stage dives

‘Within Fifteen Minutes, It Became Unbearable’

The bloody Broadway mess that was Dance of the Vampires.

Photo-Illustration: Vulture and Bruce Glikas/FilmMagic
Photo-Illustration: Vulture and Bruce Glikas/FilmMagic

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If you were to watch the grainy, back-of-the-house bootleg video of the 2002 show Dance of the Vampires, you’d have no idea that you were watching one of the biggest-ever Broadway flops. From the audience’s perspective, it certainly sounds like a smash. As the viewfinder bobs around, the people in the balcony scream with excitement over undead weirdness and the show’s chief vamp and ex-Phantom of the Opera Michael Crawford. And they are losing it for their Dark God, the composer Jim Steinman. Steinman wrote every single pop-rock anthem that makes you want to buy a motorcycle and a wind machine:

“Making Love out of Nothing At All”
“It’s All Coming Back to Me Now”
“I’d Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That)”
“Holding Out for a Hero”
“Total Eclipse of the Heart” 

(To name just a handful.)

So on that evening at Dance of the Vampires, whenever a character quotes a classic Steinman phrase (like “On a hot summer night, would you offer your throat to the wolf with the red roses?”), the Steinmaniacs whoop and holler: a cult-hit audience for a show that in actuality wasn’t a cult hit.

Nearly two decades later, the question of “what went wrong with Dance of the Vampires” is still a blood-hot issue in some quarters. It’s normal for a musical to lose money (only about 20 percent of shows recoup their investments), but the personalities involved — and the way much of the process was litigated online and in the New York Post — meant it took on an epic smoke-and-brimstone air. By the time Vampires collapsed, only six weeks after opening, it had lost its entire investment of $12 million; since it never toured, it never made any cash on the road. And the disaster had a lasting impact for some. Steinman went public, disavowing it. Michael Crawford’s Broadway reputation was burned to a cinder; he never returned. A few in the Steinman orbit refuse to speak about it even now, worried about reprisals and remaining bad blood.

“I have been expecting a grad student to call me for a long time,” said one person from the production, “saying they’re writing their thesis on everything that went wrong.”

Cue fog.

Once upon a time I was falling in love

The story actually starts long ago, in Hollywood. In 1967, Roman Polanski followed up his psychological thriller Cul-de-sac with the horror-goof The Fearless Vampire Killers, a send-up of Hammer horror pictures, in which vampiricist Professor Abronsius and his flailing assistant, Alfred (played by Polanski), try to defeat the fanged Count Von Krolock. (A dewy Sharon Tate plays Sarah, the breast-heaving, bath-taking point of the movie’s love triangle.) The Fearless Vampire Killers includes several tart jokes about anti-Semitism — a Jewish vampire isn’t allowed to lodge his coffin with the other undead; a lady brandishes a cross to little effect — and it’s been called “Polanski’s most Jewish film.” But Hollywood producers felt that “Eastern European” humor didn’t translate. They recut and redubbed it without his permission, added an animated prologue, and larded it with slide-whistle sound effects. It was no longer a spoof — it was a mockery. Polanski was furious.

So it was a bit of a surprise when, in the mid-‘90’s, the European megamusical author Michael Kunze decided to turn The Fearless Vampire Killers into a sung-through rock opera called Tanz der Vampire. Kunze wanted Polanski to direct, and he wanted Steinman to do the music. Jim Steinman’s longtime manager David Sonenberg — whose own involvement in Dance of the Vampires wound up being contentious — was with the composer in Vienna when the deal was made. (Steinman himself no longer communicates with the press, after a series of strokes.) “It’s not surprising that Jim would be excited [about Tanz] because he’s a vampire himself,” says Sonenberg. “He stays up all night to sleep during the days.” Steinman was certainly a Lord of Excess — but most of the people I spoke to found his ragin’ rock god behavior endearing. Perhaps it’s because the hedonism was one part Ozzy Osbourne, two parts Richie Rich. When he was working on the 2017 Bat Out of Hell musical, Steinman tasked an assistant with bringing him new sunglasses — each pair spikier and punkier than the last — every 20 minutes. A Dance of the Vampires colleague said he painted the park-facing windows of his Trump Tower apartment black and kept his Connecticut estate fully staffed while he was away so the butler could feed his cat. Several work-friends said he always ordered everything off every menu — “You order the left side of the entreés, I’ll order the right,” he’d say, or eat $300 worth of McDonald’s food at rehearsal. “He is an extraordinarily bizarre and wonderful genius,” says Sonenberg fondly.

