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By Glenn Loney, Summer, 2000

TWO ROYAL DREAMERS--King Ludwig of Bavaria & Empress Sissi of Austria in the new Ludwig musical—with Dream Castle Neu Schwanstein inset. Photo: ©Ludwig Musical Theatre.

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Across the Lake from Neu Schwanstein


New Ludwig Musical Theatre
Purpose-Built at Historic Site

If a best-selling novel—or a cult film—is adapted as a stage-musical, it's a fair guess that the reason the librettist & composer have seized on this "property" is not because they love the story so much they want to let it sing aloud for the entire world.

Much more often, it is the pre-sold, brand-name, instant-recognition of the title which has impelled them to musicalize the plot and characters. Indeed, the idea for the new London musical, The Witches of Eastwick, was stumbled upon only after producer Cameron Mackintosh had asked the team to study a list of Warner Bros. films for a possible musical.

Even opera-composers like Giuseppe Verdi have had problems finding a story which might come alive, set to music. That last item is the real problem. If the music is not outstanding, there's really no point to making a musical out of War & Peace, is there?

But, every once in a while, there is a composer—or librettist—who is smitten with a character, a situation, or a plot that does not have the advantage of already being known & loved. When this happens, nothing will dissuade him or her from transforming the material into a musical. Or an opera.

When the inspiration is an actual historical character, however, this can present more potential audience-problems than a character of fiction. The known facts may not lend themselves to the magic of the Music-Drama. Reprising the entire life in song may prove a bore as well.

Or, as in the case of musicals about obscure kings and queens, there may be no global interest in these forgotten figures. Today, to be really successful, new musicals obviously need to have international appeal.

La Cava, an impressive new London musical, may not make the grade—at least not on historical authenticity alone—for its central characters are truly forgotten. Who now remembers the last Visigoth King of Spain? Who cares?

Who recalls Florinda, the young girl from North Africa, who unwittingly provokes the tragedy in which the Moors conquer Spain? Is that anything to sing about?

Well, as things turn out on stage, in a stunning production, yes, it is indeed!

But it's not the facts, as such, that propel this powerful show. It is the characters in conflict, and how they have been imagined and developed. They and the plot could just as well have been completely invented—and the musical would still be a powerful theatrical experience.

But what if the central characters of a new musical are not forgotten, but people who actually lived, and lived such lives that they have become almost legendary?

King Arthur doesn't count because he is largely legendary. And he is such a fascinating king, hero, and character that he has not only musicals, but operas and films based on his mythical life.

Saint Joan comes immediately to mind, however. She was a real person who became "a legend in her own time." And she has her opera, as well: The Maid of Orleans.

But what about major Austrian royalty? Or less exalted Bavarian royalty? The brand-recognition doesn't extend very far beyond national borders. This can be a real problem, as the creators of the stunning Viennese musical, Elizabeth, discovered.

"Sissi," or Elizabeth, was the fabulously beautiful—but desperately unhappy—Empress of Austria. Her beloved and only son, Crown Prince Rudolf, and his mistress committed suicide. And Sissi also died violently, stabbed to death by an anarchist on the shores of Lake Geneva.

Her strong character, her tragic fate, and her remarkable beauty—captured forever in the great portrait by F. X. Winterhalter—certainly offer powerful material, even for an opera.

The high-powered, lavishly designed Viennese production of the musical has proved a popular attraction in the Austrian capital. Mothers and daughters even came to see it dressed in look-alike Sissi dirndls and braids. But its creators' and producers' hopes of recreating it in London and New York have thus far been frustrated.

Sissi's brand-recognition is largely Central European, no matter how powerful the production values and how Lloyd-Webberian the songs of the musical version of her life.

If you already know something of her story, you can brighten up considerably when an event you recognize appears on stage: "Oh, I know all about this part! She really was trying to help the Hungarians! But Franz Josef didn't understand her!"

Now, an optimistic artistic team has created a lavish new musical based on the life of her favorite cousin, King Ludwig II, the fabled "Mad" King of Bavaria. He was fond of Sissi as well, but she was already an empress. He never married, but not because he couldn't have her as his queen.

In an odd way, his heart belonged instead to composer Richard Wagner, his Swan-Knight Lohengrin, and regal white swans in general.

Besotted with both the man and his operas, Ludwig was Richard Wagner's richest, most ardent, and certainly most significant patron.

There are some Wagnerian overtones in the score of the new musical which has been based on Ludwig's life, but this show fortunately doesn't have operatic pretensions.

It's really rather more of a sung biography—with splendid costumes and dazzling settings. But don't look for this show on Broadway any time soon. It's a very impressive production, but King Ludwig lacks brand-recognition in America.

