Bat Out Of Hell, The Musical - A Steingasmic Operatic Experience
I recently procured the soundtrack to a musical I didn't know existed, but was incredibly awed once I found out that it did: Jim Steinman's "Bat Out Of Hell: The Musical." This. Is. The. Coolest. Thing. On. Earth. Well, okay, maybe not the coolest thing — there's still Orange Julius and Mongolian Grill, and Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series, and the macOS operating system — but you get the idea, right? It would appear that good ol' rock composer Jim Steinman finally achieved his lifelong dream of creating a Peter-Pan-like, dystopian, sci-fi romance for the stage — and a musical, at that — featuring a number of his epic, Wagnerian rock-operatic songs, almost all of which have been taken from his past oeuvre of work with Meat Loaf. When I found out this was really a thing, I was ecstatic. (See elsewhere on this website for my fanboyish obsession with Steinman and his work.) I was like, "Holy shit! He actually did it!" So, without further ado, a quick review of the two-disc soundtrack album, recorded by the original cast:
The album is very slickly produced. The sound is very open and clear, with every instrument very clear within the mix; the guitars are lightly used, but when they do show up in the arrangements, they are really effective. They add a great rock 'n roll edge to the arrangements, and are really loud in some of the songs (such as the version of "Bat Out Of Hell" that appears here). So, that's good. The "solo" guitars are a little thin, though; they could've used some beefing up, I think. But then again, this is for a theatre audience, not a rock concert audience, so I can sort of understand the guitars not being balls-out loud and distorted. The orchestra sounds great and very full, with the brass and string ensembles both getting a good workout here and there, especially the strings in some songs. The choir that accompanies some of the arrangements is in full voice as the backup singers for many of the songs, and they sound gorgeous. The mix is exceptionally good; like I said, every instrument and part seems clear and separate, and very "visible" in the mix. Nothing is muddy and there is no clipping or overbearing loudness, and you don't have to turn the speakers up to hear any instruments, as everything is evenly spaced in the mix. That's some good engineering, right there. Finally, the vocals sound sensational, and that's good, especially because there's a large cast involved, and sometimes they sing together, and one on top of the other, or several all on top of one another . . . but again, nothing ever gets muddy or muddled in the mix; the voices remain distinct and listenable at all times, and high notes and long, sustained legato notes don't feel like they're firing your speakers up. And the bass . . . good god, there's a lot of great bass in the soundtrack, and it plays and resounds smoothly, even on crappy speakers. I feel like this thing was produced by freaking Alan Parsons, but it wasn't; it was produced by a tag-team of Steven Rinkoff, Michael Reed, and Jim Steinman himself. Say what you will about his songwriting, but Steinman knows how to twiddle knobs and adjust faders. He's a dynamite producer.
And that brings me to Steinman’s songs themselves. They are wonderfully used here! I love these songs so much — I grew up loving them, and still love them to this day, and will always love them. And finally, I feel like I understand them so much better. This is how these songs were meant to be heard. This is their proper context: Sci-fi. The story of Peter Pan in a post-apocalyptic future. A tale of teenage angst and rebellion and hormones gone haywire. That’s what Steinman’s music has always been about, and here it finds its final, appropriately vital niche. Listening to Strat sing Bat Out Of Hell is a revelation; not because the kid’s voice is better than Meat Loaf’s (hey, no one can be Meat but Meat), but because the song feels so right here, shared in this moment between Strat and Raven. Same goes with Rock and Roll Dreams Come Through, For Crying Out Loud, and the other numbers in this musical. They all just fit perfectly, so perfectly. It’s All Coming Back To Me Now is utilizes to heartbreaking effect; and Paradise By The Dashboard Light was never funnier or more poignantly put to good use. I’d Do Anything For Love is the closing number, and boy is it amazingly sung by the entire cast; I used to swear by the Meat Loaf version of this song—aside from a killer metal cover by the band Xandria—but man, I don’t know anymore . . . the cast just kills it, and they kill it with fire, my friends! And I mean that in a good way, of course. There are some Steinman songs that I wish were here. Going All The Way Is Just A Start (A Song In 6 Movements) didn’t make it. I wish it had. But then again, its proper home is Tanz der Vampire, as Braver Than We Are, I suppose.
