In the world of live theatre, a year can hardly pass without at least one popular or even semi-popular film taking the stage in an “all-new” musical adaptation. Catch Me If You Can, Groundhog Day, Waitress, Bring It On, and Once are only a very few from just the last eight years alone. A similar mindset dictates Hollywood’s own incessant output of rehashed properties: why take risks on a new project when you can push material with proven marketability? Yet there are occasions when a stage show not only matches its source material in quality but cuts a distinctive figure wholly its own. Such is the case with Tanz der Vampire, the musical based on Roman Polanski’s 1967 horror-comedy, The Fearless Vampire Killers.
Yes, there is a Fearless Vampire Killers musical, and it is one of the happiest marriages of traditional horror and musical theatre that a creepy showtune buff could ever hope to see. It accomplishes the seemingly impossible feat of staging a rock opera in the world of vampires that is actually good, for as any previous examples will more than readily tell you (Elton John’s Lestat, Frank Wildhorn’s Dracula), Broadway is just as deadly to the Nosferatu as any ray of sunlight. Yet there only seems to be a handful of English-speakers today who remain aware of the show’s existence. Sadly, though Tanz der Vampire has met with widespread acclaim in Europe and abroad, the production’s shot at an American debut was mishandled nearly 20 years ago, effectively staking any chance for the international pollination that this majestically macabre musical so richly deserves.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The show, taking its name after the film’s original title, Dance of the Vampires, was first produced for the Austrian stage in 1997, and its transition from film to play couldn’t have been aided by a more fitting guide: at the helm for the stage production was the movie’s original director, Roman Polanski. A pet project that Polanski had been hoping to get off the ground for four years prior to the debut, the musical maintained many of the same narrative and thematic elements from the motion picture and recalibrated it all for live performance. But more than anything else, it was in its musical score and lyrics that Tanz der Vampire’s identity rose to prominence like the giant, looming shadow of Count von Krolock sweeping across the proscenium.
The show’s composer? None other than Jim Steinman, the musician and producer responsible for Meatloaf’s legendary Bat Out of Hell albums and penning hits for acts like Bonnie Tyler, Air Supply, Celine Dion, the Sisters of Mercy, and others. While Tanz der Vampire boasted new compositions made expressly for the show, a fair amount of motifs from Steinman’s previous chart-toppers appeared in recycled form, including the melody to “Objects in the Rear View Mirror May Appear Closer Than They Are” for Krolock’s pained ode to drinking his fill of immortality, “Die unstillbare Gier”. Both “Total Eclipse of the Heart” and “Original Sin,” a single from the eponymous concept album by Steinman’s group Pandora’s Box, were lifted wholesale for the show, the former serving as a duet between Sarah, the innkeeper’s winsome daughter, and Krolock, with the latter tune appearing as the vampire’s brooding introduction. (According to Steinman, the use of “Total Eclipse…” in the show was a natural calling, as the song had initially been written with the story of Nosferatu  in mind.)
Steinman’s music proved vital to the show’s success and muscle. To listen to Steinman is to instantly know him; his favored subjects and forms (narrative ballads, torturous love, fast cars, bucking against the social norm, apocalyptic landscapes) are all there on his leathered sleeve for the world to see, and he attacks them head-on with the conviction of a fallen angel who has a broken, bleeding heart and nothing left to lose. He brought this energy and his early obsessions with Wagner and the Vienna Philharmonic to bear in the music for Tanz der Vampire. His surging chords and heavenly choruses, complemented by German librettist Michael Kunze’s grandiose, haunting lyrics, struck the ideal balance between the movingly operatic and the rockingly epic, an aural backdrop completely fitting for a Gothic fantasia peopled by the blood-drinking undead.
Included in the original cast of international talent was American actor Steve Barton, most famous for playing Raoul (and later the title role) in the original West End and Broadway runs of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera. No stranger to the European scene, having just portrayed another singing monster in the 1996 Viennese production of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, Barton essayed the role of the inimitable Count von Krolock for the show’s world debut.
A powerful baritone, Barton made the Count at turns tragic, chilling, and commanding; when compared to the able performers who have filled the cape since then, Barton’s is the voice that sounds quintessentially Krolock, his reverberating tones like thunder rolling down from the peaks of the Carpathians. Along with Steinman’s score and Kunze’s lyrics, Barton gave the original production its heart, his performance earning him an IMAGE (International Music Award Germany), the Teutonic equivalent of a Tony Award. The actor’s suicide in 2001 brought an end to both an accomplished life and an unforgettable voice.
