kaiserincapulet: (Default)
kaiserincapulet ([personal profile] kaiserincapulet) wrote2016-07-21 10:59 pm

Ridiculously Long Elisabeth Meta

I told some of my mutuals on Tumblr that I would write an essay(-length post) for them, and now it’s here. I hope it’s everything you hoped for. Be prepared, I tend to get a little rambly and long-winded when I write, but I tried to avoid creating a wall of text. (Originally posted on Tumblr on November 25, 2015.)

In the Elisabeth fandom, it is safe to say that Death (or Der Tod) is the most popular character by a large margin. Honestly, it’s not hard to see why, even if I am biased by also having him as my favorite. He’s the Draco in Leather Pants archetype, the dark, sassy, dangerous character played by an attractive enough actor that the audience forgives him, except this time, it’s both canon and intentional.

He is the main antagonist (in my opinion; some people would argue that it’s actually Luigi Lucheni), but he is also the love interest. Even if you managed to forget the prologue by the time he reappears, this is still spelled out for you in either “Schwarzer Prinz” or “Ai to Shi no Rondo,” or sometimes both, depending on which production you’re watching and what language that production is in. However, in making him a love interest, productions also have to figure out what to do about the fact that he is literally the personification of death. It’s kind of distracting in a love story when the main couple’s kiss would result in one of them killing the other. Granted, Elisabeth isn’t exactly a traditional love story, but he is obviously meant to come across as “sexy” to the audience. Even if you don’t personally find this or that actor attractive, you are still supposed to see him and want him and the main female character to end up together.

Of course, since different countries have different cultural expectations, Death has to adapt to them whenever a new production of Elisabeth opens. I have not seen all the productions of this show (because I’m human and there are too many versions and not enough time), but I think that’s probably a good thing because I don’t want this to go on for an eternity. That’s also why I’m limiting this to analyzing just Death’s character and not really anyone else. I will be talking about the ones I’ve seen in full (2001 Essen, 2004 Budapest, 2005 Vienna, 2014 Takarazuka), the ones I’ve seen enough of to still talk about (1992 Vienna, 2009 Antwerp, 2012 Vienna), or the ones I have strong opinions about (2007 Takarazuka, 2012 Seoul). I can’t promise all of them will get their equal due, but I’ll at least make an effort.

I know my notes were all about the little aspects of each portrayal that made me laugh, but I do actually want to make some observations about his character in general, as well as his most significant relationships. For one thing, I feel like, if this musical were more internationally well-known, Tumblr would have already talked on and on about Death being an “entitled dudebro” who thinks he deserves the girl just because he’s there. While I admit that, yes, he is very entitled and some actors cross a few physical boundaries (looking at you, Mate Kamaras), I feel like anyone who analyzes him from this point of view is forgetting that he isn’t actually human. As far as we know, this is the first time he has ever felt things like love and lust, so of course he has no idea how to react. Also, “love” may mean “love” for him, but for others, like Sisi and Rudolf, “love”/”attraction” translate to “wanting to die.”

For Sisi, while it’s mostly about her valuing freedom above everything else and being desperate to prove her own independence, I feel like most of her resistance comes from the fact that she also sees this. She knows that he has nothing to really offer that would end well for her, so even if she does return his feelings, she doesn’t want to admit it. I imagine that most of it also comes from the fact that some actors tend to cross a few lines with their Tod, because even if she does feel the same way, being creepy and threatening isn’t going to win anyone over. Of course, most of what I otherwise would have said about these two has undergone reevaluation thanks to a comment from one of the creators saying that Death stops loving her after she dies.

Rudolf, on the other hand, doesn’t even bother hiding the fact that he’s attracted to Death. Yeah, I know, I’ve already managed to work my OTP into this, but I’ll try to be objective. If memory serves, Rudolf doesn’t seem to realize that his new “friend” is Death himself for a very long time. Like, I think he comes around at some point during “Die Schatten Werden Laenger,” but he seems remarkably okay with the fact that he hasn’t seen this person since he was around ten years old, but in eighteen years he never aged at all. Also, there’s the matter of his reactions during “Die Schatten.” He knows that he is attracted to Tod, and even if he doesn’t realize that Tod is Death, he still at least realizes that he is dangerous and probably wrong for him. My favorite example of this comes from my favorite Rudolf, Thomas Hohler (odd choice, I know), who flinches away the first time Death speaks directly to him during “Die Schatten” in the 2009 proshot. His and Oliver Arno’s version of the song is famous for being really sexual in terms of choreography and facial expressions, but I think these two things are the most important ingredients for their relationship. Rudolf is attracted, and he trusts Tod because he recognizes him as a childhood friend, but he also sees what Tod is capable of and so he knows to stay away.

