No matter how fiercely you reject me, one day you’ll seek me out
I’ve written before about Elisabeth, my favorite musical when I saw it at the Imperial Theatre in Sept. 2010. That review was primarily a review of that run of the show and its actors since Elisabeth is an incredibly dense work with 20 years’ and multiple countries’ worth of shows; I’m convinced one could write several dissertations on any of the facets of the show, which is why I love it: it provides both the pleasure of consuming and the pleasure of producing analyses.
This year, I decided again to travel to Tokyo to see the 2012 Toho run show because, in addition to the excellent Sena Jun reprising her role as Elisabeth in a double cast with Haruno Sumire (my first Takarazuka love!), Toho brought on Hungarian actor Máté Kamarás for the role of der Tod, whom he had played in the Vienna revival run. Given my unenthusiastic feelings on Yamaguchi Yuichiro’s interpretation of the role, I was thrilled to be able to see an actor I actually knew I liked as der Tod on stage.1
Warning: this review has spoilers for Elisabeth the Musical as well as discussions of the musical’s themes of depression and suicide.
Máté Kamarás played der Tod in the Vienna revival of the show (2003-5), with Maya Hakvoort in the role of Elisabeth. I generally prefer the Uwe Kröger- Pia Douwes version of the show (1992-7), but Kamarás brought this incredible exuberance and wonderful androgyny to the show, and I loved his interpretation of der Tod as both sexy and sadistic. This was not Haruno Sumire’s der Tod, who is practically a romantic hero: her der Tod is very sensitive and emotional, or, as I like to say, constantly has lots of feeeeeelings. Which works–it’s among my favorite performances of the role. But Kamarás’s Vienna der Tod was appealing because he was so different: he expressed der Tod more physically, both showing control and dominance, throwing and dragging Elisabeth and Rudolph around the stage, but also in his “seduction” techniques: caressing, groping. He came off as a live wire, and he was terrifying. Pretty and somewhat slight compared to the other actors, I feel he was still more intimidating than any of the other men (or Sophie) on the stage.
Because of his performance in the Vienna run, part of the thrill of seeing him live was also to see how he would play the role (or be directed to play it) in the Toho run. His Toho der Tod was not as physically or sexually threatening as his Vienna version of the role, but he was also not a tragic romantic hero in the manner of some Takarazuka der Tods, whom you want to cheer for when they win over Elisabeth in the end. More on this later.
Another point of interest is that Mate was not a native Japanese-speaker. In the first promotional videos, he has an accent you could cut with a knife. (Who wouldn’t? When I think of trying to teach myself Ghibli songs ten years ago…) When I sat down in the theatre, I had no clue what to expect from the performance except that I could count on Sena Jun and Ishikawa Zen (Franz) to be amazing again. In his first appearance, when young Elisabeth falls and ends up in the land of the dead, Mate was sort of low-key. The accent was still there, but he had improved significantly (マテ万歳！). Because of his performance in Vienna and my experience with Takarazuka, I didn’t really know what to think of this cool, blasé der Tod who barely batted an eyelash even when promising to follow Elisabeth wherever she goes and to make her love him. Then he sang “Saigo no Dansu [The Last Dance]”–and nailed it. The energy, the sheer intensity, the casual sexiness–there was the der Tod I had hoped for.
On this note, I have a few songs that really influence my overall judgment of the show, one of which is the reprise of “Elisabeth,” in which der Tod shows up in Elisabeth’s study after she has given Franz an ultimatum about their children. In this version of the show, der Tod appears sitting on Elisabeth’s desk, twirling her quill pen seductively, sweetly singing to her not to cry, to come away with him and be free. Elisabeth is tempted–this is exactly what she wants to hear–and lets him embrace her, lets him nearly draw her into a kiss. Just as their lips are about to touch, she realizes in horror what she is doing and breaks away at the very last second, telling him that she’ll find her own way to freedom, that she won’t give in, and orders him out of her sight.
This scene is critical to me because I want to be convinced of both der Tod’s ability to tempt her and of the force of her conviction to find her own way. On this note, regarding the relationship between Elisabeth and der Tod, there’s an interesting line in the Wikipedia description of the show that states, “There is only one thing that keeps her emotionally stimulated, and that is the dark and sensual shadow of Death” (“Elisabeth (musical)”). Something in that line really resonates with me: the only thrill in her life is flirting with d/Death: flirting with death in the sense of contemplating suicide, both in an abstract sense and in a concrete sense, and flirting with Death, the personification of her fascination with death, which is so strong that he becomes a physical character in the musical.