In Vienna, the arranger and musical supervisor Michael Reed, who’d worked on some of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s biggest shows, helped Steinman plunder his own songbook. “We basically took Jim’s melodies and the stuff he drafted from various sources and put it all together like a quilt,” he says. (The European version of the show starts the second act with “Totale Finsternis,” German for “Total Eclipse of the Heart.”) Reed is still with the Vereinigte Bühnen Wien (VBW) version, which is to this day a giant hit: Since 1997, it has played 13 countries to 9.6 million people. Polanski directed, so Tanz der Vampire kept some of his film’s broad-as-a-barn humor — there’s a rollicking song called “Garlic” and a swishy vampire who can send Alfred into a gay panic — but Kunze’s German libretto is also interested in Eurogoth grandeur. In Kunze’s hands, Count Von Krolock became a melancholy Romantic figure, frightening but alluring, the personification of appetite. The story for Tanz der Vampire, Kunze says, is the battle between a Kantian hyperintellectual and a Nietzschean death-and-sex demiurge for one young man’s soul. (The demiurge, to be clear, is the one in satin pants.)

Michael Crawford and Mandy Gonzalez at a rehearsal-room preview, September 2002. Photo: Lawrence Lucier/Getty Images

Veteran Broadway producers Anita Waxman and Elizabeth Williams flew to Vienna to see Tanz. The impact was visceral, indeed, libidinal. “I remember I said, ‘The next vampire I meet, I want it to be as sexy as this one,’” says Waxman. “I was single! I wanted a vampire! It was one of the most exciting productions I had seen in a long time.” By this point, Sonenberg had added a hat — producer. All their bats were in a row; Waxman and Williams were ready to bring it to Broadway. One small, sexually assaultive hiccup: Polanski, who had skipped out on a plea-deal after raping a minor, could not enter the United States. The U.S. set designer David Gallo remembers that one (later) Dance producer was sure he could solve it — he’d ask Hillary Clinton to let Polanski in the country. He just needed to pick up a phone! Reality intruded, though. Polanski was a no-go.

Love and death and an American guitar

Without Polanski, all hands started fighting for the tiller. There were battles over whether to cast Steve Barton, who had starred in Vienna as Krolock, and workshops with the comic playwright David Ives, as he tried to turn a sung-through opera into a Broadway musical. The contentious process was too much for the British director John Caird, who’d steered the workshops. “[Caird and I] were both very unhappy,” Waxman says. “Sonenberg overrode [us] about who was going to star in it. And at that point he was—I have no problem saying this—he was an impossible person to work with.” In July 2001, when rehearsals were still planned for that December, Michael Riedel at the New York Post cited sources saying that the two women were sidelined because of artistic clashes with Steinman himself, though Waxman doesn’t believe Steinman turned on her. It has been 19 years, and Waxman is still unhappy about how things went down. “I do this because I love projects! I don’t just do it for money! You can tell because I did Doctor Zhivago.” She laughs. (Zhivago also lost about $9 million.) “But I said, “This isn’t worth it,” and then [Sonenberg] wouldn’t let us out, and it became a nightmare — finally the fighting was so bad, I just hired my lawyer and we got out of it.”

