Elisabeth the Musical
帝国劇団 (Imperial Theatre, Tokyo)
Sept. 23, 5:30 pm
Starring Sena Jun (瀬奈じゅん) as Elisabeth, Yamaguchi Yuichiro (山口祐一郎) as der Tod, Ishikawa Zen (石川 禅) as Franz Joseph, Irei Kanata (伊礼彼方) as Rudolph, Takashima Mashiro (髙嶋政宏) as Luigi Lucheni, and Kotobuki Hizuru (寿 ひずる) as Sophie.*
The musical begins in the land of the dead, in which Luigi Lucheni, an Italian anarchist, has been resurrected to explain why he murdered the Empress Elisabeth of Austro-Hungary. He replies that he’s explained over and over—un grand amore! She was in love with Death, he claims. She wanted to die! And so, to give his testimony, Lucheni resurrects the Hapsburgs to illustrate his story: Elisabeth, her husband Franz-Joseph, her son Rudolph, her mother-in-law Sophie—and the key witness: der Tod, the king of the dead. The musical follows Elisabeth’s life from the fall that sent her to the land of the dead, where der Tod falls in love with her, to her troubled marriage with Franz, to Rudolph’s revolutionary activities, and eventually, to the fall of the Hapsburg empire and Elisabeth’s assassination.
Although Elisabeth has been performed for over 20 years, those not wanting spoilers about the details of the show should stop reading here.
Elisabeth: Sena Jun is the only Takarasienne to have ever played all three lead roles in the Takarazuka version of the show. She played Lucheni in the 2002 Hanagumi version, with the incomparable Haruno Sumire (春野寿美礼) as der Tod and Ootori Rei (大鳥 れい) as Elisabeth; in 2005, she played Elisabeth against Ayaki Nao’s (彩輝 直) der Tod; and she played der Tod (with Nagina Ruumi [凪七 瑠海] as Elisabeth) in 2009 as one of her last roles before retiring.
When she played Elisabeth in 2005, she did a great job, but she struggled with some of the high notes, particularly the one at the end of “Watashi dake ni.” I’ve always preferred the Hanagumi version (in which she played Lucheni) because Ootori Rei’s performance as Elisabeth was so nuanced. (It didn’t hurt that she actually resembled the real Elisabeth, especially in the later scenes.)
However, Sena really outdid herself in this performance. Whether the key were lowered to be closer to some of the German-language versions or whether she has been able to train her in her higher range since retiring as an otokoyaku and playing women’s roles in mainstream theater, she hit all the notes perfectly. It’s hard to tell how much was her personal and professional growth and how much was changed by the work itself, as the mainstream version is quite a bit different than the Takarazuka version and also because each run of the show, even in the same language/country, is different.
Regardless, she was stunning—she was absolutely adorable in “Like You,” (パパみたいに) which can be difficult to play without being cloying or singing badly on purpose to mimic the vocal sound of youth. In this version, she fired a gun first, which attracted the (philandering) Max’s attention, and I think this helped establish her straight away as wild and unsuited for the throne. As Elisabeth ages, Sena played her as a woman who tried to maintain a cold outer dignity as she struggled with her inner turmoil and continued heartbreaks; her reactions toward adult Rudolph and Franz (particularly in “Boats in the Night,” in which she tells him that they can never really be together.) Additionally, Sena’s beauty is a strong beauty—she has strong facial features, a strong voice, and a strong body, and these all contribute to the audience’s willingness to believe that she was strong enough to resist the call of Death, something I had difficulty doing when Elisabeth is played as more delicate.
Ishikawa Zen’s Franz Joseph was an excellent foil to Sena’s Elisabeth. In their youth, serious Franz warns bubbly Elisabeth over and over that life as the rulers of Austro-Hungary will not be easy or fun, but his failure to convince her speaks as much to his weak-willed nature as to her strong-willed one. Franz relied mainly on facial expressions to express his true feelings when he could not in words; his “kicked puppy” expression got a lot of use but was always entirely appropriate. He’s a very dynamic actor, and really played Franz in a nuanced way that made me feel more sympathetic to him and angry at him than I usually do. He played Franz as a man who wanted to do everything in his power to please the woman he loved and do what he felt was right, but was so caught up in his mother’s stranglehold that he couldn’t love Elisabeth or run the country in the way he wanted. We see this first in the scene where a mother begs for her son’s life; Franz seems more than willing to pardon him but Sophie overpowers him. The inclusion of the duet between Franz and Sophie, which leads into Sophie’s solo about how she was just trying to make Franz a good emperor was included in this version and really rounded out their relationship. The theme present in Franz’s relationships with Sophie and Elisabeth, seems to be that, in trying to please one person, his relationship with the other–and with everyone else–deteriorates. By the time Rudolph grows up, the strain between Sophie, Elisabeth, and Franz seems to have destroyed his relationship with both of them and with Rudolph, as well, to whom he never shows kindness.
