Theatre / Elisabeth

Everyone has danced with Death
but no one like Elisabeth!

Elisabeth is a German-language musical about Elisabeth (also known as Sisi), the wife of Habsburg Emperor Franz Josef II, focusing mainly on an imagined lifelong flirtation with Death himself (rendered as a handsome young man called "Der Tod"- German for "death") and Elisabeth's constant need for independence, often at the cost of her unconditionally loving husband and her hypersensitive son Crown Prince Rudolf. It is narrated from beyond the grave by Luigi Lucheni, the Italian anarchist who assassinated her in 1898. He does his best to turn the audience against her, but ultimately it is left to the viewer to decide about Elisabeth's character.

It premiered in Vienna in 1992 and was responsible for launching the careers of Pia Douwes (Elisabeth) and Uwe Kroger (Death), who are today two of the most important performers in European musical theater. Elisabeth is also a popular offering by Japan's all-female Takarazuka Revue; actress Maki Ichiro, who played Death while a Takarasienne, went on to play Elisabeth herself in a traditional male-and-female production after leaving the Revue, and Jun Sena has gone from Lucheni to Elisabeth to Death (all Takarazuka) to Elisabeth again in a traditional production. Also, Hikaru Asami played Rudolf in the 1998 (Takarazuka) production and then went on to play Elisabeth in the 2008 male-and-female production, and having alternated the role with Jun Sena. Various productions often reinterpret the show, including new songs and adding or removing whole plotlines, depending on how familiar an audience is with the historical background.

This show contains examples of:

  • Adapted Out: Elisabeth's second daughter Gisela is barely mentioned in act I and is completely forgotten in act II, while her youngest child Marie Valerie isn't included in the story at all.
    • Franz Joseph's father Franz Karl, who actually outlived his wife Sophie by six years, is not seen or mentioned in the entire show.
    • Rudolf's wife Princess Stephanie of Belgium and daughter Erzsi are also omitted.
  • All Girls Want Bad Boys:
    • Killing two of your children: It pretty much doesn't get any badder than this.
    • Averted in the Takarazuka version, at least. Elisabeth actively resists Death's attempts to seduce her, and doesn't starting falling for him until after Rudolf's death.
  • Anachronism Stew: The musical is really accurate (see Gorgeous Period Dress), but the design of Madame Wolf's "salon" and the costumes in this scene in most versions is very modern. Justified, though. Or would you actually recognize a realistically portrayed nineteenth-century brothel? You usually don't learn this in history class...
    • The original Vienna production features some very bizarre and abstract anachronistic elements that were scaled back with subsequent revivals.
  • Angry Mob Song: "Milch" and "Hass" ("Milk" and "Hate").
  • Anthropomorphic Personification: Death.
  • Anti-Villain: Death.
  • Artistic License – History: The real Lucheni was horrorstruck when he learned that Elisabeth had been pro-democracy and in favor of a free Hungary, as well as enormously charitable and kind, rather than simply another selfish royal who believed she could let them eat cake. It's actually theorized that this is what lead him to hang himself in his cell. Lucheni-the-narrator, on the other hand, remains spitefully opposed to her and her whole social caste through and through, though certain actors play this as his desperately trying to convince himself in the afterlife that he didn't murder a decent person.
  • Aside Glance: Death does this during the Takarazuka versions.
  • Awesome Moment of Crowning: Both Elisabeth and Rudolf (though in a dream/fantasy) get this in the Takarazuka version.
  • Back from the Dead: A possible interpretation of what happens when Elisabeth has a terrible fall during childhood, and is carried back on stage by Death. However, since he never kisses her, it could also be interpreted as him turning up to take her life and then changing his mind.
  • Beauty Is Never Tarnished: Subverted, though only mildly. Elisabeth is at least stated to be aging and developing gray hairs as it goes along, but not every production gives the actress age makeup and streaked wigs over the course of the time skips (though the Hungarian productions age her fairly heavily).
  • Betty and Veronica: Franz Joseph is the Betty, the option she is expected to go with by society and one that offers her safety and unconditional love; Death, the Veronica, who is mysterious and sexy but also dark, visiting her in dreams and controlling her. Elisabeth tries to find a Third-Option Love Interest, so to speak, in her own independence. None of these end well for anyone involved except possibly Death.
  • Big "NO!":
    • Elisabeth when her first daughter Sophie dies of illness.
    • The mother who tries to save her son from execution in "Jedem gibt er das Seine" does this when her plea for mercy is refused.
    • Depending on actor, Franz Josef may also do this when Death throws the file at Lucheni in "Am Deck der sinkenden Welt".
