I've always loved horror, and Dracula in particular. In 1995, I wrote my own gay vampire musical, In the Blood, and as I wrote, I read every vampire short story and novel I could find. Yeats later, during the Great Pandemic, I decided to write a collection of "weird fiction" short stories, all connected to musicals, eventually called Night of the Living Show Tunes. Again, I spent a long time reading all the great horror stories and several novels, as well as Stephen King's nonfiction books about horror. 

Now as we go into rehearsal for Frank Wildhorn's stage musical Dracula and I start thinking about this iconic story again, I see things in it I haven't seen before. (Several plot spoilers below.)

For instance, everything in the story is upside-down and backwards. Dracula seems like the antagonist, but he's not. The four men seem like heroes, but they're not. No, it's a Hero Myth story and Mina is the hero. The story fools us several times by making us think a different character is hero. The first section of the book (and the show) is all about Jonathan Harker and Dracula; and it sure seems like they are the story's Hero and Evil Wizard (like Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, or Dorothy and the Wicked Witch). But then the focus of the story shifts to Lucy, and it seems she's actually the Hero. And then author Bram Stoker kills her.

We might be tempted to think that Professor Van Helsing is the story's Wise Wizard figure (like Ben Kenobi or Glinda the Good Witch), but he's not. We have to put aside all of our preconceptions, banish from our minds Bela Lugosi (and his accent!) and Christopher Lee and Gary Oldman.

Bram Stoker understood two things his readers know before the story even begins. First, Dracula is a vampire; and second, vampires are evil. Remember, when Dracula was published, there had already been quite a few widely popular vampire novels, short stories, and newspaper serials, like Varney the Vampire. Also, everybody in Europe knew vampire lore, and many of them believed it. And significantly, Stoker's initial readership at that time in England was very wary of foreigners, very anti-immigrant. (Sound familiar?)

Put aside those preconceptions and what do we have? Dracula is undoubtedly still a vampire, but is he evil? We see him behave with brutality a couple times, throwing one of the weird sisters across the room, breaking the neck of his own John the Baptist, Renfield. But the other men in the story are equally (more?) violent. And otherwise, Dracula's violence is in self-defense. Without those preconceptions, his relationships with Lucy and Mina are far more ambiguous.

From the start, Lucy seems very uncomfortable within the confines of polite Victorian social rules, and she seems much happier once she's a vampire. Does her transformation make her a sex maniac? No, it simply reveals what's already there. We can see that sexuality in Lucy ready to burst out of her, long before she meets Dracula. Dracula frees her. To be sexual. To be bisexual. To be authentically herself. But it also makes her The Other.

What about Lucy the Vampire and the kids? If we don't assume vampires are evil, what do we make of the biting and sucking? Well, unless clumsy, ignorant humans get involved, feeding on someone does not kill them in this story, just weakens them. What arguably kills Lucy is Van Helsing giving her a succession of transfusions from four different people -- and with no knowledge of blood type! Or germs!

So... what am I saying...?

Lucy and Mina are on twin paths following the Hero Myth story. Lucy doesn't get to finish her story; Mina does. One might even argue that Mina survives because she has taken charge of the group, while Lucy is left helpless to the men's murderous shenanigans. Or is Lucy eliminated because she became overtly sexual, while Mina manages to suppress those impulses?

And so...?

So Mina is the protagonist, the Hero of our story. This is her quest. Her call to action is Jonathan's need to be rescued and brought home (which reverses their traditional gender roles early in the story!). And contrary to what we might think, Mina's Wise Wizard is Count Dracula, and her Evil Wizard -- the story's antagonist -- is Professor Van Helsing. He leads the forces of oppression and death, and they literally kill Lucy! And notice that the opposing Wizard figures are both foreigners.

Or maybe Lucy is really Mina's Wise Wizard. She brings Mina into the world of Dracula, but like most Wise Wizard figures, Lucy can't go on the Hero's Adventure with Mina. Like Ben Kenobi, Moses, Glinda, Merlin, Peter Parker's Uncle Ben, and many other Wise Wizard figures, Lucy sets Mina on her path, but then she dies and leaves Mina to her adventure.

For a brief moment, even Renfield becomes Mina's temporary Wise Wizard.

Notice that the three suitors blindly accept all the crazy shit Van Helsing tells them, and they follow his orders without (much) question. But not Lucy. Van Helsing is an authority figure, after all. He's a professor! And he's foreign! These men are conditioned to believe authority figures. But not Lucy. Let's be honest, Lucy is a wild child, born a century too early. And she must be punished for it.

