‘Gayer than Strait Street’ | Sean Buhagiar

Director Sean Buhagiar speaks about the upcoming cabaret bonanza Balzunetta Towers, penned by Alfred Sant with lyrics by Albert Marshall and featuring an eclectic selection of local performers who will seek to reconstruct the history of the Balzunetta area – known as ‘Strait Street’s naughtier, gayer sister’ 

Sean Buhagiar: “The story is political. It attacks the high-rise mentality and the complete disregard of the environment
Sean Buhagiar: “The story is political. It attacks the high-rise mentality and the complete disregard of the environment

What was the initial spark for Balzunetta Towers, and how did you set about choosing and assembling the necessary talent to bring it to life?

Balzunetta Towers started off an artist’s dream. It is an example of what I like to call an artist-led project. Dominic Galea, a composer and musician who commands my admiration, was born and bred in Balzunetta. He pitched the idea to create a musical tribute to the area which was known as Strait Street’s naughtier sister. My heart started beating at his same tempo...

When the Valletta 2018 Foundation and the Malta Arts Festival came on board, we we set out to create a spectacle. What better than a cabaret to celebrate bars, female impersonators, acrobats, and musicians of the time? We got some of our best actors, singers and dancers on board along with a great creative team. This is the largest show I’ve ever produced and it’s exciting to be working with so many talented people. Cabaret gives you the opportunity to work with so many different artists, from a university professor choreographing the dancers (though she started out as a cabaret dancer!) to a very talented mask artist from the lovely Għaxaq carnival. There are many more to mention, but let’s leave it at that for now.

What do you think makes the Balzunetta area particularly important and compelling as a subject for a production such as this one? 

This cabaret is not about a story, but about stories. As I already hinted at, Dominic wanted to create a tribute to the stories of a place with a fascinating yet very much hidden history.  

There were various reasons why Balzunetta’s stories took a back seat when compared to Strait Street. One reason was known to be very gay, or at least gayer than Strait Street. Our researchers unearthed posters where you could see daily shows by drag artistes and international and local female impersonators. In fact it is great to be doing Balzunetta Towers when Malta is on the forefront of LGBTIQ rights. 

The location was also very controversial. Balzunetta – a red light district – was bang in the middle of the Church’s Seminary, the Police Depot and the Army Barracks. In terms of the international clients, Balzunetta was to British soldiers what Strait Street was to the Royal Navy. Strait Street was closer to the sea, while Balzunetta was closer to the Barracks. You can imagine the stories. 

Moreover, it is arguably an area where Maltese jazz was born. Most of the frontrunners of our musical scene of yesteryear started in places like Strait Street and Balzunetta. International renowned musicians played with our local youngsters who later became frontronners of our musical scene – people like Dominic’s father – Sammy Galea and Il-Murgu.

Part of the large cast of Balzunetta Towers. Buhagiar: “This is a truly ‘artist-led’ project”
Part of the large cast of Balzunetta Towers. Buhagiar: “This is a truly ‘artist-led’ project”

The production will also have a clearly nostalgic feel to it. How do you avoid the pitfalls of cliché and sentimentality when dealing with something so nostalgic?

I think we did that already, no? The easiest thing to do was produce a re-enactment of the bars of Balzunetta on the style of many Strait Street tributes, maybe with a romance somewhere in the plot and a cheesy title. It would have been an easy sell. However the satirical cabaret with a contemporary twist element already helps avoid the pitfalls you mention – not that there is anything wrong with a cheesy story every now and then – however we wanted to create something different as we felt that there were already many such treatments. And Alfred Sant doesn’t really do cheesy – that’s why we were delighted when he accepted to be part of the team. 

Sant is a satirical maestro: his use of the Maltese language, coupled with Albert Marshall’s tongue in cheek lyrics have provided us with a controversial commentary of society. The story is very political. It attacks the high-rise mentality and the complete disregard of the environment. It highlights the power of the business class over politics and also delves into the immigration issue. It is a take on what could have been just a mere re-enactment.

The story unfolds as an international businessman and son of the American President –  Donald Trump Junior – makes a deal with a local contractor to build a high rise tower near Valletta and they earmark the Balzunetta area. They set off to buy the Curia and the Police Headquarters but find it hard to buy off the last barmaid of Balzunetta, who does not want to sell because of the memories tied to the area. Even though it is funny it is beautifully scored, and it is also provides for much food for thought. 

Albeit, it’s cabaret so most of all it’s fun, big and loud. 

You have previously expressed concern about the possibility of Valletta’s celebration of its Capital of Culture title in 2018 being disrupted by the general elections. Since last month’s snap election quashed that concern, are you now looking forward to a ‘serene’ capital of culture free from all political ‘noise’, and how do you hope Balzunetta Towers can contribute to that?

I don’t think art need necessarily be serene. It can also be noisy, and political. My concern was not with serenity, it was two-fold. The first one was logistical – we are a small island – professional suppliers, venues and workforce are limited. I believe the sector would have found it hard to cope with ECOC and General Elections at this same time – therefore events would possibly suffer in terms of quality. The second concern was the audiences. We are working very hard to improve audiences and to show that arts and culture can be a need, a means to the betterment and wellbeing of society. I believe audiences could have been focused on other matters, speaking about politics and experience the partisan political divide, which I believe is still present. More than contribute, I think Balzunetta uses this.  It has political satire for those still soaking in the political atmosphere and comedy, music and dance for those who want to soak in the summer, cabaret atmosphere. All this while celebrating part of Malta’s history.

Balzunetta Towers will be staged at Pjazza Teatru Rjal from July 11 to 16 at 21:00. The cast includes Davide Tucci, Chris Dingli, Ozzy Linoi, Doreen Galea, Mariele Zammit, Justin Galea, Josef Camileri, Antonella Axisa, Gilbert Formosa, Marilu’ Vella, Christine Francalanza, Frank Tanti, Alison Abela, Sean Borg and others. The production forms part of the Malta International Arts Festival. Bookings: http://www.balzunettatowers.com/