The last of Tod’s relationships I want to discuss is with Luigi Lucheni. Theirs mainly gets my attention because so many actors play it in so many different ways. For Serkan Kaya, the first word that comes to mind about his performance in general is “bitter,” and I know this is mostly directed at Sisi, but there’s a lot of it reserved for Death as well. The best example is the ending where he hangs himself, but makes it seem almost like an act of defiance. Canon doesn’t explain who he’s defying, but from what little I know about the historical Lucheni, I’d guess that it’s Death for making him kill Sisi to further Death’s own agenda while leading him to believe it was for the good of his cause. I can’t nail down an exact performance, but I do remember that some of the Takarazuka productions imply that there is something going on between them, maybe romantic, maybe sexual, maybe both, maybe neither. This is also semi-present between Serkan and Mate, with longing looks that last long enough that one begins to wonder what is passing between them that is being hidden from the audience. On the flipside, we have Jan Schepens, who seems more obviously afraid of Death. The way he cowers with wide eyes makes me wonder, again, what exactly happened between them. My inner sadistic fanfic author wants to say that Death probably tortured him (or at least allowed him to be tortured) at some point, but again, canon doesn’t really give us any of the answers that aren’t essential to the main plot of “Death falls in love and in the process brings down the Habsburgs,” which I guess is a good thing, but not if you’re someone like me who routinely gets plot bunnies that require some of these answers in order to thrive.

I guess now I should talk about the thing this is supposed to be about, that being Death’s character throughout many different iterations. The obvious one to start with is Uwe Kröger, since he was the original and is the favorite of a lot of people. Actually, it’s kind of a shame, because his Death doesn’t really do much for me. Most of it has to do with the fact that his Death is cold and emotionless, which he gets away with by saying that his version of the character is a figment of Sisi’s imagination rather than a real person. I’ll admit, this is another interesting idea, and my own interpretation usually amounts to “he appears as whatever they imagine Death to look like,” but I think there’s too much contradiction for Uwe’s idea to be what I accept as canon. However, I do still think there are things about his Death that do work. For one thing, I hear a lot of people who are more familiar with Uwe saying that Mate Kamaras doesn’t have enough “dignity” for the role, which is not an opinion I share, but I do see what they mean. Even if he is cold and closed off, he still has a very strong presence and a way of demanding the audience’s attention, even the ones who don’t like Uwe himself. Also, let’s face it, Uwe was beautiful in his prime and he still is, even if his 1992 Death looks distractingly similar to Lestat, so it’s easy to see how someone would fall for him.

I wish I had more to say about Uwe Kröger, but someone I do have a lot of words for is Mate Kamaras. He was the first Death I ever saw, and he remains my favorite (even if Oliver Arno is quickly catching up to him). Mate’s Death is a complete 180 from my criticisms of Uwe, in that he is a ball of energy and rage fueled by probably enough cocaine and Monster to kill a human. Yes, he has his softer moments, but when his emotions get the best of him, he is out of control and it is scary. His more infamous moments include “Der Letzte Tanz” in which he straddles Maya Hakvoort’s leg and “Die Maladie (Der Letzte Chance)” where he makes yet another attempt to get Sisi to kill herself. While he wasn’t the first person to sing this song, he is the most difficult for me to take seriously. I’ve been told that his Death is supposed to be slowly losing his mind as Sisi continues to test him, with his real breakdown coming during “Wenn Ich Tanzen Will” when she rejects him yet again. I have no idea what makes this “no” more important than the others, but it at least helps to contextualize all his insanity. I know some of you may also be thinking that Mate also played this role in Hungarian (2007) and Japanese (2010) productions, but I haven’t actually seen either of those, so I can’t say anything about them.

