Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Elisabeth (Stage Musical)



There's been a slight change of plan. I was originally going to put this blog post up on the 26th but I've decided to move it forward a day because I wanted to make some changes to another post. Anyway, when I decided to take part in this "Celebrate Musicals" blog event I really wanted to write about a musical that I hadn't yet covered, so I decided that I would write about Elisabeth. I passionately love this musical! : D Elisabeth is an Austrian musical that I discovered from reading some comments on an internet forum. This post is going to be my review of Elisabeth and as I'm such a big lover of the show you can expect it to be very gushy. I will also provide the YouTube link for you to watch the show and check it out for yourselves.

The Elisabeth musical is basically a biopic about Elisabeth von Wittelsbach. She was a Bavarian princess and her favourite cousin was King Ludwig II (who built the beautiful Schloss Neuschwanstein near Füssen). Elisabeth eventually married her other cousin Kaiser Franz Joseph I and became the Empress of Austria. Elisabeth was famed for being one of the most beautiful women in Europe, was nicknamed "Sissi", and was later murdered in 1891 by an Italian anarchist called Luigi Lucheni. Although Elisabeth isn't particularly famous in Britain or America she's a beloved historical icon in Austria, Germany and Central Europe. Phantom of the Opera fans might also be interested to know that Christine's Think of Me costume from the 2004 movie is based on a dress that Elisabeth wears in a famous portrait by Franz Xaver Winterhalter.



Elisabeth's fame led to a trilogy of films being made about her life in the 1950s which starred the actress Romy Schneider. However, these films idealised and sugar-coated Elisabeth's life at court and her relationship with her husband to an absurd degree. Elisabeth's life was in reality far more tragic and dark than these films would have you believe. Elisabeth was miserable at court and she often said that getting married at the age of 15 was the biggest mistake of her life. Elisabeth was never raised to be an Empress. Elisabeth's mother Ludovica was the sister of Sophie, the Crown Princess of Austria. The two of them had always planned that Ludovica's oldest daughter Helene would be the one to marry Franz Joseph, so from a very young age it was Helene that was trained for the position of Empress. However, when Franz Joseph was finally introduced to Helene and her family, he fell passionately in love with Elisabeth instead and proposed to her. Elisabeth was fond of Franz Joseph but she didn't fully reciprocate his feelings for her. However, she didn't dare refuse him. Elisabeth moved away from her family to Vienna, married Franz Joseph and was then crowned the Empress of Austria. Elisabeth was a very sensitive and introverted young woman and was completely unprepared for her new life. She found the strict and rigid protocol of court life suffocating and her new mother-in-law would constantly criticise her and put her down. Elisabeth's marriage to Franz Joseph was not a happy one (and in the later years of their marriage Franz Joseph took a mistress). There would be days in which Elisabeth would get so depressed that she would just sit in her bedroom and cry. Also, when Elisabeth had children she wasn't even allowed to care for them. When Elisabeth's first daughter was born, Sophie took her away from Elisabeth and named the baby after herself without even consulting Elisabeth. She took Elisabeth's second daughter Gisela away from her as well. And then - when Elisabeth finally won a battle with her mother-in-law to be able to take her two young daughters on holiday to Hungary - Elisabeth's infant daughter Sophie contracted Typhus and died. Elisabeth was devastated by this loss. To try to cope with her misery, she became obsessed with her beauty regime and eating because it was one of the few things that she had any control over. She would ride horses for sometimes up to 8 hours a day and suffered from anorexia (she had a 17 inch waist). She did find more positive ways of dealing with her depression though. She read and wrote poetry and was especially fond of the poet Heinrich Heine. She learnt fluent Hungarian, English and Greek. She did charitable work and frequently visited mental asylums and hospitals because she had a great deal of compassion for the mentally ill. She managed to have a small but significant role in Hungary obtaining independence and she also travelled a great deal. However, Elisabeth was once again devastated by loss when her adult son Prince Rudolph killed his mistress and then himself. Two years later Elisabeth herself died.

