As I mentioned last year, my roommate gave me the most amazing idea: drop the minor I hated and take what I wanted. The class I was dying to take was German.
So far it’s wonderful. There’s a smexy Russian, some really talented voice majors, and a professor who’s tons of fun. I love languages but I was tired of French. Every class I’ve been to reminds me why I made the right choice — to do what I want as opposed to what I think I should do.
Ask a teenage girl why she wants to take a random class and the answer is stereotypically a boy. I am not a teenage girl. My far geekier answer is German musical theatre.
As much as I love a good musical, I dislike 85% of musicals. Most are too frothy and frivolous. If it weren’t for the hilarious Book of Mormon, I could honestly say I’ve disliked every non-revival Broadway musical since The Producers.
So what’s a picky theatre-lover to do? Head over to Europe. Germany and Austria produce a ton of gorgeous musicals. They have better lyrics, edgier plotting, and very original staging. And they do stuff that a lot of Broadway theaters wouldn’t touch due to the Equity hazard pay costs. Like stages that separate, rise up like the stern of a boat, twist like a demonic Tilt-a-Whirl, and allow all the actors to slide into a trap door. It’s badass.
Here is a send up to some of my favorites. They and my roommate are responsible for giving me a kick in the ass to follow my heart.
Those who are expecting something lifestyle related, just stop reading. This is pure Mimiservice.
My gateway drug was Tanz der Vampire. ‘Twas a dark and boring night when I was trawling the Phantom of the Opera forum, ranting about Emmy Rossum and cursing Joel Schumacher.
Then I saw it: a clip of a vampire musical. I clicked, intrigued. Then, “what the hell, it’s in German?!” Color me stupid, but it never really occurred to me there were original musicals in other languages. I just thought it was a British/American thing and other countries translated and performed them. But the music was epic even if I could not understand a word of it. After scrounging up a translated libretto I was even more smitten. After that, it was a trawl through forums to find bootlegs and cast recordings. This was in the early days of YouTube, so I had to rely on my guile and desperation. The rest is sweet procrastinator heaven.
Tanz der Vampire
Based on Roman Polanski’s vampire parody film, The Fearless Vampire Killers, Tanz is a mix of everything great in a musical — great songs, good story, fun characters, skilled dancing, comedy, romance, drama, and an intriguing darkness.
An eccentric professor and his young assistant are traveling in Transylvania, on the professor’s academic quest to track down vampires. They come to a Jewish hamlet where the assistant falls for the innkeeper’s daughter, who wants a way out of her dead-end life. Meanwhile, a vampiric count offers just that and invites her to a ball at his castle. The professor and assistant give chase and end up becoming the count’s houseguests. Things get crazy from there.
This musical originally starred Steve Barton as the vampire Count von Krolock, who was the original London/Broadway Raoul in Phantom of the Opera. It was the performance of a lifetime. Steve’s dead now but dang, what a legacy:
(I’d track down one with subtitles, except it was written by Jim Steinman so the song’s actually “Total Eclipse of the Heart”)
Tanz rocks because it’s the perfect mix of darkness, drama, and comedy. The characters are striking, the mood is a roller-coaster, and the music swings between classical beauty and rock tunes.
Oh, Broadway fans might be thinking of failed musical called Dance of the Vampires. Ignore it. That was the abomination crafted by Broadway peeps and Michael Crawford, and was mangled beyond recognition from the original.
I’m a history nerd. Elisabeth is a very historically accurate (for a musical) retelling of the life of Empress Sissi, the last legit Empress of Austria. Her hubby Franz Josef would go on to inadvertently start World War I. Sissi’s own haunted life was a virtual opera — she was gorgeous and athletic but very disordered, she helped ally Hungary with Austria but despised politics, and she was always losing her relatives (including her son).
In the musical, Death is personified as a handsome young man who falls in love with her. When she marries the Emperor, Death gets pissy and stays by her side, making mischief in the crumbling empire.
Elisabeth has it all: powerful characters, a riveting story, and some beautiful songs. It’s a love story, but a weird one. Despite the personification of Death, it’s actually a very skillful historical drama, and portrayed Sissi very fairly — both as the beautiful girl forced into a world she hated, and the selfish woman who pushed away all who loved her. It also looks quickly at Rudolf, her equally tragic son. In the musical he’s visited by Death and they agree Austria’s going to hell in a handbasket. Oh, and Death’s not trying to make out with Rudolf. It’s called “Kiss of Death” for a reason:
Jekyll & Hyde
Technically this is an American musical. Thing is, it sucked on Broadway (except for the lovely Robert Cuccioli). The original Houston production was fine but wow, Broadway. The music and story are melodramatic, but the craptastic lyrics and weird story changes were awful. When it went to Germany it got a facelift — Germany’s best lyricist improved the lyrics and tweaked the story so that it made sense and had real character arcs. And he upped the gore. The result is a bloody marvelous melodrama.
The story is well-known: a nice doctor tries to separate the good and evil in man. In this version, he’s engaged to a lord’s daughter and denied human testing for his experiment by her jealous suitor. He also meets a sassy call-girl who falls in love with him and gets caught up in his fate. Testing his formula on himself, he becomes Hyde, an avenging demon who slaughters the people who wronged Jekyll. It’s a really challenging, virtually double roll:
And together! This song has caused some actors to need oxygen masks after…
Der Glockner von Notre Dame
Has anyone noticed Disney’s takeover of Broadway? The Lion King is amazing and Beauty and the Beast is pretty cool, but the rest suck. Hunchback of Notre Dame got a different treatment — it got exported to Germany. Disney execs were nervous about putting it on Broadway because of its relative unpopularity; parents tend to get cranky when a kid’s movie features a rape ditty sung by the villain. Anyhoodle, the Germans rocked it. The director made a few astute changes. Esmerelda stays dead (as in the novel); Phoebus gets man-whored up; and the silly gargoyles become aspects of Quasimodo’s conflicted mind. It was beautiful and striking. Disney didn’t flip a shit, as they’d agreed to the changes, but they are still gun-shy about bringing it to Broadway. Some day, perhaps.
Rebecca is my kind of romance novel. It’s creepy as hell — a mousy girl marries a much older man who’s haunted by the death of his first wife, Rebecca. The girl feels adrift on his beautiful estate and tormented by the housekeeper who served as Rebecca’s maid. Secrets come to light and things get twisted.
The musical was a great adaptation. They captured the best quality of the book — that the most prominent character in the story is dead the whole time. This one is coming to Broadway, hopefully in April.
This is another musical that premiered on Broadway and bellyflopped. For good reason. Frank Wildhorn is a cool composer (if you don’t mind bombastic music), but he can’t find a good lyricist to save his life. His best musical was easily Scarlet Pimpernel because, guess what, he had a librettist with a brain in her head. Finally, Dracula found a home in Austria and Germany.
It’s a retelling of Dracula in the vein of Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula film. Dracula is besotted by Mina; Mina struggles between her love for her husband and her passion for the Count. It’s definitely flawed — the story doesn’t really explain why Mina and Dracula fall in love, and transitions way too abruptly from Dracula wanting to be with Mina to him wanting to die. Coppola’s film had the backstory of Mina as Vlad Dracula’s reincarnated wife, but that’s never mentioned here. Still, despite this, it’s a gorgeous if melodramatic piece. That, and the Austrian production had every hot German-singing musical theatre actor in it. Yum.
There are plenty of other musicals, but I don’t want to completely alienate all of my six readers.
Long story short, German musical theatre kicks ass. If you hate The King and I and think Broadway’s gone to hell, do yourself a favor and procure a copy of Elisabeth!