Theater archives

Low Blood Count


The Frank Wildhorn Dracula is not the worst musical ever written. But that’s only because of its truly remarkable failing: It isn’t extreme enough to be a worst. It doesn’t commit any of the excessive, demented gaffes that make a truly disastrous musical something for the record books. No, what’s remarkable about Dracula: The Musical is that, having begun with some of the most powerful source material that popular literature can offer the theater, it achieves absolutely no effect. Nothing is dramatized; nothing is expressed; nothing is frightening or moving or shocking or even campy; everything simply drifts by, pointlessly, from beginning to end. Though it can’t be called good in any way, Dracula is too uninteresting to be really bad. Its ineffectuality is a wonder of sorts: the artistic equivalent of the vacuum that nature abhors.

The failure is one of sensibility, not of skill. Highly professional theater people, some with substantial prior achievements to their credit, have worked on Dracula. But the interplay of creative forces—the meshing of talents that traditionally makes the musical such an exciting collaborative art—has here somehow produced a kind of pure negative energy: Everything fits together with such perfect lack of interest that you can’t even tell whom to blame. Can Christopher Hampton’s book really be as incoherent as Des McAnuff’s staging makes it look, or is McAnuff’s problem the steadfast refusal of Heidi Ettinger’s endlessly gliding sets to provide any visual focus whatever? Are Don Black’s lyrics really such lumpy, concrete-block obstacles to the remorseless, pallid flow of Wildhorn’s score, or does the score’s characterless whine come from the ineptitude of Acme Sound Partners, making every note rattle like a telegraph key in a buried tin box? From this angle, the event looks more like a conspiracy than a stage production: Its purpose—seemingly sought with eagerness by its makers—is to deprive the story of power and the audience of pleasure. It has the whole idea of theater ass-backwards.

How perfect, then, that Clear Channel Entertainment—a corporation that notoriously has its concept of the public good ass-backwards—should be a partner in this twisted enterprise. There’s no point in criticizing the cast of Dracula: The Musical, or even the creative team behind it, though the latter can justifiably be sneered at for walking into what they must have known would be an artistic death trap. No, the only people worth attacking for this embarrassment are its corporate backers, because it’s the perfect expression of a corporate view of theater: a work that, aimed to appeal to as many people as possible, ends up so sealed off from experience that it appeals to virtually nobody. It is inferior the way most corporate products are by definition inferior to those made by hand. (Which, ironically, is what the word manufacture originally meant.)

Corporations dominate our daily lives; their sensibility, which is not the same as any human sensibility, has had a generally poisonous effect on our civilization and is now well on the way to poisoning our planet. This isn’t what corporations intend—their only intention is to maximize profit—but it’s what they inevitably do if not reined in by social or governmental controls. The stock sci-fi narrative of the invention that runs wild and blazes a path of destruction, till it’s hunted down and destroyed, is the central cautionary parable of life in our corporatized time. (This narrative, which dates back to the medieval myth of the sorcerer’s apprentice, has obvious affinities with the myth of the predatory undead that fuels Dracula. If Dodger Theatricals and its partners had consciously desired to drain the lifeblood from the American theater, they couldn’t have chosen more aptly.)

For maximizing profit, a Broadway show is small potatoes in corporate terms. Apart from the natural Frankenstein-monster impulse of corporations to engulf everything in their path, the theater chiefly attracts them as one of the great public arenas where a society’s values are tested. Far as we seem to have come from that idea, it still rings true, even on Broadway, where works like Frozen, Sight Unseen, and I Am My Own Wife did not arrive merely because someone thought money could be made from them. Even the builders of Broadway musicals, which cost huge sums and are chiefly intended to make more, show themselves willing to ponder the questions that make romps like Hairspray and Avenue Q repugnant to Republicans. Corporations would like to possess the arena where we weigh our values, just as they like the idea of putting McDonald’s in Moscow and Starbucks in Shanghai. They can’t help themselves; it’s their natural instinct, and it is diametrically opposed to our instinct as human beings. We go to the theater for human reasons, not to be subjugated by corporate emptiness. If we want that, we can always turn on the TV, which they control.

So the zero-ness of Dracula means something extremely significant, and not simply that Frank Wildhorn is devoid of musical taste. Wildhorn is the optimal corporate choice precisely because he has no personality as a composer; nothing in his music could conceivably arouse any audience emotion. Only the illusion that you are experiencing a musical is maintained, like the fake villages of happy peasants that Prince Potemkin put up to delude Catherine the Great. Only we, who are a peasant populace, know that all is not happy. And we note—corporations take warning—that the next association the public mind has with Prince Potemkin involves a sailors’ revolt on a battleship named for him, a story that I suspect no corporation wants to see revived, even as a musical.

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