The Elisabeth musical was intended as a critical response against those sanitised 1950s films that were made about Sissi's life. The musical was written by Sylvester Levay and Michael Kunze who are sort of like the Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice of German musical theatre (in terms of their popularity). Levay wrote the music for Elisabeth and Kunze wrote the lyrics. Their musical opened in Vienna in the year 1992. Although the critical reviews for the show were mixed Elisabeth was a smash-hit and ran for five years. It was then revived for another two years in 2003, with a live recording of the show being recorded and released on DVD in 2005. Although Elisabeth is a relatively obscure musical in Britain and America it's actually the most popular German language musical of all time and has been seen by over 10 million people. Although there has never been an English language production of the show the musical has been staged all over the world. It's been performed in Germany, Finland, Sweden, Hungary, the Netherlands, Italy, Switzerland, South Korea and Japan. The musical is also currently playing in Vienna again as a celebration of the show's 20th anniversary. I've heard some really good things about this current production so if you speak German and happen to be going to Vienna any time soon then I'd definitely recommend going to see it!

As I've already mentioned, the Elisabeth musical is a more accurate portrayal of Sissi's life by showing her unhappiness, anger and depression with her life at court. This would have made for a very compelling story all by itself but the musical also adds in a fascinating supernatural element to the proceedings. The musical opens with a prologue (see below) in which Elisabeth's assassin Luigi Lucheni is being interrogated by an unseen voice in purgatory. Lucheni has been interrogated night after night for 100 years as part of a Promethean style punishment (if you know your Greek mythology). Lucheni claims that he was actually doing Elisabeth a favour by killing her because she wanted to die and was in love with death. When the unseen voice scoffs at this, Lucheni summons Elisabeth's contemporaries and the Personification of Death (Der Tod) to his trial. Der Tod admits that he was in love with Elisabeth and that he interfered in her life in order to bring them closer. We the audience are then taken back into the past to see Elisabeth's life unfold and Lucheni takes over as the show's narrator. He tries to convince the unseen voice (and us) that Elisabeth was actually a horrible person who got everything that she deserved. In addition to Elisabeth's battles at court we also get to see Elisabeth's relationship with death. In this musical Death is personified as being an alluring and mysterious young man who takes people's lives by kissing them. He's also got his own minions : D Der Tod is in love with Elisabeth and tells her that the only way she will be able to obtain true happiness and freedom is in death. However, Elisabeth is gutsy and defiant to the end and refuses to give into her own private longing for death without a fight. She strives to find freedom and happiness in life. Apparently Michael Kunze had read some of Elisabeth's letters and had been very struck by their suicidal-sounding tone. He came up with the idea of making Death into an attractive man in order to make Elisabeth's obsession with death more tangible and to show the audience her mental state. There is also a long-standing fascination with death and the macabre in Austrian culture that the Elisabeth musical taps into, and in Germanic folklore Der Tod is often depicted in artwork as being a skeletal figure who seduces young maidens with a violin.



There are many reasons why I love the Elisabeth musical but I guess my number one reason would have to be its music. Elisabeth is an almost entirely sung-through musical and its songs are just so soaringly beautiful and atmospheric. The music ranges from power ballads to epic choruses to light-hearted ditties. Some of the songs have a modern rock feel about them and other songs have more of a classical musical theatre sound but somehow it all fits together and nothing is jarring. The musical is packed full of fantastic songs like Prolog, Alle Fragen Sind Gestellt, Der Letzte TanzIch Gehör nur Mir, Milch, Kitsch, Wenn Ich Tanzen Will, Die Schatten Werden Länger (my favourite song in the musical!) and Der Schleier Fällt. I adore the music of this show and I love the language of Elisabeth too. German is such a weirdly beautiful language and it can be very powerful when sung. I'm so annoyed that I've forgotten almost all of the German that I learnt at school! Elisabeth is a show that looks great as well. It has some gorgeous costumes that look as good as anything that you'd see on the West End or Broadway. OK, I hate that white, sparkly shirt with tassels that Der Tod occasionally wears but the rest of the costumes are great!


