Last week, I had the good fortune to attend the opening week of the new musical based on Meat Loaf's 1977 album, "Bat Out of Hell," at the London Coliseum. As I waited for the performance to start, I reflected on the long and tortuous path that had led to the creation of this show, as well as my own personal journey with this remarkable music.
I remember every little thing as if it happened only yesterday. I was ten years old, and I was about to discover a lifelong love for the work of one of the world’s most unique and successful songwriters. Flipping through my parents’ collection of LPs, I remember seeing one bland, black and white cover after another. “Rumours,” “Nilsson Schmilsson,” “Revolver,” nothing to really grab hold of my imagination. Then, suddenly, a splash of bright red. The cover depicted a fantasy painting of a man on a motorcycle bursting out of a grave into a blood-red sky, while a sinister bat looked on, perched atop a crypt. “Bat Out of Hell,” proclaimed the cover. How could any ten-year-old boy resist?
Gingerly, I removed the record from its sleeve and put it on, greeted at once by thunderous guitar chords and a frantic piano, playing like there was no tomorrow. It didn’t sound like anything I had heard before, and it didn’t let up. Two minutes later, I was stupefied. As a child raised with MTV, I was unprepared for any pop song to last longer than three minutes. This one was almost past three minutes, and the vocals hadn’t even kicked in yet. Can you do that? I thought. It turns out you can, and what I was hearing was merely an overture to a ten-minute epic. And that was only track one!
From that moment on, I was hooked, obsessed as only small children can be. I played the album backwards and forwards until I knew every note. As I listened, I read and re-read the liner notes and pored over the cover art again and again. The back cover was particularly intriguing. On one side, a three-hundred-pound beast in a tuxedo held a bright red scarf: Meat Loaf, obviously. But next to him, a more enigmatic figure: a young man with long grey hair and white gloves, wearing a knowing smirk. Who could he be?
The answer was right there on the cover. Under the Gothic script, somewhat incongruously spelling out “Meat Loaf,” was the unobtrusive line in narrow, sans-serif text: Songs by Jim Steinman. So this was the madman who had written the seven rock symphonies that so captivated me. I had to know more.
It didn’t take long for me to realize that, as talented as Meat Loaf was, Steinman was the real brains behind the music I loved. His other compositions, like Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” Air Supply’s “Making Love Out of Nothing At All,” and Celine Dion’s “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now" each continued to deliver.
I maintained my interest in Steinman for decades, seeking out obscure demos and unreleased tracks, learning everything I could about the reclusive genius and his work. So imagine my excitement when I heard that, forty years after the release of the original album, “Bat Out of Hell” was being turned into a full-scale musical, to open in Manchester, followed by runs in London and Toronto. At once, I resolved to make the trip across the Atlantic.
Twenty-five years of expectations are a lot to live up to, and it’s unfair to ask any show to deliver when expectations are so high. So did “Bat Out of Hell: The Musical” deliver? I’m delighted to report that it did, completely.
The plot of the show is inspired by the story of Peter Pan, one of Steinman’s most enduring influences. A post-apocalyptic Manhattan (renamed Obsidian) is embroiled in a conflict between wealthy developer Falco and a group of outlaws called the Lost, who find themselves in a state of perpetually arrested development due to a bizarre genetic mutation. Falco’s beautiful daughter, Raven, has just turned 18, and having lived a life of sheltered privilege, she finds herself irresistibly attracted to the bad-boy image of the Lost, particularly their charismatic leader, Strat. Further backstory is provided by prop newspapers distributed to the audience before the show. From there, the plot unfolds around more than 20 classic Steinman songs, all performed with high-energy bravura by the stellar cast.
The entirety of the first “Bat” album is represented, as well as most of its sequel and assorted other songs from the Steinman canon. Some promos boast that two new songs were written especially for the musical, but they are in fact older songs intended for other projects that never saw official release until now. (They should know better than to try to pull one over on a fanatic like me.) The musicianship of the accompanying band is top-notch, and it’s remarkable how well they manage to match the original arrangements of the album versions.
The set design is a unique combination of video projection and live action that takes place in multiple rooms. For example, Raven’s bedroom is placed high up in Falco Towers, and the sense of three-dimensional space creates a striking effect that sets the production apart from most other theater.
Criticisms? The story itself is a little thin, but we all know that it’s only a pretext for hearing the songs, so it’s hard to really mind. One can always quibble with which songs were excluded from the production. I myself was really hoping for an appearance of the little-known “Tonight Is What It Means to Be Young,” currently only available on the soundtrack to the eighties B-movie “Streets of Fire.” But with a catalogue as long as Steinman’s, it’s impossible to include everything, and one can only be impressed by how much they did manage to squeeze in.
Due to a mass of positive reviews, it’s likely that the show will make it to the United States in short order, and I will be the first in line to see it again. The adrenaline-drenched energy of these songs is as addictive and exhilarating as ever, even after all these years.
“Bat Out of Hell” remains the fourth best-selling album of all time, with a reported 43 million copies sold. Steinman was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2012 and holds the honor of being the only songwriter ever to possess the number one and two slots on the Billboard charts simultaneously. His career has been a truly remarkable one, but I have no doubt that this show, the realization of everything he has been working for since the rock musical he wrote in college, must be his proudest achievement.
For creators and audiences alike, rock and roll dreams really do come through.