  • Bilingual Bonus: Lucheni often uses Italian expressions in his monologue, which aren't really necessary to understand the plot, but give insight into his opinion/thoughts. Also counts as Getting Crap Past the Radar, as one of his first lines to the Judge translates to "Go fuck yourself."
  • Bishounen: Death is described in the libretto as "androgynous, young, attractive and erotic".
    • Thoroughly averted with the casting of the conventionally masculine Mark Seibert.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Elisabeth's murder ends up looking like a release into the arms of her one true love, Death. Depending on version, this can be a Downer Ending when he then kills her with a kiss, or a Died Happily Ever After as they ascend to the netherworld.
  • Blue and Orange Morality: Death, as befits an otherwordly figure whose job is destruction, doesn't seem to have the same morality scale as humans. Some productions/actors even have him being surprised that Elisabeth is unhappy when he takes her child, Sophie.
  • Bowdlerize: The Takarazuka version removes any mention of the death of Elisabeth's young daughter, anti-Semitic violence in Vienna and other darker aspects of the show.
  • Breaking the Fourth Wall: Lucheni does this all the time in his narrations.
  • Break the Cutie: Sisi, Rudolf and, to an extent, even Franz Joseph
  • Broken Pedestal: As a young girl, Elisabeth wistfully, though fairly happily, accepts her father Max's habit of shrugging off her questions and finding feeble excuses for leaving her home on his travels, because she admires his free spirit. As a middle-aged woman, she holds a seance to communicate with his ghost and discovers that even in the afterlife, he doesn't have any answers for her and doesn't care about her needs enough to stay around and comfort her. The reality of what he was like- and how much trying to be like him damaged her own relationships- finally dawns on her.
  • Call-and-Response Song: The stanzas of "Milch"
    Lucheni: Do you want to know who takes the milk from you?
    Crowd: Tell us who!
    Lucheni: All the milk is only meant for her!
    Crowd: For whom?
    Lucheni: For your Empress, she needs it for...
    Crowd: For what?
    Lucheni: Her bath!
    Crowd: What?!
    Lucheni: Yes!
  • Counterpoint Duet:
    • "Boote in de Nacht" ("Ships in the Night") turns into one in the end.
    • The 2012 Viennese revival instates a version of the song "Every Path is a Maze", but makes it a duet between Death and Elisabeth rather than a solo for Death. It, too, turns into this toward the end.
  • Crossover: The Takarazuka versions of Roméo et Juliette feature the same Anthropomorphic Personification of Death as this show.
  • Darker and Edgier: If you expected a musical version of Sissi, you are wrong. So wrong.
  • Dark Reprise: There are plenty of reprises of already fairly dark songs throughout Act II, but two stand out for being dark echoes of brighter songs: the reprise of "Wie Du" ("Like You"), and especially "Boote in der Nacht", a poignant, resigned ballad in which the aged Elisabeth and Franz Joseph conclude that they were never meant to be together, set to the exact same melody as the Love Duet they sang as naive teenagers.
    • Also, the waltz that Elisabeth and Franz Josef happily dance to at their wedding gets a reprise titled "The Mayerling Waltz," which is the scene where Rudolf kills himself. The wedding music becomes the suicide music.
    • While not an entirely happy song when one first hears it, Alle Fragen Sind Gestellt gets one during The Eleven O'Clock Number Am Deck der Sinkenden Welt amidst Lucheni telling us about the fates of Elisabeth's relatives.
  • Deconstruction: The whole thing is technically a Deconstruction Fic of the mythos of Sisi as propagated by the film (and the tourism industry of Austria), and in extension the clichés of the glorious life at court in general.
  • Downer Ending: Decidedly so in the Hungarian version, where after Elisabeth kisses Death in the underworld, he suddenly turns silent and cold. He leads her into a tower, then emerges alone from a balcony, brandishing cloth from her dress as a trophy.
  • Driven to Suicide: Rudolf.
  • Dances and Balls: Two to three of the show's songs have the word 'dance' in the title ("Der letzte Tanz" ("The Final Dance"), "Wenn ich tanzen will" ("When I Want to Dance"), and "Totentanz" (roughly, "The Dance of the Dead") depending on how you classify it) and one of the scenes takes place in a mirrored ballroom.
  • Death Is Dramatic: Averted for Sisi, whose final scene plays out as a lover's reunion. Played straight for Rudolf, who goes through a frenetic dance with the Todesengels, then being bodily spun round by der Tod violently, then the gun goes off. The Takarazuka version, as mentioned below, even drags out the dance further than the German original.
