The Little Match Girl is a show that takes its audience, places them in a pit, surrounds them with an orchestra, and refuses to throw down a rope.
Walking into the U.S. premiere of the show, I was excited, if not a little intimidated. The more than 100 musicians set to play had already began to tune their instruments as I took my seat. Looking up at the orchestra that circled us, I remember thinking this is perfect. The story of an impoverished child freezing to death in an alleyway, this is a show that should try its best to frighten those in attendance. I willingly ceded the upper ground because deep down I wanted to be trampled under foot by what I was about to hear and by the show I was about to see. Make me hurt. Make me feel the injustice in this child’s death. I was all for it. Unfortunately, I walked out feeling like the show forgot that the titular Match Girl was even a character.
Now, I want to say up front that I enjoy music that most people would describe as “not music” or just downright unpleasant. I’ll stand by Naked City’s thrash jazz or the hissing soundtrack to Eraserhead any day. Feed me that noise, and I’ll eat it up. That’s why my favorite part of The Little Match Girl was the orchestra’s ability to pull off a composition that doesn’t even pretend to approach a melody because we are beyond that. If I want to hear something catchy, I’ll turn on the radio. If I want to be challenged by a piece of music, I’ll go to shows like The Little Match Girl. The problem is that the composition that runs throughout the performance fails to connect with anything else flashed in front of the audience.
With The Little Match Girl, you could take any one of its components, separate it from the show, and it would have the same weight, the same effect. As the orchestra screeches and pops its way through the score, the audience is met with a gigantic screen that never seems to be fully utilized by the shadow puppeteers providing the visuals. Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Match Girl,” the short story on which the performance is based, clocks in at just over 1,000 words. But if you choose to see the show performed live, you’ll see these words stretched out over an hour and 45 minutes — projected line ... by line ... by line.
Little Match Girl
as was spent
you might feel something
when she dies
Instead, you only catch glimpses of the story’s protagonist as her struggle is pushed aside for the show to make some comment on the proletariat or “the system” or some other cliche nonsense that feels as if it were torn from the notebook of a high-schooler who just discovered communism. The annoying thing is that I was that kid. I should be the target audience for this production. But the show never establishes any connection between the sounds the audience hears, the words that are flashed across the screen, and the characters trapped in the story. “Love” and “Warmth” and “Cold” are meaningless when you simply see them spelled out in front of you. Language doesn’t work that way. The Little Match Girl expects you to care about a person the show never takes the time to get to know.
There is one incredible moment when the screen parts and we see a man seated behind a desk in what appears to be a cave. With the smoke and the lights, he could be God, the author of the story, or all of the above. It’s at this point you think the show is finally willing to open up its belly and reveal the inner workings of the story you’re being told, but The Little Match Girl still keeps its distance. The man speaks only in vagaries about the cave. Meanwhile the story’s true protagonist curls up by the warmth of her last flickering matchlight.
A show about the injustice of allowing a child to die in the street doesn’t really seem to care about her enough to show her face for more than a few seconds. And this is a show that spends minutes at a time showing the audience a blank screen. And when the screen does decide to light back up, it’s just line after line of text delivered at a snail’s pace. The first 20 minutes of the production are dedicated to establishing that the Match Girl doesn’t have any shoes. It goes something like this:
“She — Was Barefoot” or some equivalent is projected on the screen and slowly fades away. Then we see a silhouette of the Match Girl flash by followed by something like, “Her shoes — They were gone.” And with that, the screen darkens once more and you’ve lost five minutes of your life.
Any visual storytelling is ignored while the score takes its time to scratch and bang. But what is forgotten is that the sounds and words are mere abstractions unless you tether them to real emotions. Don’t show me the word “cold.” Make me feel a chill. Don’t tell me about loss. Give me something to love and then take it away. Yeah, these are difficult things to do, but people paid a lot of money to see this show, and I can’t ignore it just because I got in for free.
And this isn’t a situation where the show was challenging, but it pays off in the end. No, the Match Girl dies, but by that time you’re ready for it. You long for her death. The show never took the time to get to know her, so why should you care. You barely saw any of her. In the end, The Little Match Girl commits the same crime it’s trying to shine a light on. A poor child gets passed over by society and meets a grisly fate out in the cold. I wish I could have gotten to know her better. Learned what she had to live for and why she didn’t want to die. Instead all I got was static.