Ken Mandelbaum's MUSICALS ON DISC: Sounds From Abroad

Ken Mandelbaum's MUSICALS ON DISC: Sounds From Abroad TANZ DER VAMPIRE (Polydor)
An interesting musical theatre development of the last decade has been the emergence of a number of very successful European musicals that are for the most part unknown and unseen in English-speaking countries. Inspired by the international success of the pop operas from London, and, to one degree or another, very much in their mold, such shows as Gaudi and The Gambler in Germany, Kristina Fran Duvemala (by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus of ABBA and Chess) in Sweden, Dracula in Prague, and Joe in Holland have all won acclaim. The king of this genre has to be Elisabeth, about the Empress of Austria, and in Harry Kupfer's spectacular staging soon to wind up a six-year run in Vienna. Elisabeth has also enjoyed success in Japan, Hungary, and Germany, and has numerous cast recordings and videos, but has yet to have an English-language staging, although a couple of its big songs have been recorded in English.
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TANZ DER VAMPIRE (Polydor)
An interesting musical theatre development of the last decade has been the emergence of a number of very successful European musicals that are for the most part unknown and unseen in English-speaking countries. Inspired by the international success of the pop operas from London, and, to one degree or another, very much in their mold, such shows as Gaudi and The Gambler in Germany, Kristina Fran Duvemala (by Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus of ABBA and Chess) in Sweden, Dracula in Prague, and Joe in Holland have all won acclaim. The king of this genre has to be Elisabeth, about the Empress of Austria, and in Harry Kupfer's spectacular staging soon to wind up a six-year run in Vienna. Elisabeth has also enjoyed success in Japan, Hungary, and Germany, and has numerous cast recordings and videos, but has yet to have an English-language staging, although a couple of its big songs have been recorded in English.

The librettist of Elisabeth, Michael Kunze, also responsible for very fine German translations of most of the major international pop operas, is the lyricist-librettist of the Vienna hit Tanz Der Vampire; based on Roman Polanski's cult film The Fearless Vampire Killers, the elaborate show, which has been running at the Raimund Theater for six months, has music by American Jim Steinman (also the lyricist of Whistle Down The Wind), and is directed by Polanski.

The TV clips I've seen of Vampire (these musicals, especially the ones in Germany and Austria, invariably have accompanying documentaries and extensive media coverage) make it clear that the production is elaborate and handsome. In the star part of Count von Krolock is American Steve Barton, the original Raoul in the London and New York The Phantom of the Opera; while he later took on the title role and was also seen on Broadway in The Red Shoes, he is a bigger name in Vienna, where he was in the original, very hot 1983 company of Cats which also included future stars Ute Lemper and Angelika Milster, and recently played the lead in Beauty and the Beast.

My knowledge of German is extremely limited, but then how many of the recent pop operas aren't just as enjoyable in a foreign language? These are music- driven pieces, and Vampires is very much in that mode. Its score is an unusual mixture of the sounds of opera, operetta, pop, and pop opera. The more romantic or traditional numbers (especially young hero Aris Sas' "Fur Sarah," and some effective patter material) are more attractive than the pop ones; a couple of Barton's big, bombastic numbers are disappointing. But this is an enjoyable score overall, recommended to those whose interest in the contemporary pop opera cycle extends beyond Phantom, Les Miz, or Miss Saigon.

Steinman has been criticized for recycling one of his hits, "Total Eclipse of the Heart," as a principal Vampire theme; not being familiar with the melody until now, I don't mind the inclusion. More curious to me is that a major number is reminiscent of "The Imposters," the strong choral number from Martin Guerre. But the 79-minute CD, lushly orchestrated and produced, is worth hearing. No doubt Vampire will make it to other countries, but will it ever be sung in English?


MADDIE (Dress Circle)
In the last year, London has seen more than its share of short-lived musicals, but just about all of them have been recorded. Always, Stepping Out, The Fix, The Goodbye Girl--it would seem that no matter how big they flop, they get preserved. Broadway's recent Triumph of Love received an almost My Fair Lady-like critical reception in comparison to those West End titles, yet it went unrecorded. But we now have in hand the London cast recording of Maddie, which was almost universally panned and tanked at the Lyric Theatre in November after a run of about six weeks. Maddie, about a young wife in 1981 San Francisco possessed by the spirit of a madcap showgirl who was killed in the '20s before she could fulfill her dream of stardom, was based on a novel by Jack Finney that was also the basis for the Glenn Close- Mandy Patinkin film comedy Maxie. (Note that another Finney novel, Time and Again, was the basis for the musical that folded prior to Broadway at the Old Globe Theater in 1996).

An unknown American named Summer Rognlie (who just prior to Maddie had a small role in the Royal National Theater's Lady in the Dark) played the wife, opposite the unlucky Graham Bickley, who has taken over leads in the London Phantom, Les Miz, Saigon, and Sunset, but has created them in Metropolis, Which Witch, and now Maddie. The supporting leads were the talented Kevin Colson ( Cabaret, Aspects of Love) and Lynda Baron ( Little Me, Follies).

The Sondheim-influenced score by Stephen Keeling (music) and Shaun McKenna (lyrics) sounds like a mediocre student assignment, dutiful but by-the- numbers, and full of second-hand musical theatre ideas and clunky lyrics. It's hard to figure out why anyone thought that after a regional production, the pint-size, lame Maddie would make it in the West End. And surely a young British singer-actress could have done as well as the unprepossessing Rognlie.

Dumb as it is, the Always score is a lot more fun. The Maddie album is, I believe, the first full-fledged West End cast recording from Dress Circle, otherwise known as the great London musical theatre collector's shop. The Dress Circle label has also recorded a recent cabaret appearance by the rather extraordinary Australian singer Judi Connelli, and I hope to see it preserve many better shows than Maddie.

-- You can contact me at kenmanbway@aol.com