Wednesday, October 31, 2018

A gothic dream team: Roman Polanski and Jim Steinman

In tribute to the finest holiday that was ever invented, I shine a spotlight on an artistic collaboration that we in the U.S. had no access to — unless you had the money for an international flight and a strong working knowledge of German.

Now not one but two fully subtitled videos of the Austrian musical Tanz Der Vampire are on YouTube. I focus on the earlier production here since it was not only recorded more professionally but it was closer to the original vision of the show, as personally directed by Roman Polanski, who co-wrote and directed the source material, the horror farce The Fearless Vampire Killers, or Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are in My Neck (1967). The show began in 1997 in Austria as directed by Polanski, but this recording of it hails from Germany in the early 2000s.

I have mixed feelings about FVR. Polanski’s farces pale beside his brilliant darkly humored pictures (like Bitter Moon). The reworking of the film for Tanz, however, is fascinating in that the stage show takes its characters and situations a bit more seriously — the result, no doubt, of the show running over an hour longer than the film.

The other reason the show is a must-see is that it finds Polanski directing a stage musical scored by the king of pop-rock melodrama, Jim Steinman. I’ve rhapsodized about Steinman before (and noted his difficulties with librettos), so I will simply note that, since we never got to see the proposed “video album” for Steinman’s girl-group project “Pandora’s Box” that would’ve been directed by “Unkle Ken” Russell, we can content ourselves with a Broadway/West End-style musical with Steinman music and Polanski visuals.

As for L’affaire Polanski and the fact that his latest film, Based on a True Story (2017), co-written with Olivier Assayas, was picked up by Sony Pictures Classics but not released in the U.S., it has to be said yet again that one *must* separate the art from the artist or one will only experience art from squeaky-clean hands – and who wants any more Spielberg-Ron Howard-Tom Hanks-Tyler Perry-Marvel movies?

As for his participation in this show, the piece was clearly undertaken with visions of Phantom box office receipts dancing in the producers’ heads. Thus the budget was clearly large enough to indulge Polanski’s gothic impulses. (As for his stage credentials, he did take time out from the cinema to costar and direct productions of Amadeus in ’81 and ’99 in Warsaw, Paris, and Milan.)

The sets are large and the cast is filled with “background vampire” singers and dancers. The key ingredient, though, is Steinman’s music, which, true to form with Jim, consists of songs that he composed for earlier projects, both musicals and pop-rock albums.

The most-heard tune in the piece is “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” which is the central vampire’s signature theme and is repeated over and over in the show. Steinman has been quoted as saying that he used the very well-known hit song as a kind of place holder for some other song to be written later. Given that the tune is the central piece of music, I doubt he threw the song in there provisionally.

There is certainly something amazing about hearing Steinman’s Wagnerian pop-rock in German. For decades now he has crafted songs that require singers with “big” voices and a solid vocal range (well… maybe not Air Supply), and his aim was always to write Broadway musicals. Hearing his music in German is a hand-in-glove fit.

Tanz was his first big-budgeted musical to become a hit (it has run in various permutations in Germany over the past 20 years). That’s a chronological distinction, since an earlier collaboration with Andrew Lloyd Webber, Whistle Down the Wind, flopped in the U.S. in ’96 but ran for several years in the West End, starting in ’98, a year after Tanz opened in Austria. Steinman’s current musical, Bat Out of Hell, is wisely being toured around the UK (where it’s done very well) and North America before a Broadway run is even considered.

Polanski, Kunze, and Steinman.
One other individual should very definitely be highlighted here. Michael Kunze wrote the libretto adapting Polanski’s film to the stage. He also wrote the German lyrics, which, as seen here (in rhyming couplets in English), confirm the show’s status as an “almost operetta,” since the dialogue is minimal and the songs drive the plot entirely. Kunze has written German lyrics for many British and American shows, has had a number of his own hit musicals in Germany, and wrote and produced the disco hit “Fly, Robin, Fly” by Silver Convention (!).

It should be noted that the very short-lived American version of the show starring Michael (“Phantom”!) Crawford had a troubled production and ultimately flopped big-time on Broadway. Steinman was initially hired as co-director, then fired, and he has never spoken well of the show, titled (rather obviously) Dance of the Vampires. By the time of the American failure, Polanski was long gone from the project.

So here is all of Tanz from its German incarnation. The YT poster has broken it into seven segments, each of which has its standout scenes and songs. Note: The lyrics seen here are indeed the English-language versions of the songs. So I have no idea if the precise original lyrics of “Total Eclipse” were sung in German, but it’s highly unlikely.

The first part has an amazing paean to garlic (tongue in cheek, of course) and the first appearance of “Total Eclipse” as the vampire’s signature song.

The second part has a very Gilbert and Sullivan-esque song sung by the professor character (played in Fearless Vampire Killers by Jack MacGowran), as well as the first big duet between the youthful sidekick of the professor and the daughter of the innkeeper (played in the film by Polanski and Sharon Tate).

The third part leads up to the famed “Jewish vampire” scene (which explains why one character looks like he’s Fagin and/or a Semitic stereotype — the initial scenes are set in a shtetl, and Polanski and his original co-scipter Gerard Brach provided a nice comedic pay-off to go with that choice of location).

The fourth part starts off with a full performance of “Total Eclipse” and the bravura vampiric nighttime fantasy “Seize the Night.” (A title so good I’d like to attribute it to Steinman, but it surely was Kunze’s contribution.)

The fifth part contains another big ensemble number — “Eternity,” performed by a host of vampires after they exit their coffins.

The sixth part is the finale (the seventh video contains the bows), leading up to the big closing number, “Dance of the Vampires.” The song is really “Tonight Is What It Means to Be Young,” an incredibly rousing Steinman song from the Walter Hill film Streets of Fire (1984). It’s a great way to end the show – kinda like Rocky Horror, but if “Time Warp” was the finale.

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