Irei Kanata as Rudolph was another stand-out performance. Rudolph is a very angsty role by nature, but Irei’s Rudolph was in angst because he was a genuinely compassionate and intellectual, though idealistic, young man who wanted to change the empire before it collapsed, not just a brash child rebelling against his father. His story was expanded in this version—he tried to warn Franz about the nationalists by “showing” him the song “Hate,” (Hass) a number about proto-Nazis that never appears in the Takarazuka version. Franz does not heed Rudolph’s warning that Austro-Hungary needs to change, and instead becomes furious with him, which helps further set up Rudolph’s eventual suicide. Rudolph’s idealism is further developed in another scene in which Franz yells at his son for publishing a pro-Hungarian independence article in a revolutionary newspaper; Rudolph, however, continues his revolutionary activities, when and the others are arrested after a rally, Franz threatens to disown him.
In contrast to his fights with his father about matters of the state, when Rudolph appeals to his beloved mother Elisabeth, he gives in to his emotions. His near-worship of her as an ideal mother-figure, someone who can fix anything, even the state of Austro-Hungary and his father’s political opinions as emperor, gets in the way of presenting his argument. (And he’s not really even speaking to the right person about this matter, as Elisabeth has removed herself from politics at this point.) I really adored Irei’s playing Rudolph as full of pluck and idealism instead of just a mama’s boy; I also liked his being both the most politically idealistic and realistic character in the show.
Takashima played a deliciously crazy Lucheni, using spoooooky voices and hand gestures to refer to (and perhaps make fun of) der Tod, making faces at Sophie and Max as they sang about how “This Marriage is a Mistake” (結婚は失敗) and generally carrying on as a mad, wild, over-the-top narrator who has to tell this story but figures he might as will have fun with it and mess with the judge (and jury?) of the underworld. His performance was in direct contrast to Yamaguchi’s as der Tod. While Takashima acted crazy and over the top, it was believable, in-character, and never detracted from his singing or acting skills. I could hear the lyrics clearly, for one, and Lucheni’s role, at its best, can be played like a comic version of Heath Ledger’s Joker, which is the direction Takashima took it. (Read: he’s really crazy, with hardly a scrap of reason, especially in the scene leading up to the murder.)
Yamaguchi, on the other hand, might have been trying to play der Tod as someone who knows he is the King of the Dead and is full of himself, but 95% of the time, he came off as “Yamaguchi being full of himself”—someone who likes to rephrase lyrics by singing them with emphasis on strange syllables and by drawing things out because he likes the sound of his own voice. Frankly, it sounded ridiculous. I’m not sure if that’s what he wanted his der Tod to be, but it came off as Yamaguchi himself mistaking excessive drama and awkward pitch and phrasing (horrible vowels, which is impressive in a language that only has beautiful vowels) for actually acting. Several of my friends who saw him in the role in 2008 said the same thing, so I doubt it was just an off night. In short, he plays this role with hardly an ounce of nuance or subtlety, like an aspiring musical theatre actor who hasn’t learned that belting is not acting. I have trouble imagining Sena Jun, who is an incredible actor herself and has also worked with some of the great der Tods, going home after rehearsal not to head-desk.
There were only a couple scenes in which Yamaguchi calmed down and played the role in a skilled, nuanced way, and these were actually great. One was “Mama, Where Are You?” (ママどこなの?) in which young Rudolph sings about missing his mother. Tiny Rudolph picks up a giant sword when he sings about becoming a hero, and der Tod later takes the sword and points it at oblivious Rudolph’s back as if to see if the boy will accidentally back up into it. He is toying with the child in the way that an older sibling might hold a scary mask or a fake spider next to a younger sibling to see if he or she will turn to face it instead of just scaring him/her outright. (“I wasn’t trying to kill your son, he just walked into my sword!”) I liked that this showed der Tod as having a sick sense of humor, and I wish he had done more with this.