I do have some minor quibbles, here. The songs are not as “long” as the songs on the albums they are taken from; they are much shorter than their full-length counterparts in some cases. And sometimes this is good (as in the case of For Crying Out Loud), sometimes it is bad (for instance, Rock and Roll Dreams Come Through; and I miss the gorgeous bridge section in Good Girls Go To Heaven (Bad Girls Go Everywhere). Oh well. Can’t have everything, I guess.) I realize this was probably a concession to the length of time available on ordinary CDs, and to the length of time that an audience can realistically be expected to sit still in the theater . . . . but, still. These are fantastic songs. These are hymns and paens to teenage abandon and they are wild-youth anthems; they are Steinman’s “erections of the heart.” They deserve to be heard in all their glory. I wish Jim had seen fit to compose a second, longer version of the musical that featured the songs in their full-length incarnations, but still sung by the cast of the show. Now that would’ve been something to behold! It would’ve taken 4 CDs to hold it, but . . .
The young cast's performances are likewise stellar. And "young" is good. I emphasize the word "young" because really, Meat Loaf is 72, and Steinman himself is 71. They’re still fantastic musicians, but, I think it's time to pass the torches, guys, in the name of keeping the flames burning. And this amazing young cast are the perfect new vehicles for Steinman's grandiose, Wagnerian rock stylings and his beautifully deranged, bombastic romanticism. I say let them run with it! Andrew Polec, the kid who plays "Strat" — the main protagonist of the musical, Steinman's Peter Pan stand-in — has an incredible voice, and he's very much what I think a younger Jim Steinman might've sounded like in a parallel universe. And the girl who plays "Raven" — Christina Bennington—the leading lady, Strat's love-interest — has a great set of lungs and vocal cords on her as well; she can really pack a punch when she belts out Steinman's soulful operatic tunes, and I'd love to see her launch a solo career singing his works. The supporting cast is fantastic, too. They all do such a good job, I could list every one of them, compliment every one of them, use a hundred adjectives, and still not say enough superlative things about them.
If Bat Out Of Hell: The Musical is a visitation of Steinman’s past as a composer and lyricist—and duh, of course it is—then it's visitation that's damn well worth the trip down memory lane. For both him, and for us. It's a colossal, epic orgy of "Steinmania," and it's terrific, over-the-top, gothic, and fantastic in every way that there is. This is, after all, how Steinman always wanted these songs to be performed: In an actual theater, on a stage, with impressive set-pieces, by an entire cast of performers dressed in wild costumes, with an orchestra and a rock band together in the pit, complete with savage dance routines and epic monologues, and with whiz-bang special effects, lighting effects, and giant video screens to boot. The show is light on plot and story, but that's okay; if you're going to see Bat Out Of Hell: The Musical for it's story, you're in the wrong theater, folks. The book is by Steinman, and his dialogue skills are excellent, as evidenced by the snippets of dialogue you get to hear between some of the songs . . . because oh yeah — unlike some of Lloyd Webber's soundtracks, this one doesn't include any dialogue from the show (or at least, not much of it). It's just the songs.
All in all, I'd say this is a great two-disc album to own. Especially if you're a Steinman and/or Meat Loaf fan. The songs are fantastic, the performances are great, and the quality of the mix and the recording itself are terrific. The arrangements are a little wimpy in places, so if you're looking for all of the songs to stay true to their hard rock roots, well, sorry. Your mileage may vary with this concept though. Me, I kinda liked it, kinda didn't. I miss the gargantuan excess of the longer, more elaborate versions of the songs from the original albums, but at the same time, these smaller, more scaled-down versions can be a breath of fresh air, especially since they also tend to have sparser, less full-bodied arrangements. Most of the time, they work. Sometimes, though, they leave you pining for their longer, album-cut cousins, as is the case with the version of "Rock And Roll Dreams Come Through" that appears here. It's way too short, in my opinion, and deserved a place of greater prominence in the show. I also miss the gorgeous bridge section of “Good Girls Go To Heaven” and the awesome guitar work on “Out Of The Frying Pan (And Into The Fire).” Not to mention all the histrionic choirs and mad cellos and wailing guitars from “I’d Do Anything For Love (But I Wont’ Do That).”
Bottom line: If you're a Steinman and Meat Loaf fan, this is an album you can't afford to miss out on. Go buy it today, right now. You can thank me later, if you can get the songs unstuck from from your head.