Regarding the character himself, there are two main ways to interpret der Tod for the stage: first, he is a stand-in for real people who contribute to events, including Elisabeth’s murder, that cause downfall of the Hapsburgs. This interpretation is quite strongly suggested in the Vienna version, in which Kamarás wore a dress in the Mayerling scene to more iconographically represent Rudolph’s lover Marie Vetsera, with whom he committed suicide.2 That is, der Tod is not actually an independent character but a walking metaphor; at the very least he is a figment of Elisabeth’s imagination. One could read him as possibly a figment of Lucheni’s imagination, since he is the narrator, an unreliable one at that, and der Tod appears in scenes in which Elisabeth does not, such as as the café scene with the revolutionaries. (This idea makes the premise of the judgment of Lucheni as the framework plot of the show all the more interesting. But I digress.)
The other interpretation, more popular in the Takarazuka versions, in which der Tod is really the star of the show, is that he is an actual character, and that we the audience are supposed to feel as attracted to him as Elisabeth is. For example, in the Flower Troupe version of the show in 2002, we’re made to empathize with Haruno Sumire’s Tod in this scene–he just wants Elisabeth to like him!–and when she rejects him, he has this very angsty moment of outside her study as he sings a sad reprise of “Ai to Shi no Rondo [The Rondo of Love and Death].” I find this feeling of wanting to give in to der Tod’s seduction interesting psychologically, as it seems to try to place us in Elisabeth’s mindset–finding Death alluring, fascinating, and even more so for being taboo. Yet Elisabeth wants to be her own woman, to make her own decisions no matter what, to decide her own fate. The characters have an intense, quasi-sexual dynamic, and the (sometimes cruel) teasing, the back and forth, and the energy and passion really make the show.
Returning to Kamarás’s and Toho’s interpretation of der Tod in this show, rather than make him a romantic antihero or a jilted abusive lover, der Tod is played like a supernatural force, as an actual personification of death. At first, I considered his behavior somewhat sociopathic: coolly seductive, calmly destructive (possibly emotionless), but occasionally lashing out in extreme rage. When writing that, though, I wondered if Kamarás were actually portraying der Tod not as a sociopath but as human, albeit less sympathetic than Haruno Sumire’s. That is, don’t we all have breaking points with rage and moments when we can seem seductive to another, not necessarily in the “lady-killer-pickup-line” way but in a way, for good or for bad, that is exactly what that person wants to hear? Yet this doesn’t fully describe this Tod either. Instead, I think he’s most like the physical embodiment of death. Death could be thought of as random (the strange deaths of the Hapsburgs), as cruel (the death of young Sophie), as an escape or as terrifying (Rudolph), as a tormentor (Franz), as taboo or as seductive (Elisabeth). The human condition is to try to understand death, whether by religious ideas of rewards and punishment in the afterlife, by medical research to cure disease and extend life, by the stages of grieving, by trying to reduce violent or accidental deaths as a society through mental health care, intervention, and safety measures. And yet, no matter what we do or how we feel about it, death will come for all of us in the end. That is in and of itself terrifying.
One scene that caps off this idea is one close to the end of the show in which Franz dreams of all the relatives he has lost to Death and his argument with der Tod regarding Elisabeth’s love (“Akumu [Nightmare]”). In most versions of Elisabeth, there is a central visual theme; for instance, in the Vienna revival, there was a nautical theme to complement the themes of “Boats in the Night” and “On the Deck of a Sinking Ship”: the sinking of the Hapsburg empire was illustrated with der Tod arriving on a prow, with “When I Dance” in front of a steering wheel, “steering” Elisabeth on her course, and so on. In this version, the theme is der Tod as a conductor or director. In “Akumu,” he “conducts” with a baton as Lucheni describes the mysterious deaths of many of the Hapsburgs. Perhaps the most obvious example is waking up the “players” of the story to retell Elisabeth’s life story from the dead as if they were long-dormant theatre puppets.
To focus on the acting for a moment, Sena Jun plays Elisabeth in such a beautiful, complex, heartrending way, and her interactions with Zen Ishikawa as Franz are a delight. Suzuki Tomonori, who played young Rudolph, has a great singing voice for such a small child, and I loved his scene with der Tod and Kamarás’s use of a gun as a prop. This was more effective than the sword prop in the 2010 Toho run because der Tod hands young Rudolph the gun, presumably the same one he kills himself with in “Mayerling Waltz” at the end of the song.