Kotobuki’s performance as Sophie was also excellent. In a role which is also easy to overact, she played the tyrant Sophie with skill and grace—as the mother-in-law everyone fears having but without becoming a caricature. She was particularly terrifying in “An Empress’s Duties” (detailed later.) Kotobuki made a point of showing Sophie growing physically weaker (her limp, the cane) while trying to look and act strong, particularly when devising the plan to acquire a prostitute for Franz to diminish Elisabeth’s influence on him.
The “mini-Tods,” der Tod’s minions/back-up dancers were excellent, writhing and contorting in dance, which really added to the surreal and disturbing mood of the show. I feel like they had more of a presence in this production, especially when they carried Elisabeth around after she arrives in the land of the dead. After “Mayerling Waltz,” during which they removed their shirts, they remained shirtless for the rest of the show. There was something disturbing about it–the contrast of pale skin to dark setting, or seeing their muscles writhing–that made them seem even more supernatural than before.
The costumes were amazing, with rich fabrics and great attention to details, from the military medals to Elisabeth’s hair ornaments, as usual, but a few things stood out to me as exceptionally good. First, Elisabeth’s wigs got longer and longer as she aged, reflecting her obsession with her beautiful, extremely long hair. The real Elisabeth was very particular about her ankle-length hair, and in the hours it took to dress it each day, she studied Hungarian with a tutor. In the Takarazuka version, her hair is not a big deal, but I enjoyed the nod to her hair issues in this production.
Also regarding her costumes, in Act 1, Sena was stripped of her outfit and made to step into another in her bloomers—from death gown to her child’s outfit, from that outfit to her fancy dress for going to Bad Ischal, and from that outfit to her wedding gown. The feeling was that she had little agency and was being dressed like a doll, but there was the added nuance of the play within the play—Lucheni has resurrected the Hapsburgs to illustrate his testimony in the afterlife that Elisabeth wanted to die, and so it was like she were being dressed “backstage” in front of us. Unfortunately, this ended in the first act, but I’m not sure if it was for time purposes, as her costumes become more and more complicated, particularly her ballgown and her tightly corseted traveling gown, or to show that she (and her servants) could dress herself, a metaphor for independence.
As for the sets, one of my favorite sets was the one for the first duet between young Rudolph and der Tod (“Mama, Where Are You?” , who detailed above): a pile of oversized books, armor, and swords in a dark background. This set made young Rudolph, who sings of his desire to see his mother again, seem even smaller and more helpless. The set’s size also forced the perspective of the audience to identify with him, I think, because we can understand the feeling of being a child and everything in the adult world (books, weapons) just seems so big. I enjoyed all of the sets, but this one really stood out.
Differences between the Toho and Takarazuka versions
The Toho production is much closer to the original German versions than the Takarazuka productions are. The Takarazuka productions tend to focus on der Tod and Elisabeth equally, and this takes a lot of Elisabeth’s agency away. Der Tod is listed as the first character in the playbill, for example, and even though the actress playing Elisabeth is usually the top musumeyaku, the show fans like best is usually the show with their favorite der Tod. On the other hand, because Takarazuka focuses so much on the love story between der Tod and Elisabeth instead of Elisabeth herself, this aspect of the show tends to be much more believable in the Takarazuka productions that this run of the Toho one. Although some of that might be the fault of Yamaguchi—I, for one, remained unconvinced that Elisabeth could be drawn to him romantically because his der Tod was so utterly unappealing compared to those of Haruno Sumire, Uwe Kroeger, and Máté Kamarás, and others who brought a lot of sexual tension and chemistry to the role.
Kamarás, for example, gropes and caresses Havoort quite a bit, especially in “The Last Dance” (Der Letze Tanz; 最後のダンス)and “When I Dance” (Wenn Ich Tanzen Will; 私が踊る時), and she physically responds to his touch. It’s clear that she’s attracted to him on a primal level. I like to read this as a double meaning–this Elisabeth was, in a way, aroused by Death, the character, and, of course, the concept. Haruno Sumire and Uwe Kroeger were more subtle (read: less groping). Haruno played der Tod as someone with incredible sexual charisma–der Tod knew he was attractive and irresistible; someone who could break a heart with a glance. Her der Tod knew Elisabeth would succumb to his charms, and this was in contrast to how her der Tod behaved after Elisabeth’s rejections. Despite putting on a show that he was in control of the relationship, Haruno’s der Tod secretly had a lot of pain and doubts, as seen in the scene in Elisabeth’s bedroom, after she tells Franz to chose her or his mother. Der Tod’s entry was marked by a spotlight on one of her hands languidly curling around the door, and her gaze and attitude toward Elisabeth was one of absolute confidence–you want me. She makes a curt exit after Elisabeth tells der Tod to get out, but behind the closed door, breaks down a little, stinging from the rejection.
