A Good Nightmare Comes So Rarely, While Ordinary Dreams Are So Easy To Find: Ruminations on Dance of the Vampires

Vampires and vampire hunters have always been a ubiquitous and (for the most part) successful presence in popular culture – in movies, on television, in video games and of course, in literature; the one genre where this kind of achievement has proven to be elusive is on stage, particularly in the realm of musical theatre (at least on Broadway). Ten years ago tonight, Dance of the Vampires started its previews at the Minskoff Theatre (after a two-day postponement due to technical issues), and had been (at the time) the most expensive musical to be produced on Broadway. The show was an English adaptation of the German musical Tanz Der Vampire, which was, in turn, based on the Roman Polanski film The Fearless Vampire Killers and boasted a score by Jim Steinman, most noted for epic rock songs for Meat Loaf. The show also heralded the return of Michael Crawford to the Broadway stage since his definitive performance in Phantom of the Opera. There were great expectations for the show, and on the surface it seemed that it was destined to be a sure-fire success – sadly, the reality fell far short of the expectations.

[Disclaimer: Once again, in the spirit of full disclosure, my interest in Dance of the Vampires began when it had been announced that Michael Crawford would be returning to Broadway as Count von Krolock. I’ve already mentioned previously that Mr. Crawford is one of my favorite theatre actors, and I was greatly looking forward to seeing him live on stage – so this is advanced warning that parts of this blog will come across as highly emotional and quite possibly end up just being one quasi-coherent long rant. Also, as this blog is about Dance and not Tanz, there will not be any overt comparisons/criticisms between the two productions; again this blog, as with all my previous and future blogs, is of my own opinion and should be respected as such.]

I have already mentioned in a previous blog, the fact that Dance of the Vampires was slated to play at the Minskoff Theatre (which at the time was still “cursed”) did not bode well in my mind; added to the fact that there were substantial changes from its source material, Tanz der Vampire, to make Dance less dark and more comical was probably not a good sign either. I will not speculate on hearsay on the reasons behind these changes or other rumors on the goings on during rehearsals and such; I’ve never put too much stock in that kind of gossip and repeating them all these years late would perpetuate the initial incident, which could or could not have been something totally different. Needless to say, the changes were made, songs were dropped and other songs were added – would Dance have had a longer run had the plot and score been just like Tanz? Maybe, but then again maybe not; there’s no point in wondering what could have been, but to reflect on what did happen.

The plot of Dance of the Vampires revolves around the highly logical vampire hunter Professor Abronsius and his former theology student turned factotum Alfred arriving in the village of Lower Belabartovich in Transylvania to slay the last of the vampires, the charismatic Count Giovanni von Krolock. The Count, in turn, has his sights set on seducing Sarah, the innkeeper’s daughter, who is destined to fulfill an ancient prophesy that “vampires will dance in the light of the sun”. My initial and everlasting impression of the show was that it was highly entertaining, with a fantastic score, which included “Total Eclipse of the Heart” (which was always received with applause and laughter, mostly due to recognition). The set design was spectacular and the visual effects astounding, though I will admit that some of the early preview costumes for Count von Krolock were far too outlandish and unbelievable – thankfully the Count’s costumes were changed to be more in the same vein (pun intended) of the traditional image of vampires. Also I found it highly ironic for a show with vampires to have so much bright white light in it – artistically done, but it was all far too much.

The entire cast was astounding – having missed seeing Michael Crawford in Phantom of the Opera, I was delighted to have been able to see and hear him on stage in character (I had only seen and hear him sing in concert several years prior); he has a knack for comedy along with a flair for drama as the charming yet conflicted Count von Krolock. As Professor Abronsius, René Auberjonois, best known for his TV and movie roles, was equally brilliant; other standout performances came from Mandy Gonzalez and Max von Essen, as Sarah and Alfred, both of whom were vocal powerhouses destined for greatness. Also,  given the show’s title, I was amused and delighted that every cast member, at one point or another, did dance on stage.

Again, as stated in a previous blog, Dance of the Vampires had received the most hateful, negative “reviews” I have ever read, most of which were not so much reviews for the production itself, but seemed to be personal attacks on Crawford himself, and barely mentioned any of the other cast. All the print reviews were so similar to one another that I could almost believe that one critic had written the review and the other critics had used that as their template. I felt (and still feel) that this was deliberate, uncalled for, and most certainly contrary to what a critical review should be; I could understand (though not agree) that had these personal attacks been limited to newspaper gossip columns or internet message boards and forums, I would have considered them to be opinions of whomever had written them – everyone is entitled to an opinion, after all. I may not agree with them, but they have a right to them, as do I have a right to my own opinions.