  • Evil Matriarch: Elisabeth's mother-in-law, Sophie, is depicted (somewhat erroneously) as a cruel and domineering woman driven at all costs to break the spirit of the young empress and maintain an iron grip on Franz Josef. In history, Sophie was more along the lines of a Knight Templar Parent.
  • Final Love Duet: With a twist.
  • Foregone Conclusion: Death does end up taking Elisabeth after she is murdered by Lucheni, who later hangs himself in prison, and the Habsburg Empire falls, along with most of the other European royal dynasties as the world gets sucked into World War I.
  • Fourth Date Marriage: Elisabeth and Franz Joseph's marriage appears to be this, since it follows directly after the scene in which they meet, though from Lucheni giving dates in his narration we know that it is actually 10 months later.
  • Ghost Song:
    • The prologue could count, though the setting leaves it ambiguous as to whether they're ghosts or the dead raised bodily for the purposes of reenacting the story. The reprise of "Wie Du" in which Elisabeth begs her father's spirit for guidance definitely counts, though.
    • The Hungarian and original Dutch versions also had Sophie's ghost sing a verse during Elisabeth's lament after Rudolf's suicide.
  • Gorgeous Period Dress: Lots of fun to be had with this, including several reproductions of dresses worn by the real Elisabeth.
  • Groin Attack: In some productions, Madame Wolf punches Lucheni in the groin at the end of "Nur kein Genieren".
  • Historical-Domain Character: Most of the musicals characters. All of Elisabeth's family, Franz Joseph, Sophie, Rudolf, Lucheni and even some of the obscure minor ones. One could say everyone — Death is certainly present in history...
  • I Love You Because I Can't Control You: Both Franz Joseph and Death toward Elisabeth. It backfires on both of them — Franz Joseph turns into a Love Martyr for her, and Death becomes frustrated with the situation very quickly.
  • Interactive Narrator: Lucheni
  • Ironic Echo: "Also lässt du mich im Stich" ("So You Abandoned Me") said first by Elisabeth to Franz Josef, and later by Rudolf to Elisabeth.
  • "I Want" Song: "Ich gehör nur mir" ("I Belong to Me"), despite starting out as an "I won't" song. At the time the play is set in, a woman wanting freedom like Elisabeth did would usually have been an impossible dream, but her heart still wants it.
  • I Want My Beloved to Be Happy: A variation with Franz Josef. While he doesn't quite let her go and still retains hope that they'll be together, Franz Josef allows Elisabeth to raise their son and to wander the world because he is devoted to her. Later, he does concede with her that they weren't meant to be together.
  • Kiss of Death: Quite literally in Rudolf's case, and slightly delayed for Elisabeth who is only kissed by der Tod after her death, though not for lack of trying on his part.
  • Kick the Dog: The Mayerling Waltz, when compared to "Mama, wo bist du?" and even "Die Schatten werden länger". In at least one Takarazuka production, der Tod literally kicks Rudolf, sending him rolling across the stage.
  • Lemony Narrator: Lucheni.
  • Lighter and Fluffier: The Takarazuka withholds any mention of precursor social currents to national socialism or ST Ds. Additionally, rather than at long last consuming Elisabeth's soul, Zuka Death shows her the Kingdom of the Underworld she shall implicitly be queen of.
  • Love at First Sight: Elisabeth and Death. Then, direly, Elisabeth and Franz Joseph, too. Oops.
  • Love Triangle: Death/Elisabeth/Franz Josef. After her wedding to the Emperor, Death comes along and sings to her,
    Es ist ein altes Thema, doch neu für mich
    Zwei, die dieselbe lieben — nämlich dich.
Which translates to,
It is an old story, but for me, new
Two have the same beloved — namely, you.
  • Manipulative Bastard: Death manipulates everybody all so he can win Elisabeth's love.
  • Massive Multiplayer Ensemble Number: "Alle tanzten mit dem Tod" ("Everyone has Danced with Death") has the whole gigantic cast on stage and singing.
  • Mayfly–December Romance: Could be considered such because Death is ageless.
  • A Minor Kidroduction: Elisabeth is 14 when we first see her; Rudolf is about six the first time and then reappears at about eleven before we finally see him as a young man. (It varies from production to production whether or not the same child actor plays him as a small child and again as a preteen.)
  • Mood Whiplash: "Nichts ist schwer" ("Nothing is Hard"), a tender love song between teenage Sisi and Franz Joseph, is immediately followed by the Ominous Pipe Organ of "Alle Fragen sind gestellt" ("All Questions Have Been Asked"), which doubles as Soundtrack Dissonance since it's the accompaniment to their wedding (and thus the first foreshadowing that things will not end well). The original production made the whiplash even harder by having the lovers suddenly collapse like puppets with cut strings as soon as "Nichts ist schwer" ended.
