Revamping a Vampire

Special Features   Revamping a Vampire Old friends and hit-making legends Elton John and Bernie Taupin discuss the process of breathing lifeblood into the vampire Lestat.
From Left: Elton John and Bernie Taupin.
From Left: Elton John and Bernie Taupin.

Even for Elton John - which is the name Reginald Kenneth Dwight chose for himself in life (Queen Elizabeth II opted for a simple, says-it-all Sir Elton) - Lestat has been pretty heavy-lifting. But that was weeks and worlds ago, he says, and this is now.

Now, avers John by phone from his home in Atlanta, the musical is ready to rise like a phoenix and make its official Palace Theatre debut, bloody but otherwise unbowed, on April 25. Even with the stakes, garlic cloves and crosses administered by critics, Lestat will arrive, having thrived more than it survived, grossing $4,315,293 - more than any show to world-premiere in San Francisco.

"Usually out of town, I was led to believe, you don't expect profits," says John's longtime lyricist Bernie Taupin, who's Broadway-debuting with Lestat. "You expect to lose money or break even, but word of mouth was so good every show pretty much sold out." Taupin is talking by phone from his ranch near Santa Barbara. (This is, after all, the 21st century - the day of the fax and conference call - light years removed from that cramped hotel room in New Haven where musicals used to be created.)

Another consideration: John is a high-octane fireball of diffuse activities all over the map, a pinball wizard in perpetual motion. He itemizes: "I have Lestat, which is my most important concern. Then, I have the question of when Billy Elliot is coming to America. [His Olivier Award-winning musical about a ballet-bound lad from England's coal mines is a London smash.] I have a sitcom pilot being shot, I'm doing an album in Atlanta, and I'm working as well [i.e., concerts in Vegas and extensive charity work]."

Rice has been John's main Main Stem staple: His previous Broadway efforts - the Disney duo The Lion King and Aida - have lyrics by Tim Rice; Lestat comes from the first three of ten novels constituting "The Vampire Chronicles" by Anne Rice ("Interview with the Vampire" in 1976, "The Vampire Lestat" in 1985 and "The Queen of the Damned" in 1988). Which is, as the first swarm of critics found, a lotta Rice to digest at once. So Linda Woolverton (book writer of Beauty and the Beast and Aida) has cut back on the dramatic starches, dropping the third novel altogether and rearranging the first two. "One thing that was criticized about the show," says Taupin, "was the fact that it was a little too . . . dense, I guess, is the word - so we've just trimmed a lot of the fat. We've streamlined and simplified. People don't realize there's a reason you go out of town. We really haven't faced anything that a lot of other shows haven't faced."

Taupin advises against conjuring up the 1994 film version of "Interview with the Vampire," which starred Tom Cruise as Lestat (now played by Hugh Panaro)."'Interview' took a lot of liberties with the book, just as we're probably taking liberties in the sense we've taken two books and flip-flopped them. The musical is very much about Lestat's journey and the people he comes in contact with - his search for salvation."

There was only one major Elton John sighting during the show's rocky ride in San Francisco, but Taupin stayed at his battle station, nose-to-grindstone. "For me, I've had to rewrite lyrics within the framework of the show to go along with the changes we made."

"Bernie's had much more work to do than I have because they're always tinkering with song lines and storylines right up to the very end," admits John, who rarely labors longer than an hour on any song. "I've always written fast, even when I've been writing Elton John records. People say, 'Y'know, you shouldn't tell people you write quickly,' and I say, 'Well, it's not that I don't have an interest in it. It's just that that's the way I write.'

"Lestat I found to be particularly draining. The songs are much longer, more complex, wordier than anything else I've ever written. Billy Elliot is a 70's pastiche and very straightforward. Here, you're writing stuff that's coming from the 19th century and its historical base as well, so you've got to get the music right. I've never done anything like this before - never - and I think, as far as writing for the stage goes, it's my finest piece of work. I just turned 59, and the creative process is still interesting to me. I still want to conquer new challenges and get better at what I do. I look at the great Broadway writers, past and present, like Stephen Sondheim, and I think, 'My God, I've an awfully long way to go,' but I'm really enjoying myself along the way."

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