The production ran a little over three months, and I was fortunate to have seen the show nine times within that time frame. This show was also the first show for which I had attended both the matinee and evening performance – the final two performances, which were highly emotional and enthusiastically received (if memory serves). I even recall overhearing some departing theater-goers question why such an entertaining show was closing, which was in stark contrast to an incident that happened to me shortly after the “reviews” came out. I had been outside the Minskoff Theatre waiting to enter the theater, when I stuck a conversation with some passersby looking to see a show; when I had recommended they see Dance I can recall the haughty tone of one of the passersby, who had accused me of being a shill for the show. When I had responded that I wasn’t, I was looked upon with suspicion and disbelief. Needless to say the incident startled me immensely and gave me some insight on how persuasive press reviews can be to the average theatergoer, as well as a sober lesson that even if “everyone” dislikes a show, there are some who love that same show, and their adoration should not be dismissed.

I can recall the stage door area being swarmed with theater-goers that final night, which was astounding not only for their appreciation for the hard work the cast and crew gave, but also due to the fact that it had been  quite a cold and windy winter evening (though it did not snow). Looking back at the show ten years after it started, despite the negative reviews, I thoroughly enjoyed the Dance of the Vampires and saw it for what it was – an evening of fun entertainment with great songs, brilliant staging and a fantastic cast. It’s a shame that an official cast recording was never made (if there is one, it’s never been released).

So it would seem the moral of this story is that singing vampires apparently do not and/or cannot succeed on Broadway – subsequent to Dance, two other vampire-centric musicals open and quickly closed – Frank Wildhorn’s Dracula: The Musical and Elton John’s Lestat. Though with the rise in popularity of vampires on film and TV these days, maybe there’s hope that Dance could possibly have a second life (or at least perhaps a concert version).

Michael Crawford as the Count von Krolock – his final (albeit blurry) appearance

6 thoughts on “A Good Nightmare Comes So Rarely, While Ordinary Dreams Are So Easy To Find: Ruminations on Dance of the Vampires

  1. The most interesting part of your post is the wish for a second life for the show. Oddly enough, this has been possible for several years now.

    There is a brilliant finished English “Tanz,” commissioned by Jim Steinman and effected over the course of 22 drafts, which has been in existence since 2007. Gernot Kranner (the original Abronsius in Vienna) has seen it and can vouch for its existence and brilliance. There is even a good rough English demo of “Gott ist Tot” (“Original Sin” to you), now entitled “Hungry for Love.” The English book and lyrics in this version were by NYC-based auteur Richard Haase (the man behind the critically acclaimed all-black adaptation of “Godspell” which ran in Harlem in the late Nineties, and numerous original musicals as well) and his promising young creative associate Ashton Jaymz. Anyone who compares their rendition to a direct translation of Michael Kunze’s German lyrics will find that it is very true to the German material, similar in form, meaning, and spirit, while also having its own unique sense of poetry, language, etc., geared to the sensibilities of an English-speaking audience.

    Unfortunately, because of the political morass and circumstance that surrounds the project, it is just sitting there. The Austrian rights holders will have nothing to do with it; they won’t answer us, and neither will the lawyers. Steinman finally green-lit a private VIP reading in NYC in the summer of 2010, which evaporated under circumstances we still can’t quite go into. We were interviewing star talent elements for the leading roles. There were no definite confirmations from anyone we asked, but everyone was enthusiastic when we were in talks.

    There have been rumors of a West End production separate from our own effort, but I can confirm from personal knowledge that there is no West End production currently scheduled in real life. If we were able to get this private reading event up in NYC, it is my guess that, at the discretion of the rights holders, should they allow it to go further, our production would be in London.

    Maybe they will give us a second chance, considering another Michael Kunze project, “Rebecca,” didn’t even make it out of the gate here in New York, and they must surely be looking for another in-road.

  2. Great blog entry. You were spot on with the plot, spot on with the reviews and all opinions were presented in a respectable manner. Such an amazing show and an awesome blog!

  3. Great blog entry. You were spot on with your plot and also spot on with showing both the greatness of the show and the negative press. Both of these were handled in your writing with a great deal of respect. Great show, great writing, and great entry.

  4. Sally Scheef says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful essay on DOTV. I followed it from the first public mentions, fell in love with the music after I bought the German CDs, and was shocked when the first publicity photos and inklings of what the show was going to be like appeared—not what I was expecting.