  • More Than Mind Control: Death seems to have this type of influence over Rudolf. They first meet while little Rudolf is sadly calling to his mother, and their first exchange translates to
    Death: She can't hear you. Don't call to her.
    Rudolf: Who are you?
    Death: I am a friend. When you need me, I'll come to you. (Moves as though to leave)
    Rudolf: Stay!
    Death: I'll stay close.
    • And little Rudolf's proud statement of "Yesterday I killed a cat!" seems to imply that he realizes that his new friend is Death incarnate, but trusts him. And Rudolf still completely trusts Death when he shows up again 18 YEARS LATER. Death then makes his More Than Mind Control even stronger with "Die Schatten werden langer."
    • In most productions, the choreography of "Die Schatten werden langer" includes Death physically grabbing Rudolf and manipulating his actions, usually not very gently. In at least one production, Death pulls Rudolf closer without even touching him, apparently through some form of telekinesis. Aside from dodging the lethal kisses Death attempts to give him, Rudolf doesn't resist this manipulation. In the Takarazuka version, Rudolf actively reaches for Death's hand or otherwise deliberately puts himself in a position that makes the direct physical manipulation possible. Multiple times.
      • A dance move prevalent in many productions is Death dragging Rudolf forward, Rudolf fighting back, but his feet keep inching towards Death.
  • Mr. Fanservice: Death, Lucheni (sometimes), Rudolf and, depending on the production, sometimes even Franz Joseph.
  • Musicalis Interruptus: Happens in the Takarazuka productions during a reprise of "Ich gehör nur mir" when Lucheni takes a picture of the Empress.
  • My Beloved Smother: Sophie.
  • Napoleon Delusion: Elisabeth visits an insane asylum and meets a patient who believes that she herself is the empress. Elisabeth envies the woman's happiness in her role.
  • Noble Male, Roguish Male: Franz Joseph, the conservative, gentle but somewhat weak-willed husband/king, who treats Sisi with kid gloves and gives her unconditional love and support, versus the darkly handsome, dashing but cold and dangerous Death, who seeks to claim Sisi for himself as his kindred soul. The comparison is made blatant in their conversation during the Emperor's nightmare.
    • The Death/Rudolf ship is what happens when the Noble Male falls in love with the Roguish Male.
  • No Fourth Wall: For Lucheni, at least.
  • No Sense of Personal Space: Death, in some productions.
  • Not So Different: Elisabeth realizes that this is the case between herself and Rudolf far too late.
  • Parental Abandonment: Elisabeth is actively prevented from having a hand in raising her son Rudolf; upon realizing this, she stops trying to have one, either. As an aging woman, she finally realizes her father, Max, whom she idolized, was emotionally (and frequently physically) absent from her life and never gave her the emotional support she craved from him.
  • Perspective Flip: Takarazuka's main draw being the male roles, they needed to make Death the main character, so Levay collaborated with Takarazuka to compose the song Ai To Shi No Rondo/Kein Kommen Ohne Geh'n which humanized Death and placed his emotional journey at the center of the story. Strangely, the Hungarian version with a far more inhuman death used the song as well.
  • Pietà Plagiarism: Death usually holds Elisabeth this way in the very end.
  • Please Spare Him, My Liege!: A mother tries to save her son - whose only offense was, according to her, yelling "Freedom" - from execution by pleading Franz Joseph for his mercy. If it weren't for Sophie, it would've worked.
  • Pose of Supplication: In the Takarazuka version, Rudolf kneels and clings to Death a lot, in both Die Schatten and Mayerling. In the original German production, Rudolf also kneels and buries his face in Death's lap/thigh.
    • In one live performance of Die Schatten werden länger at Musical Meets Opera, because there was no carriage, der Tod (Mark Seibert) stood while Rudolf (Anton Zetterholm) clung bodily to one leg.
  • The Power of Love: Invoked by Franz Josef during Boote in der Nacht when he visits Sisi during one of her wanderings and tries to get her to return home by saying that love can heal anything, to which Sisi says that they weren't meant to be.
  • Pretty Boy: Death, particularly Kröger's original portrayal of him, in which he has high cheekbones, thick waved hair to his shoulders, and a very feminine manner.
  • Rapunzel Hair: Elisabeth, in a case of Truth in Television. When we first see her, her hair is already down to her waist; by the time she dies, it's gathered into braids that are wrapped around her head several times and still settle between her shoulderblades.
