Tuesday, June 20, 2006

101.11: The Metropolis Musical

I can't help but wonder if big-budget theatrical flops are the saddest of media failures. When an expensive movie bombs, chances are it will still have an excessive number of DVDs printed, it'll show up on pay cable a dozen or so times, and it will probably acquire some fans eventually. But the theatre is an exclusive sort of experience to start, limited by place and time and affected by changes in cast and direction and even audience. In global terms, not a lot of people get to actually see CATS or THE PRODUCERS or SPAMALOT in the truest of senses. A show that folds quickly can practically evaporate. We do get script books, and sometimes video recordings, and in the case of musicals, cast albums- and that's how I came to this- but they acquire a particularly special air of esoterica. Until I was given this double-LP set (my mother enjoys browsing Half Price Books), I wasn't even sure the musical version of METROPOLIS existed. I thought I had heard something about Brian Blessed being involved and it being somehow British, but that was it. Finding something like this makes you compelled to share it.

(One warning: The liner note/lyric sheet booklet that came with this once upon a time is missing a huge center section, and the sound mix is such that softer vocals and dialogue sometimes get drowned out. So I can't claim to have fully followed the entire show from start to finish.)

For those who don't know the movie, METROPOLIS is the story of a futuristic city where the idle rich live above in absolute splendor while, below the ground, the workers toil at the cruel machines that keep the city powered and functioning. It's about Maria, a young worker (well, she lives underground, but I don't think we've seen her at the machines in ANY version of the story) who preaches hope for the future, and Steven (Freder in the movie), the son of Metropolis' ruler (Fredersen in the movie, Freeman- and Brian Blessed- in the show), and how his meeting her sparks his compassion for the oppressed. The ruler, trying to put a stop to this, kidnaps Maria and has an inventor (Rotwang in the film, Warner in the show) create a robot double used to mislead the workers, ultimately sparking a cataclysmic revolution. The story changes a bit for the show here, and I'll get into that. Eventually.

The show starts in an interesting way, with Maria teaching the children of the workers about the things that exist on the surface, before they're cleared out of the machine room for the work shift to begin (cueing the song that's the title of this post- and the most blazingly catchy number in the show.) A worker is killed in the shift, cueing a number of interlocking laments.

The songs are good on the whole, but the writing is uneven- the lyrics at times veer towards the simplistic, with Freeman and several of the rich "elitists" professing an open contempt for the workers in a way that seems cartoonish. One doesn't exactly expect subtlety from musical theater, or indeed from the story of METROPOLIS, but there's something decidedly unimaginative about some of the writing. Emphasis on "some"- there are other pieces which are very clever, well-written and evocative. The music itself is very good.

And then there's the ending. In the film, as you recall, Maria and Freder are ultimately able to stop the violence on both sides, and Fredersen makes peace with the worker chief despite having been in on a plan to destroy them. It is, to our eyes, sentimental and a bit unrealistic. The writers here went for a more apocalyptic, "Eat the Rich" style finale in which Metropolis is utterly destroyed in the chaos, and Maria, Steven, some of the workers, and their children are the only survivors. It's vaguely more realistic, but depressingly cynical in its way, suggesting that there can't really be any peace without the complete destruction of the upper class- who, as mentioned, are shown as uniformly vile and bad people anyway. There aren't any words of mourning for the people killed in the cataclysm, and nobody stops to ponder that the elitists may have had children of their own. What was an attempt to be less naive comes across as instead being just a tad immature. But then I suppose it's hard to get a fully complex and ambiguous story from this material.

There's a CD of this, to which I've diligently linked, though the cost is just a bit insane even by music industry standards. I can't give a grade to this, having missed bits and pieces as explained above, but it's an interesting addition to the METROPOLIS legacy- and might make for a good revival if anyone wants to put up the money. (An Amazon review notes that a staging with a rewritten book may be on the way this year.)

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