Another huge reason why I love Elisabeth so much is due to its utterly fascinating and compelling story. As I explained before in my Why I Love Musicals post the musicals that I tend to love best are those dramatic, epic and emotional musicals. Elisabeth is right up my alley then! Also there is actually quite a bit of social commentary in this musical. The rise of fascism and anti-semitism is touched on in the song Hass and you also learn about Hungary's struggle for independence and the declining influence of the Habsburg monarchy. You get a real sense of what was going on in the Austrian Empire in the years leading up to WWI. And then of course there are the characters in this musical. One of the many things that I love about Elisabeth is that there aren't any bad guys in it. All of the characters that are in it are very flawed and complex and human. Elisabeth herself is a very sympathetic heroine for the majority of the time but the musical still isn't afraid to portray her in an unattractive light at times. There are times in Act Two when her character comes across as being cold and selfish. Franz Joseph comes across as a weak-willed mummy's boy for quite a lot of the time because he allows his mother to mistreat and bully his wife - but he's still quite clearly a good man. Even Sophie gets quite a touching song towards the end of the musical about her love for her son! And then there's Der Tod and Luigi Lucheni. In another musical these characters could have been portrayed as one-dimensional villains but that's certainly not the case here. Der Tod genuinely loves Elisabeth and is only trying to make her happy and bring her freedom. Yes, he does some things that we'd class as immoral but then he is literally Death. A personification of Death wouldn't have the same morals as humans. And I happen to really like the fact that Der Tod is such a proud and confident character. I'm getting so tired of angsty, guilt-ridden males in fiction *cough Edward Cullen cough* And Luigi Lucheni's character is so much fun to watch in this musical! Fans of the Elisabeth musical often describe the show as being like a cross between Phantom of the Opera and Evita - but of these two musicals Elisabeth is far closer to the latter. Just like Evita, Elisabeth has an extremely cynical and sardonic narrator who heavily dislikes the person whose story he is telling. Lucheni and Che are both quite similar characters. However, there's still a big difference between the two of them. Che is just venting in Evita. He's angry that everyone is practically worshipping a woman that he considers to be a very flawed and selfish person. Lucheni, on the other hand, is a far more embittered character and is much more biased. He's trying to make Elisabeth out to be a bad person so he can justify his actions and get himself out of purgatory. But I still really like his character in spite of myself. Lucheni is just so much fun to watch in this musical and he can be very funny. Most of the humour in the musical comes from him. He isn't at all a passive narrator either and takes on lots of different personas in the show. He's always a lively and emotional presence and it really helps that Serkan Kaya does such an awesome job at playing him.

As I've already mentioned my introduction to Elisabeth was the 2005 DVD of the Vienna cast revival. Older Elisabeth fans might accuse me of being biased but I absolutely adore this cast. Maya Hakvoort is excellent as Sissi but I prefer Serkan Kaya and Máté Kamarás's performances. Serkan Kaya is just an absolute joy to watch as Lucheni. He has so much charisma and energy and stage presence - he steals every scene he's in. He's obviously having a lot of fun playing the character! And he has one heck of a voice! He's the best singer in the show for me and I love the rocky edge to his voice. Kamarás has got quite a rocky edge to his voice as well and I love his voice almost as much as Kaya's. Kamarás plays Der Tod and is a Hungarian singer. Given that the real-life Elisabeth was such a huge lover of Hungary and the Hungarian people I think it's really cool that they got a Hungarian to play the character! And I just love Máté Kamarás in the role. It was Uwe Kröger who originated the role of Der Tod back in 1992 and he's a big musical theatre star in Europe. He also dubbed Gerard Butler's Phantom in the 2004 movie. However, I'm not a fan of Uwe Kröger's Der Tod. In all of the videos that I've seen of him in the role, his Der Tod seems far too cold and imperious and androgynous. Although this is more along the lines of what I'd imagine a personification of Death to actually be like, Der Tod is also supposed to be in love with Elisabeth. I just don't get that from Kröger's Der Tod. It's the exact opposite with Máté Kamarás's Der Tod. He gives a far more manly and masculine take on the character and Der Tod's love and passion for Sissi is much more obvious. He gets so angry and frustrated with Elisabeth for not listening to him. Also the scene in which he finally embraces and kisses Elisabeth at the end of the musical and here is ridiculously adorable, he's so sweet and tender towards her. And I love the fact that Kamarás's Der Tod is blonde. Not all of the actors who play Der Tod in Elisabeth are blonde but the majority of them tend to be. I love that! They give me David Bowie from Labyrinth vibes! I do have one small complaint about Kamarás's Der Tod though. At times I do think that he's a little bit too hands-on with Maya Hakvoort's Elisabeth in the musical - but then again I would much rather have a Der Tod who shows too much passion for Sissi instead of not enough so it is a small complaint. Also - and please excuse this shameless fangirling - Kamarás is so handsome ; ) There are other Elisabeth performers that I love though. I love Pia Douwes (who originated the role of Elisabeth) just as much as Maya Hakvoort. I also really like Annemieke Van Dam and Jesper Tydén.

