A 60-year-old man with pure blue eyes, curly gray hair and the squeaky-clean manners of a timid British schoolboy stands before an assembly of singers and dancers who'll soon be supporting him in a spectacular Broadway show. Here, in the hush of this 42nd Street rehearsal hall, he's meeting these performers for the first time, and they're waiting to hear him sing "Confession of a Vampire," the exceedingly difficult song designed to bring Dance of the Vampires to a shattering climax. And he's scared sick.
"I was so terrified, the sweat was pouring off me," recalls Michael Crawford, whose last Broadway gig, The Phantom of the Opera, kept him sweating, if not terrified, for over nine months of sold-out performances. "I think anybody would feel the way I did. You'd have to be extremely arrogant to stand up in front of 35 incredibly talented people and think, 'Hey, pay attention, now, I'm going to sing to you.'"
With the bundle he's made from Phantom, his concerts and platinum records, there was no need for the admittedly shy actor-singer to ever again experience the trauma of a Broadway opening night. Still, the thought of putting a rock-operatic spin on Roman Polanski's The Fearless Vampire Killers was irresistible. Especially when the creative team in charge of the New York makeover included director John Rando and choreographer John Carrafa, the men behind the splash of Urinetown, and composer-lyricist Jim Steinman, whose records — with Meat Loaf, Boyzone and other pop deities — have sold over 100 million copies. But Crawford must have been a bit reluctant to risk comparisons between his fleshing-out of Count Von Krolock, a fanged predator lusting after an 18-year-old virgin, and his Tony Award-winning performance as the disfigured madman obsessed with a Parisian songbird.
"Von Krolock just happens to be another dark character," says the amiable Brit during a lunch break at the rehearsal hall. "But you're right, the character was far too similar to Phantom for me to play it as it was played in the German production. We've made him a much more chameleonlike character, a kind of multifaceted personality, while retaining the basic thing about him, which is that he is a killer. In building this character, I had to go on a journey, I had to think how does this music fit with this character? So I started at the end with 'Soliloquy' [later renamed 'Confession of a Vampire'], which is the big, long song about Von Krolock's life, about how he first became a vampire, about his first experience, and about how nothing would ever stop him. He was going to be eternal, and his appetite had to be fulfilled in order for him to survive."
That's where his sex scene with Sarah (Mandy Gonzalez) and their love song — the only song not written expressly for this show, Steinman's rock fave "Total Eclipse of the Heart" [renamed "Vampires in Love (Total Eclipse of the Heart)" for Dance] — come in. "I'm reeling her in, as a fisherman would say, but you know it's going to end in tears. For someone. She's the perfect girl who will be 18 on the night of the total eclipse, and she has to come to me willingly. So I have to make myself very attractive. In a way, I'm a bit of an old rock and roller, rather than the conventional Romanian count. You know, it's quite a sexy show. But there's a difference between sexiness and pornography. You want your audience to be stimulated by what they see and titillated by what they see, but you don't want them to be repulsed by what they see. I never want to upset an audience."
The truth is that Crawford, an occasional movie star, wants nothing more than to continue his passionate love affair with live audiences, particularly Broadway audiences. "I'm a theatre animal. I love Broadway. It sounds corny, but I'm truly excited to be back here," says Crawford, who's been helping to shape this show for more than a year.
"I think I was one of the only people in the air on September 13 last year. I cadged a lift from L.A. on a private jet with a diplomat. And the skies were empty as I flew into New York that night. What I saw reminded me of what I had seen as a three-year-old in London during the last year of World War II. It's an image and a vision and a memory that has never left me. And unless you were here in New York to see those terrible images, you didn't realize the enormity of it. I feel so much a part of this community now. Broadway was kicked in the guts and brought to its knees. But life is flowing back into the city, blood is coming through the veins again, and we've got a heck of a season coming up. It's going to be a very exciting year."
—By Guy Flatley