Because of sexual confidence of Haruno and Kamarás, I felt much more invested in and willing to believe that Elisabeth loved and lusted after Death; with Yamaguchi, I was left cold. There was just no appeal to his der Tod. I did like that the musical was not about the love story, but since the ending is the same (Elisabeth dies and is happily united with der Tod), I was hoping that he’d be a little more appealing instead of just an enemy-like figure.
Speaking of eroticism and lack thereof, in every respect other than Yamaguchi’s performance, the show preserved more of the focus on sex present in the original German. When Sophie and her minions come to drag Elisabeth out of bed for empress training, Sophie pulls back the covers to reveal the “evidence” of the wedding night. (Much to her horror and disgust—but what was she expecting, really?) Additionally, Max, Elisabeth’s father, gets some philandering in before “Like You,” (パパみたいに) and Elisabeth does catch an STI from Franz after Sophie and her ministers procure him a prostitute. I like this better than the Takarazuka version because it makes the (living) characters seem more like real people with all the problems that arise from desire.
In contrast (or perhaps in complement) to the focus on sex, young Elisabeth herself is made out to be very naïve and very young, which I think really rounded out her character. In other versions, she wears a childish dress in “Like You,” but changes into a more adult gown for the marriage meeting of Helene and Franz. The conversation about said meeting takes place right before Elisabeth’s visit to the land of the dead, so not that much time has passed between her fall from the tree (or tightrope, or wall) and the trip to Bad Ischal. However, in this production, Elisabeth wears a plain, childish dress that shows her ankles, whereas Helene appears in a full-length adult dress for the marriage meeting. When Franz picks Elisabeth instead, the effect is even more shocking because Elisabeth really looks like just a child. (The real Elisabeth was all of 16 when she married.) It seemed a little taboo, which helped complicate their relationship.
Elisabeth’s youthful ignorance is taken a step further by her actions towards Franz. Before the love song “I Won’t Fear Any Storm” (嵐も怖くはない), Elisabeth and Franz are talking. He tries to kiss her, but she shies away. She goes on about how they’ll travel the world and live in freedom together (her desires in expressed in“Like You” when talking to her father). Franz tries to tell her that the life of the royal couple is very difficult and that she won’t really have any personal freedom, but Elisabeth just continues on without listening. Franz repeats the sentiment, and she concedes that it’ll be okay if they’re together, but it’s obvious she doesn’t have any idea what she’s getting into. Ishikawa plays Franz as someone who is weak to the women in his life—his mother controls him, and choosing Elisabeth seems to be as much out of love at first sight as his desire to make a choice of his own for once. However, he wants Elisabeth to like him back so much that he kind of just drops the subject at this point. Including this particular interaction, which was skillfully acted, was an excellent choice in showing both what a reckless, hasty act their engagement was and in developing their characters.
I’m really glad I finally got a chance to see a production of Elisabeth live, and that I got to see a non-Takarazuka Japanese-language production. Although I own a copy of the Vienna revival with Maya Havoort and Máté Kamarás, I can’t understand German, so I feel like some of the parts that are different than the Takarazuka version were lost on me, like the lyrics of “Hate” and the spoken interactions. In Japanese, I could understand it all, even the parts that got changed, like the lyrics of “When I Dance,” which were much closer to the original German lyrics I’ve read in translation.
With the exception of Yamaguchi’s portrayal of der Tod, I adored this production. Elisabeth, like The Scarlet Pimpernel (both the original and Takarazuka version), is proof that a lavish, large-scale musical can be more than just smoke, mirrors, and belting.** The thoughtful lyrics, the attention paid to (and addition of) the character-developing scenes, and the excellent acting of the rest of the cast are what make this musical truly extraordinary.
*The roles of Elisabeth, der Tod, and Sophie were shared during the three-month run of the show. Elisabeth was played by former otokoyaku Sena Jun and Asami Hikaru; der Tod was played by Yamaguchi Yuichiro, Ishimaru Kanji, and Shirota Yu; Rudolph by Irei Kanata, Tashiro Mario and Urai Kenji; and Sophie by two former Takarasiennes, Kotobuki Hizuru and Mori Keaki.
**I mean this in reference to the Andrew Lloyd Webber and Rodgers and Hammerstein canons of musicals rather than the Takarazuka productions.