Friday, January 5, 2018

Jukebox dystopia: ‘Bat Out of Hell: the Musical’

I love Jim Steinman. I mean, I've never met the man, but I'm a diehard fan of his bombastic, excess-laden melo-dra-matic (hyphens needed) pop-rock for several decades now.

So when I heard that Steinman's long-planned Bat Out of Hell musical had finally seen the light of day and was playing in Toronto (it closes this coming Sunday), I knew I needed to see it, since there is no assurance it will ever reach Broadway. (The fact that it’s playing at the Ed Mirvish Theater, named after the owner of the much-missed “Honest Ed’s” emporium, only made the trip more essential.)

The show is a mess but a fun one. Steinman is an unrepentant master of excess, so it follows that problems with the show aren't simple miscalculations but are instead pretty sizable mistakes. The first is the book by Steinman. One must remember that Sondheim himself, the greatest living Broadway composer, has never written his own librettos — Steinman is a control freak, so he did so in Bat.

The result is a futuristic, dystopian scenario involving street kids that grow no older than 18 (one of Steinman's big dream-projects has been a Peter Pan musical), an evil yet oddly charismatic business mogul/dictator, and a star-crossed Romeo and Juliet/West Side Story romance. Add in odd supporting characters, like a “soulmate” for our hero named “Tink” (a male — and no, we didn't have to applaud to keep him alive), and you begin to see the confused, placeholder status of the storyline.

To help viewers understand the plotline, there are both mock newspapers from the city of “Obsidian” (the location of the play, a future identity for NYC) given to each audience member and introductory projected titles before the show begins. These nuggets of info are helpful but also distracting — the show inevitably boils down to “romance between rich girl and street gang leader” and “evil leader learns he'll lose his daughter if he stays evil.” The fantasy aspect — which seems to have come from two Walter Hill films (The Warriors and a film Steinman supplied songs for, Streets of Fire) is distracting and unnecessary.

The other distraction from the blissfully overwrought score is Emma Portner's choreography. She chose to go with moves that evoke the past — namely the well-remembered (but solely as kitsch) music videos of Bob Giraldi. This isn't modern dance, nor is it classical ballet or Agnes de Mille's revamp of same. It blends the moves of old MTV staples with the “hand jive” synchronized dancing from Grease, an odd choice for a harder-edged pop-rock enterprise. Here is a sample, from a person who shot scenes from the play on their phone.

And finally there is the cast. The show was first performed in London and Manchester, so the performers are primarily English. On the night I saw the show — a Wednesday in early December — stand-ins were substituting for the two main performers (the younger couple). Of these two, Georgia Carling acquitted herself nicely, but Benjamin Purkiss seemed to be struggling to stay in key during some of Steinman's extremely demanding rock anthems.

In one department, both performers did deliver (they had to — it was in the script). The lead female character, “Raven,” the 18-year-old daughter of the evil mogul, spends a good deal of the play in a teddy and other form-fitting outfits. Not to make this a sexist affair, the male lead, “Strat,” appears shirtless at every opportunity, to lend his character an Iggy/Daltrey air. This is clearly done to add a rock 'n' roll aspect to the proceedings but instead serves to distract viewers in a pleasant way during the moments of exposition.

Sharon Sexton is quite good as “Sloane,” the mogul's wife, who has to tackle the “Will you love me forever?” half of “Paradise by the Dashboard Light,” among other great songs. Her duet partner is Rob Fowler as the mogul “Falco,” a character who is supposed to be an evil prick but is in fact the most likable character in the show. Fowler's singing voice has the right combination of rock 'n' roll bravado and theatrical belting, and he is thus perfectly suited for the material.

Sexton and Fowler are involved in the one of the show's most memorable moments, a bit of stagecraft  that is memorable enough to stay with one well after the show (and needs to be “undone” by stage hands during the intermission). Falco and Sloane are at dinner when they reminisce about their first seduction — which, of course, leads to “Dashboard Light.” Their dining table slides away to reveal a car, which, as the song concludes, crashes down into the orchestra pit (which exists for this sole purpose — the rock band accompanying the singers is located backstage). Two other special effects occur later in the show, but I won't give them away here.

Suffice it to say that the production design is impressive enough to distract one from the simple-yet-still -too-dubiously-complicated plot line. The set is a dystopian landscape — composed of a tilted, Blade Runner-esque skyscraper, the teen gang's hideout, and Raven's bedroom, which achieves greater depth (and, yes evokes early MTV once more) through the use of a video camera that is used to project it onto monitors and screens (why the cameraman is visible isn't explained, but that's the least of the odd plot points).

This brings me to the show's strong suit, and the reason it exists in the first place, namely Steinman's sublime earworm tunes. Every one is an anthem of one sort or another, be it a full-out rocker or a power ballad, all ideal inclusions in a stage musical. When the performer's voice is right for the material and the backstage band is cookin', the plotline seems to disappear and Steinman's work shines in all its deeply-sincere-yet-slyly tongue-in-cheek glory.

The humor in Steinman's work is a factor missed by those who view the Meat Loaf/Steinman albums as kitsch. While Steinman aspires to take rock into the arena inhabited by one of his two heroic Richards, Richard Wagner (the other one is Little Richard), many times he's also kidding. 