  • Rays from Heaven: During the ending as performed by Pia Douwes and Uwe Kröger, these rays shine down on Elisabeth and Death when he comes for her after her assassination. This shows how, in death, she has the freedom she had always longed for; she has hope; she can go up to the sky.
  • Rebellious Princess: Elisabeth fits this trope like a glove fits a hand. Considering the way her story ends, could be a deconstruction.
  • The Revolution Will Not Be Civilized: This trope gradually creeps up over the course of the show — the common people are shown progressing from being innocent trampled victims of the upper class to the scapegoating predecessors of Those Wacky Nazis in their growing distaste for the old order.
  • Romantic False Lead: Elisabeth's elder sister Helene, for all of about five minutes. Given that the musical isn't named after her, we know in advance how this'll end. Though Helene exits the stage with sadness at her wasted efforts, in real life she actually found a much happier marriage than that of Elisabeth and Franz Joseph.
  • Royally Screwed Up: During "An Deck der sinkenden Welt" ("On the Deck of the Sinking World"), Lucheni lists all of Elisabeth's family members who've gone crazy or died of unnatural causes.
  • Rule of Symbolism: The Vienna stagings run heavily on this, every which way, from the necklace Franz Joseph gives Elisabeth to seal their engagement looking like a heavy gold noose to the fact that Rudolf's ghost appears as his child-self still weeping for his mother to comfort him after all this time.
    • The 2005 Vienna revival is very fond of puppet symbolism/imagery. Lucheni is the puppeteer and the dead the puppets in the prologue, Death is the puppeteer to Elisabeth and Rudolf in "Wenn ich tanzen will" and "Die Schaten werden länger" respectively, and there is a moment in "Am Deck der sinkenden Welt," when Death briefly plays puppetmaster to Lucheni after throwing him the file, and Lucheni falls limply to the ground when Death breaks his hold.
  • Sanity Slippage Song: Subverted, in that "Nichts, Nichts, Gar Nichts" ("Nothing, Nothing, Nothing At All") is the song in which Elisabeth makes a conscious decision NOT to go mad, however tempting the prospect.
  • Soundtrack Dissonance: Elisabeth and Franz Joseph's wedding scene is performed as a morbid funeral march.
  • Stalker With a Crush: Death, except in Hungary. Hungarian!Death is clearly presented as Elisabeth's true love, and her relationship with Franz Josef frankly seems a bit like she's cheating on him.
  • Subverted Rhyme Every Occasion: "Sie möchte, dass Franz Joseph sich mit Helene... trifft."
  • Take That!: "Kitsch" has these lines: "But what she really was like/ is something that you'll never learn from any book or movie" - the movies meant are, of course, the Sissi trilogy with Romy Schneider.
  • Take That, Audience!:
    • In the song "Kitsch", Lucheni mocks the audience for expecting a pretty fairy tale about the lovely empress and her handsome husband. Note that the audiences of the original production went in expecting exactly that.
    • Uwe Kröger, the original Death, went into his audition thinking it was an adaptation of the 1950s "Sissi" films and hoping to be cast as Franz Josef, so the show kind of surprised everyone with its Darker and Edgier approach.
  • Time Skip: Several of them. Justified, as the show covers Elisabeth's life from age 14 to her death at 61.
  • True Love's Kiss: Also serves as the Kiss of Death in this case.
  • The Dead Can Dance: Shown in the awesome "Prologue".
  • The Grim Reaper: A rather unusual one.
  • The Unfair Sex: Averted, in that it's hard to blame Franz Josef for seeking out a prostitute's affections when Elisabeth ignores him as much as she does.
  • Unrequited Love Switcheroo: When the young Elisabeth wakes up in the arms of Death after her fall, she implores "her dark prince" not to leave her, saying she felt good in his arms. He leaves, but comes back to gloat at her wedding that he'll win her in the end, when she's no longer interested. While mourning, Elisabeth calls out to him (mostly out of desperation), but he won't have her anymore. In the end, though, it works out... in a way.
  • Villainous Cheekbones: The makeup design for Death in the Hungarian version has these to the point of streaks of silvery-blue glitter being added to highlight them.
  • White Shirt of Death: Although there's no blood, after she's been stabbed, Sisi takes off her black mourning coat, revealing the white dress she wore as a teenage girl and runs to embrace Death.
  • Woman in White: In the German production, Sisi, almost constantly. Her girlhood dress, wedding gown, dressing robe... The famous Sternkleid (Star Dress) is off-white.