You’ve got to hand it to the French for declaring that a comédie musicale featuring nudity, bosom-fondling, suggestive horizontal manoeuvres, homosexuality, spanking, dancing corpses and fake blood running down the backdrop as evil triumphs and vampires take over the world is “un très bon spectacle familial”.
As someone who lives and breathes film, mostly without really meaning to, I hardly ever go to the theatre because I find it too theatrical. (I particularly hate it when theatre tries to be “cinematic”.) In the past quarter century I have gone to the theatre maybe five times – a Cheek by Jowl production of The Changeling in the Paris suburb of Sceaux, Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme at Bozar in Brussels, Ghost Stories at the Duke of York in London (spoilt by members of the audience talking, using their phones, and popping in and out to the toilet) and to The Hallowe’en Sessions at the Leicester Square Theatre in 2012. I saw The Hallowe’en Sessions twice, because I had written a segment of it, and was so thrilled to hear my words – words I had actually written – coming out of the mouths of brilliant actors Daniel Brocklebank, Holly Lucas and Sarah Douglas.
But this year I decided to modify my habit of going to see a movie on Christmas Day by going instead to see the stage musical of Le bal des vampires at the Théâtre Mogador in Paris. Roman Polanski’s Dance of the Vampires (1967, also known as The Fearless Vampire Killers) is one of my favourite films.
Roman Polanksi’s funny films are often scarier than his serious ones; this horror comedy bombed on its release, but over the years its beguiling blend of dark fairytale and bawdy humour has enchanted new generations who take this sort of genre-mixing in their stride. It certainly has its chucklesome moments, such as the Jewish bloodsucker who says, when confronted by a crucifix, “Oy vey, have you got the wrong vampire” and Jack MacGowran’s magnificent comic performance as a bumbling professor on the vampire trail in Transylvania, but the overall mood is one of impending doom, with funny meeting scary head-on at the climactic vampires’ ball. Polanski himself plays MacGowran’s naïve assistant, and beautiful Sharon Tate, who later became the director’s wife and the Manson Gang’s most famous victim, plays the innkeeper’s daughter snatched from her bubble bath by the vampire count.
Stage musicals adapted from horror movies don’t have good form. The 1988 Broadway production of Carrie has become something of a watchword for theatrical flops; in 2012, The New Yorker asked Is “Carrie” the Worst Musical of All Time? But I was curious about Le bal des vampires, which had premiered in Vienna in 1997 as Tanz der Vampire, directed by Polanski. The troubled 2002 Broadway production, which added extra dialogue and campy Mel Brooks-style humour to the almost operatic original, was deemed as catastrophic a flop as Carrie. But Polanski (unwilling for legal reasons to go to the U.S. to work on the Broadway production) was back doing the mise en scène for the Paris production, which ditched the American changes and returned to the successful European version originale.
In the auditorium of Théâtre Mogador, where I had somehow managed to land one of the best seats in the stalls (orchestre) without paying top dollar, I was taken aback by the presence of numerous small children – including one right behind me, who was mercifully neutralised prior to the performance by a polite request to his mother that he stop kicking the back of my seat. Yes, I’m a bundle of laughs at the theatre! A pre-curtain announcement in a Count Von Krolock voice informed the audience that vampires were allergic to cameras, cameraphones and flash photography, which put to rest one of my main fears – that this experience would be spoiled by audience behaviour as much as Ghost Stories had been a couple of years earlier.My other fear was of the music. If vampires are allergic to flash photograph, I’m allergic to showtunes. I don’t mind movie musicals based on The Great American Songbook – the work of Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Rodgers and Hart, Rodgers and Hammerstein et al. But the likes of Andrew Lloyd Webber, Stephen Sondheim and Claude-Michel Schönberg bring me out in a rash. As if that weren’t bad enough, the French seem oddly partial to huge Cecil B. DeMille-style spectacles with soul-crushingly bland amplified X Factor-esque musical numbers – mega-productions such as Les Dix Commandements, Roméo et Juliette and Spartacus le gladiateur, great thundering dinosaurs that struck dread into my heart whenever I saw them advertised on French TV.
Another factor – one I was thankful to have been warned about prior to the show – is that (according to Wikipedia) Tanz der Vampire composer Jim Steinman “recycled about 70% of the musical score from his earlier projects”, most notably his Total Eclipse of the Heart, which had been a big hit for Bonnie Tyler in 1983. I reckon this was quite a shoddy and unprofessional move on Steinman’s part, yet I don’t suppose for one minute that his fee was cut commensurately; frankly, I could have done a better job of composing an original score (yes, I really do believe this) and I can’t even read music. Plus I would have done it for free.
So yes, I could have done without hearing Total Eclipse of the Heart (renamed Totale Finsternis) reprised at regular intervals during the show. What I hadn’t reckoned with, however, is that even the blandest of showtunes can actually seem quite exhilarating when belted out by an enthusiastic cast.
The biggest difference between the film of Dance of the Vampires and the musical is the fleshing out of the characters – in particular Sarah. In the movie, lovely and funny as Sharon Tate is, the character is pretty much a cypher who exists only to get kidnapped by the vampire, to provide a reason for the Professor and Albert to go the castle, and to get bitten by Count Von Krolock prior to her one non-passive moment right at the end – providing the film with its ironic punchline.
