BAT OUT OF HELL Is Now A Musical, And It Is Awesome

Jim Steinman's magnum opus has finally seen the dashboard light of day.

It will shock literally no one who has even the slightest familiarity with me that the first concert I ever attended was a Meat Loaf one, receiving a pair of tickets to the Bat out of Hell II tour for my 8th grade graduation present. Because it was a special occasion, my mom also splurged for the concert program book, and since we were there early I probably read it twice during that torturous (read: probably 30 minutes tops) wait for my hero to take the stage. It was in this book that I learned for the first time - since my copies of Bat 1 and Bat 2 were tapes a friend had duped for me* and I had no access to the liner notes - that all of those songs were not written by Meat Loaf, but a man named Jim Steinman. This little bio also mentioned Steinman's non-Meat Loaf successes, and it was then that my mind was blown, as it turns out he had also written "the na-na-na-na song".

Let me explain. When I was three or four years old, my dad had an 8-track tape of Air Supply's Greatest Hits album, and I would always ask him to play (and then replay) the "the na-na-na-na song", which is how I referred to "Making Love Out of Nothing At All". My young ears hadn't been attuned to making out the distinct words that folks were saying when singing fast, and so uptempo lyrics like "And I'm never gonna tell you everything I've gotta tell you but I know I've gotta give it a try" just sounded like "nanananana" to me. I know this is off track, but the point is I still loved this particular song when I was a toddler, long before my taste in music had started to take shape or had even developed enough to make out the words that were being sung - there was something I connected to on a basic level. Likewise, my first experience with Bat II was hearing a snippet of "Anything for Love" on an MTV promo and proceeding to watch the channel for hours until the full video came on, as there was something about it that just clicked with me after hearing only a few seconds, so knowing that the same guy wrote these two songs kind of blew my mind. From that point on I consumed everything Steinman ever wrote, and kept track of his projects to the best of my abilities - which was occasionally disheartening, as several of his grand ideas (such as a Batman stage musical) never came to fruition. 

But there was one project that seemed like it would eventually come together: the musical that all of the songs on Bat out of Hell and its first sequel (we don't count Bat 3, for the record) were originally written for. Originally titled Neverland (described by Steinman as "a rock 'n roll, futuristic Peter Pan") the dream project morphed over the years to become simply Bat out of Hell: The Musical, and it finally premiered earlier this year in Manchester, followed by a London run. I originally planned to head across the pond, but when the production announced a Toronto run would follow with pretty much the same cast, I figured I could ease up on my fanboy dedication and wait for the cheaper Canadian version. And so, after months of literally counting down the days, on Saturday, October 14th I took my orchestra seat - and a lot of photos of the stage, and some souvenirs - and finally got to see how all these songs I loved so much would fit into a single narrative.

The story revolves around Strat (the fantastic Andrew Polec), the leader of the "Lost" (a group of young men and women who are frozen at the age of 18 for eternity), and Raven (Christina Bennington), a young woman who is just about to turn 18 and has been living a sheltered life due to her overprotective parents. Those parents are Falco (Rob Fowler), who seemingly runs the city, and Sloane (Sharon Sexton), his bored wife that is torn between wanting to protect her daughter, and also wanting to make sure she doesn't end up just as miserable as her. Falco hates the Lost and frequently tries to imprison them, and for good reason - they occasionally destroy his construction projects. But their animosity becomes even more personal when Strat and Raven begin falling in love, and thus a "Peter Pan meets Romeo & Juliet" narrative starts to emerge, largely played out via nearly twenty of Steinman's classic songs. All of them will be known to dedicated fans (yep, even the two "new" ones) but people who only know of his work from his hits will get to hear those ("Paradise by the Dashboard Light", "Anything For Love", "It's All Coming Back To Me Now", and yes, "Making Love Out of Nothing At All" are all accounted for) while being treated to several more that they probably haven't heard, a jukebox musical where the selections aren't particularly well known.

But that's a good thing. It's probably difficult to forget about Meat Loaf when Sloane and Falco break into "Paradise by the Dashboard Light" (yes, the Phil Rizzuto play-by-play is left intact), but when those same characters sing "Who Needs The Young" or the previously unreleased "What Part Of My Body Hurts The Most" (one of the show's highlights), there will be zero nostalgia to potentially distract you out of the moment that now belongs to them. Indeed, these two are probably my favorite characters, probably because (alas) it's easier for me to identify with parents trying to protect their kid and hold on to their ever dwindling youth than the younger characters who still have their whole lives ahead of them (the bastards!), so I was thankful that they weren't typical villains. Through the dialogue and the songs they really became just as sympathetic as Strat and Raven, and the overall narrative worked best when paralleling their stories. Nearly all of the songs are changed into duets (or quartets!), so sometimes you'll get Strat and Falco singing different parts of the same song to their respective lover, and it works beautifully.