Those of you who saw my transparent segue can go ahead and hop aboard, because now I want to talk about Szabó P. Szilveszter, aka the only person who comes into my head when someone mentions “the Hungarian version of Death” (or I guess “Halál” would be more accurate, wouldn’t it?) I’ll admit, I’m slightly cheating here because Rómeó és Júlia already cemented my love for him. Szil gets a lot of jokes at his expense from this fandom because of his sparkly makeup, but I also note that I’ve never heard anyone say they didn’t like his Halál. The closest was a review from someone who preferred Homonnay Zsolt because “I like men,” which even then is a rather weak criticism. Yes, his Death is ethereal and fairylike and I think he’s the only actor who looks good in the Hungarian makeup (yes, that includes Mate), but there is a reason he looks the way he does. While Tod was based on Heinrich Heine, Halál is based on a character from one of Sisi’s poems. Besides, I think Death should be a little otherworldly, because the audience needs to remember that he’s not human, and while such visual shorthand may be considered cheap, it’s also effective. Halál is also separated from Tod by how much more romanticized he is. In the Hungarian production, Death sings about his love at first sight for Sisi instead of the other way around. I know the Takarazuka version did this too, but I see a lot of people using this as a reason to dislike the Zuka version while conveniently ignoring the Hungarian version doing the same thing. Another thing from the Hungarian version that was adopted by Takarazuka was the fact that Rudolf now has a new song, where Death convinces him to join up with some revolutionaries. I bring it up because I want to reiterate that this one scene from Elisabeth impressed me more than anything in Rudolf Affaire Mayerling. Of course, I’m not writing about Rudolf, so I’m forced to digress. Speaking of digressions, I think I’ve rambled about Szilveszter for long enough that we can move on now.

A lot of people prefer Oliver Arno as Rudolf, but his Death has quickly become one of my favorites. For me, this is because he feels like a nice middle ground between the extremes of Uwe, Mate, and Mark (who we’ll get to in a minute). He’s a bit more traditionally masculine than Uwe, having short hair and wearing his usual suit at Mayerling instead of a dress like Uwe or Mate, which might make him a bit more accessible to audience members who judge Death based on western standards of masculinity and what makes a man attractive. On the other hand, he is still very sparkly, with a suit covered in glitter, and also wears a ridiculous amount of eye makeup. He also has a lot more overt flirtations with Rudolf, which for some is the only thing they really know about his performance. I find that more than a little unfair, because Oli actually managed to get the one thing I always love to see in ageless supernatural creatures: disdain for humans. His Death is the embodiment of “What fools these mortals be.” Granted, he’s still just as angry as any incarnation of this Death should be, but his default mode appears to be silently judging and laughing at the foolish humans. He’s amused that Sisi thinks her defiance means anything to him, when they both know she has to die someday. He also has two power trips, stringing Rudolf along and striking fear into Luigi, that he seems to enjoy more than he rightfully should. I feel like I should actually like him a lot less since one of my main criticisms of Uwe is that he’s inaccessible and disconnected from humanity, which are two descriptions that definitely apply to Oli. Where Oli succeeds is that his Death does still have emotions, which are kind of important in a love story, he just has no idea how to express them, so everything just comes out as anger no matter what his intentions were. Like I said, he’s now my number two Death, even if I’m not that great at explaining why.

As a polar opposite to Uwe’s androgyny, we have Mark Seibert. A lot of people really love him, and almost as many people really hate him. I personally have no feelings at all about his performance, but I feel like a lot of people have a colored view of his Death because of that time he said that Death has to be male and can only be played by a man. I’m paraphrasing, but this seems to be what most people got out of his statement. Some perceived it as an insult toward the Takarazuka actresses, but honestly, it just sounds like good old-fashioned overcompensation to me. It must be difficult to be as hypermasculine as he clearly wants to be when it’s literally in the libretto that your character is androgynous. And he’s in luck, because overcompensation is exactly what happened when he played Death. You know that one picture of Spongebob in his underwear staring at a razor going “I am a man”? I imagine that’s what Mark’s Death does every morning. One of the most obvious side effects of this is Death’s new costume. I personally don’t mind the way it looks on its own, but I agree with the most common complaint: it doesn’t say “Death” to me. Mark’s Death is very concerned with asserting his strength, dominance, and overall idea of himself as Better Than You. Granted, I’d imagine Death himself to be more than a little arrogant, but it’s one of the only notes his performance has. Well, not entirely. Mark also has two conflicting ideas in him. He’s just as angry as Mate, though less coked-up and scary, but he also has a song that is not new, but was new to German productions at the time: “Kein Kommen Ohne Gehen.” Anyone who read my notes or was around when I liveblogged the Takarazuka version might remember my exasperation with this song when it was called “Ai to Shi no Rondo,” though it helps that Mark only sings it once instead of enough times to warrant a drinking game. Also like Mate, he comes across as someone experiencing some serious amounts of Sanity Slippage, though he seems to be making more of an effort to hide it. I make fun of him a lot for how hard he tries, but I really do love Mark. I just wish I could love his Death a little more.

