Well, I finally saw Bat Out of Hell, right at the end of its New York run. I know there have been some conflicting reports as to its quality, so let me set the record straight. This show is campy and cheesy and raucous and vulgar and insanely over-the-top…in other words, it’s exactly what Jim Steinman always intended it to be. And it’s glorious.
For one thing, the music itself is so incredible that it outweighs any problems the show might have. And it’s fascinating to see the songs in this context because (for those who don’t know), while the score to Bat Out of Hell: the Musical consists almost entirely of familiar hit songs, this isn’t really a Jukebox Musical in the traditional sense of the term . It’s a work-in-progress Rock Opera that Steinman has been writing songs for since the Seventies, and this is the culmination of his ambitions.
You see, during all his forty years of writing hit songs for Meat Loaf, Bonnie Tyler and myriad other popular singers, Steinman had on some level intended every song he wrote (or at least every one not intended as part of some other musical, as he’d already written at least two) as part of a nebulous, never-finished Rock Opera that he had dubbed Neverland. The concept of this piece was a new spin on the Peter Pan mythos, swapping out eternal children with eternal teenage rebels, and indeed, nearly all of Steinman’s work had been easily compatible with that concept.
Well, in the last couple of years this long-term project has finally culminated in an actual stage musical, named after Steinman’s most famous collaboration with his long-time collaborator Meat Loaf, the album Bat Out of Hell. It features a kind of highlights collection of the songs Steinman has written for various artists over the years, and a lot of these songs make sense in the context of the musical in a way they’ve never quite made sense before.
The story had to disguise some of its references to the Peter Pan mythos, apparently because J.M. Barrie’s estate had some problems with the show’s content. But it’s still pretty transparently based on the classic story, with little more than the title, the setting (now a post-apocalyptic wasteland called Obsidian) and the names changed. The Lost Boys are now “The Lost”, a tribe of mutated outcasts with their age forever frozen at eighteen. Peter is Strat, the leader of the Lost, Captain Hook is Falco, the dictatorial leader of Obsidian, and Wendy is Raven, Falco’s restless teenage daughter. In place of Tinkerbell, we have Tink, the youngest member of the Lost and Strat’s best friend, who carries a secret torch for him.
Steinman has always one of the most gloriously over-the-top songwriters in all of Rock music. His hardest Rockers, like “All Revved Up and No Place to Go” and “Everything Louder Than Everything Else” (both of which are combined to form this musical’s opening number), are some of the most intense Rock music in the history of the genre, dancing right up to the edge of full-on sensory abuse. In reality, he’s basically working in the same idiom as Queen, who predated him by a few years. But since it never occurred to Queen to give their blend of heavy Arena Rock, theatrical camp and Operatic intensity a name, it fell to Steinman to name the genre: he dubbed it ‘Wagner-Rock’.
For a few examples of how Steinman took the conventions of Rock to their most insane logical limits, the title song of Bat Out of Hell, his take on a teenage-rebel death song like “Leader of the Pack”, climaxes with the narrator’s still-beating heart flying out of his body. His take on the teenage drive-in hook-up song, “Paradise by the Dashboard Light”, was a Prog-Rock-esque multipart suite that ended with its protagonist stuck in the marriage from hell and “praying for the end of time”. When he decided to write a Rock love ballad modeled on Elvis’ “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You”, he flipped it into the narrator saying “I want you/I need you/But there ain’t no way I’m ever gonna love you”, and advising their would-be significant other to be happy with the situation because “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad”.
But that’s not to say Steinman was incapable or unwilling to write a straight love song. On the contrary, “For Crying Out Loud”, “Making Love Out of Nothing at All”, “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now”, and “I’d Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That)”, all of which made it into the final musical, are some of the most passionately hyperromantic love songs in all of Rock. And while Steinman definitely had a cynical streak, he could also be immensely inspirational when he wanted to be, as in the gentle ballad “Heaven Can Wait” or the defiantly optimistic “Rock’n’Roll Dreams Come Through”, sung in the show at Tink’s funeral. And the vocalists in this production were doing him full justice…there was a lot of that “break into an ovation during the music because you can’t believe the performer can actually do that with their voice” phenomenon that I’m sure you’re all familiar with.
There’s even a little overlap with Steinman’s other Musical-Theater projects here. The heartbreaking narrative ballad “Objects in the Rear-View Mirror May Appear Closer Than They Are”, which had been adapted into “The Insatiable Appetite” in Tanz de Vampire, shows up in its original form here. Also, two of the songs from the aborted Batman musical, “Not Allowed to Love” and “In the Land of the Pig, the Butcher is King”, were salvaged for this project. “Not Allowed to Love” in particular works much better here than it did in the Batman demos, mostly because its ultra-sentimental lyrics sound much more natural coming from the childlike Tink than they did when they were being sung by Batman and Catwoman.
If the show has a flaw, it’s the book portions. Steinman does well when the book drifts into free-verse poetry, as in the spoken prologue “Love and Death and an American Guitar”, but he’s not a librettist by trade, and he isn’t entirely comfortable writing naturalistic conversations. After his previous experiences with his past collaborators, I can understand why he didn’t want to let anyone else touch his baby at that point, but hiring an experienced co-librettist would have been extremely helpful.
Still, despite the occasional stupid joke or cliched villain speech, the show works on its own terms. I’ve seen at least one of my fellow online critics try to claim that this was a bastardization of Steinman’s original work, but that seems unlikely, given that Steinman wrote every word and every note of this show. You can like it or not, but don’t try to claim it’s a betrayal of Steinman’s intentions…this is exactly what he had in mind for these songs from the very beginning.
I think you might have to be a Steinman fanatic like me to fully appreciate this show. If you’re the kind of person who describes this as “a Meat Loaf Jukebox Musical”, you’re probably not going to like it. It’s aimed at a very specific demographic, which might explain its limited commercial success so far. But as for me, I am beyond thrilled that after more than forty years, Steinman finally made his dream a reality.