    You are certainly right about the reviews. The bashing of the show and Michael Crawford began on theater message boards and went on for some time before and after the show opened. I got the definite impression that the critics just couldn’t wait to bring out all of their nastiest and most “clever” cutting remarks for this show and its star. This was a show that had already been marked out as a loser—although the box office was quite good until the deadly reviews came out. I don’t think there was any critical conspiracy, but I read most if not all of the reviews, and one of them at least was clearly of one of the Previews and not done after the show opened. Few tried to be fair to DOTV.

    I never liked some aspects of the show like making the Count an Italian with an odd accent, but when I finally got to see it (3 times over a weekend), I enjoyed it a lot and thought that it was much better than the reviews indicated. I was not knocked out of the ball park by Michael Crawford’s acting, but he sang the hell out of the score as did all of the rest of the very talented cast.

    I will be very surprised if it is ever resurrected.

  5. […] I loved, despite the harsh critical “reviews” (my thoughts on the musical can be found here).  it’s a novel I have thought about writing in the intervening years since the musical […]

  6. Audrey Aucott says:

    Fantastic Blog, Jen! The following is what I wrote & posted in the days after the reviews came out.
    Dance of the Vampires – Reviewing the Reviewers

    The power of any given critic is directly proportional to how much respect said critic has earned from his readers and his peers.

    I was therefore shocked and dismayed at the lazy, irresponsible, self indulgent and even libelous rants which were submitted to the general public as professional reviews of the new Broadway show,
    “Dance of the Vampires”.

    First of all, it is obvious that this show was pre-judged based on the ubiquitous “buzz” and invalidated internet message board rumors, long before most of the reviews I’m going to comment on were written, indeed, before the writers had even seen the show.
    The reviewers themselves even admit as much. Some even revel in it!
    Howard Kissel’s writes “No one mind you expected anything good.” and
    Ben Brantly writes “cultists (read critics too) “had their fangs at the ready “.
    And it was as if there was a general consensus that
    a) We’ve been too nice lately… the previews of this one were rough – “ah hah!”
    b) This show dares to go beyond the typical Broadway paradigm
    c) It’s another dread rock and roll invasion!
    d) And (Gasp!) the star refuses to be typecast!

    Gentlemen, sharpen your pens!

    “Let’s get Crawford, and his little show too!”

    Shameful!

    But what they neglected to do was “pre agree” on what they would pan or what they would condescend to forgive. Therefore they frequently contradict and cancel each other out very nicely.

    For instance;

    While Elysa Gardner praised David Gallo’s scenery and Mr. Clive Barnes
    (whose review, although I didn’t agree with all of it, was, for the most part, both professional and reasonable)
    calls the scenery “opulent and witty”, Mr. Ben Brantly said (the) “fungus like sets … look so expensive and so cheap…”.
    Say what?
    Well, maybe the mushrooms in act one, scene one are a little too green, but really, all of it, “fungus like”?
    Can you spell non sequitur?

    Elysa Gardner calls Mandy Gonzalez’s singing “shrill and pitch shy” while Mr. Kissel says “Mandy Gonzales sings well” and Clive Barnes calls her “pretty and clear voiced.” Gender bias anyone?

    And is the show Camp or not? Howard Kissel stated “the creators are always winking at us, as if to say, “Isn’t this camp?” while Elysa Gardner calls it “inadvertent camp”. You can’t have it both ways people!

    But let’s get down to what needs to be taken seriously.

    When it gets personal…

    There is, of course, that time honored custom among the more power crazed critics and some gossip columnists of putting an actor “in his place”.
    The “We built him up now let’s bring him down” syndrome lives on. But this current situation involves something much worse than that. Given the outright personal attacks and slander involved, it could even be said what was written smacks very much of a vendetta.

    Well thought out, logically written reviews, however negative, are one thing, but there is never an excuse for printing and proliferating slanderous rumors and out and out lies.

    By far the worst offender is Mr.Kissel who took it upon himself to take a malicious bit of message board fiction – namely that Mr. Crawford’s singing is prerecorded – and give it credence by printing it as truth.
    Mr. Kissel can kiss his credibility good bye.

    Mr. Crawford is a gifted artist known for his perfectionism and for his determination to give every audience, on any given day, his best possible performance. That he succeeds all too well is evident. Some hopeless cretin obviously decided no human being could be so consistently, technically perfect and applied the thought to his or her own little agenda. And then along came little Mr. Kissel.

    That’s one bloody fine reward for Mr. Crawford for all those years of hard work and dedication to his craft, now isn’t it?

    I sincerely hope that Mr. Kissel will be severely censored by both his editors and Actors Equity. I hope he will be most sincerely sued by both Mr. Crawford and the producers of “Dance of the Vampires”.

