’s not so much that there’s one staging concept, more like three staging concepts. It starts off vaguely Catholic, then it gets all Xena warrior after the costume change, and concludes with a pas de deux. Hopefully, it all will make sense in context for the home viewer, because without the proper camera angles it looks a bit confusing. Edurne is a vision, though.

Germany goes for a literal staging, with black smoke wafting behind Ann Sophie as she sings. She looks fabulous in a black pantsuit and her hair up on a bun, it’s all quite sophisticated. But we’re not sure it adds up to much in the end.

United Kingdom is essentially recreating its promo video on stage. It’s cute up to a point, but I can’t escape the feeling that the “fun” of this song feels forced. They have a large dual staircase on stage with an art deco feel, and light up costumes. The staging is cluttered, so the UK will need a lot of effective camera work to ensure Electro Velvet isn’t swallowed up. Alex Larke is sounding better than Bianca Nicholas, but the backing vocal “d-d-d-dance!” is quite grating.

France has come up with a very effective staging that puts Lisa Angell downstage while the backdrop takes us on a driving tour of a war ravaged city. The final verse reveals four drummers, supplemented with an army of similarly-dressed drummers in the backdrop. Lisa is a confident singer and in great voice, dressed simply in black. It’s going to be a textbook example of how a performance and staging can elevate a rather lackluster song.

Australia has given us a cheap-looking staging with lampposts and a fast-moving skyline on the backdrop. Life moves fast in the big city, I guess. We are similarly unimpressed with the costuming, with backing singers pulled from the cast of Rent and Guy Sebastian ready to walk in the Summer Olympics parade of nations. However, it’s impossible to be dismissive. Guy Sebastian is a winning performer with a feel good song, and we find ourselves rooting for him.

Recap of 2015 Semifinal 1

Us:

  • Belgium
  • Finland
  • Greece
  • Estonia
  • Serbia
  • Hungary
  • Belarus
  • Russia
  • Romania
  • Georgia
Europe:

  • Armenia
  • Belgium
  • Greece
  • Estonia
  • Serbia
  • Hungary
  • Russia
  • Albania
  • Romania
  • Georgia

8 out of 10, which is about on trend for us and appears to be the modal result for most folks we follow in the Eurovision community.

The show kicked off with a lovely reprise of “Rise Like a Phoenix” by Conchita Wurst, backed by the ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester. It introduced us to the stage, and the writhing balls on the ceiling, which was a nice effect.

Conchita worked the green room throughout the evening and was clearly the star of the Austrian hosts, doing great one-off interviews with the countries during the intervals. In contrast, the three main hosts were rather bland and low energy.

The postcards feature each representative engaging in an activity with the host country, consistent with the “Building Bridges” theme. They’re great. The interval packages in this first Semi…less so.

But let’s talk about the performances.

Moldova kicked us off with a high energy performance that was a good fit for the arena. Eduard Romanyuta sounded great and was moving well. The backing singer harmonies were unusual but striking. However, as we have observed in the past, the Tuesday night voters tend to be a bit more conservative. Had he been in the second Semi and with a later draw, his Eurovision journey might have looked different.

Armenia was the first of the two picks we missed. The staging was effective, and they made particularly good use of the floor projections. The overhead shots worked, and there was a nice visual effect post-chaotic-musical-moment-that-scatters-the-Armenian-diaspora-across-the-world where the singers are standing on the continents of their origin. Also, the use of lavender lighting is unique to the Contest. We don’t think Armenia hit a home run with the vocals, but then, a lot of countries fell short in that regard tonight.

To wit, Belgium had us worried tonight. “Rhythm Inside” lacked intensity and the backing singers were poorly tuned and shouty. Loïc Nottet sounded good, but even he had moments where he looked self-conscious on camera. We chalk it up to opening night jitters. In the past, we’ve seen Eurovision acts with good songs miss the mark vocally in the Semis, only to come back with confidence in the Final. We’re pleased that folks saw what we know is there – a great song from a promising talent – and we’re hopeful that Belgium will attack on Saturday.

