‘Heidi’ returns to the mountains

Associated Press

The massive mountains towering over Walenstadt inspired Johanna Spyri to create the beloved tale of Heidi and her life in the Swiss Alps.

Now, 125 years after the children’s classic was first published, a group of London and Swiss producers is staging “Heidi” in a new outdoors musical.

After numerous cartoons, TV series and some 18 films, the latest of which stars Heidi as a modern skateboarding hipster, the new musical aims to be more authentic, weaving together the life of Spyri, Switzerland’s best-known woman, with that of her fictional Alpine heroine.

It was near Walenstadt that Spyri spent most summers during childhood. People who lived in and around the village were the basis of her characters.


The producers found a spot on the nearby lakeshore to build their stage, with the Alps as a natural backdrop. The tinkling of cowbells and the aroma of manure fill the air. Songs are accompanied by traditional Swiss folk instruments such as spoons, horns and Schwyzeroergeli, a type of Swiss accordion.

“Heidi has been cliched to death, and the notion of getting the dust off really got me going,” says John Havu, the American Swiss producer of the $4.2-million show. “So far, all the takes on Heidi are either cynical, aimed at children, or set Heidi in a different era. But we wanted to go back to the roots and no longer sugarcoat things.”

Even Heidi and her grandfather, Alpoehi, are authentic: True to Spyri’s original, Heidi has dark brown, curly hair -- instead of the widely portrayed blond braids. And Grandfather, we learn, turned into a grumpy old hermit after fighting as a mercenary.

In Spyri’s story, which she wrote for her son, the orphan Heidi is taken to live with her grandfather in an Alpine dairy cabin, where she befriends the poor goatherd Peter. Just as her grandfather starts to open up and grow protective, Heidi is sent to a rich household in Frankfurt, Germany, to be a companion to wheelchair-bound Clara. But Heidi is very unhappy, yearning for her grandfather and the Alps.


The revolving stage allows the director to juxtapose the Alpine idyll with the Sesemanns’ Frankfurt city home.

“Heidi was Spyri’s fantasy child, her alter ego,” says Sabi Schaedler, 21, who plays Heidi in the musical and who fondly recalls listening to records of the story as a child.

Creating Heidi allowed Spyri to escape her dull and often sad life. Trapped in an unhappy marriage with too many social obligations, Spyri was depressed following the birth of her son.

But she recovered and doted on her son, Bernhard Diethelm. Once grown, the son fell ill with tuberculosis. As she sat by his bedside, he made her promise to write down the story. Before he died at age 28, he was able to see the story in print before it went on to become a world bestseller, with more than 50 million copies.


Spyri then struggled with more intense loneliness, living another 17 years before she died in 1901.

Havu says he wanted to improve people’s understanding of Spyri, often seen in an unsympathetic way, as well as the main characters of her Heidi novels.

“You always see pictures of Spyri portrayed as a sinister-looking elderly woman clad in black,” says Sue Mathys, who plays Spyri in the musical. “In reality, she really was a very sensual woman who was left alone by her husband too often and then had to cope with her son’s death.”

“What I love most is the scenes when Heidi meets Spyri,” Schaedler says, citing the scene in which the homesick Heidi climbs Frankfurt’s highest church tower to search for the mountains. In the musical, Spyri then encourages Heidi to imagine the mountains to ease her pain.


The director says he enjoyed digging out Heidi’s roots and finding insights into modern life, such as Doerfli, the little village below Grandfather’s Alpine dairy cabin that could represent the hometown that many Swiss cherish.

“For the Swiss, the issue of belonging to a certain ‘Gemeinde’ [home village] is very important -- you just cannot take the mountains out of the Swiss,” Havu says.

Finding one’s roots is more relevant than ever, Havu believes. “Everybody yearns for a real home,” he says. “And once they find that anchor, many people want to go back.”

That does not keep Havu from dreaming, and he is already thinking of taking the musical to the United States -- or Japan, where every child knows the story of Heidi.


Shaun McKenna (who co-authored the book and lyrics for a stage version of “The Lord of the Rings” opening next March in Toronto) wrote the text and lyrics in English. Stephen Keeling, who has composed the music for several productions at London’s West End, wrote the music. The lyrics have been translated into High German and Swiss-German dialect for the Walenstadt show, which closes Sept. 3.