    I think the latter two should make it clear that no small print, back page retraction will do. Satisfaction demands a huge billboard on Time Square – one full of contrite apology – at the very least!

    A huge contribution to Mr. Crawford’s several children’s charities wouldn’t be a bad idea either.

    There is no excuse for deliberately attempting to do that kind of damage
    to any performer or to any show and if Mr. Kissel is allowed to do it to one,
    if he gets away with it,
    which performer or which show will be next?
    Freedom of speech is not freedom to slander.

    In a similar vein, (sorry), Elysa Gardner, when she actually talked about the show in question, in her 2 column, 10 paragraph hissy fit, compared Mr. Crawford’s looks to two other celebrities and then said
    “…and likely couldn’t sing his way past either of them.” Balderdash! Saying Michael Crawford can’t sing is like saying the government can’t spend money or Dolly Parton can’t fill out a dress!
    How patently ridiculous! How very laughable. What a ding bat!

    There were a couple of comments about Mr. Crawford’s having put on some weight which is unfortunate since the “weight” is actually a harness he wears of necessity to prevent his real demise in his final scene.
    It is a technical problem not a dietary one.

    What’s age got to do with it?
    It would seem that some of the writers knew they couldn’t fault Mr. Crawford singing or acting and get away with it, so they went for the low brow approach of anti age for want of finding any real faults. It would seem the “age card” is an all purpose, potential putdown for generic use on anyone over 40.

    Well, I’m sorry but Mr. Crawford and I and half the population of this country make no apologies for being of a certain generation. And after all, people today, who take care of themselves, can expect to live to be 100. Don’t expect any of us, upon finding that first grey hair, to exchange our careers for 50 years of fishing, or arts and crafts – it just ain’t gonna happen!

    Were here, were still here, get used to it!

    And leave us not forget that actors have a magical thing called “range” It’s the characters age that counts, not the actors.

    The only thing the reviewers come close to agreeing on is they don’t much like the book.

    Well, it is lightweight (If ya want Lear ya shouldn’t be ‘ere), but it’s also highly entertaining and the 14 audiences I have been a part of in the last two months seem to love its general silliness, gentle malapropisms and moments of naughtiness. Most especially the act 2 naughtiness. Then they get extra loose and really enjoy themselves. Standing ovations, by the way, are the norm rather than the exception.

    Some Reviewers didn’t like the music. Some of them, like a lot of people, feel Rock and Roll doesn’t belong on Broadway. That feeling goes all the way back to the 60’s and “…Superstar”.

    It’s in the same realm as not liking “Contact” because the music wasn’t live or not liking “Fosse” because it’s all dance. Sure, they don’t fit the established mold but if we hold to that mold too tightly
    and all innovation is forbidden, then all we have left is repetition and stagnation.

    What is really a shame about “Dance of the Vampires” is that even the more reasonable reviewers could only see that the show was spoofing Phantom. They totally missed that the entire show was beautifully spoofing several classic shows, music videos and even, I think, taking a shot at Disney. Sure they used a pose from Phantom and copied the Phantom’s throne. Why is this a problem?
    When did Phantom become Sacrosanct? (Ever hear of Forbidden Broadway?)

    The show also tweaks “Fiddler on the Roof”(the entire village), “Jeckel & Hyde” (the top hat),
    “Man of La Mancha” (the draw bridge), “The Sound of Music” (Sara’s first costume), “The King and I”
    (“Whenever I feel afraid…”) The “Thriller” dnace (And why not? -What dance would a vampire do ? Swan Lake?) and finally the grand entrance staircase and dress of “Hello Dolly”.

    The Grizabella costume, a la cats, created to hide the harness Mr. Crawford must wear to prevent his genuine demise in his final scene is gone, but aren’t those 3 notes of Sara’s siren song the reverse of those sang by the “Little Mermaid?” If not, it’s very close.

    It is unfortunate that some people may stay away from this show because of the critics. There will always be a few (sheep) who (“Bhahhhh!”) will follow their lead mindlessly. But I don’t think they will discourage the majority of people who love theatre from making up their own minds about this show.

    People today are more well informed, more confident in their own tastes and opinions and more wary of narrow establishment thinking. If they like the vampire genre, if they like toe tapping rock and roll and ballads with great harmony, If they like gorgeous spectacle, if they don’t mind their romance mixed with humor, if they don’t mind a most enthusiastic and talented cast, if they don’t mind seeing a Tony award winner doing something new and different and singing his heart out, if they don’t mind being completely entertained, they should come on down to the Minskoff and see “Dance of the Vampires”.
    And they should bring their own bats.

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