Lyricist pushes to put life into "Lestat"

Despite negative early reviews, Bernie Taupin is set at proving that this vampire musical isn't dead yet

April 20, 2006|By ROBERT KAHN | ROBERT KAHN,NEWSDAY

Bernie Taupin's defense of Lestat is interrupted by a piercing "Aaaiyyeeee!" as a suicidal vampire plunges into a wall of fire and disappears through a trap door.

Taupin leans forward from his seat in New York's Palace Theatre to observe the rehearsal more closely. It is ensuing under the supervision of the fire department, on hand to ensure that actor Joseph Dellger is far enough behind the flames to avoid injury if an unexpected breeze should cross the set.

The winds have not blown in favor of the $12 million musical thus far. The Gothic opus inspired by Anne Rice's tormented bloodsuckers was left for dead after a San Francisco tryout that prompted a review headlined "Fetch the garlic!" and jabs at Elton John's "unrelentingly saccharine" score.

"We may have limped onto Broadway as the underdogs, but underdogs bite back occasionally," says lyricist Taupin. "You take the criticism you feel is genuine and then you discard the vindictiveness. It needed some reworking."

By Taupin's account, Lestat is 65 to 70 percent changed since its winter run on the West Coast. Much of the material has been slashed or rewritten, a major cast member replaced and choreographer Jonathan Buttrell (The Light in the Piazza) brought in as a creative consultant by Warner Bros. Theatre Ventures, which is producing Lestat as its virgin effort. The chance to make such alterations is, after all, the reason for out-of-town tryouts.

Despite critical disdain, the public sank its teeth into the show. Lestat broke the box-office record as the highest-grossing world premiere musical ever in San Francisco, taking in $4.3 million. Audience reaction to the New York previews has been "solid," according to a show rep, with 90 percent of the house sold for the first week of previews and 80 percent the second week.

If Lestat survives on Broadway long past its opening at the Palace next Tuesday, much of the credit will go to Taupin, who is responsible for some of the most successful pop lyrics of the past 30 years, from "Rocket Man" to "Candle in the Wind." John, his longtime collaborator, has found success on the musical stage with The Lion King and Aida, but Taupin wanted to wait for a stage debut until he could find something "satisfyingly dark."

The two, in their first teaming for the theater, have staged Lestat with book writer Linda Woolverton , director Robert Jess Roth and - strictly on a consulting basis - Vampire Chronicles author Rice.

The first act of Lestat loosely follows the narrative of The Vampire Lestat, written in 1985 as the second book in Rice's Chronicles. The second act is based on Rice's first book, 1976's Interview With the Vampire. The reversal allows the plot of Lestat to unfold in chronological order.

A brief plot summary, for the uninitiated: Young Lestat de Lioncourt lives in the French countryside with his adored and ailing mother, Gabrielle. After doing battle with a pack of wolves he leaves for Paris to make a new life. There, he is turned into a vampire and he must figure out how to satisfy his thirst for blood despite the knowledge that killing is wrong.

Lestat and his cohorts make rich characters for the theater: meticulous, conscience-driven predators who really just want to be loved. Immortality gives them a crack at heightened sensuality, but brings with it a terrible separation from life.

Longtime Broadway Phantom Hugh Panaro heads an ensemble that includes Carolee Carmello, Drew Sarich and Jim Stanek, playing Lestat's feral mother, nemesis and melancholy domestic partner, respectively.

Taupin's interest in the story dates back to the publication of Interview. He remembers trying to secure the stage rights, but being "kicked out of the ballpark" by deep-pocketed producers in Hollywood, who had designs of their own.

The tide turned a half-dozen years ago, when director Roth set his mind to tracking down the rights and took the project to his longtime friend John, who approached Taupin. "I said I would do it, providing it was done with a great deal of taste and that it wasn't turned into a campy joke," Taupin recalls, "and so long as there were no dancing vampires."

He, Roth and Woolverton confabbed in Las Vegas for three days to hammer out an idea encapsulating Rice's first three vampire books, eventually jettisoning all but a few shreds of the third, Queen of the Damned. Then Taupin wrote the lyrics. Finally, John added the music in about 10 days.

Taupin, at 55, has spent more than half his life writing "the five-minute fix" with John. He is happiest with the songs "based in depression and sadness, because they're much more interesting to write about." That perspective held when he jumped over to writing for the stage. "The code for Broadway is always that a musical has to be high-stepping and up and happy and ... well, I contradict myself, because then I think of Sweeney Todd' and Les Miz,' and I guess we could be grouped into that category."

His aim was to write songs that would push the narrative forward, he says, pointing to ballads like "The Thirst" and "Beautiful Boy," which Gabrielle sings as her son is preparing to leave home.

The five-minute fixes of his pop career are more in Taupin's comfort zone than this project with his celebrated songwriting partner, but he couldn't say no to Lestat, a murderous bon vivant.

As Taupin knows, fans are sometimes drawn to an underdog. He's hoping that Lestat lives, if not forever, at least a good while longer than next week.

"I no longer feel like the new kid on the block. I know what the rules are now, and what's correct and what's incorrect, and that's the wonderful thing about the theater," Taupin says.

"There's a whole new world opening for me."

Robert Kahn writes for Newsday.

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