With the timeline pushed back to 2002, director John Rando and choreographer John Carrafa, both fresh from the 2001 Fringe-to-Broadway hit Urinetown, entered the picture. Soon, Sonenberg was out too. Casting was the crux. The question of who wanted the ex-Phantom Michael Crawford to play Krolock is still contested; nobody wants the credit. Sonenberg says he specifically did not want him, but that financing was tied to Crawford, a rare Broadway name who could guarantee sales. Sonenberg claims that “I took a powder” when he realized nervous investors would only commit with Crawford in the lead, and that the others — Steinman included — were steering the show away from Gothic splendor to be more Mel Brooks–ish.

Whether it was a question of injured sensibility or his own fundraising capacity, Sonenberg’s departure was a grievous break: Steinman fired him as his manager, sundering a relationship of 27 years, and the show “lost its Jim whisperer,” says one production source. In a 2007 blog post, Steinman describes it as happening the other way around. Speaking of Dance of the Vampires, he later said, “you guys know I hated & was disgusted by [it], & was FIRED by my manager, acting as producer!” That timeline does not seem to be the right one, but Steinman’s stories about what happened on the production have often changed.

Michael Crawford and the show’s dancers in rehearsal, fall 2002. Photo: New York Daily News Archive/NY Daily News via Getty Images

Unwilling to see so much work go to waste, the general management company 101 Productions asked two relative Broadway newbies, Bob Boyett and Bill Haber, to come bail out the show. The pair had long résumés in film and television, but almost nothing in theater. Says Boyett, “They called us to let us know that they had this show, which was in trouble, and there was a lot of money at stake. It was our rescue fantasy,” laughs Boyett. “What a great thing to take this enormous musical that everybody was calling the Titanic and get it to shore, you know?” In a perfect world, the show would have started over and taken another year. Ives’s script wasn’t ready, and Rando says now that the production desperately needed an out-of-town tryout. Instead, Dance was already committed to the Minskoff Theatre for 2002. There was no development money left. Rando remembers the full team being finalized late in 2001, and rehearsals were to begin the following September. Barely nine months to prep a show that wanted to be the cross between Les Misérables and Phantom? Isn’t that timeline … insane? “It was tight,” says Rando. “You get it.”

We’ll never be as young as we are right now

Crawford was now signed. Boyett, a beloved figure who hasn’t got a cross word for any collaborator (including Sonenberg) does say, “We inherited a lot of things, and so we were having to make the best of the situation that we were in. We were very anxious to have Michael Crawford though, and the stories about him being difficult for me were totally not true.” Hopes inside the show were high. One of Rando’s fondest Dance memories is from auditions, when he clapped ears on Mandy Gonzalez (now Hamilton’s Angelica) for the first time. Max von Essen was cast as Alfred, and the stage treasure René Auberjonois was cast as Abronsius. Everyone felt on the cusp of greatness … and wealth. “I thought this was my Phantom,” says Gallo. “I listened to those Jim Steinman songs and I heard, KA-CHING.”

Excitement outside the show, though, was taking a new form. In 2002, the internet was rapidly expanding its power and presence in people’s lives, and Dance of the Vampires was perfectly engineered fodder for its vigorous new message boards. Crawford, one rumormonger swore, was demanding $180,000 a week. (Denials about that were issued then and now.) Some well-traveled fans had seen Tanz der Vampire already, so they could claim to be experts in the material; and real tragedies, like Barton’s suicide after Crawford’s casting was announced, gave the gossip the flavor of news.

Very few of the key production folk had megamusical experience. Musical supervisor Reed and several of the designers did. But Rando and Carrafa, who had teamed up to wonderful effect for the low-budget, deliberately low-virtuosity Urinetown, were newcomers to a budget of this size. Carrafa refers to the show as an “ocean liner,” difficult to turn once it started moving. And the script was an ocean liner in a bog. Boyett, now a veteran of 50 Broadway shows, including To Kill a Mockingbird and the suspended 2020 revival of Company, admits that they never got it right. Ives declined to speak about the experience, though another collaborator remembers that the writer was constantly overwhelmed and overruled. Steinman could be stubborn whenever he disagreed with the path the adaptation was taking (he hated, for instance, any of his notoriously long songs getting cut), but you couldn’t call him to talk about it until he woke up at four in the afternoon. At a press rehearsal in September, he told reporters that in Vienna, “Half the show I had to talk Polanski into doing, and did it behind his back a lot,” which must have been a frightening thing for his American collaborators to read.