So, that's why I love Elisabeth so much : ) I hope you've found this review interesting and informative - and that it's made you want to want to watch the musical. I really hope that you'll love it as much as I do! I must stress though that Elisabeth is a mature musical in its themes and it isn't an all ages appropriate, family-friendly musical. Death plays a role in the story (quite literally) and there are one or two swear words. There's some sexual innuendo and the song Nur Kein Genieren can be completely skipped through since it takes place in a brothel. A character kills someone (although it isn't bloody or graphic) and then kills himself. Although there are some mature younger teenagers out there I'd say that the musical is only appropriate for 15 year olds and over, just to be on the safe side.

If you want to watch Elisabeth then you might be wondering just how exactly you can see it. Well, by far the best way of watching this musical is by watching OiaHavanah's playlist on Youtube because it has English subtitles and it's free. The link is here. Unfortunately the DVD of Elisabeth doesn't have any English subtitles so unless you speak German you probably wouldn't have a clue what was actually going on in the show. For some reason the special features on the DVD have English subtitles but not the performance itself! That is just so... stupid! If you do speak German though, and would like to own the DVD, then I would suggest ordering it from Amazon.de.

In tomorrow's post I'm going to talk about my mixed feelings about a West End/Broadway transfer of Elisabeth and what my dream cast for the musical would be. 

14 comments:

Mizzie-Me said...

Thanks for this lovely introduction to a musical that I had never heard of! You definitely got me interested. I actually found out about Sissi through my interest in horse riding – as you mentioned here, she was quite a famous equestrian too. I also saw those sugar-fluff movies... Too bad I don't understand a word of German :(

Indigo Montoya said...

Thank you! If you do watch that playlist then you'll have to let me know what you think about it! : D

Yes they reckon that Sissi must have been one of the finest horsewomen in Europe during her lifetime. Considering how much riding she did I can't say I'm surprised!

I haven't actually watched those Sissi films but they're supposed to be very inaccurate. They're like "Oh no, one of her two infant daughters died?! Let's just give her the one daughter! Oh no, her adult son killed himself?! Let's end the film when he's still a baby!"

Hamlette said...

Wow! Now THAT is an in-depth review!

What strikes me about the way you describe this, with Death being asttractive and claiming that Elisabeth wanted him, etc, reminds me a lot of an old (1930s?) movie called "Death Takes a Holiday," starring a young Frederic March. I don't know you well, so I don't know if you like old movies, but if you do, you might be interested in that one, to see the similarities between it and this. It was available on YouTube in its entirety a few months ago, though I don't know if it's still there.

Indigo Montoya said...

Yes this is probably the most in-depth review I've done so far, apart from a three post rant on Love Never Dies that was quite fun to write.

