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Dance of the Vampires is the best and worst vampire musical ever made
It’s a truth universally acknowledged that vampires and musicals don’t mix. Broadway has a surprisingly rich history of vampire musicals crashing and burning in a spectacular fashion, both critically and commercially. For whatever reason, people just don’t seem to connect with the concept, even as vampire fiction has remained an enduring favorite for audiences the world over. There was a Dracula musical that came and went without a second thought, and a notoriously bad musical version of Anne Rice’s The Vampire Chronicles called Lestat, with music by Elton John, that closed after a month. The biggest vampire musical flop, however, is a far more curious affair.
So, stop me if you’ve heard this one before: It’s a musical adaptation of a Hammer Horror parody directed by Roman Polanski, made in German with music by the guy who wrote "Bat Out of Hell," then when they translated it into English, they added the Phantom of the Opera and tried to turn it into a Mel Brooks comedy. Oh, and also there’s a whole song about garlic. And it’s amazing. Well, it’s amazing in any language that isn’t English. Tanz Der Vampire is wonderful; Dance of the Vampires is awful.
The Fearless Vampire Killers is not a great movie for many reasons. It looks gorgeous, but the acting is a mixed bag, the jokes fall flat, and it doesn’t seem especially interested in vampire stories. For a movie that is supposed to be a pastiche of Hammer Horror, it bears none of the iconic markers of that studio or its brand. A real Hammer parody would have way more blood and more boobs, and even with this film’s shameless objectification of Sharon Tate, it’s an oddly chaste affair. There are potentially interesting themes to be mined from the whole affair — the hierarchy of vampires by religion of Christianity and Judaism is a unique addition to the genre — but the film does little with them. It didn’t help that the producers lost faith in the movie and overdubbed the primarily European cast with some seriously bad voice work.
The Fearless Vampire Killers was a flop upon release and seemed destined to disappear from the pop culture consciousness until someone had the bright idea to make it into a German-language musical. Polanski returned to direct it, and regular Meat Loaf collaborator Jim Steinman was called upon to provide music. Steinman didn’t have long to write the score, so he happily recycled a lot of his old tunes, including one of his most famous songs. Have you ever listened to Bonnie Tyler’s "Total Eclipse of the Heart" and been sad that it isn’t about vampires? Well, so did Jim Steinman! The song was originally written for a Nosferatu musical he was working on, so its journey to being in Tanz Der Vampire was basically coming full circle.
Tanz Der Vampire is a relatively straightforward adaptation of the film in terms of its plot, but the devil is in the details. The musical leans in more to the lascivious melodrama of its genre, proudly reveling in the strange, sexy, and silly of its concept. The most important change comes in the form of the female protagonist, Sarah. In the film, as played by Sharon Tate, she exists mostly to be gawked at by humans and vampires alike. Both the gormless male lead — played by Polanski himself — and the evil Count Von Krolock treat her with similarly cavalier attitudes toward her own desires and interests. If she’s supposed to be a parody of the way Hammer movies treat damsels then she’s not a very effective one, given that she is merely a recreation of that trope. In the musical, however, she is far more in control and actually wants what the vampires are offering. She’s sick of being controlled by her parents and wants the kind of power, freedom, and sensuality offered by the Count. It’s a proper subversion of the damsel trope and one that’s endlessly appealing to vampire nerds such as myself.
The show was a huge hit in Austria and across Europe, and remains so to this day. It’s not hard to see why. It’s damn good fun, even if you don’t understand what’s being said. Crucially, it’s a show that knows exactly what it is and doesn’t try to downplay its ludicrousness. You’re either completely with this show or you’re not, and they have no interest in trying to convert or pander to the naysayers. If only the American producers had understood that.
From the premiere of Tanz der Vampire, producers were keen to replicate the show's success in English-speaking regions, particularly Broadway, which remains the jewel in the crown of musical theater. Steinman was called on to translate his own book and lyrics, and the producers promised that Roman Polanski would return as director. The latter was scuppered when they remembered that Polanski fled America to avoid punishment for allegedly drugging and raping a 13-year-old girl. Steinman and John Caird, best known for co-directing Les Misérables, took over.