Since Takarazuka was mentioned, I’m gonna just pretend I have a segue and talk about the only ZukaTod whose performance I’ve seen in full, Asumi Rio. I have no real reference for other ZukaTods (besides Mizu, who…well, we’ll get to her), but Mirio relieved me by not being nearly as emo as I’d been told ZukaTods were. Sure, he still got the million reprises of “Ai to Shi no Rondo,” but he seemed to spend most of the show smirking and, like Oli, silently laughing at everyone and everything. One scene that proves this is “Der Letzte Tanz,” where it seems like he’s doing it less to show Sisi that he’s still around and more to troll her (and us, but mostly her). Takarazuka also gave Death roles in scenes which otherwise had nothing to do with him, such as “Die Fröhliche Apokalypse,” where he’s just casually reading a newspaper and chatting up some randos (who could be revolutionaries; I couldn’t tell) while Luigi continues the song as he usually does. Things like this make me happy because they prove that Uwe is wrong about everything being all in Sisi’s head. This Death is also notable for carrying on the Zuka tradition of saying, “Why have just a few Todesengles when you can have MILLIONS?” Yeah, I know it’s off topic, but I can’t help it. They’re everywhere. Anyway, he seems to be aware that he’s a fictional character (which lends itself well to my headcanon that this is all in Luigi’s head instead), and seems much more okay with it than I could ever be. This version also adds in yet another rejection, as if he didn’t already have a comical number of them in the first place, in “Ich Gehör Nur Mir,” with Elisabeth trying to stab herself after the incident with Sophie and prompting an appearance from everyone’s favorite sparkly force of destruction. However, he realizes she’s not going to do it and leaves, so yay for consent (again, I’m looking at Mate and Mizu in particular).

If Takarazuka’s usual fare is too nice for your Death needs, I have two performances I’ll be combining into one discussion instead of one long ramble that go perhaps a little too far in the other direction: Natsuki Mizu and Kim Junsu. As a Kpop fan, I’ll try to be neutral about Junsu, but it’s worth noting that his idol status made me kind of wary about his casting. Fortunately, he proved me wrong, because his Death is actually interesting for being the reverse of everything ZukaTods are famous for. He played Death as an over-the-top pantomime villain, with evil laughter and bulging eyes and weird snake charmer hand gestures. I feel like I’d probably like his version more if I actually understood what he was doing, but he mostly just kind of made me laugh. From what I’ve seen of her so far, Mizu seems to be going for a similar approach, but hers is even more interesting to me because he’s actually from a Takarazuka production. As far as I can tell, the same script, with its endless “Ai to Shi no Rondo,” is still completely intact, but her performance decided to turn everything up to eleven. When I discussed her with one of the people who encouraged this essay’s existence (specifically kronprinzvonoesterreich), she said that Mizu’s Death is so far in the other direction that she can’t even ship her with Rudolf, which is normally her OTP. To me, this is a perfect example of why neither extreme approach works for me. If you go too soft, I’ll just make fun of you. If you go too harsh, it stops feeling like the same character.

From all this, I think everyone can guess that, in my mind, there is no real “right” way to play Death. Sure, I have my preferences, but I think every one of them is perfectly valid. Okay, that was your sappy ending. This has been six pages’ worth of Google Doc, brought to you by a girl who’s uncertain she even really knows what she’s talking about. Goodbye, and I hope you have a nice day, wherever or whoever you are.