And he wasn’t the only muscle in the room. From the get-go, Crawford had wanted to separate himself completely from his most famous role as a suave, tuxedo-wearing supernatural being, even though Krolock had been envisioned as, essentially, a second Phantom. Crawford insisted that the Count instead become a kind of clown; an early version of his costume even had Pierrot ruffles. He asked for and occasionally invented funny lines, or stole them from Auberjonois, which led to conflict; he also spontaneously developed an exaggerated Italian accent. One person from the production staff says, drily, “We were all a little befuddled when it showed up in rehearsal. There are not, to my knowledge, too many Italian vampires in the literature.” And because of his stardom, no one could steer him away from the choices. Says that staffer: “He was … not directable.”

Reed and Rando and Gonzalez all say that Crawford did have moments of sweetness and humor. Assistant director David Kennedy remembers on the day that was meant to be their first preview, a 12-year-old Crawford fan from the Midwest showed up with his mother, queuing for a show that had been canceled. “Somebody in the producing team figured this out and invited them in to watch tech,” says Kennedy. “Crawford even came down to say hello to him; it was better than seeing any preview he could have imagined.” But sources from the production also say that Crawford’s behavior could be destructive, describing him as “awful to work with” and “totally self-absorbed.” Says one member of the production staff: “I know with certainty that if another actor in a scene with him tried out a line that got a laugh, it was cut the next day — cut because it worked. That’s how ungenerous he was.”

Reed was horrified at what was happening to the show he’d built so painstakingly in Vienna. Krolock now occasionally wandered into Sarah’s village in elaborate Victorian drag wearing a hoop skirt and giant black bonnet — a bizarre bit that never paid off. Herbert, the gay vampire, would try to seduce Alfred with bon mots like, “Those are my bats. You wanna see my balls?” The laborious make-it-sassier efforts echoed the way Hollywood had hacked apart The Fearless Vampire Killers. Reed missed Polanski. “It was a bit like a university rag show,” Reed says. “It was almost so bad that it could have been hysterical, but it didn’t quite get into that category.” It wasn’t funny. It certainly wasn’t scary.

And then, Michael Kunze, still in Europe and out of the loop, got a copy of the libretto. He was shocked. “The original story had become a sleazy, crude and silly joke without theme or storyline,” he says. “Without my consent the whole show had been mutilated. I protested. As it turned out, the Broadway producers did not feel obliged to respect my ownership of the intellectual property at all.” He flew to New York, watched some rehearsals, and contacted an attorney — but he was told that stopping the production would require putting up an escrow of $12 million. He was particularly appalled by Crawford’s influence, and he begged for help, but “the producers advised me to talk to the director, John Rando. It turned out John couldn’t help me or the show. At that point nobody could or wanted to interfere.”

It was time to move into the theater.

Everybody’s goin’ nowhere slowly

When I asked people when they truly knew things were going wrong, everyone answered the same way — when the show loaded into the Minskoff. Up to that point, it hadn’t particularly felt like a rolling disaster: According to Kennedy, “It was a bunch of people really honestly trying to do their best. There was a lot of love and affection. It wasn’t a tense atmosphere on a daily basis or anything.” But fissures in the production were already deep. Reed is certain that two or three of Carrafa’s dances weren’t in place yet when the show went into previews — other production sources disagree with him on the amount of disarray — but Carrafa himself says he was still frantically reworking throughout tech rehearsals and previews. “I kept telling people, ‘it’s called Dance of the Vampires. If it doesn’t work, it’s my fault.’” They threw money at the problem: Producers built him a studio in the massive Minskoff lobby, where he would work with a second corps of dancers hired purely for that purpose; when he would complete a piece, his dance captains would pass it along to the actual ensemble.

