Batman (the Prince Album) vs. Batman (the Jim Steinman Musical)

As far as I know (and when it comes to musicals and their ilk, I think my knowledge is reasonably extensive), there have been only two serious attempts made at a full-scale musicalization of the iconic comic book superhero Batman and his equally familiar cast of supporting characters. The first was a plotted Concept Album by Soul/Rock virtuoso Prince that was originally intended as a full-scale soundtrack to Tim Burton’s 1989 film based on the franchise. Very little of the music heard on the album actually got used in the film, and the songs are rarely heard today because of licensing issues, but it did produce a Number One hit on the Billboard charts at the time (albeit with its weakest track, the nonsensical embarrassment “Batdance”). Still, like pretty much everything else Prince wrote in the Eighties, his Batman album is fantastic as music, and it follows the Burton film extremely closely, often to the point of its songs corresponding to specific scenes in the movie.

The second was a Broadway-bound Rock Musical that wound up as even less than a road-closer…an abortive composition that never even made it to an actual public stage. That said, it was announced for Broadway at one point, and it did get a recording, and an official one at that…like the rest of composer Jim Steinman’s demos, it was not a bootleg item, but an authorized release by the man himself on his own website. Based on these demos, we can infer that this musical was also heavily drawn from Burton’s film franchise, although it resembles more a combination of the first two Burton films, with the character of Catwoman brought in as a tragic love interest for the hero.

Of course, comic book fans saw the idea as absurd, with one of the animated Batman television series even mocking it openly in-show; but the writers of that parody seem to have an idea of what a musical is that stopped around 1955. The truth is, judging from the demos, Steinman’s show was not the utter catastrophe that legend has made it out to be. Many people have wondered how anyone could possibly sign off on such a project, but I honestly think the general consensus was, “If anyone can do a Batman musical, Jim Steinman can”. And indeed, Steinman’s score, or at least the portions he completed, has quite a bit to be said for it. Steinman’s dark, melodramatic, over-the-top composing style is about the most convincing match for the tone of the material they were likely to find. Moreover, he seemed to have a genuine feel for these archetypical characters, doing a surprisingly suitable job of establishing and capturing them in song.

Granted, there are times when Prince’s slicker, more stylized approach serves the material better. The first track on Prince’s album, “The Future”, actually establishes Batman’s motivations much more effectively than the more straightforward “Graveyard Shift” on Steinman’s demo. The latter, while correct in terms of dramatic content, comes across as rather earthbound, cribbing lines from other Steinman songs while struggling to express sentiments that don’t really lend themselves to being sung. Prince’s more abstract, laconic take on the character’s credo comes off as far less heavy-handed, as well as sounding significantly more like something a character as charismatic and formidable as Batman would actually say.

And while it isn’t as bad as “Batdance”, the Steinman version also has one outright embarrassing song, the sappy ballad “Not Allowed to Love”. This song would work much better when it was used in Bat Out of Hell: The Musical nearly a decade later, but its extremely sentimental lyrics just don’t sound right coming out of the mouths of Batman and Catwoman. Prince’s serenely gorgeous “The Arms of Orion”, on the other hand, makes for an infinitely better central love duet.

However, Steinman’s opening “Gotham City” sequence, including fragments of the songs “Angels Arise” (later incorporated into the Broadway version of Dance of the Vampires) and “Cry to Heaven”, is a marvelously atmospheric opening. And “In the Land of the Pig, the Butcher is King” (later included on Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell III album) is a suitably terrifying villain song, even if the version on the Batman demos does feel a little bit like a first draft. These songs draw the entire city into the story, which is fitting given that Gotham City is practically a character in itself in both the comics and especially the Burton films. Prince’s songs tend to focus almost exclusively on the individual leads, at the expense of the atmosphere and social background.

Also, on Prince’s album, Vicki Vale’s only musical expression beyond her duet with Batman in “The Arms of Orion” is “Lemon Crush”, which has a typically great Prince beat but sounds more like a generic sex jam of the kind Prince was infamous for than any kind of actual character song. Meanwhile, Steinman’s Catwoman is treated as the full equal to Batman and The Joker with an equally intense establishing number to set up her motivations. “I Need All the Love I Can Get”, a reworking of the Steinman-penned Sisters Of Mercy hit “More”, is a fine Rock ballad, with a particularly ravishing introductory section where the singer weighs the concepts of life and death against each other.

In addition, the songs used by Prince to represent the Joker, while they may be better as pure music, do not approach the creativity of Steinman’s “Wonderful Toys”, a gloriously insane piece of violent randomness that is the perfect character number for an embodiment of destructive chaos like the Joker. While Prince’s “Partyman”, “Electric Chair” and “Trust” do strike a reasonably appropriate note of mingled cheerfulness and menace, all of them are far too conventional and “normal” for a character whose defining trait is his utter insanity.

Also, as an “Eleven-O’Clock” love ballad, Prince’s “Scandalous”, ravishing as it is, doesn’t approach the emotional impact or thematic appropriateness of the planned climactic number of Steinman’s show, “We’re Still the Children We Once Were”. While not exactly subtle in its emotionalism even by Jim Steinman standards, it nonetheless provokes a devastating emotional response, and its evocation of primal childhood fears seems appropriate for the story of Batman, a man who lost his parents when he was eight years old and never managed to move on from it.

It’s also worth remembering that Prince’s album was very specifically based on a film version, and throughout, it retains a distinctly cinematic ambiance. The songs on Steinman’s demos sound far more like they were actually based on a comic book…not only more so than Prince’s album, but also far more so than such other comic book musicals as It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Superman or Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.

On the whole, Prince’s album is admittedly far more cohesive and effective as a composition than Steinman’s demo material…but then again, it is also an actual finished product, and the musical might have come much closer to that level of effectiveness had it actually been completed. Even so, the material in the demos, while still clearly flawed, demonstrates that there was more potential in the project than most people gave it credit for, and if Steinman and his collaborators hadn’t gotten discouraged by the negativity and given up the project, they might, just possibly, have found a way to make it work on stage.

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