by Ken Mandelbaum
Written and directed by Roman Polanski, The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967) is an odd combination of horror film and spoof. Its humor is almost entirely visual, frequently of the slapstick variety. The picture (called Dance of the Vampires in the U.K.) has a cult following of which I am not a member. But the movie does manage to mix its jokes and chills smoothly.
In 1997, Polanski directed the Vienna premiere of Tanz der Vampire, a musical version of his film, with book and lyrics by Michael Kunze and music by Jim Steinman, the composer-lyricist of Meat Loaf's Bat Out of Hell album. The show followed the outlines of the film plot: The bumbling Professor Abronsius and his loyal if equally ineffectual young assistant, Alfred (played by Polanski), have been traveling throughout nineteenth-century Europe in search of vampires. In Transylvania, they arrive at the inn of Chagal, where Alfred is attracted to the innkeeper's daughter, Sarah. The Professor suspects the presence of the undead in the area, and, before long, he and Alfred are doing battle with local vampire Count von Krolock for Sarah's soul.
But the three-hour Vienna show, while retaining traces of the film's humor (mainly for Abronsius), was a pop-rock opera, mostly sung or at least underscored, and with the grandiosity typical of the genre. With a recycling of one of his '80s hits, "Total Eclipse of the Heart," Steinman's score embraced Gilbert and Sullivan patter song, Wagnerian opera, and hard-driving rock. But most of the big numbers were of the soaring romantic variety heard in the major pop operas of the '80s.
Tanz der Vampire moved on to Stuttgart, where it's still running. Those involved wanted to bring the show to Broadway. But they realized that most of the New York drama critics were weary of pop opera and glad its era was over. So the musical was radically altered for Broadway. The comic playwright David Ives joined Steinman and Kunze, creating a libretto with a good deal of dialogue, most of it spoofy, riddled with campy, self-aware jokes. Hired to direct and choreograph were John Rando and John Carrafa, the team who had had success with Urinetown, a tongue-in-cheek piece that had been greeted favorably by most local critics. (John Caird, of Les Miz and Jane Eyre, was first hired to co-author and direct Vampires, but got out while the getting was good.)
Still, Vampires might not have made it to Broadway without a star. Michael Crawford, forever associated with the most successful pop opera of them all, is making his first Broadway appearance in almost fifteen years as Krolock, the bloodsucker who intends to take possession of Sarah (on her eighteenth birthday, during the total eclipse of the moon, at midnight on Halloween, as the script repeatedly insists). The Krolock-Sarah-Alfred triangle has amusingly obvious similarities to the one in that other Crawford pop opera.
What no one involved seemed to realize was that the jokey new book would be at odds with the score, resulting in a show that doesn't seem to have a clue about what it wants to be. Steinman's songs are still largely high-powered anthems ("Braver Than We Are" for the young lovers, Alfred's "For Sarah," Krolock's "Confession of a Vampire"), and several of them are melodically attractive. But any merit the score once had is difficult to discern now that the songs are surrounded by a book in a wholly different style. The romantic "Total Eclipse of the Heart" is greeted with laughter on both of its appearances; surely Steinman could have avoided reviving this chestnut.
The stylistic conflict between the score and the book might not matter so much if the book were actually funny. But what was clearly intended as a hoot is utterly idiotic, with the show's new setting—"Lower Belabartòkovich, eighteen-eighty-something"—indicating the level of wit. Steinman's lyrics feature frequent false rhymes, and don't even begin to approach the ones he created for Whistle Down the Wind. ("That's why we're so well hung," sing the townspeople, sporting strings of the traditional vampire repellent, in "Garlic," one of the score's many camp collectables.)
Perhaps the most sublimely ridiculous moments in this appalling evening come in the choreography, which includes no less than two dream ballets—Alfred's "Carpe Noctem" nightmare and the ineffable "Red Boots Ballet"—complete with dance doubles for the principals and flying chorus members. The mirror dance in the number for Alfred and the Count's gay son, Herbert, was a good notion that doesn't come off. In fact, there's virtually no trace of the wit Carrafa brought to the musical staging of Urinetown.
For this over-the-top sound-and-light show, David Gallo's scenery is elaborate without ever being especially attractive. (The Vienna designs looked better.) The show's costumer, Ann Hould-Ward, may want it known that she didn't design the vampire capes that the ushers and ticket-takers at the Minskoff have been forced to wear.
As for the star, Crawford remains a commanding, confident actor-singer, but he's trading shamelessly on his Phantom role. Unlike Phantom, Vampires offers him the chance to talk at length and do broad comedy. But where Steve Barton's Vienna Krolock was allowed to be extravagant yet romantic, Crawford looks fairly ludicrous in his Liberace get-up. And because he's now "Count Giovanni von Krolock, from the Sicilian side of the family," he must also adopt a silly accent. Crawford doubles as a couple of the Count's apparent alter egos, "Madame von Krolock" and a foul-mouthed bat. (A fourth Crawford role, that of a priest, was cut during previews.) And don't even ask about the sponge jokes.
René Auberjonois manages to retain his class as the Professor. As Sarah, Mandy Gonzalez unleashes a sizable belt. Max von Essen sings admirably and projects some befuddled sweetness as factotum Alfred. Poor Ron Orbach lost out on playing Franz Liebkind in The Producers, but does gets to play Chagal; Mark Price has his moments as the servant who switches his allegiance from Chagal to Krolock.
For those who found Jekyll & Hyde too intellectually challenging, Dance of the Vampires may be just the thing. A bona fide Eurotrash bonanza, Vampires would surely have been wiser to unpack its bags in the West End or in Las Vegas. It may make one nostalgic for such hallowed Minskoff Theatre fare as Rockabye Hamlet, Got Tu Go Disco, Marilyn: An American Fable, Teddy and Alice, Tom Sawyer, Saturday Night Fever, or even Metro, the Minskoff's last foreign-language import. Needless to say, collectors will have to catch Dance of the Vampires. As the title of one of Krolock's songs puts it, a good nightmare comes so rarely. Don't forget the garlic.