If you want to find out more about this castle-crazy monarch, you'll have to fly to Bavaria and see Ludwig's own show in his very own theatre. Not the baroque jewel-box theatre in Munich, but the brand new Ludwig Musical Theatre!

In fact, the only new theatre to be erected in Germany this past year was this purpose-built musical theatre. But the theatre is also an unusual "first" because it was conceived and designed before the actual musical was written or composed.

At least the previous newest German theatre—the Musical Theatre Berlin—was created for Disney's The Hunchback of Notre Dame. That new musical show already had brand-identity as a Disney animated-film musical.

If you are in Berlin, don't look for it in the listings under its English title. It is sung in German by an international cast. And it's called: Der Glockner von Notre Dame. It is visually a fantastic show: Victor Hugo eclipses The Lion King!

Currently in Germany, it is a risky business to construct a specially designed musical theatre. Even in population centers such as Stuttgart or Hamburg, ageing blockbusters can run out of steam—and audiences. That Cats and Miss Saigon are leaving Broadway also only proves that no hit musical is "forever."

But across Lake Forggen from the fairy-tale castle of Neu Schwanstein, the new musical, Ludwig II—Longing for Paradise, now has its own theatre. And it is nowhere near any center of population. But Stephan Barberino, the artistic director of the Ludwig Musical Theatre, proudly points out that this is the first musical theatre ever constructed close to the sites of the actual events depicted on stage.

Barberino says he has always been fascinated by Bavaria's King Ludwig II and his passion for building fantastic castles like that at nearby Linderhof.

The romantic fantasy Schloss Neu Schwanstein was even adapted, in reduced format, for the original Disneyland—also becoming its logo. So Barberino isn't the only showman to see potential in Bavarian Kings and Castles.

Working as a stage-director—and as Intendant of Hamburg's Kammerspiele in the 1990s—Barberino thought the time was right for a musical about King Ludwig. But, to his surprise, looking for a drama to set to music, he found no play about the king at all.

Convinced there was a public out there for "Ludwig, the Musical," Barberino and his wife, Josephine—who fortunately is an architect—decided to design the theatre first and then create the musical to fill its stage and seats.

Instead of constructing yet another theatre in Munich, the Barberinos believed the appropriate site would be near Neu Schwanstein, so intimately associated with King Ludwig's strange, unhappy life. This alpine area—the Königswinkel, or King's Corner—is a year-round tourist attraction, including winter sports.

The Barberinos have been fortunate in convincing private investors and major banks to fund their dream of the theatre and the musical. But they weren't able to persuade the citizens in the village at the foot of the castle that the project would be a benefit.

Luckily, the medieval town of Füssen—just across the lake—saw the economic possibilities, with floods of tourists arriving by bus and train every day, almost all year, to see Ludwig's magic castle. So the township got involved, in the hopes that the theatre might attract tourists to spend some time in their spa facilities and hotels, These are now suffering from a decline in doctors' recommendations for taking the "Cure," paid for by medical insurance.

The land on which the theatre stands was built up from lake gravel and belongs to the Bavarian State. So there have been a number of valuable concessions given.

Because Ludwig II was so smitten with the composer Richard Wagner and his operas, he proposed to build a great Wagner Festival Theatre in Munich, on a bank of the River Isar. This was duly designed by Gottfried Semper, but it was never constructed.

Wagner's scandalous affair with Cosima von Bülow—the wife of close friend and leading Wagner-conductor, Hans von Bülow—estranged the King. In extremely conservative and Catholic Munich, this was an outrage to public morals. And it deeply wounded the king personally.

Eventually Wagner built his own Festspielhaus in Bayreuth, opening it in 1876. But it looked a lot like Semper's design—which actually was constructed, with some changes, in Dresden as the "Semper Opera."

Munich wanted its own Wagner Festival, so, in 1901, the Prince-Regent Theatre was built, also resembling Semper's design.

These theatres have been Josephine Barberino's inspiration. But she has thoroughly modernized the original conception. The great peaked-roof stage-house of Bayreuth, Dresden, and Munich still crowns her new theatre. But there are no fussy 19th century exterior decorative details.

The central theatre-complex is flanked by two long wings, anchored on each end by smaller structures, featuring box-offices, restaurants and other amenities. The entire front facade, facing Lake Forggen, is 150 meters long. It is a vast expanse of glass, something no architect would have dared in the 19th century.

Unlike Wagner's and Semper's opera-houses—which used brick and sandstone—the Ludwig Theatre is all concrete, steel, and glass. And very solidly built. It can surely withstand the worst weathers at the foot of the Bavarian Alps.

