Monday, July 21, director Roman Polanski, the cast and creative team gathered for the start of rehearsals for a musical spoof on vampire killers, Tanz der Vampire or Dance of the Vampires. The $7 million musical is based on a 1967 film Polanski directed and co-starred in with his wife, the late Sharon Tate.
The stage musical, which will premiere Oct. 4 at Vienna's 1,215-seat Raimund Theatre, has music by rock composer Jim Steinman, who was lyricist to Andrew Lloyd Webber on the aborted American production of Whistle Down the Wind. Book and lyrics are by Michael Kunze, a well-known international writer and lyricist, foreign language adaptor (he is the preferred collaborator of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Stephen Sondheim) and TV writer. In addition to numerous Gold and Platinum record awards and Grammys for his songs, Kunze wrote the 1992 musical Elisabeth (about Empress Elisabeth of Austria), still a hit in Vienna. It's also played Tokyo and Budapest.
Steve Barton, a Texan with a long roster of roles in European, stars as Graf von Krolock. He's best known on Broadway for creating the role of Vicomte Raoul in the original cast of The Phantom of the Opera, in which he went on to play the title role. Until the end of June (1997), Barton had starred for two years in Vienna in Beauty and the Beast.
Other leads in the musical, which is set at the end of the 19th Century, are: Aris Sas as Alfred; Cornelia Zenz as Sarah, the part played on film by Tate; and Gernot Kranner as Professor Abronsius.
"This is a project that I've wanted to do for years," said Polanski. "It's taken four years to put together our team, but I must say that Rudi Klausnitzer, the artistic director of the VBW (Vereinigte Buhnen Wien or United Stages of Vienna) and the co-producer, Andrew Braunsberg, a former partner of mine who produced some of my films, have put it together efficiently." This is Polanski's first stage musical. "But I have directed operas (Rigoletto at Munich Opera; Lulu at Italy's Spoleto Festival), plays and plays with lots of music, Amadeus, Master Class."
He first did Amadeus in 1981 in his native Poland, where he also starred in it. He revived the production, two years later in Paris (as director). In 1988, he created the lead role in Stephen Berkoff's Paris stage adaptation of Kafka's Metamorphosis. In 1996, in Paris he directed film star Fanny Ardant in Terrence McNally's Master Class.
For the new musical, Polanski is surrounded by veteran theatre artists. "It's a multi-national project," Polanski laughed. "We have an American composer, a German lyricist and book writer; an American choreographer, Dennis Callahan; a creative team from England; dancers from Europe and the States; and a Polish director who speaks French, German, and English."
Set design is by William Dudley with costumes by Sue Blane. Hugh Vanstone is designing lighting.
Steinman said, "I don't speak German and won't have a clue to what they're singing, but working on this in Vienna is a great adventure. For me, Vienna's always been the music capital of the world. I grew up listening to opera recordings conducted by Solti, Von Karajan, or Bohm with the Vienna Philharmonic, which was the greatest orchestra in the universe. My music world was the Beatles and the Vienna Philharmonic."
Polanski and Steinman said the musical is basically completed. "There are still bits and pieces to work on," said Polanski. "The main songs are done," Steinman added.
The composer is best known for his work with Meat Loaf ("Bat Out of Hell," "Dead Ringer") and his hits for Celine Dion ("Falling Into You"), Bonnie Tyler ("Faster Than the Second Speed of Night") and Air Supply ("Making Love Out of Nothing At All").
Polanski, 64, who lives in Paris, made his acting debut in Poland at 14, then worked on radio. At 19, he appeared in his first film there. From 1985 to 1962, he interrupted his acting career to direct shorts. He went on to direct classics in the thriller genre.
"I loved directing," Polanski said, "but I missed acting. In 1967, in London when we were planning The Fearless Vampire Killers or Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are In My Neck [which Polanski wrote with frequent collaborator Gerard Brach] someone suggested it would be great for me to be in the film with Sharon."
MGM picked up the film for distribution in the U.S. "and that's when my nightmare began," said Polanski. "Marty Ransohoff, who ran the studio, hated it or didn't understand it or both. He wanted me to re-edit and I refused. They butchered it by cutting 20 minutes. He had an animated section added to the beginning to explain all about vampires. After the chopping they gave it, the film was impossible to understand. It was massacred. My cut was never shown in U.S. theatres."