In this interview in Billboard, Todd Rundgren presented the best analysis of Steinman’s music by exploring how the Bat Out of Hell album seemed to him (Todd) to be a spoof of Springsteen, whom he felt had brought rock back to Fifties iconography but took it all too seriously. Steinman, on other hand, “wove this sense of humor into the material in a way that Springsteen never did.”

The songs included here hail primarily from the three Bat Out of Hell albums, with the inclusion of the soft pop Air Supply hit “Making Love Out of Nothing at All” (a Steinman composition). The “epic” numbers are of course accorded the biggest set-pieces (and the attendant crazy fx), while the shorter ballads and pop-rock classics keep the evening moving right along (and, again, thankfully distract from the plot).

Steinman receives a degree from Amherst College (he's in the studded outfit).
Steinman's genius for crazed, sensational “melo” (as opposed to mellow) music comes through when the songs are at the forefront. It's indeed uncertain whether the show will ever reach Broadway — and, if so, whether it can catch the attention of the folks who made Rock of Ages such a long-running hit (nearly six years).

If the plotline is retooled or trimmed back, Bat Out of Hell could easily be a hit on Broadway, since the Meat Loaf/Steinman albums were always big, boisterous musicals waiting to happen. Perhaps if the piece can simply become a suite of Steinman's pop-rock classics with the barest hint of a West Side Story through-line for the characters, Bat could truly take off to hell and back.
Steinman with the original 'Bat"
women: Karla DeVito and Ellen Foley.

As video “bonuses,” here are a few choice bits of music that relate to Steinman and the show. The first is a killer monologue that he first did on his one and only solo album, Bad for Good. It is performed by "Strat" right at the opening of Bat Out of Hell: the Musical, but this particular version is the craziest. It appeared on the electronic press kit for the Original Sin album by Pandora’s Box, a group of female studio singers (including Ellen Foley), who were intended to be Steinman’s own version of another one of his fave musical acts, the Shangri-Las.

Steinman has done one of these monologues per album since the original Bat LP. They are clearly homages to, and satires of, the poetry of Jim Morrison. This piece in particular evokes Morrison’s super-arch spoken-word interlude in “The End.”

I in no way advocate or support people bringing video devices to a theater. But, since someone did, I refer you to this song as wonderfully performed in the Toronto version of Bat. One of Steinman’s great evocations of the Phil Spector school of songwriting, “You Took the Words Right Out of My Mouth (Hot Summer Night)”:

Steinman has reworked some of his songs for different purposes. Here is the original demo version of a song that appears in the Bat musical. Intended for the never-produced Batman musical, it is a grim little number called “In the Land of the Pig (the Butcher is King).” You want “melo”? You got it.

Throughout the show, one flashes on the original versions of the songs by one Marvin Lee Aday, aka Meat Loaf. Meat is an incredible performer, a rock singer of operatic range and intensity. He will always be *the* foremost interpreter of Steinman’s work.

Here he is performing one of the “epic” Steinman compositions (and one of the biggest-ever hits for both “Mr. Loaf” and Steinman), “I'd Do Anything for Love.” This is from a concert performance where Meat was in full kick-ass mode. He is the most elegant Big Man who has ever sung a rock song (and yes, Jack Black has stolen his every move for those rock “performances” he does….).

To my mind, the song below is the Steinman's finest pop-rock classic — his epic tunes are indeed what he will always be remembered for, but there’s something about this rapid-fire attack. It truly works as a spoof of Springsteen’s heartsick Americana, per Todd Rundgren’s formulation of the album (“I was a varsity tackle/and a helluva block./When I played my guitar/I made the canyons rock…”).

Pursuing the idea that sometimes other folks can alter Steinman’s material for the better, Jim is interviewed here about how Rundgren sped this song up in the studio when Steinman was sick with the flu, trying to get a standard-length rock song into the album (the irony being that the two songs played to death by the radio at the time of the album’s success were always the epic-length “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” and the snowy ballad, “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad”).

The insanely sincere lyrics, Edgar Winter’s sax, Meat’s incredible vocal, and the speed with which the damned thing is delivered make this, for me, the ultimate Steinman composition (and, needless to add, theatrical to the max).

And to close this out, I must showcase my all-time fave visualization of a Steinman song, a music video made for the Pandora’s Box album by none other than Funhouse interview subject “Unkle” Ken Russell. I can’t imagine a better combination of wonderful madmen than a fusion of Jim Steinman’s operatic rock and Ken Russell’s frenzied genius for dream imagery.

Here Unkle Ken is borrowing from himself, using the scenario from his moving segment for the film Aria (1987). The result, however, is the most gloriously delirious visualization of a Steinman tune ever — bikers, gods and goddesses (who might be aliens, or not), glitter, fire, studs, snakes, and a sacred ritual. It’s hard to ask for more than this.

It was noted somewhere that the initial idea was to produce a “video album” for the Pandora’s Box album, to be directed entirely by Ken Russell. The mind fairly reels at what we lost in the way of brilliant (and brilliantly sincere) excess.

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