Josephine and Stephan Barberino's theatre is not entirely devoid of decoration. He is very proud that Ludwig's favorite fowl—the Swan—is on view everywhere.

Outside and inside, stair-balusters feature large metal swans. Swans are even engraved on windows. Interior decoration, incidentally, is by Nico Rensch, Josephine Barbarino's brother.

Great metal swans are the handles for the tall doors which flank the sides of the auditorium. The first pair of doors, opening onto the initial rows of amphitheatre seating, are among the tallest in Germany, says Barberino.

Barberino also points out that the great revolving stage is the largest in the nation, after that of the Frankfurt Opera.

Under the revolve in front is a great elliptical tank of water. This rises to stage-level so Ludwig can walk into Lake Starnberg and disappear below its surface forever. The musical doesn't resolve the historical puzzle: Was he killed, or did he commit suicide?

After Ludwig has presumably drowned, four great horses, with classical figures astride, rise out of the lake, gushing spouts of water. They are copied from Ludwig's equine fountain at his Linderhof Castle.

Josephine Barberino—who has her own practice, Urban Design, in Munich—has adapted the design of the Bayreuth auditorium, including Wagner's famed covered orchestra-pit, which helps blend instrumental and vocal sound.

Unlike Bayreuth, which has neo-classical auditorium wings—with fluted columns separating each entrance inside the amphitheatre—the Ludwig entrances and the entire auditorium are dark charcoal, to focus attention on the stage.

Even the Royal Loge—available for special groups and charters—has none of the gold and glitter which distinguish Ludwig's own loges in Munich's National Theatre and his 18th century court-theatre. But the decoration of Ludwig's Moorish Tea-House has been suggested in the special chamber attached to the Royal Loge, designed for parties and drinks between acts.

The main-stage and side-stages—as well as the technical equipment—compare favorably with most modern German theatres. But the offices and dressing-rooms in the widely-windowed, horseshoe-shaped outer wall of the stage-house are more spacious than in most modern theatres anywhere.

A baroque park has been created in front of the theatre, which looks directly across the lake at both Neu Schwanstein and Hohen Schwangau castles. The "magic castle" is illuminated at night for the benefit of theatre-goers.

The elegant neo-baroque park, life-sized silhouette-figures from the musical, large Nymphenburg Porcelain birds, Ludwig memorabilia in lobby-cases, special souvenirs, and a variety of bars and restaurants offer amenities for the many visitors who come during the day just to look around.

Both Füssen and nearby Oberammergau are popular tourist-destinations, so the new theatre can be an asset to both. At least that's what Barberino is hoping. Hordes of tourists—many of them Japanese—arrive hourly by train from Munich.

Preliminary marketing studies suggested some 450,000 potential spectators per year, so 1,389 seats were included "to satisfy this demand." Ludwig will show a profit if it sells 350,000 tickets a year.

Ludwig the Musical plays eight times a week, like Broadway, and also with Broadway ticket-prices. Monday is dark, with Saturday and Sunday matinees. Ludwig is triple-cast, and some other major roles have more than one performer.

Barberino notes that summer attendance has been around 85%, but the show is just beginning to be known. It has the advantage of a worldwide marketing campaign, with many tourism tie-ins.

It is a handsome spectacle, with some 29 scenes, many of them recalling the scenic-traditions of Ludwig's own time, designed by Heinz Hauser. But the show doesn't look like a Victorian throwback. Hauser is justly proud of his ingenious integration of various design-styles.

One effect recalls that used by director-designer Herbert Wernike for his Salzburg Rosenkavalier. For that staging, all the set-elements were in the wings, reflected onstage in mylar panels.

For the Bad Gastein sequences in Ludwig, Hauser has set a mylar triangle center-stage, with three-dimensional stucco-decorated walls offstage. Only those in the side seats can see the real walls.

The rest of the audience sees them shimmering in the mylar, as ladies in colorful ball-gowns waltz with elegant officers and gentlemen. The mylar wedge jack-knifes open for more intimate scenes, its walls closing off the ballroom, which reappears when the panels close again.

Ludwig takes a moonlight ride in his rococo sleigh, drawn by two live horses. The slowly rotating revolve is backed by high mountains—the Himalayas, instead of the Bavarian Alps, it's said.

When the horses reach the front of the stage, it's clear that they are walking on two treadmills, though a lot of stage fog is used to create the illusion of deep snow. The day I saw the show, one of the horses enhanced the realistic effect by relieving herself. But there is even technical provision to take care of such emergencies.