In the book The MGM Story, the film was described as an unsubtle "whoop-de-do" at which "some audiences fell about laughing, others seemed ready to drive a stake through the movie's heart."
The film bombed at the box-office; ironically, in spite of some good reviews. "It was a huge, terrible blow," said Polanksi. "Thankfully, I had control of the cut for this hemisphere (Europe). Here we called it Dance of the Vampires and it became one of my most successful films. In fact, it's my real claim to fame in Europe." His cut recently became available in the U.S. on laser disc.
Polanski says he moves well in several languages. He recalled that the first draft of Fearless Vampire Killers... was written in French, "but Gerard (Brach) and I did the screenplay in English."
For the musical, Kunze wrote the book and lyrics in English, then Steinman composed the music. Next Kunze translated it into German.
When did he get the idea to bring it to the stage and add music? "I haven't added. It's a different adventure altogether. Stage is stage and you cannot simply turn a movie into a play. You start anew. You can base the stage play on the idea of the motion picture, but you have to translate onto the stage what was efficient in the language of the screen."
As he begins the directing process, Polanski said, "I'm still trying to find the equivalent in theatrical language that expresses the ideas of the film. We had to develop the characters and the dialogue between them, which then was turned into lyrics and music. When I work in film, I concentrate on action and reduce the dialogue."
Polanski won the Critics Prize at the 1962 Venice Film Festival for his feature directorial debut, Knife in the Water (a cult classic). It was nominated for an Oscar as Best Foreign Film. He made his English-language directorial debut with 1964's Repulsion, starring Catherine Deneuve.
In 1977 Polanski became involved in a scandal, charged with having sex with a pre-adolescent, and fled the U.S., which still considers him a fugitive. He's worked in Europe since. In 1989, Polanski married Emmanuelle Seigner, who co starred with Harrison Ford in the director's 1988 Franctic. His last film was 1994's adaptation of Ariel Dorfman's three-character play Death and the Maiden.
Besides his pop catalog, Steinman has composed scores for an occasional film, such as Footloose. "But most of what the public knows about me is my rock 'n' roll or pop material," he said. "I grew up listening to classical and rock. I was delighted when the Los Angeles Times critic described me as the 'Richard Wagner of rock.' From the time I was five, Wagner was my hero."
Steinman said one of the reasons he's thrilled to be involved with Dance of the Vampires "is that I'm a big fan of horror movies, especially those about vampires. I worked on a musical version of Nosferatu (F.W. Murnau's German silent film), which I consider the greatest vampire movie ever. I always thought vampires were the perfect subject for a musical or opera."
He adds, "Did I mention I've often suspected I'm a vampire?" What? "Unless I absolutely have to do something during the day," he laughs, "my normal sleep time is always during daylight."
Steinman says he's a huge Polanski fan. "I saw Fearless Vampire Killers... when it came out. I loved Chinatown. Repulsion and Rosemary's Baby are easily two of the most brilliant, stylish, innovative, and stunningly realized horror films made."
The composer, in his mid-40s, said that once introduced to musical theatre, he saw and heard everything he could from Gilbert & Sullivan to Porter, Gershwin, Rodgers & Hammerstein and Lerner & Loewe. "I was a rock 'n' roll fanatic, but I loved going to opera and theatre. And, naturally, I've been influenced by my idols."
Steinman feels that opera, classical music, rock 'n' roll and stage music are all the same. "It's all art, all theatre, all show business, all music. In the end there shouldn't be boundaries, fences, labels or limits. It should be obvious to any enlightened person that it's valid to place Salome next to West Side Story next to 'Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.' They all serve the same function, to amplify and clarify existence. They inspire and make the heart beat faster. And the soul richer!"
The run of Dance of the Vampires at Vienna's Raimund Theatre will be open-ended. Polanski said, "If it's successful, we will certainly want to bring it everywhere."
Will that include New York? "I should hope so. London, Paris, New York." If the musical comes to Broadway, will he be able to come to the States? "You know my situation," he replied. "It hasn't changed."