In October or was it November of 1974, the musical Hans Andersen went into rehearsal at the London Palladium. On the bottom line of the chorus was a 27 year old basso just back from two years at sea. On the rehearsal piano, and assisting the conductor, was a 21 year-old muso, not long out of the Royal College of Music. The two became good friends, but over the years geography and suchlike meant that they lost contact … Last night, they met up again. In Berlin. The musician has turned into Mike Reed, the most prized musical supervisor in the world of musical theatre for decades now, the skinny bass has turned into the author of the largest (and best) reference works on the same subject: yes, yours truly, Kurt Gänzl. Well, Mike now has the embonpoint of the successful man, and I have the traces of my stroke still upon me … but the years rolled back like Phar Lap, and we were 30 or 40 again, as we picked up where we had left off twenty years ago. Our evening had two parts: first food, drink and chat, and afterwards a trip to the Theater des Westens (my first) to see Tanz der Vampire, the musical about which I wrote so favourably in my books, but had not yet seen on stage. We dined on the terrace of Mike’s hotel, the delightful Kempinski in the Kurfürstendamm. And dined very well indeed. My starter, nice, juicy, lightly-cooked scallops with a gingerish julienne was a class one dish, my main course of loup de mer could have been plumper, but it tasted good. I can’t say it looked good though: purple risotto isn’t my thing. But, hey, food is for eating, not photographing. The meal was accompanied by a very nice light German rosé served by a very nice German lassie who also delivered me an excellent pear schnapps as a digestif. And we talked. And talked. And talked. I think I talked even more than usual!
A quick wander to the theatre. My first Berlin musical this year. Was it going to be as good as I remembered from reading it a decade and a half ago? I got off slightly on the wrong foot. When you are watching a burlesque musical, you have to remember always that it is exactly that. When you see a stagefull of comic opera peasants, led by a sosie of Fagin, overacting a ‘drinking’ chorus in praise of garlic … it is a parody of the genre! (Remember Chess?) Maybe some of the edges of the parody in the opening have got a tiny bit blunted after so long? Or was it me, taking time to get into the 'mood'? Anyway, those edges would soon, as the action of the piece got into stride, be sharp as a sharkstooth. This is a funny piece. A fun piece. Its enjoyably staged and designed, with some of the best (not burlesque, unless it’s of Laurey’s dream ballet) choreography I’ve seen in quite a while. It looks good and it sounds good. The music is in the lush modern vein, with plenty of extravagances and some catchy melodies ... I’m sure I heard a few classical quotes. From Sullivan to Wagner. I know I saw a few things more than reminiscent of, in particular, The Phantom of the Opéra. And that’s part of the fun. That’s the burlesque genre. Of course, sometimes burlesque gets very close to the thing being burlesqued … there’s a fine line … but most of the time director and cast kept, sometimes just, to the right side of it.
The cast. Well, as an old casting director, I’d be proud to have assembled such a cast. Thomas Borchert was a suitably sexy, vocally rich and melodramatic vampire leering (oh! those teeth!) down from his Phantomical perch, or luring sexy little splashabout Sarah (Amelie Dobler) away with a pair of red riding boots and a mega-sponge, to his Schloss, to sing the hit song ‘Totale finsternis’ with him. Miss Dobler looked the perfect little ingenue – oh, shades of Miss Brightman – and sang her music to perfection, even when battling with the entire chorus. She was also deliciously comical in her scenes with Alfred (Michael Heller) who is simply a super-juvenile made in heaven. Looking fifteen, singing with lyric freedom, and playing and interplaying with just the right degree of innocent foolishness … I cannot imagine the part better played. But my favourite – well, we all have favorites! – performance of the night was that of Veit Schäfermeier as Professor Ambrosius. When I first heard the score, I dubbed his music ‘Offenbachian’. But the whole role is pure Gilbert and Sullivan. You could pluck him from this show and put him straight into the Major General’s part in The Pirates of Penzance. His patter singing was superb, precise and truly sung (no cheating sprechstimme here), his acting quite delicious, and he quite simply made me laugh out loud over and over again. Whatever a Tony Award is in German, that is a winner’s performance. The smaller parts were all well filled, and the chorus sang and danced winningly. I particularly liked the Red Boots Dream Ballet and the 2nd-Act Vampire Song. Oh, dammit, I liked practically everything. Although it got deafeningly loud (for me, already half deaf) at the end. So the second half of my night ended up as enjoyable as the first. Mike rushed backstage for his notes session, as I headed for the Zoo U-Bahn and Nollendorfstrasse. No twenty years ever again. No fear. Same time, next year?