Chasing After Genius

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Mozart was warned about Vienna. The Viennese always want something new, he was told. That's as true today as it was 200 years ago and one reason why a $6 million musical drama has been sold out since its October premiere at the historic Theater an der Wien. This is the third straight successful production of an original German-language musical by the partly subsidized Vereinigte Bühnen Wien (United Stages of Vienna). It comes at a time when the bloom has faded on the once-rosy German musical-theater scene with its restagings of lumbersome London and Broadway shows like The Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables and the depressingly eternal Cats. "We find it more rewarding to produce than to re-produce,'' says Rudi Klausnitzer, the impresario behind the latest Austrian crowd pleaser.

It helped that the subject is one the Viennese never tire of: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The creators of Mozart!--the emphatic exclamation point is practically a requirement nowadays--are the hit-making team responsible for Elisabeth, a musical dramatization about the beloved Hapsburg Empress. It had a five-and-a-half-year run in the Austrian capital and is now playing in Sweden and the Netherlands. Harry Kupfer of Berlin's Komische Oper directed, and choreography is by American Dennis Callahan. Author Michael Kunze, whose Tanz der Vampire has started its third year at VBW's Raimund Theater, wrote the book and lyrics, and the dynamic, pop-rock score is by Grammy Award-winning Sylvester Levay. In a few key scenes, the orchestra plays short strains from Mozartien compositions, and the flashes of melodies from The Magic Flute and the tragic chords of the Requiem tear at the heart.

Much of Kunze's affecting libretto is based on Mozart's correspondence, and the plot centers on the tension between the composer and the people who seek to control him for their own selfish interests. Wolfgang's nemesis is not the court composer Antonio Salieri, fictionalized as the villain in the play and film Amadeus, but his domineering father Leopold (Thomas Borchert) and his Salzburg patron, the Archbishop Colloredo (Uwe Kröger). Even more demanding and destructive is Mozart's own musical talent. Says Kunze: "We show the conflict of Mozart on the one side, and the genius on the other, and the conflicts between those who try to possess and manipulate him."

In a strikingly theatrical invention, Mozart's genius is represented onstage as little Amade, the prodigy who astounded Europe with his virtuosity. The wunderkind is first seen seated at a clavier, a small, elegant figure in a powdered wig, knee breeches and a crimson, gold-trimmed waistcoat. Properly obedient to his father, he is the familiar image of the composer as the perfect "porcelain child." He is the silent alter ego of Wolfgang (Yngve Gasoy-Romdal), and is constantly at his side with quill pen and sheets of paper, furiously scribbling notes. Both a blessing and a curse, he eventually becomes a demonic force.

Wolfgang's world is the 18th century, and around him swirl women in elegant hoop-skirted dresses and exaggerated, towering wigs and courtiers in brilliantly colored embroidered waistcoats and breeches. Dressed in deliberately anachronistic clothes that could be worn by swaggering young men of Berlin, Paris or New York, Wolfgang exists out of time and place. The Norwegian singer-actor Gasoy-Romdal gives an explosive star-making performance, zeroing in on the character as a man who is, he observes, "of today, of 100 years into the future and of the past." Everybody tries to possess Mozart, to own a part of him, and after two centuries that is another thing that hasn't changed in Vienna. His image is on everything from coffee cups to tea towels to chocolate balls. In a final scene of the show, a gaggle of flashbulb-popping tourists crowded behind a rope line in modern-day Salzburg shout for him like some DiCaprio-crazed fans. Renown has turned to kitsch, and while we chase after genius, it remains ever elusive.

As a modern tragic hero, Mozart appeals to Viennese audiences. According to Kunze, "They are looking for an emotional event rather than sheer entertainment." About a third of the people attending performances at the theater are under 25 and they feel as much at home at a musical as they are at a mainstream pop concert by Celine Dion or Elton John. Packed into the top tiers of the theater, the young fans--many of them returning dozens of times--whistle and cheer their favorites. These are members of the Internet generation and Klausnitzer believes there's a real need for them to see and feel things outside their cyberworld. "The theater," he says, "is one of those real-life experiences where you interact with people and not just with a screen." The plan for now is to run the show for two years, until 2001, and after that--as Mozart would have understood--present the Viennese with something new.