It was just too big for everyone. “The first day of tech,” says Kennedy, “we were working for probably eight hours in the theater. We did not progress past the first thirty seconds of the show. That is not exaggeration.” Everyone was overwhelmed by the complexity — Krolock, just to take one example, was supposed to enter from a rocket-coffin that launched out of the stage. The first two previews were canceled; the team gave up and dropped some of the more elaborate sequences. After months of discussing a spectacular upside-down flying entrance for Crawford, the star decided at the last moment not to do it. (He just walked on in darkness and peeped out from behind a curtain.) Some of the cast were still game for changes. Gonzalez remembers that a pair of boots she wore was meant to light up. “I had to plug them in onstage! Who does that?!” (They weren’t used either.) Gallo still mourns the huge, wasted pieces he built for the show, including hordes of robotic rats that “no one ever saw.” What was left was still impressive: a proscenium-size drawbridge and an animatronic bat that cost more than a Mercedes. There was also a graveyard that flew.

Michael Crawford takes his final bow on Broadway. Photo: Bruce Glikas/FilmMagic

Kunze was in previews, trying to have some effect, but Crawford was implacable. “At the climax of the show, Michael decided to die on the castle’s stairway—actors love to die onstage! And to die very dramatically, with arms spread out like Jesus,” says Kunze. “I reminded Rando that the Count of the Vampires will take over the world in the end … and he can’t do that if he dies two scenes before that. John agreed. Bravely he went up the stage, talked to Michael and returned. What did he say? I asked. John answered: He just said: ‘Fuck off.’”

And the changes they were allowed to make weren’t working. “If that show had found its comic tone, it would still be running now,” says Carrafa. But “we did our first preview,” Gonzalez remembers, “and my agent at the time came back to the dressing room and said, ‘I’m glad you guys still have time to work on it.’ I mean people were laughing and cheering! I thought we did it! Then she said that.” Sonenberg also went to the first preview, and was excited at first — the auditorium was full of Steinman die-hards, some in costume. “But within fifteen minutes it became unbearable for me to be sitting in the seat. I just couldn’t believe what was going on stage. I … just stepped out. And I never saw it again.”

Previews ground on. Carrafa was “nowheresville,” says a production source. “It was utter confusion.” And Rando found himself dealing with a second crisis. “Right when we were moving into the theater,” Rando says, “that’s when my mom’s health was really declining fast.” So he’d fly to Texas on a Sunday night, consult on her care on Monday, and then fly back for Tuesday’s rehearsals. Previews were extended and extended. He left for two weeks. The opening night was delayed from November 21 to December 9.

Among the production staff, worn thin by 61 difficult previews, “a sort of melancholy set in,” Kennedy says. One production source remembers that Carrafa was eventually asked to stop coming to the theater, though it may have been that he just gave up on trying to fix it. Steinman was no longer giving notes, though some colleagues suspected that he was sniping pseudonymously about the show in chat rooms. (A cast member also ran a Yahoo mailing list about the show for years.) Steinman was certainly upset that no one was listening to him, says Reed, who left for London and didn’t come back. With so many of the captains gone, the internet infiltrated the creative process. Gallo says that the previews didn’t seem to be achieving anything; no major changes were going into the show — not because people were digging in but because it seemed irreparable. “Nobody knew what they wanted it to be. At one point,” he says, “we’re in a meeting, people were holding printouts from [the online forum] Talkin’ Broadway, giving us notes from the printouts.”

Everything louder than everything else

Eventually, the show did have to open. Rando’s mother died on December 1, and his family postponed the funeral so he could open the show a week later. He flew back to Texas the morning after, on December 10. The reviews were scathing. “There are moments that climb into the stratosphere of legendary badness,” said the Times. “Michael Crawford will live to rue the day he chose this ludicrous musical as the vehicle for his Broadway return,” prophesied Variety. Were the critics particularly unkind because the chat rooms had gotten the jump on them? Had the knives been sharpened by the constant behind-the-scenes drama, so much of it reported in the New York Post and online? Steinman fed some of the piling-on, immediately calling Riedel after the opening (that he didn’t attend), to say that “The show I wrote is not at the Minskoff,” he said. “The show that is dear to me is still running in Vienna. The one at the Minskoff was just a job.” Over the years, the composer encouraged the belief that he had wanted the old, gothic, European version all along, not the shticky comedy of the Broadway script. But people who remember his notes remember that he demanded all manner of cheesy jokes.

