I have just flown in from Vienna, after a little visit of two days.
Two days. Why only two days?
Well, I went to see a musical. A musical which had already played Vienna last time I was there… fifteen or twenty years ago. And which has been playing in the city and out of it ever since. But, somehow, I always managed, everywhere, to miss it. Which was distinctly unfortunate, for Elisabeth is the most successful central European piece of musical theatre of the modern era. Perhaps of any era.
What Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita or Les Misérables are to English-speaking parts of the world, in terms of success or in terms of historical importance, Elisabeth is to this part of the world. And as a writer on, and historian of, the musical theatre, it was pretty culpable of me not ever to have seen it. So on Tuesday I got on a plane, and headed for Vienna, for the show’s latest season at the Raimundtheater.
And now I know exactly why it has been so successful.
Like the three shows mentioned above, Elisabeth is based on history. The tale of the Empress known as ‘Sis[s]i’ is known everywhere – particularly, of course, in Austria and Hungary -- and she has been the subject of plays, films and of a number of previous vaguely historical musical stage works of the romantic kind, composed by musicians from Fritz Kreisler to Francis Lopez.
This one – words Michael Kunze, music Sylvester Levay -- is different. It follows the facts of Sisi’s personal and political life, in relation to four men: her husband, the Emperor Franz Josef, her ill-fated son, Rudolf, her assassin, Lucheni, the narrator of the tale … and ‘Der Tod’. Death .,. personified by an attractive young man, who is at her shoulder, ever present, throughout her often unhappy life, until its end, and the end of the show.
A lush musical score sweeps this story on, through the panorama of court and country politics, until the show reaches it apotheosis in one of my favourite stage-pictures ever: the magnificent sinking of the old Europe and those who sailed in it, in the shadow of the new century.
The story is by nature episodic, but the show largely avoids a ‘and then she did’ flavour in its series of dramatic scenes and musical pieces. Since I have to find something to quibble about in a show which simply doesn’t permit too many quibbles, a whorehouse scene which reeked of the conventional and the Wildhorny was probably the only small portion of the show that left me less than staunchly enthusiastic.
I gather the production at the Raimundtheater is largely, in scenery and direction – and give or take a change of stage – much as the Harry Kupfer original. That must have been startling in 1992. It’s still pretty startling. But what is truly startling, is the casting. As I well know, from my casting years, when you are on to a fifth or fifteenth or twentieth cast change, where do you go? How many young women have played the large and difficult role of the Empress? Well, I refuse utterly to believe that anyone, from Trier to Tokio, has played it as well as the present incumbent of the part, a young Dutch actress and singer, by name Annemieke van Dam.
Hers was one of the best performances, in any role in any show, that I have seen in a decade. Or two. Firstly, she is ‘wondrous fair’. Sisi was famously beautiful. This lady has a serene beauty which makes you gasp. Secondly, she is the most sympathetic and skilled actress imaginable. And third, she can sing. Oh, can she sing. Her singing of the show’s principal solo, ‘Ich gehör nur mir’, was simply golden.
The world has changed. I remember how amazed we all were when Elaine Paige took a E in chest voice on the first night of Evita. Elisabeth peaks on an F sharp. In what I am sure was pure chest. My friend Paul, who was my theatre companion on Tuesday, is a Proper Musician and a very good judge of theatre. I checked with him to be sure (a) my ear was right, and (b) that I wasn’t falling head over heels with an actress. He was with me, all the way.
Beautiful, beautiful performance. But please be careful Miss van Dam. Repeated chest F sharps come at a price…
The four men (all tending more or less to the tenor range) fufilled their parts splendidly. Lucheni (Kurosch Abbasi) rolled the narrative along with gleeful and (welcome) comical cynicism, Franz Josef (Jörn-Felix Alt) – in necessarily a dramatically ungrateful role – joined warmly in duet with his Empress, and with the blondely top-singing Death (Mark Seibert) in the fine first act final trio version of the hit number. Rudolf’s role is a short one, but Lukas Perman made a distinct impression in his distraught solos.
Daniela Ziegler was the ‘evil’ mother, who – in one of the show’s most effective scenes – showed herself to be not evil at all, just pragmatic, and there was a splendid cameo by Sonja Schatz as a madwoman who fancies herself to be Elisabeth.
But, in the end, the show revolves around Elisabeth herself. And with this radiant Elisabeth, nothing else is possible.
I went to see a show, and I saw a performance with a capital P.
But, of course, one can’t be radiant in an ordinary role, in an ordinary show.
So I saw a show as well. With a capital S. A major and important show, which I hope the English-speaking world will one day share.
I’m glad I didn’t wait any longer to see it.
FROM A PLUS TO C MINUS
The next night, we went to see the same management’s other Vienna production: a German version of the musical version of Legally Blonde (curiously retitled Natürlich Blonde) (songs: O’Keefe and Benjamin; book: Heather Hach).
At half time, I said ‘The English-speaking world is welcome to this one. And I’ll speak French’.
Loud, strident, brainless, charmless, loud, loud ... quite awful.
But someone found a sense of humour and half a tune in the interval, the orchestra and singers intermittently stopped blasting ff, the plot cheered up nicely, and this alarming representative of the Broadway musical 21st century (and of Hollywood) became quite bearable. Not the least because of the hectic efforts of the brave young cast.
So, it seems that the days are well and truly gone when America produced the quality shows, and central European works were an embarrassment.
I wonder where history will lead us next. And when. And if I’ll be around to see and hear it.