… to a Blessed relief

Ironically, given the fame of the film, Metropolis did not start out as a script.

The story itself was initially written for magazine serialisation by Thea von Harbou in 1925, with the intention of adapting it into a film for her husband Fritz Lang to direct.

That serialisation was subsequently collected as a novel in 1926, ahead of the film’s release, and copies were given away at the premier in Berlin the following January.

Lang and von Harbou’s script would take the key elements of her novel, simplifying much of the story for the big screen and jettisoning some of the more outré aspects — such as the more overt occult themes — to produce the movie.

But with that dual running came the opportunity to adapt, change and revamp the storyline of von Harbou’s original novel in a variety of different ways over the years — both in hacking the film to bits and in turning it into other things, such as Jeff Mills’ hour-long version, or the hugely truncated one served up by UFA in the wake of the American edits.

Last year it was announced the creator of Mr Robot, Sam Esmail, is working on a big budget miniseries adaptation of the story, in the vein of Westworld. Japanese writer Osamu Tezuka loosely adapted it into a manga in the 1940s, which was itself turned into a movie at the turn of the millennium.

And then there was the West End musical.

On paper Metropolis doesn’t seem the likeliest subject for adaptation into a big barnstorming stage production, in the vein of Phantom of the Opera or Les Mis, even allowing for its star-crossed lovers storyline.  After all, at its heart is a robot destroying a giant futuristic city.

The programme cover for the Metropolis musical, drawing heavily on the original 1927 film poster.
The programme cover for the Metropolis musical, drawing heavily on the original 1927 film poster.

Thinking otherwise was theatre impresario Michael White – who had made his name staging Sleuth and the Rocky Horror Show, before producing the cinema version of the latter and turning to television and film production, including the Comic Strip Presents for Channel 4.

Somehow he thought an adaptation of Lang’s film — back in the headlines after the controversial Moroder rerelease — was the suitable basis for his big budget return to the West End.

Securing £2.5million in funding, including heavy investment from US and Japanese backers, it came at a time when the West End had seen some notably spectacular flops — including a failed, expensive version of Ziegfeld the year before.

Ralph Koltai's critically acclaimed set for Metropolis. With working lifts.
Ralph Koltai’s critically acclaimed set for Metropolis. With working lifts.

Central to the production was elaborate set by acclaimed theatre designer Ralph Koltai, based on a toolkit and costing an eye-watering £800,000.  The set split open to reveal a giant machine, with working lifts and pistons to convey the inner workings of the city.  For many, it would prove to be the highlight of the production.

Academy Award-winning songwriter Joseph Brooks wrote the music, with playwright Dusty Hughes overseeing the lyrics and French director Jerome Savary in charge.

The workshopping of the songs was originally done by the late Stephanie Lawrence and by Michael Ball, who was set to take on the lead role of Stephen – the play’s version of the film’s hero, Freder – before signing on for Aspects of Love instead.  In the end, Graham Bickley would take on the part.

Opposite Bickley was award-winning Broadway actress Judy Kuhn, making her West End debut as Maria, with Brookside’s Stifyn Parri as George… but the star name attached to the production was Brian Blessed.

Yes. That one.

Blessed had form in the West End, of course, having been part of the original cast when Cats opened nearly a decade earlier, but was best known as a film and television actor over the previous two decades.

Here, have an obligatory Gordon’s Alive to tide you over until we get to his singing.

The adaptation took, it is fair to say, some pretty significant liberties with Lang and von Harbou’s script — including anglicising all the character names.  A greater focus was put on the children under Maria’s protection, giving it the air of a jukebox musical, while the ending is heavily reworked — the reconciliation of Joh and Freder, and the ruling and working classes being brought together in the spirit of the original film’s message, are replaced.

In its wake comes mistaken identities, Freeman (Blessed, in the equivalent role of Fredersen) killing himself and the city collapsing as the workers clamber from the underground to freedom.