In the musical, however, Sarah takes a more active role. She is bored stiff with her life in the sticks, guarded by an overprotective father (albeit one who is not averse to spanking her when he considers she has been naughty), so when Count Von Krolock invites her to his party, and then presents her with a pair of swanky red boots, it’s all the incentive she needs to run off to the castle of her own volition.
One of the more startling numbers in the musical is when Sarah imagines the ball, where her dancing libido (shades of Kurt Weill’s The Seven Deadly Sins, in which the central female role is similarly played by two different actresses – a singer and a dancer) interacts acrobatically and erotically with a series of tall dark vampiric-looking strangers. It’s clear that Sarah already has a dark side, and is in control of her own fate, with the impending ball taking on for her all the significance of the one thrown by the Marquis d’Andervilliers in Madame Bovary.
1) The musical is in two acts – the first set in Chagal’s snowbound inn in the Carpathian, the second in the vampires’ castle. Both sets shift into a variety of different configurations depending on the scene, to reveal cross-sections of the buildings, or show the nocturnal activities in the inn, or to move from crypt to ballroom, via swivelling walls, descending pillars (with dragons’ heads!) and a spiral staircase.
2) The scene in which the stage fills with gigantic tombstones and the vampires climb out of their graves is a splendid tour de force for the company, showcasing Sue Blane’s wonderfully baroque costumes and Dennis Callahan’s choreography, which can’t help but conjure the zombie dance from Thriller – while also reminding you that Dance of the Vampires (the movie) pre-empted the Michael Jackson video by fifteen years. Each vampire is clad in rotting attire from a different era; each, even while singing and dancing, is distracted by recalcitrant limbs, or a wayward jaw.
3) One of the film’s most famous lines is when Chagal the undead innkeeper is confronted by a crucifix – “Oy vey, have you got the wrong vampire!” In the musical, Chagal’s “Vous trompez de vampire!” (You’ve got the wrong vampire) was greeted by silence from the audience, which only changed to laughter when he added, “Je suis Juif” (“I’m Jewish”). I don’t know, maybe the character’s exaggerated Yiddish mannerisms weren’t quite obvious enough for an audience of contemporary Parisians.
4) Professor Abronsius (who looks exactly like Jack MacGowran in the movie, himself a dead ringer for the evil doctor in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1932 classic, Vampyr, but who is played by a much younger actor in the musical) gets a Gilbert and Sullivan-style “patter song” – La Logique et la Science. (Needless to say, even though I’m quite fluent in French I found it difficult to keep up with the lyrics here.) I was reminded of Gilbert and Sullivan once more (specifically, Ruddigore) when Sarah arrives at the castle and we see ancient portraits (posed by live actors) of Count Von Krolock’s ancestors embedded in the scenery walls.
5) I might be mistaken, but I thought I spotted a nice little nod to Louis Feuillade’s Les Vampires when Albert says, “Qui? Quoi? Quand?”, a reference (I suspect) to the 1915 teaser poster for the classic silent serial.
6) I take my hat off to whoever designed the fangs, which never seemed to hamper the vampires’ singing. (When I wore a dental brace I found it almost impossible to whistle, and if ever I try to talk with my retainer in, I end up lisping and spraying spittle.) Also, some of the fangs appeared to be retractable since they appeared midway through a scene. I would very much like to talk to the production’s fang wrangler.
7) The special effects – snow falling, or an impression of travelling through a forest – were spectacular without trying to emulate the cinema in any way; they remained delightfully theatrical. The set, and the way it changed and unfurled, was in itself the most impressive special effect. Cunning use was made of the gangways of the theatre, via which characters made their entrances and exits (I could have reached out and touched the vampires as they passed), and which provided the means to reproduce one of my favourite visual gags from the film – when Albert is running away from the Count’s vampire son, but only succeeds in doing a complete circuit of the terrace surrounding the courtyard and running right back into the clutches of Count Krolock’s amorous son.
8) The media verdict that this was all “un très bon spectacle familial” (fun for all the family) is somewhat baffling in the light of the nihilistic ending, in which evil triumphs and (we’re given to understand) the vampires party on down all over the world. Though perhaps this is simply a sign of the times.
9) Much to my own amazement and despite my firmly entrenched antipathy towards the theatre, I found the whole experience quite thrilling. Eager to get another taste, I peered at photographs and dipped into YouTube clips of the musical numbers – only to find myself cringing at the naffness, wincing at the awfulness of the songs, and flinching at the appalling editing in the videos. No no no!
It occurs to me that I have belatedly stumbled upon a Grand Truth of the Theatre, one that theatre-lovers have no doubt known since time immemorial – trying to get a taste of the experience via other media is doomed from the outset. Photos, recordings and videos will never, ever do it justice. Even the fabulous sets seem diminished. You have to be there. You have to feel the energy coming from the performers in real time. You have to see it live.
Still, I think I’ll give Les Dix Commandements, Roméo et Juliette and Spartacus le gladiateur a miss, for the time being.