Jim Steinman was an ultimate officiant in the marriage of rock ‘n’ roll and theater. The songwriter, who died April 19, only had a handful of productions play out on the legit stage, including “Dance of the Vampires,” “Whistle Down the Wind” and, finally, “Bat Out of Hell: The Musical.” But it really wouldn’t have mattered if none of those shows ever got produced: If you fell in love with “Bat Out of Hell,” the 1977 Meat Loaf album, or any of his subsequent unlikely hits, part of what you were falling for was musical theater, whether you knew it or not.
Lena Hall is currently shooting season 2 of “Snowpiercer,” but if you’re a theater fan, you may know her better for her soul-piercing singing in a succession of stage musicals, like “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” for which she won a Tony. The last stage work she did before the pandemic and subsequent return to TV was a six-week turn in “Bat Out of Hell,” which, following a smash engagement on London’s West End, went on to an off-Broadway (but very sizably) off-Broadway run at New York’s City Center. She counts two of the Steinman numbers she got to sing in that show as among her favorite recurring moments on stage ever. And since she is an unabashed rock ‘n’ roll singer as well as awarded Broadway actress, we thought we’d query her, as a next-generation Steinman fan, about why these songs are such huge fun to sing, not to mention listen to.
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Hall regrets that she never got to meet Steinman; he was suffering from a long illness and not in good enough shape to come meet the cast by the time “Bat Out of Hell” opened in New York in the fall of 2019. But she’s proud of how the show did him right. Following are some of her thoughts about why he was a great stage composer, even if he was ostensibly writing for Meat Loaf, Bonnie Tyler and Celine Dion:
“Two of the top moments I’ve ever had on a stage were singing Jim Steinman’s songs in ‘Bat Out of Hell’ every night. Of course, ‘Hedwig’ is in there too. But other than ‘Hedwig,’ the two top moments for me on stage were ‘ Paradise by the Dashboard Light’ and ‘It’s All Coming Back to Me Now.’ You can’t get more unapologetic than coming on stage and standing straight center stage, in park-and-bark. and singing the high notes of ‘It’s All Coming Back to Me Now.’ It’s just the brilliant way he’s written the song, with so many parts, and the lyrics you want to listen to, and when you hit the high note, it brings the tingles all over. As a performer, to actually get to stand center stage and face a big audience and do that? Amazing.
“What makes ‘It’s All Coming Back to Me Now’ great? I think it’s the anticipation. The original ‘It’s All Coming Back to Me Now’ is like eight minutes long.They did a shorter version for radio play, but it was still really long and it’s still one of the greatest songs on the planet. It got so much radio play. and that just speaks to his ability to write an incredible hook and an incredible chorus that you want to hear, but you have to wait for it. [The original version by Pandora’s Box was about eight and a half minutes long; Celine Dion’s cover was seven and a half, cut down closer to five for the radio edit.]
“You’re waiting for that specific thing that’s coming and it makes you want to listen to the entire song to get to that ‘Baby, baby, baby’… I mean, his choruses are earworms — they stick with you — but the song changes a lot. It has so many different parts, and it grows and then it comes back down, and you think it’s going to go to the big part… and it doesn’t! It comes back down again, and it makes you beg for it. He makes you beg and plead for that thing that you’re waiting for. And then he gives it to you, and it delivers beyond your wildest expectations.
“And that’s what he does really well in so many of his songs. He was one of those rare composers that could, all in one song, have a sense of real rock ‘n’ roll, real musical theater, almost classically inspired music, and real storytelling. And that is a very rare composer to come across, because it’s really hard to marry those genres. It spoke to a large audience partly because it had theater elements in it – like, a lot. And it had such incredible orchestrations as well, where it was like listening to a giant concerto, almost. I mean, the opening of ‘Bat Out of Hell’ is an incredible instrumental before the singer ever kicks in.
“He was way ahead of his time. Originally, he was trying to write musicals, but instead he went off with Meat Loaf and they were like, ‘Well, I guess we’ll just do a concept album instead,’ and that was ‘Bat Out of Hell.’ Broadway was not ready for what he had to offer. Now so many more shows are more based in rock ‘n’ roll: the Queen musical, ‘Rock of Ages,’ ‘American Idiot’ — and ‘Hedwig and the Angry Inch’ was total classic rock… I would love it if someone got their hands on the rest of Steinman’s music and kind of told his story, because a lot of his story is unknown.
“When I did a show of his songs, a lot of them I already knew [even outside of the songs included in ‘Bat Out of Hell: The Musical’]. I was like, ‘Oh shit, that’s right. He wrote all of these.’ The one that I didn’t know that I got obsessed with when I was putting my show together was a song called ‘Nowhere Fast,’ in a movie that he did the music for called ‘Streets of Fire.’ ‘Nowhere Fast,’ it’s such a bop. I couldn’t not include it in the show. But it’s hard to do Steinman and not want to have all of the elements that he has in his songs, all of the singers and all of the instruments, and to go full orchestral and do it to its core.
“‘Paradise by the Dashboard Light’ is one of the greatest rock anthems ever. The male-female duet that’s in it, there’s so much energy, and the story turns into a living image in front of your eyes. Doing it on stage, they didn’t make me un-rockify myself. The song has to call for it, but I like to get into that dirty rock zone a lot. And in this, they were just like, ‘Yeah, go for it. Do whatever you want.’ [Laughs.] It reminded me of when I was young and hanging out with boys in cars. A lot of us listen to music to have a moment where we get to have a fleeting moment of feeling young again. At least that’s my theory, that we listen to music to feel young again, as we get older.
“‘Bat Out of Hell: The Musical,’ while it wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, definitely did what he does best: It created a really visceral reaction, whether you loved it or hated it. Not a lot of people felt in the middle. [Laughs.] But that was so Jim Steinman. It was either like you were living these songs or you couldn’t really understand them. With ‘Bat Out of Hell.’ If you got it, you got it. And it was just so wonderfully luxuriating in drama.
“He just this sense of this bombastic, over the top storytelling, and his music matched, in the sense that it was so wonderfully emotional. Some people called it ridiculous? I love that. One-thousand-percent ridiculous. Absurd. And just glorious.”
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