Sorry to say, but The Netherlands misfired tonight. It started off on a bad note, with an off-putting extreme close up shot through the black veil that lasted the entire first verse. They never were able to find a look for Trijntje Oosterhuis that worked. Tonight’s outfit (the third and final try) looked like a belted parachute. As for the rumored “augmented reality,” we’re not sure if they scrapped it or if the word about it was overblown. On second viewing we noticed that when they went to black light, the word “love” was written on her knuckles in fluorescent paint. Was that the augmented reality? If so, it was too subtle. And folks, there is no room for subtlety at the Eurovision Song Contest.

netherlands

During rehearsals, the Netherlands lost control of their media narrative over the challenges with wardrobe, and as they tried to salvage a package that just wasn’t working, we wonder if it all took a toll on their morale. At the end of the day, the performance lacked spark.

We thought Finland was great. PKN brought a lot of energy to the arena, and the askew camera angles accentuated that energy. They were punk, they did their thing, and they should be proud of that. Their undoing was song quality. It’s hard to argue that “Aina mun pitää” was one of the top 10 songs in this Semi. We may have picked them to go through, but we’re not necessarily disappointed that they didn’t.

Greece was up after the break. Maria Elena Kyriakou was in fine voice and damn, did she work that mic stand. Am I right, boys? But the real star of the Greek staging was the wind machine. Trust Greece to take a simple, clichéd staging trope and remind us how effective it can be. We’ve prepared a chart to show you how the wind machine mirrored the arc of the song:

greece wind 2015

Estonia: wow, just wow. They told us a story with a beginning, middle, and end. That’s huge. The opening lighting effect on Stig was stunning, and when the door opened up on Elina, we got chills. We hereby take back what we said about Slovenia outperforming them in the Final. It was so good, we forgot we don’t like the song.

Poor Macedonia had to follow that. By all accounts Daniel Kajmakoski seems like a lovely person, but unfortunately, this is another package that didn’t come together. Daniel’s vocals were ropey, and they didn’t mesh well with the members of Blackstreet, who were his backup singers. The choreography was toned down from rehearsals, but it still didn’t feel like a fit with the ballad.

Bojana from Serbia was our unconventional pick that went right. She seemed to have trouble with her monitor early on, but she managed to turn out the full diva vocal. We thought she did great. The disco transition got a big pop from the crowd, and she got a huge reception from the hall.

Hungary is pretty. The melody is pretty, and Boggie is pretty, and the tree is pretty, and the floor projection is pretty. And, as you know, war is bad.

Belarus was our other pick that didn’t make the cut. Uzari’s vocal was good but not flawless. He and Maimuna looked good on camera. It just wasn’t enough. If only they had given us the giant hourglass from the promo video.

Russia’s Polina Gagarina looked nervous, but after the first verse she settled in and did fine. As with Belgium, we are confident that she’ll deliver a stronger, more confident performance on Saturday.

In our predictions, we felt that Denmark’s innocent, 1960s-throwback number would be hurt by the gravitas of the songs that surrounded them in the draw. That is exactly how it played out.

Albania was the surprise qualifier. Elhaida Dani’s performance was at best uneven, and at times it went completely off the rails. We hear she had similar problems in the jury rehearsal. However, we know that a lot of folks feel passionately about the song. It goes without saying that points are earned when people feel passionate enough to vote.

Romania was the class act of the night. In an evening where a lot of vocalists struggled, Voltaj’s Călin Goia sounded perfect. We particularly liked the floor projection effect of the children’s images underneath the suitcases that were placed on the stage.

Word from the Stadthalle is that Georgia’s Nina Sublatti has been fighting a cold. There was no sign of that tonight. Her vocals were good and her silhouette was strong. The dry ice and backlighting made her feathered shoulder pads look kinda cool instead of kinda ridiculous. Georgia also made good use of the backdrop. The camera pans out to reveal wings (similar to what Conchita did last year, yet it still somehow felt fresh) and later pulls back for a striking beauty shot of her eyes. We got ourselves a new diva.