Er, I haven't watched a huge amount of old movies but I've enjoyed most of the ones that I have. And I have heard of Frederic March. I really want to see his Jekyll & Hyde film. I've heard great things about that one but I want to read the book first. I did look up that film you mentioned. It certainly sounds interesting and it's on my to-watch list now : )

Ruby Danderfluff said...

Good grief this post must have taken forever to write! t'was a blast to read, though!

What an absolutely tragic life; you would think it was fiction if you didn't know any better.

I remember seeing those movies! It was such a while ago, but they really seeded my interest in the German language, as fluffy as they were. I don't know how I managed *not* to know they were about Elizabeth.

*huff* What's with the brothel scenes in these musicals?

This sounds like such an interestingly complex musical. Death as an honorable blonde that's fallen in love with a German empress, all narrated by her murderer who's trying desperately to explain himself out of purgatory? Color me intrigued!

That dress in the last picture looks awfully similar to Christine's dressing gown... maybe Shumacher *did* work a trade with the Elizabeth crew for a "think of me" gown. :P

Can't wait to watch this!

Indigo Montoya said...

"This sounds like such an interestingly complex musical. Death as an honorable blonde that's fallen in love with a German empress, all narrated by her murderer who's trying desperately to explain himself out of purgatory? Color me intrigued!"

I know, isn't the story just fabulous?! :D I really hope you'll love it as much as I do!

Miss Dashwood said...

I will be back next week hopefully with more in-depth comments on your FABULOUS posts this week but I just wanted to say really quick that the line about Death killing people by kissing them cracked me up for some reason.

I must have a morbid sense of humor. And yes, I was picturing Aaron Tveit as Gabe. *cough*

Indigo Montoya said...

Aw, you're so lovely! *cries*

Indigo Montoya said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Katherine Sophia said...

oooh, I nearly squealed to see you had chosen this musical. XD It's one I've been interested in seeing for a while, but I haven't found a place where I could see the whole thing with English subtitles. I've only seen a couple songs, but they were definitely intriguing. Very cool to learn more about it! :) And ha, I love Die Schatten Werden Länger too! XD

Have you ever seen the Korean version? I'm curious how you think the Korean Der Tod compares to others you've seen - honestly he reminds me of a snake here. XD
http://youtu.be/QH24JG89Kr0

I'm unashamedly in love with Park Eun Tae's version of Lucheni, though. XD He's just short of certifiably insane. Though how he manages to sing at all will all that spinning, I'm not sure.
http://youtu.be/F8JPjtD4ZVc

Indigo Montoya said...

Hi Katherine! Thank you for the comment and the video links! Once I got past the initial shock of "Hey, they're not singing in German!" I really enjoyed those videos. It looks like a fabulous production. And yes I can see what you mean about the Korean Tod. And about Lucheni. He seems pretty psychotic in that video! I love that you love 'Die Schatten Werden Langer' as well :) I was borderline obsessed with that song when I first discovered Elisabeth and would play it constantly. Even now it's still my favourite song in the whole show.

Caren Franco said...

i found your blog when i was trying to search for why Elisabeth hasn't been translated to English! my friend showed me and my daughters (16 and 12) the DVD of the Austrian revival from 2005 in the middle of september. i too, like Sisi, fell in love with Death. (and Maté is pretty hot too.)

i love that vid you linked of Maya and Maté singing the finale. so cute! i also have watched the subtitled version you posted as well.

Hannah said...

Hi Caren! I'm really glad you liked the vid I liked! And it's awesome to get feedback from an actual fan of the show (and Maté!) That's the trouble when you're a massive fan of an obscure German-language musical, it's harder to find other fans to talk to.

Anonymous said...

A great feedback. I also love this show and I´m from Germany, unfortunately I never saw it live.
If you like german language musicals I can highly recommend the Austrian-German musical "Tanz der Vampire". Which means Dance of the vampires. It´s funny, dark and also has great music (music by Jim Steinman and lyrics by Michael Kunze).
Here are two different trailers of the german production (I prefer it to the Austrian):

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6XZJQRu1y88

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zqVcLGLI1fQ

Let me know if you like it, it´s my favourite musical ;)