Does it work?  Well… kind of.  Obviously now it’s only possible to judge through scratchy VHS transfers and the cast recording.  There’s no denying the talent of the cast. Kuhn and Bickley are fine, and Blessed gives a typical post-Flash Blessed performance (ie he starts at 11 and only goes up from there).

But it also seems to lack the heart of the original film and the catchiness of the big West End numbers.  The songs are all fine, but there’s no obvious crossover hits. There’s no I Dreamed A Dream or The Phantom of the Opera or, ironically given Ball’s early involvement, no Love Changes Everything.

With a decent amount of hype and advertising, despite the costs, anticipation was high that Metropolis could do well.  White was aiming to run the show until the end of 1989, with talk of a transfer to Broadway should it prove a hit.  Despite the recent high profile flops, the West End seemed to be doing well in 1989, with Cats, Phantom, Aspects of Love and Les Mis all performing strongly, and Miss Saigon on the horizon.

The stars were even asked to sing on Wogan.  They don’t give that honour out to everyone, you know…

But Metropolis the musical seemed as cursed as the original film from the outset.  The huge cost meant the show had to turn over £80,000 a week in ticket sales just to break even, while the elaborate set had an unfortunate habit of breaking down, causing significant problems for the 60-strong cast and crew.

While the show drew decent houses at the weekend, it struggled to fill the Piccadilly Theatre for most of its run, generating a loyal but unfortunately just too small following.

Things weren’t helped when the launch of the show was delayed by technical problems then, less than a month into its run, performances on two consecutive days had to be scrapped altogether after workmen from the London Electricity Board accidentally blacked out the theatre during repairs on a nearby street, leading to threats of legal action.

Brian Blessed in his control dome.  Will you start the fans please!

“It was a very dodgy job,” Parri said in an interview with Sunshine Radio.  “We thought it was going to close every week.”

Poor reviews added to the problem.  The Stage called it a “dehumanised spectacle”, adding:

“Metropolis is stuffed with songs that are as indeterminate as they are interminable”.

Its critics were less kind.

Joseph Gallivan, writing in Punch during the dying days of the show’s run, said:

“I have to say it was the most abysmal thing I have ever seen on the stage, ever.

“Would anyone still have gone, knowing that PC ‘Fancy’ Smith out of Z-Cars was going to be flown in on a cut-away goldfish bowl, with badger-striped beard and factory owner’s frock coat, waving a cane and shouting his head off about ‘the machines being beautiful’?”

In the summer, one of the cast – Mark Frederick – narrowly escaped with his life when he was among those on board the pleasure steamer the Marchioness on the River Thames when it was struck by a dredger and sank, with the loss of 51 lives.

The cast would go on to raise money for the disaster appeal, with Blessed asking audience members to donate.

But just days later the plug was pulled on the show.  White had given up, and announced the end would come after just six months.  The investors would not recoup their £2.5million. Metropolis would be replaced by a staging of Stephen Sondheim’s musical A Little Night Music.

It wasn’t all bad news.  Judy Kuhn was nominated for the best actress in a musical at that year’s Olivier Awards – narrowly missing out to Lea Salonga who won for Miss Saigon, which opened just as Metropolis was shutting up shop.

White went back to concentrating on film production, overseeing Nuns on the Run, The Pope Must Die and Enigma, among other releases.  Graham Bickley followed up Metropolis by becoming the second Joey Boswell in Bread.

After brief local runs in Germany and Italy, things went dark on the show for years. Brooks retooled the book, working with US composer Randy Bowser to tighten production and streamline many of the perceived flaws the 1989 run had suffered.

By 2002, with around a third of the play completely changed, the new version was staged in Oregon with a view to taking it to Broadway.

The transition to the bright lights of New York never happened, but the show continued to find minor success in US regional theatre and school productions.

And in the most unlikely turn of events, Metropolis is back in London this autumn.

28 years after closing, and 90 years after the film’s premier in Berlin, the musical is being resurrected by All Star Productions, the resident theatre company of Ye Olde Rose and Crown theatre, above a pub in Walthamstow.

It’s unlikely to have the £800,000 set the White production did, but even after all these years, Metropolis just keeps coming back.

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