One of the biggest surprises for me was that one of the most famous, recognizable, and repeated lines (to fans, anyway) was changed. When der Tod, dressed as a doctor, reveals that Elisabeth has caught an STI from Franz’s cheating on her, she asks him “どうすればいい？生きてはいけない” (“What should I do? I can’t go on living!”), to which der Tod has always responded (say it with me!), “死ねばいい！” (“Then why don’t you die?!”) This is such a fan favorite that you can watch almost every Takarazuka der Tod/Elisabeth pairing do this scene on this video. Surprisingly, this line was changed in the current run: Elisabeth says “命を絶って” (“My life is over”–more literally “Take my life”), and der Tod responds, “それはいい。待たせた。” (“That’s fine. You’ve made me wait.”) before leaping onto the fainting couch to collect his prize. He fails, of course, but the charge between them is palpable.3
In summary, the Toho Kamarás/Sena version of Elisabeth is now one of my favorites. Their chemistry brought to mind a lot of other dysfunctional relationships in media currently in the spotlight, but I don’t feel like this director and der Tod and Elisabeth whitewashed their relationship by painting it as the ideal of romantic love.
The connection between death, dysfunction, and desire is difficult to discuss without feeling like one is acting as an apologist for unhealthy relationships or, conversely, shaming S&M and kink. The der Tod/Elisabeth relationship can be sexy precisely because it addresses aspects of S&M and kink, but it’s severely unhealthy–one of the pair is the physical embodiment of Death, after all. Elisabeth is a fantasy, and fantasy is unreality– the intertwining of desire, imagination, taboo–which is a reflection of culture. The show’s Elisabeth and the real Elisabeth have a fascination with Death, but he is not a flesh-and-blood prince who saves the day in the Toho version. When Elisabeth is stabbed by Lucheni, she sings her love duet with der Tod in the final scene; they embrace; he caresses her face and smiles at her as a lover would. At the end of the song, he finally kisses her, and she slumps over, dead, before he carries her off stage.
Elisabeth is, at its core, a story about a woman’s battle with her inner demons and mental illness. I think many fans can empathize with some of the other key themes of the show: feeling trapped by one’s family obligations, an unhappy relationship with a spouse or child, in-laws from hell, the death of a child, and, foremost, a longing “to be free.” We have seen plenty of media coverage of female royals like Diana and Masako whose desire for freedom strained their relationships with the royal family. Yet, by making her obsession with Death more tangible by making him in the form of a seductive and attractive man (or androgyne), Michael Kunze seems to have wanted to drag us into Elisabeth’s mental state.4 For everyone who has felt seduced by der Tod’s character or said, “How could she not kiss him in the office scene? I would have!”, we should take it a step further and think of the implications in this desire, one which may bring us a little bit closer to understanding her character and to her depression. Yet in the end, Elisabeth finds freedom, however imperfect, through living, through action. Der Tod is fascinated by this will, even if she denies him. To quote Chiyoko in Kon Satoshi’s film Millennium Actress: “The part I really loved was chasing him.” But when Elisabeth dances, as she sings, she’ll be the one to choose.
Elisabeth the Musical
By Michael Kunze and Sylvester Levay
Produced by Toho
9 June 2012, 17:30
Imperial Theatre, Tokyo （帝国劇場）
Sena Juna (瀬奈じゅん）as Elisabeth
Máté Kamarás (マテ・カマラス) as der Tod
Zen Ishikawa (石川 禅) as Franz Joseph
Takashima Masashiro (髙嶋政宏) as Luigi Lucheni
Mori Keaki (杜けあき) as Sophie
Ohno Takuro (大野拓朗) as Rudolph
Suzuki Tomonori (鈴木知憲) as young Rudolph
1My ideal cast would have actually been Haruno Sumire as der Tod with Sena Jun as Elisabeth.
2Or murdered before committing suicide. Or perhaps they were assassinated. There are a number of theories.
3Also of note: There was no Takarazuka fake-kissing when Rudolph commits suicide. Kamarás full-on kissed him. 万歳！
4I read somewhere that the character was originally conceived of as looking like Heinrich Heine.
Watch the German-language version with Kunze-approved English subtitles here.