“It came crashing down,” says Gonzalez. “The next day, René Auberjonois, god rest his soul, came into the dressing room and sang a line from the show, “A good nightmare comes so rarely!” And that it broke the ice for us. How do you build up your backbone? He did that and we all laughed.” She remembers reading the New York review by John Simon, which was “one of the hardest things I ever read about me — because he said he didn’t like my looks. When you’re Mexican-American in this business, you’re told by people who think they know better that you aren’t going to be an ingenue because you don’t look like a typical leading lady,” she says. It really messed with me. But then … it taught me to keep going, I was not going to let someone who was being paid to talk about my looks take away my dream! He [Simon] was the real vampire among us.” She says that her 17 years in the business constitute her way of vanquishing him.

Among people who were involved, there’s a divide today about how they regard the show’s evisceration. Generally those from the music world or from the original Tanz der Vampire still feel injured. VBW and Kunze would never again be so cavalier about allowing others to adapt a show, and both remain quite protective of Tanz’s further prospects. Some folks in Steinman-land won’t talk about the show at all, still worried, even fearful, about raking up old coals. “It was very difficult for me personally,” says Sonenberg. “I think it was very difficult for Jim.” He bristles even now when I mention Steinman’s grousing in that blog post in 2007 — though the two finally reconciled after Steinman had a heart attack in 2003, and Sonenberg is back to being his producer (on Bat Out of Hell). Steinman, physically incapacitated, has even granted him power of attorney. Sonenberg does not, though, enjoy being blamed for Dance’s failures. He won’t bow to that version of events. “That doesn’t mean that you can talk trash! You know sometimes, when you get pummeled, you eat shit. I never ate it.”

Those from the theater world, though, seem to take the debacle in stride. They learned; they grew; it was all (barely) coming back to them now. Boyett claims he got an education on the show, and repeats how fond he is of everyone associated with it. His investors were able to absorb the losses, and they stayed with him through his long Broadway career. (Broadway investors are always losing bucketloads; it’s one of their most endearing characteristics.) Rando, still deeply moved by the producers’ kindnesses to him during his trauma and bereavement, says Dance was like getting a Ph.D. in Broadway. The first lesson about catastrophe for directors: “You’re going to have to go through it.” Carrafa agrees: “As a general principle, success doesn’t teach you as much as failure.” And he, like the rest of the put-on-a-show types, believes the secret is to get back to work. Though I spoke to all of them during the COVID shutdown, the theater people were all in process on something, letting the next project absorb the force of the body blow.

There’s another group, though, that still thinks about Dance of the Vampires. If the internet helped kill the show, the internet has also kept it alive. I contacted Gibson DelGiudice, who has written thousands of words about Dance: a comprehensive tumblr, an alternative fan-history of the show (what would have happened without Crawford?), and much of the Wikipedia entry on the American production. Yet when Crawford was prowling the boards in a bonnet, DelGiudice was 12. He never saw the show. His interest was first inspired by a love of Steinman’s music, but his encyclopedic knowledge of all things Vampires comes from the boards, from other fans who have had contact with Steinman or other players, and finally from his own frustrations in trying to broker work with the man himself. (These came to nothing.) The centripetal effect of a disaster with a lot of details drew DelGiudice in as it has thousands of others—Kennedy, who teaches in Canada, says a student “who’s a real amateur scholar of musical theater” turned out to be obsessive about Dance of the Vampires. “When he discovered that I was on the show, it was as if he had a celebrity in his midst,” Kennedy laughs. That kid was probably born the same year that Vampires saw the sun … and crumbled into dust.

‘Within Fifteen Minutes, It Became Unbearable’