Dance of the Vampires: the Musical

The story so far… Roman Polanski’s 1967 movie Dance of the Vampires, featuring a scene in which his soon-to-be-girlfriend gets spanked, suffers heavy cuts at the hands of its bone-headed American producer and proceeds to become a box-office flop.

Now we fast-forward to 1997, to find Polanski directing a new project: Dance of the Vampires!

Well, we should really give the title as Tanz der Vampire. The stage version, a German-language musical with a score by Jim Steinman and book by Michael Kunze, premiered at the Raimund Theater in Vienna on October 4, 1997. The cast included Cornelia Zenz as Sarah, seen here in a scene with the naive young hero Albert…

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… and here in a scene with her father Shagal, played by James Sbano:

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So that’s one important thing present and correct. But it doesn’t mean Tanz der Vampire is a straightforward transfer of the 1967 original from screen to stage. There are some big structural and character changes which mainly affect the role of Sarah, and have some impact on the way the spanking scene works as part of the show as a whole.

If we look at it close up, taking it out of context, events seem to be not dissimilar to what happens in the movie. Sarah is fonder of taking baths than her father would like.

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Shagal finds her in the guest bathroom and bodily carries her next door to her bedroom. (This is possible onstage because the set is divided up into different rooms, rather like the set for Behind the Blinds.)

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And once they’re there, it’s nemesis for Sarah, played here by Raili Raitala in the 2011 Finnish production…

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The woman in the background is Sarah’s mother, Rebecca (one of the less grotesque realizations of this character), and it’s lucky for Sarah that she’s there, because her maternal reaction significantly shortens the spanking. Here’s the script of the scene in English translation, starting in the bathroom:

SHAGAL: Haven’t I told you a thousand times to stay in your room?

SARAH: I only wanted to take a bath!

(Shagal throws the towel over her head, hoists her over his shoulder and carries her out of the door and round into her bedroom.)

SHAGAL: Why can’t you be obedient? Are you trying to drive me crazy?

SARAH: No!

SHAGAL: I’ll teach you to do as I say!

(Shagal puts Sarah across his knee and spanks her.)

SARAH: No! Ow! Ow! Ow!

REBECCA: What are you doing?

(Shagal releases Sarah.)

SHAGAL: Are you going to be a good girl now?

SARAH: Yes, Daddy, absolutely, Daddy. I promise I’ll never have a bath again.

Even in the original German, that’s a pretty unremarkable piece of writing, with dialog that wouldn’t be out of place in a piece of tenth-rate spanking porn. What makes the scene matter is the broader context, and that’s where it’s useful to address what may seem, to those who know the movie, to be two oddities about the stage version of the scene.

Why is Shagal wearing a nightshirt? And why does he carry Sarah the long way round into her bedroom, rather than going directly through the connecting door with the bathroom?

The explanation is that Michael Kunze’s structural changes entail moving the spanking later in the action. In both the movie and the stage musical, Shagal finds Sarah in the bath as he is showing the new arrivals their room. In the movie, he spanks her. But in the musical, he boards up the connecting door, singing about the difficulties of being father to a beautiful daughter. In both movie and musical, Sarah then persuades Alfred to let her have another bath later than night, and in the movie that’s when she gets abducted by the vampire Count. Whereas on stage, it’s when she gets spanked. Which explains why Shagal is dressed for bed and why he can’t use the door that would have been the most direct route into Sarah’s bedroom if he hadn’t already blocked it up.

There’s a bigger change to the story going on around this, which boils down to one salient fact: in the stage version, Sarah is not abducted. During her second bath, she is indeed visited by the Count, who invites her to come to his vampire ball. When Alfred and the Professor find her, it is established that she has not been bitten: the Count wants to seduce her, not eat her. And the following day, she runs away to the castle of her own free will, drawn by the Count’s promise of a more interesting life and some beautiful red boots.

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So the stage version is making concessions to changes in attitude and sensibility since 1967 concerning both spanking scenes and the portrayal of young women characters in general. Shagal is no longer a father who readily spanks his daughter at the first sign of disobedience: the spanking is treated as a less commonplace occasion, not just in being deferred until the second offense but also in the distraught way the mother reacts to it. This is obviously not an everyday occurrence in the Shagal household. And as for Sarah, newly endowed with self-determining agency in Kunze’s book, it’s a climactic moment that helps to crystallize her subsequent decision to run away from home. In 1967, Polanski’s producer criticized the spanking scene as a self-indulgence that didn’t contribute to moving the plot forward. Nobody could say that about the spanking in the 1997 version.

The Vienna production was a great success: it ran for three years, closing in 2000, and since then the musical has rarely been out of production somewhere the length of Europe, from France and the Netherlands to Estonia and Russia, not to mention five productions in Japan. Let’s look at a selection of them.

Dateline Hamburg, 2003-6, with Jerzy Jeszke as Shagal, and Jessica Kessler as Sarah:

The musical ran in Warsaw in 2005-6, with multiple casts, including two Shagals and three different Sarahs. And here are two different videos:

Here’s the 2009 Vienna production, with James Sbano still playing Shagal twelve years after he created the role, and Marjan Shaki as Sarah:

The 2010 Antwerp production with Frank Hoelen as Shagal and Anne van Opstal as Sarah:

The 2011 Berlin production, with Angelina Markiefka as Sarah:

And lastly, a different performance of the 2011 Berlin production, with Kai Husgen as Shagal, Amelie Dobler as Sarah, and a bonus for anyone who doesn’t speak German:

Over the years, Sarah has been played by at least 35 different actresses, but if you’ve ploughed through all those videos you’ll have noticed that the spanking itself is played fairly consistently from production to production: except for the original version in Vienna, Shagal always spanks with his right hand, Sarah’s head is always upstage so that what we mainly see of her is fluttering legs, and the actual spanking always consists of two groups of four smacks each. That’s how it’s done with Jessica Kessler,

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with Annie van Opstal,

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with Angelina Markiefka,

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and many others too. It has to be closely choreographed like this because the spanking is written into the score: the orchestra performs each of the eight smacks as they are given onstage, which means Shagal has to play it just so or he’ll spank out of synch. But though variety is lacking, the spanking is an attractive sight and, on the even brighter side, it can’t be casually cut out without also rewriting the music.

But then… enter American money. Enter Broadway. Enter Michael Crawford in the role of the Count. And exit the spanking scene.

A heavily adapted version of Dance of the Vampires opened for previews at the Minskoff Theatre, New York, in October 2002, with Ron Orbach as Shagal and Mandy Gonzalez as Sarah. The show’s formal first night wasn’t until seven weeks later in December. The number of previews, 61 in all, tells you something was wrong. Roman Polanski was unable to direct the show because he cannot go to the USA, owing to some legal unpleasantness long ago. In his absence, the producers changed the music and songs and had the book rewritten with the misguided aim of creating a camp comedy in the style of Mel Brooks; the hapless hacks charged with the task were instructed to include five jokes on every page. One of the many changes they made was to the bathtub sequence, in which, quite contrary to the rationale of the European script, Sarah is bitten by the Count, which means the outcome for her is an emergency blood transfusion rather than a good spanking.

And so history repeated itself. Producer Martin Ransohoff tried to make the 1967 film brisker and goofier, and his efforts backfired disastrously. Likewise, the 2002 Broadway version was rightly eviscerated by the critics and closed after only 56 performances – fewer than the number of previews. The German stage version is still going strong nineteen years after the premiere. Sometimes, it seems, you just can’t improve on European sophistication.

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