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.
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.
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.
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.