Hauser uses a prop horse in a charming two-dimensional drop-and-wing forest scene. Empress Elizabeth of Austria—Ludwig's beloved cousin "Sissi" and, like him, a loner—awaits him in the woods, sitting astride this immovable steed. She is dressed in the elegant side-saddle riding-habit depicted in some paintings of her.

The 150 costumes, designed by Joachim Herzog, have been inspired by period models. The stunning historical portrait of the very handsome 18-year-old King Ludwig—dressed in full uniform, with hip-length black riding-boots—has been closely copied. As has the grand gown, hair-style, and jewels of Empress Sissi of Austria, shown in Winterhalter's famous Court portrait of her.

The show's book and staging are by Stephan Barberino. The plot reprises documented events, with some fantasy here and there. Those who know nothing about King Ludwig and his passion for castle-construction will know it all when they've seen the show.

The eclectic score—performed by an international cast—has been devised by composer Franz Hummel. Fans of musical theatre will recognize the various styles and functions of the music provided for ballads, comic songs, lovelorn longing, marches, waltzes, and even the distinctive native Lederhosen Schuhpladler dances, reworked with tap-shoes.

Supertitles are projected on the lintel of the proscenium—in English, Japanese, French, and Italian. Special tourist groups can request Dutch and Spanish.

The entire financing for the project totaled DM 88 million—currently about $44 million. The theatre cost some $24 million, with $20 million spent on the production, gastronomy, and marketing. Plus an additional $2.5 million from co-operative partners, to develop technology and attractions in and around the theatre.

The Barberinos' handsome theatre—not to overlook its several outstanding restaurants—is worth repeated visits for itself and its stunning location alone. And Ludwig—Longing for Paradise is such a lavish production, many will want to see it again and again.

Stephan Barberino is counting on that. But his theatre is so modern and so thoroughly equipped with the latest technical devices that almost any musical could be produced on its stage.

I suggested that Elizabeth might be added, and run in repertory, when Ludwig has had a thorough exposure. These two impressive musicals would make a very good match.

And—as Barberino emphasizes about the special siting of the theatre—they'd both be playing in a place where Ludwig and Sissi are not just funny German names of some dead royalty few Americans have ever heard of.

But will audiences come in droves in the depths of January snows? Barberino may have to rethink his scheduling.

Frankly though, I think it would be a wonderful winter holiday to snuggle up in a Füssen hotel, "take the waters" have thermal baths & massages, eat great Sauerbraten & Leberknödeln, sip the local brews, go cross-country on skis, ramble through the corridors of Neu Schwanstein and admire the many swans with which King Ludwig loaded it. And, of course, enjoy Ludwig's very own musical again!

Not far away from Füssen and the Ludwig Musical Theatre is another picturesque, historic Bavarian town, nestled at the foot of the Alps. This is Oberammergau, this year presenting its world-famous Passion Play—which involves nearly a third of all the citizens in the production.

In 1634, thankful that they had been spared the worst of the Black Plague, then raging in Europe, Oberammergau villagers vowed to present a folk-play of Jesus' Passion, Death, and Resurrection. This they have been doing every decade for several centuries.

Because of the hundreds of people required to produce the play, it cannot be shown more frequently. Yet, they have an immense 5,000-seat open-ended auditorium and an extremely wide stage with five specialized areas for important scenes or events.

During the nine years that there is no Passion Play, hordes of tourists nonetheless still flock to Oberammergau. It's a center of woodcarvers of remarkable ability.

It has outstanding alpine scenery, excellent both for summer hikes and winter sports. Its rustic chalet-hotels and restaurants—like Füssen—are laden with historic charm and Luftmalerei, or colorful wall-paintings.

In the off-years, tourists line up and pay to see the Passion Play stage, auditorium, dressing-rooms, props, and costumes. But, when the current production ends in October, everyone will have to wait for 2010 to see the play again.

I've seen it five times over a span of forty years: 1960, 1970, 1970, 1990, and this Millennial Year, 2000!

And I've always asked why they don't offer some smaller-scaled summer musical production in the other nine years? A beautiful, but serious musical offering—in keeping with the character of the theatre—which wouldn't require most of the townspeople to devote themselves to it?

Now this idea is being considered. And Oberammergau and Füssen are planning to help each other with the increasing numbers of tourists coming to the Bavarian Alps. Ludwig the Musical is sure to bring even more of them. [Loney]

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Copyright © Glenn Loney 2000. No re-publication or broadcast use without proper credit of authorship. Suggested credit line: "Glenn Loney, New York Theatre Wire." Reproduction rights please contact: jslaff@nytheatre-wire.com.

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