fangs for the memories
It probably comes as no surprise to those who know me that the piece that finally won my heart is a musical, but the fact that a French musical won my heart surprised even me. (I haven't been the biggest fan of French theater while we've been here—check out this post to find out why...)
The piece that has set my heart on fire is none other than "Le Bal des Vampires," a campy rock musical directed by Roman Polanski (yes, that Roman Polanski) based on Polanski's 1967 film of the same name (called "The Fearless Vampire Killers" in the U.S.). As you might imagine, the show is full of blood, outlandish makeup, smoldering looks, mild raunch and a score that blows your hair back. (The music was written by Jim Steinman and Michael Kunze.)
What makes the musical such a riot is that it manages to walk that fine line between ridiculous and realistic (well, as realistic as a musical about an undead vampire capturing a young woman and turning her and her faithful companion into undead vampires at a fabulous undead ball can be). The acting is outsized but not clownish. The costumes are miraculous but functional. The sets are so lavish that Joshua and I leaned over to each other at nearly the same time to say, "They must have so. much. money." And the music. Ah, the music.
One of the ballads that gets many, many reprises in the show made my ears perk up with recognition from the very opening strains. That sounds like—exactly like—no, it is "Total Eclipse of the Heart." With new words. My brain raced with questions: How did they get the rights to rewrite such an iconic rock ballad? Why would they have wanted to incorporate such a well-known piece of music into such a different context? Why this song, when the canon of rock ballads is thick with classics? Were there other repurposed songs in the score that I just hadn't recognized?
By the fourth time the song was being sung—by a cast of incredibly strong and versatile vocalists, I must add—I figured that there had to be more to the story, so I Googled the heck out of the show when I got home. Lo! and behold, composer Jim Steinman not only poached the song, he poached it from the best source I can imagine: himself. He's an American composer and lyricist who's written tons of songs for Meat Loaf, Barry Manilow, Air Supply, Celine Dion...and Bonnie Tyler, famed for her rendition of Steinman's song "Total Eclipse of the Heart."
What I found upon even more digging further enchanted me: Steinman had originally written the song to be a kind of vampire love ballad in the first place. When interviewed about the song's inclusion in the musical, he said, "That was an accident almost. I'm surprised it stayed in. [For the original production] in Vienna, I had only a month and a half to write this whole show and we needed a big love duet...But with Total Eclipse of the Heart, I was trying to come up with a love song and I remembered I actually wrote that to be a vampire love song. Its original title was Vampires in Love because I was working on a musical of Nosferatu, the other great vampire story. If anyone listens to the lyrics, they're really like vampire lines. It's all about the darkness, the power of darkness and love's place in dark. And so I figured 'Who's ever going to know; it's Vienna!' And then it was just hard to take it out."
The show is chock-full of other Steinman melodies, if not lyrics (those were done by German writer Kunze, who signed on to turn the Polanksi film into a German-langauge musical in its first incarnation as "Tanz der Vampire," which premiered in Vienna in 1997). Somehow, the fact that the show is based on a foundation of modern rock songs rewritten to fit late-19th-century Eastern Europe makes me love it even more.
For those American musical theater lovers, you may be wondering (as I did) why this weird little bloodthirsty gem hasn't made it stateside yet. Well...it has, but the mounting of the Broadway production was so full of creative cock-ups, actor meltdowns, rewriting nightmares and producing snafus that it only ran for 56 performances before closing on January 25, 2003—becoming one of the "costliest failures in Broadway history," according to The New York Times.
There were no such problems in Paris, however, especially considering Polanski was allowed to direct the show, something he was not allowed to do in America. (Polanksi is nationalized French and was born in Paris, but he's worked all over the world. In 1977, he was arrested in Los Angeles for unlawful sex with a minor and he fled to Europe, where he's worked primarily ever since. If he sets foot on American soil, he'll be required to answer for his crime.) Rocky directorial history aside, the German show was translated into French and premiered here in Paris around Halloween of last year. Because of its smash success, it's still playing—which is how I was able to see it for Valentine's Day four months on.
I plan on seeing the show as many times as my bank account will allow because it's that wonderful rarity of theater: funny, not too deep but not flimsy, well-done, visually and aurally stunning and just generally a bloody good time. It's something you can really sink your teeth into...