Mina survives because she's better equipped to face this adventure than Lucy is. Before any of this starts, Mina has a job as a teacher's assistant, she has her own typewriter, etc. But Stoker fools us into thinking that Mina is the classic Damsel in Distress because she's more properly "feminine" in her behavior and demeanor, only later revealing her power when it's needed most. Like Luke Skywalker, Mina doesn't know she has this power until she needs to call it forth.

Lucy is a New Woman in terms of sexuality and gender roles. Mina is a New Woman in terms of intelligence, confidence, career, and the authority she claims -- and gender roles!

Here in 2024, when we have hero vampires like Blade, and those sappy, snot-nosed Twilight tweens, we have to wonder what a vampiric Mina Harker would be like. She'd be amazing. She'd be a strong, interesting, challenging longtime (!) companion for Vlad Dracula. Or for Lestat. Or Countess Zaleska.

In fact, our musical hints at all that, more than the novel does. And our version of the story has a slightly different ending, in support of that different focus.

Gothic horror stories had already been around a century or so before Dracula debuted. Stoker's brilliance was in taking this very old literary tradition and yanking it violently into the present, focusing on the use of all the most current technology in the pursuit of the vampire -- telegraph, typewriter, Dictaphone, Kodak camera, etc. -- and presenting it as a true story backed up by a ton of documentary evidence. Stoker had been a journalist for a while, so he was uniquely adept at creating his fake journalistic documents.

We might even say that Dracula was the first mockumentary.

I've asked our actors to let go entirely of all their preconceptions about this story and these characters, of Bela Lugosi (and his Hungarian accent), Vampira, Elvira, Grandpa Munster, Count Chocula, all of them. 

What do Dracula, Lucy, and Mina all have in common? They are all three serial boundary crossers in a very repressed age. And speaking of boundary crossing, aren't Lucy and Mina essentially his vampire daughters? When Dracula returns to Transylvania, he sails on the Czarina Catherine, named for the libidinous Russian ruler (about whom Cole Porter wrote the racy number "Kate the Great" for Anything Goes, but Ethel Merman refused to sing it because it was too dirty).

But in understanding this story and our show, we can't think of Count Dracula as a monster -- we have to think of him as a charming, mysterious, foreign aristocrat, who brings chaos (freedom?) to a previously well-ordered world. Same plot as The Man Who Came to Dinner. Well, almost. We know that Stoker's Count Dracula is based on the famous English actor-manager Henry Irving, the Welsh-American explorer, journalist, soldier, author and politician Henry Morton Stanley, and the British explorer, writer, orientalist scholar, and soldier Richard Burton. That should tell us much of what we need to know.

Likewise, Van Helsing isn't the usual 1950s Wise Scientist -- he's another very strange foreigner, arrogant, baffling, overzealous, obsessive, a bully, with no discernible empathy or social skills, who talks weird and has incredibly strange beliefs by any measure. (Although, now that I type that, I bet all those Wise Scientist characters in the 1950s and 60s are based on Van Helsing. What a wild line of descent, from Van Helsing to 1950s sci-fi to Dr. Scott in Rocky Horror!) Notice that in the novel, none of the foreigners (Dracula, Van Helsing, and Quincey Morris) ever narrate the story, only the English characters.

One of the fun parts of working on the Dracula story is that, to quote my own Zombies of Penzance, Count Dracula is "a surprisingly plastic metaphor." In one of the many Dracula study guides I've been perusing, Lilith Steinmetz tells us at the beginning, "Dracula has been seen as a grail romance, a twisted Oedipal fantasy, a religious fairytale, and a psychosexual drama." This musical stage version we're working on is a tragic romantic thriller. Steinmetz also says about the story, "It juxtaposes the ancient gothic castle with the thoroughly modern." That's what our show is -- a story from more than a century ago, told in the form of a contemporary rock musical. With all that in mind, I talked with our costumer Zach Thompson yesterday and we agreed on an aesthetic that's both 1897 and 2024 at the same time.

And for the first time in my life, a show I'm helming will dabble in elements of Steampunk! Why, what presumptuous podsnappery, I hear the foozlers and mutton-mongers cry! Okay, I will admit, as much as I have always loved steampunk, it's almost never organic to any story we're telling. But it fits Dracula perfectly. Cutting-edge technology is such a big part of Stoker's story. Zach and I are equally psyched about this.

We started music rehearsals this past week. I realize that my favorite thing about this show is that it never mocks Dracula or gothic horror or musicals. There's nothing Ironically Meta here, no parody, no winking at the audience, no self-reference, no references to other musicals. No, this is a serious drama, with the highest possible stakes -- death and eternal damnation. (And transfusions when you don't understand blood type. And Free Love.)

This is gonna be such a cool adventure! Stay tuned!

Long Live the Musical!

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