For all its Romantic wailing, Tanz der Vampire is never once ashamed of embracing its more devoutly and classically horrific elements. True to its cinematic inspiration, the show conducts itself with an Old World regality that respects and celebrates horror, a notion that is reflected in the physical staging, with intricate sets of rustic, garlic-strewn inns and towering, wind-lashed castles, beautifully tailored costumes boasting frilled cloaks, scarlet gowns, and glistening leather aplenty (courtesy of Sue Blane, wardrobe mistress for both the stage and screen versions of The Rocky Horror Picture Show), sharp choreography and lighting that ranges from the elegiac (“Draußen ist Freiheit”) to the unearthly (“Gott ist tot”), all of it wrapped up in a wintry atmosphere of ancient fear and longing potent enough to chill heart and bone alike. Tanz der Vampire is a love letter to fans of the Gothic vampire, fans who demand nothing more from their entertainment than to see a parade of impeccably-garbed ghouls strut out of their stone caskets (“Tanzsaal”) and a legion of balletic bloodsuckers twirl and flip their way through a scene that combines all the best parts of Henry Fuseli’s “The Nightmare” and the dream sequence from Oklahoma (“Carpe noctem”).
The original Viennese production carried on for three years before turning in its cape in 2000, meeting with enthusiastic critical reviews and success with audiences. In the years since, it has gone on to mount revivals and garner fan bases in many corners of the European and Asian markets including Germany, Japan, Russia, Finland, and France. But what of the show’s aforementioned migration to American shores?
Attempts were made as early as 1998 to bring Tanz der Vampire to the States, but like the bloody voyage of the Demeter the enterprise seemed doomed from the start. For starters, Polanski could not return as director for the American production due to the impending legal action he had fled in 1978 following his charge of statutory rape. Steinman, who had no prior directing experience, was then slated to take Polanski’s place before John Caird (Jane Eyre, Les Miserables) was called in to co-direct and playwright David Ives (Venus in Fur) set to reshape the Old World regality of the European version into a more American-friendly Catskills routine. Creative differences, uneasy investors, and terminated producers began bubbling together in an increasingly combustible brew.
When the production secured no less than Michael Crawford, the Erik to Steve Barton’s Raoul in the first Phantom of the Opera runs, to play the role of Count “Giovanni” von Krolock, it seemed that salvation might have finally arrived at last. But the demanding star required not only complete creative control of his character but the right to portray the vampire in any subsequent film adaptations, having just been burned by the casting of Antonio Banderas (later Gerard Butler) as the Phantom for the Joel Schumacher film. He got the first one and, as it turns out, didn’t have to worry about the second one. Effectively creating all of his own dialogue on the spot and ordering that no jokes be given to his co-stars, Crawford took the stake that had initially been placed on the American production’s chest and drove it straight through its stuttering heart. To top it all off, the terrorist attacks of 11th September 2001 made the logistics of flying in British co-director Caird insurmountable, and eventually John Rando (Urinetown) was brought in to replace both Caird and Steinman.
After an inordinate run of 61 previews, the American production finally opened in December 2002 and closed the following month after a total of 56 performances and a loss of $12,000,000. Taken at face value, the Broadway version of Tanz der Vampire was mostly inoffensive, nothing more than a very corny jab at the low-hanging conventions of the subgenre using a host of lame jokes and shoehorned raciness. But when one looks back to the elegant poetry of the European von Krolock soliloquizing over the empty graves of his kin:
Finally, it’s night, no stars in sight.
The moon is hiding because it dreads me.
No light in the world, no false beam of hope.
Only silence, and within me the silhouettes of my pain…
…and compares it to the glowing-eyed bat puppet flapping along to Michael Crawford’s falsetto as he sings:
A good nightmare comes so rarely,
While ordinary dreams are so easy to find,
A good nightmare comes so rarely,
I’ll show you yours,
If you show me mine…
…one’s soul can’t help but wither a little. The show continues to thrive in other parts of the world, inviting audiences everywhere from Paris to Tokyo to join the vampire’s dance, but here on our shores the midnight invitation remains unanswered.
Unanswered save for those who carry the songs of Tanz der Vampire in their dark hearts, quietly praying for the day when some enterprising producer will have the passion and resources to make the dream of a true North American staging a reality. Until then, there are ways to celebrate the show’s beauty and power. The international trailer from the recent 20th anniversary staging in Vienna acts as a great HD highlights reel for those who’d like to dip their toes. Both the original Austrian and Hamburg productions are viewable in their entirety, complete with subtitles. There are even plentiful recordings of the Broadway version, for the morbid amongst us. But I promise you this: if any section of this article has appealed to you in any way, the recordings that you watch or listen to will make you a fan for life. You will be inducted into a small but rabid family of devout followers, and until that day arrives when the total eclipse blots out the uncaring sun we will have to sit with Krolock in his misty graveyard of memories, you and I, waiting for the time to feed again.