There isn’t much of a track record for foreign-language musicals being translated into English for the Broadway market. What seems so lyrical and tightly composed in German may not work as well in another language, where cadence and rhyming schemes work differently. This hampered the show (renamed Dance of the Vampires) to a major degree, but the biggest issues came with the total lack of confidence in the source material. Tanz Der Vampire isn’t an especially serious show, but it is one that is wholeheartedly committed to the feverish melodrama of its premise. Producers were afraid that Broadway audiences wouldn’t buy into the Anne Rice camp of the show, so they kept adding jokes to make things a little more Mel Brooks.
One of the biggest supporters of this creative change was the leading man. Before the show made its way to New York, gossip feverishly spread about who would be cast as Count von Krolock. The New York Post claimed that some favorite candidates for the role included John Travolta, Plácido Domingo, and David Bowie, who had prior experience in the vampire field. These names were, realistically speaking, never going to sign on to a show like this, but the producers still felt like they needed a big name. So they got one of the biggest Broadway names of the 1980s.
Michael Crawford was a longtime actor and musical star before he landed the title role in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera, but it was still the show that made his name worldwide. Even though he hadn’t been on Broadway for several years, it was a choice that made a lot of sense, given the obvious potential audience crossover for the shows.
Crawford signed on but allegedly had some very lofty demands. The Times reported that he required a "retirement package" of $20 million a year (meaning his weekly pay packet would be around $180,000 a week) and wanted "first refusal," meaning the right to reprise the role should the show move to London or Los Angeles. Crawford was allegedly pretty salty that he had not been offered the chance to reprise the role of the Phantom in the upcoming movie (originally, the part was to be played by Antonio Banderas, but then Gerard Butler got it and we all know how that ended) and wanted assurances that he’d have that option for Dance of the Vampires. While Crawford denied the salary rumors, he wasn’t shy about wielding the immense amount of creative control he’d negotiated.
He was also, oddly, worried that the role was too reminiscent of the Phantom. It is, deliberately so, which makes him taking the role in the first place kind of weird if that was his primary complaint. He wanted more jokes, and he wanted all the best jokes, even if they came at the expense of co-stars. René Auberjonois, probably best known to audiences as Odo on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, had to contend with Crawford trying to hog the spotlight and steal all the best punchlines, so the two of them began trying to step on each other's jokes during preview performances. To make matters worse, Crawford insisted on performing the role with a nigh-on indecipherable accent, which he claimed made it easier for him to sing but sounded more like Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins by way of Mario. Crawford was such a nightmare that even the musical’s Wikipedia page cannot help but make jokes about it, as the section on him is titled "Casting Crawford, 9/11, and other disasters." Ouch.
The September 11 attacks on America led to unavoidable delays in the show's premiere. By that point, Dance of the Vampires was essentially beyond saving, and once it opened to audiences on December 9, 2002, the critics tore into it. The attempt to balance the melodramatic sensuality of the original show with pun-heavy humor had not been successful. Fans of the original show were horrified by what they saw, and audiences unfamiliar with it had no interest in paying Broadway prices to see it. To use the sort of joke Dance of the Vampires would, the show had been defanged. Jim Steinman was rumored to have been vocal in his displeasure with the final show, refusing to attend opening night and later writing on his blog that the Broadway show was "UTTER SHIT!" On January 25, 2003, after 56 performances, Dance of the Vampires closed. According to The New York Times, it was "one of the costliest failures in Broadway history," losing roughly $12 million (that record has since been demolished by Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark).
If you’re a sucker for gothic camp and shredding electric guitars, Tanz Der Vampire is right up your alley, but the chances are that, by the time you’ve finished reading this post, you already know if this show is your thing or not. If nothing else, Dance of the Vampires acts as a fascinating example of the difficulties of adaptation and translation, but it still sucks (ha, get it?) that there isn’t an English-language version of this show that does the original justice. Then again, maybe there could never be such a thing.