Of course, if you're one of those monsters who hates the songs you already know, I can't imagine the others would change your mind, and you should steer clear of the production. Admittedly, the story is a bit clunkily told at times; audience members are given a newspaper when they enter and it's highly recommended that you read it, as it explains a lot of the backstory that's left unexplained in the play itself (there are also graphics projected on the stage during the pre-show that look a bit like the opening of Escape From New York, covering a bit of the same material). As any Steinman fan can tell you, his songs tend to be rather long, and even though most of them are cut down ("Making Love", for example, only runs two and a half minutes - less than half its original length), they still eat up a lot of the time a traditional musical might spend on dialogue. Two songs that were originally in the show have been cut (they are present on the original cast recording CD, however) and the seams occasionally show - a pair of characters named Zahara and Jagwire suddenly become important and launch into "Two out of Three Ain't Bad" with no fanfare, presumably due to the removal of the previous song and its accompanying dialogue that would have given them a proper introduction. Luckily, Zahara is played by Danielle Steers, who might very well have the best voice in the show (plenty of competition, mind you) and gives Meat Loaf himself a run for his money as the best vocalist to ever tackle that particular song, so it's hard to mind the jarring narrative issue all that much.

Speaking of Meat, he is listed as a co-producer on the show and is represented in both overt (a poster in Raven's room) and subtle ways - at one point Strat is fitted with one of the ruffled white shirts that Meat fancied back in the day (Falco also holds a red handkerchief at one point, another little nod). You can also even hear a bit of his voice at one point, when Raven listens to the original recording of "Life Is A Lemon" in her room. Meat has bristled in the past about other people singing these songs (and tends to get annoyed whenever Steinman gave them to other singers first, such as "All Coming Back To Me Now"), but he's been a big champion of the production and has been singing Polec's praises at every opportunity, which makes me happy. Steinman's work is frequently overshadowed by Meat and the other singers who have performed these songs, but the songwriter's name is front and center for the advertising (the ads all write it as "Jim Steinman's Bat out of Hell: The Musical"), and I seriously got a bit teary-eyed seeing how often his name showed up in the playbill. For forty years (literally - the first Bat album was released on October 21st, 1977) Meat has received the lion's share of the credit for the album's success - Steinman's time to shine is long overdue, and since he is credited with the music and the book, this is the rare occasion where it'd be impossible for his contributions to be under appreciated.

Which, of course, means that there are motorcycles in the play (Nigel Dick, who directed the Celine Dion video for "All Coming Back To Me Now", hilariously pointed out that "On some level, it seems that every idea he has involves a motorcycle"). There's a Harley on stage before the show begins, Strat frequently drives one when he enters a scene, and naturally the two lovers ride one during the title track (which ends with a crash, as you hopefully know). Of course it's difficult to appear to be "tearing up the road, faster than any other boy has ever gone!" when you're on a single theater stage, so rear projection effects are used to sell the idea, though they are unfortunately angled in such a way that the effect is lessened if you're sitting on the left side of the theater, and all you see is a bike going about as fast as one of those toy cars the guy in Poltergeist was so proud to capture moving with his time-lapse camera. But otherwise the stage and production design is just as perfect as the songs; I was very worried how Steinman's traditionally bombastic and over the top ideas could be contained in this manner, but over the course of the show you get a skyscraper, a sewer, a graveyard, a bar, a prison, moving vehicles (including an old convertible for "Paradise"), and also Raven's bedroom in Falco's tower, high above the rest of the action. 

Ultimately, your mileage will vary depending on how much you love (or WILL love) these songs. While the story comes together nicely and fits within Steinman's trademark themes of going fast, being young forever and putting love above all else, there are some puzzling moments (one character turns traitor out of nowhere) and a few occasions where it seemed like they wanted a particular song in there and reverse engineered some dialogue to lead up to it. For "Steinfans" (who might be just as happy even if there was no story at all) that might be fine, but for people who just want to see a traditional musical and don't already know all of these songs by heart, it might be a bit harder to forgive the occasional narrative lapses - though they'll still love the production overall, if they have a soul. The songs are obviously fantastic, the stage is a marvel, and while it's far from a comedy there are a number of unexpected and very funny moments (including a fourth-wall breaking gag that the audience loved as much as any musical number), so I think any fan of the format will find a lot to love and appreciate even if the storyline occasionally takes a backseat in order to fit in a few more of the songs.

But for me, whose reverence for Steinman's music runs deeper than I'd feel comfortable sharing? And who is frequently mocked for loving it as much as I do? I was in heaven for two and a half hours, with a big dopey grin on my face for most of the runtime and my Fitbit recording a heart rate of 144 during the epic finale (to compare, it only goes up to about 110 when I actually exercise). These songs are frequently the butt of jokes (Steinman also wrote "Total Eclipse of the Heart", for the record) and I know very few people who enjoy them even half as much as I do, so seeing them performed with such gusto for a room full of people who also knew them by heart made me so happy. I was in my element, you could say, making me the absolute worst person to offer up an objective review, but I wanted to sing its praises and use the space to thank the cast (particularly Polec, who rarely gets to leave the stage for more than a few minutes and belts out notes even Meat has been known to miss) for giving these songs a fresh lease on life. I truly hope the show can keep traveling (even if a Los Angeles run might bankrupt me), perhaps even come to Broadway down the road - it took over forty years for Steinman's vision to finally come to fruition, and it deserves the biggest spotlight it can get. But if you're close enough to Toronto - or have money to travel - it will be running until December 24th, so don't risk missing it (it will also return to London in 2018). Digging out a passport to see a musical might seem excessive, but don't forget: you'll never be as young as you are right now, and if you don't go over the top you'll never see what's on the other side.

*Don't worry, I've since bought both of them like five times in various editions to make amends.

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