A Death to Fall in Love With

Empress Sisi's secret lover, Uwe Kröger as beautiful der Tod, is the new audiences' darling at the Theater an der Wien

It's actually a love story. Elisabeth, the new musical at the Theater an der Wien, praised by German critics, torn apart by the Austrians, is the story of the love between Sisi, the young Bavarian princess, and His Majesty Franz Joseph, Emperor of Austria.

Yet there are only two kisses on stage during the 2.5 hour show. And each time, someone dies. They are kisses of death, given by der Tod in person.

Maybe there is some truth about the frequently written and sung about longing for death felt by the Viennese, who even sing songs of death at the wine taverns. Every night at Theater an der Wien, when der Tod appears and kills first Crown Prince Rudolf and then the Empress Elisabeth with his cold kiss of death, the audience starts cheering. They would love to shout "da capo". The same thing happens at the curtain calls: der Tod receives most of the applause.

Maybe it's because of this alleged Austro-Hungarian morbidity. But it's certain that, in the cast of Elisabeth, it's because of der Tod himself.

Because Uwe Kröger is a Death to fall in love with. Young, blond, pale, and beautiful, hair like silk, the slender body of a trained dancer, and a wonderful voice, whose seductive eroticism when fighting for souls suddenly turns into the icy breeze of death as soon as his "work" is done: with his killing kiss.

Uwe Kröger as der Tod is actually the main character in the musical Elisabeth. Because he--and not the young Emperor--is, as lyricist Michael Kunze wants it, Sisi's secret love. Supposedly, the Empress longed for him/it all her life. In the show, he is the one who places the murder weapon, a file, in the hand of Sisi's murderer, Luigi Lucheni (American Ethan Freeman, great as the assassin and diabolical narrator).

The way that youthful der Tod, a beautiful, androgynous creature, half man, half woman, dances and glides with the shadows across the stage impressed the critics as well.

"Der Tod is the best" (Kronen Zeitung), "Der Tod upstages everyone" (Die Welt), "...Uwe Kröger makes one understand why the Viennese love death so much" (Hannoversche Allgemeine Zeitung).

Uwe, of all people, a German boy from Hamm in Westfalen.

He could laugh a lot about his fans' macabre declarations of "love": "'I also wish for such a beautiful death'--a lot of people have already said that to me."

Yet privately Uwe has nothing of the "angel of death" about him. A likeable, uncomplicated, cheerful young man, who "is in reality very much alive. I love life and people." For three years as an arts therapist, Uwe cared for unbalanced and suicidal childre, before he began perfecting his artistic talents at a musical theatre school in Berlin.

With roles in Les Misérables (Vienna, Amsterdam), Starlight Express (Bochum), Jesus Christ Superstar (Schwäbisch Hall), he gained for himself a good name in the musical theatre business. From these performances comes the only eccentric thing about him: the carefully dried and sprayed long hair--working clothing, so to speak. It gives him that desired homoerotic flair, which gives him--and Sisi's secret lover, der Tod--that special, seductive something.

He had already felt that death is omnipresent in Vienna during his first engagement there ("A bit morbid--like a museum"), and had heard of it. "People told me that Vienna is the city with the strongest gravity in Europe--maybe that makes people lazy, holds them down? Vienna also has a very high suicide rate. When I first saw these high, grey houses, I thought "no wonder"...."

Uwe has to grin when we reach our first interview meeting-point, even if reverent gravity would be more suitable; we are visiting a world-wide one-of-a-kind: the "funeral museum" in Vienna's Goldegasse.

Here Heinz Riedel, the official in charge, watches over the most important accessories for a "beautiful funeral". There are valuables like hand-embroidered, old palls, grotesque things like a "life-saving clock for apparantly dead people", absurdities like the "Josephinischen Sparsarg" (economy coffin), a reusable coffin, where the corpse falls into the grave through a kind of trap door.

After that and a walk through another death-related highlight of Vienna, the half-decayed, enchantingly beautiful Biedermeier Cemetary of St Marx, our star has had enough of death. Returning to the theatre we meet Uwe's mother, who came from Westfalen for the premiere and now is staying with her son for two weeks and visiting Vienna. Uwe wants to know what she saw that day.

Mama smiles. "The Kapuzinergruft" [vault where the members of the former imperial family are buried].

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