Live, from Paris, It's 'Ben Hur'

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A giant stadium in Paris is transformed into Ancient Rome for a five-night run of live stage productions based on the film classic Ben Hur. A cast of hundreds will stage a spectacular battle at sea, gladiator battles and the spectacular chariot race.


William Wyler's 1959 film version of the movie Ben-Hur is considered one of the great epics of cinema. Now a French director is treating audiences in Paris to a live version. It will be staged for five nights in the biggest football stadium in France. It opened last night, and reporter Anita Elash was there.

(Soundbite of music)

ANITA ELASH: Le Stade de France is big. It holds 60,000 spectators. But you could say this production of Ben-Hur is even bigger.

(Soundbite of music)

ELASH: It cost more than $16 million to produce. There are more than 300 actors, and the action takes place across the entire surface of the soccer field, which is about the same size as the arenas of ancient Rome. There's a parade of Roman legionnaires, a gladiator fight, and even a sea battle between a Roman armada and pirates.

(Soundbite of performance)

ELASH: And then there's the piece de resistance...

(Soundbite of trumpets)

ELASH: The moment when Judah Ben-Hur gets his revenge by facing his childhood friend and long-time rival, Messala, in a chariot race. This is the scene everyone remembers from the Oscar-winning film. It's been panned and imitated, but never has anyone dare to reproduce it live on stage.

(Soundbite of performance)

ELASH: The stunt features 24 horses galloping around the stadium at 30 miles an hour. It's taken nine months to train them. They have to know exactly where to start and stop, and how to avoid each other so that they and the charioteers don't get hurt. It's exactly the sort of thing audiences have come to expect from Robert Hossein. He's been directing what the French call conspectate, staged in sports arenas since the 1970s.

Most critics don't bother to see his shows anymore. They say they're too predictable. But Hossein is hugely popular among the common folk in France and always draws and enormous crowd. For Ben-Hur, Hossein has sold 260,000 seats for five performances.

Arlete Frazier(ph), who writes for the entertainment magazine Pariscope, is one critic who remains a fan.

Ms. ARLETE FRAZIER (Pariscope): (Through translator) He is fascinating because he has all these ideas. And you think his ideas are crazy. But in the end he always manages to pull them off.

ELASH: Frazier says Hossein succeeds because he satisfies spectators' taste for the grandiose and because he makes them feel like they're part of the action. In his production of Marie Antoinette, people could vote on the queen's future. In Ben-Hur, everyone is assigned a team during the gladiator fight. If their team is victorious, they win a diploma.

Ms. FRAZIER: (Through translator) People love to participate in this sort of thing. They feel like they are actors in the play. Actually, it's not a play, it's an event. And I think that gives them an enormous amount of pleasure.

ELASH: Frazier describes many of Hossein's productions as the dreams of a child. And for Hossein, that's exactly what Ben-Hur is. He first saw the movie when he was 12 years old.

Mr. ROBERT HOSSEIN (Director): (Through translator) When I was a child, me and my pals would sneak into films. It was our only way to dream, to disappear, to identify with something. We saw Cleopatra, Robin Hood and all the fantastic films of my youth. And one morning with my pals we saw the silent version of Ben-Hur. We were ecstatic, and I said one day I will stage Ben-Hur.

(Soundbite of music)

ELASH: Hossein is now 78 years old and he says he feels humble that he has finally managed to realize his dream. He says the story has a new meaning for him, since he believes its message of justice and redemption applies just as much to the 21st century. Last night, 50,000 spectators at the State de France heard that message in a most spectacular way.

For NPR News I'm Anita Elash in Paris.

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