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 The Theatreguide.London Review

In March 2020 the covid-19 epidemic forced the closure of all British theatres. Some companies adapted by putting archive recordings of past productions online, others by streaming new shows. And we take the opportunity to explore other vintage productions preserved online. Until things return to normal we review the experience of watching live theatre onscreen.

Elizabeth the Musical
YouTube   December 2021

Germany's most successful stage musical ever had its premier in 1992 and has been produced and revived all over Europe, but never in Britain or America, so YouTube gives us the opportunity to discover it.

And what we discover is a lush and melodic musical melodrama in the Lloyd Webber mode, derivative and dependent on its models in several ways, but with its own first-rate songs and dramatic effects.

A fictionalised version of the life of the nineteenth-century Empress of Austria, it presents her as a mix of romantic heroine, feminist icon, waster of opportunities and victim of that most Germanic of sentimentalities, liebestod, the romanticising of death.

The libretto of Michael Kunze, to music by Sylvester Levay (also creators of the musical Rebecca which we've reviewed) introduces Elizabeth as the teenage daughter of a minor noble family who attracts the young Emperor Franz Joseph. A fairy tale marriage soon goes sour when court intriguers led by the groom's mother turn against her.

She fights successfully for the right to raise her own children and have a life apart from being a decorative court accessory, but then does nothing with that freedom, losing interest in the children, dabbling irresponsibly in politics and, though living apart from her husband for more than 20 years, spending the time in idle tourism.

The musical's explanation for this, and its way of telling the story, is to create a character called Der Tod (Death), an alluring and Byronic figure who carries on a lifelong romance with Elizabeth that repeatedly draws her away from involvement in life.

The libretto's other structural device is to have the whole story narrated and commented on by Lucceni, the anarchist who will eventually (and almost accidentally) assassinate the Empress, and whose defense is that he was only giving her what she wanted.

You should by now have spotted the book's debts to both The Phantom Of The Opera, with Death as an otherworldly antihero, and Evita, with Lucceni filling the same function as that show's Che.

Elizabeth wears its sources openly, and while you can't miss them, they don't significantly hurt its effectiveness. (If you're going to steal, steal from the best, and do it well.)

What really carries the show are the songs, which, if they are imitation Lloyd Webber, are very good imitation Lloyd Webber.

The Empress's big anthem, 'I Belong To Me,' is a show-stopper in itself, and also multilayered enough that it can be reprised by other characters as 'I Belong To You' and 'You Belong To Me.' 'When You Are With Me' is a good love song for the young Franz and Elizabeth and 'Two Boats In The Night' a moving expression of their regrets much later in life.

Death has a couple of powerful assertions of his hold on Elizabeth, and Lucceni stops the show with his bitterly ironic 'Kitch,' which expands from a comment on Royal Wedding souvenirs to a condemnation of the whole idle rich culture.

In this production Elizabeth is played by the very popular Dutch star Pia Douwes (Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca), who created the role in 1992. Her stage presence is a little too strong for the early scenes of innocent teenager and nave bride, but she comes into total stage-holding authority as Elizabeth progresses through frustration, assertiveness and exhaustion.

Carson Lepper makes Lucheni a tightly-wound spring of nervous energy finding release in expressing his cynicism, and Uwe Kroger is appropriately handsome, sexy and confidently alluring as Death.

The physical production is largely stark and simple, effectively using lighting changes rather than elaborate sets to establish place and tone, and the direction and choreography are less a matter of dance than of moving large groups courtiers, plotters, onlookers, etc around the stage in attractive patterns.

The single-camera video recording, from a perspective in the audience, is professional and polished, evidently (according to a YouTube note) made for Pia Douwes's father's archive and subsequently pirated, and the excellent English titles added by the person who posted it on YouTube.

Gerald Berkowitz
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Review of Elizabeth 2021