VIENNA -- Sigmund Freud's troubled patients burst into song amid phallic stage props, and his collection of antique statuettes turn themselves into a chorus line in a new musical inspired by the works of the founder of psychoanalysis.
This risky venture, entitled "Freudiana," premieres tonight at Vienna's Theater an der Wien, where Beethoven, Schubert and Johann Strauss first staged their triumphs. Responsible are British composer Eric Woolfson and artistic director Brian Brolly, who collaborated with Andrew Lloyd Webber on "Jesus Christ, Superstar," "Cats" and "The Phantom of the Opera."
"If in dealing in Freudian subject matter you're going to be bold and innovative, it's wholly proper one should be in Vienna," said Brolly. "I wanted to have the play develop with an intelligence that can come from here."
The Vienna State Opera keeps up the city's reputation for musical excellence, and the Volksoper carries on its tradition of operetta. But the torch of creativity for new musical theater died in Vienna decades ago. Since then, the historic Theater an der Wien has filled the house by running German-language versions of popular hits from abroad, including "Cats" and "Phantom" after they had enjoyed commercial success in London's West End and on Broadway.
An extravaganza in the now-familiar "high-tech" mode, "Freudiana" is the first major production of its kind to originate in Vienna. By launching it in the Austrian capital, Brolly and his team get the benefit of a theater heavily subsidized by the city's taxpayers and, they hope, some of the luster of Beethoven's "Fidelio" or "Die Fledermaus" by Strauss, which opened there in the previous century.
"There is no reason why a show like 'Freudiana' could not go out from here with equal success as those before," Brolly said. "I realize it has been a long time." After Vienna, where performances are said to be three-quarters sold out through May, backers plan to take "Freudiana" to London, New York and Tokyo.
The score, international rock and pop with little local color, has been released in English on an EMI double album in time for the German-language premiere. Among the titles are "Let Yourself Go," "Beyond the Pleasure Principle" and other neurotic numbers such as "Funny You Should Say That."
"I did not approach the subject of Freud lightly," said Brolly, conceding that the dramatic treatment of the Viennese analyst's pioneering work was a "path strewn with pitfalls." Having drawn a lesson from the disastrous 1962 film "Freud" starring Montgomery Clift, the script does not require the cigar-smoking professor himself to appear. However, an original recording of his voice from a BBC interview fills the theater at one point.
Using Freud's theories of the Oedipus complex, the ego and the id and his masterpiece "The Interpretation of Dreams" as the basis for the songbook, the action begins in the London house where Freud sought refuge after the 1938 Nazi takeover of Austria. Erik, an anxious young man from Chicago, visits the residence, now a museum, on the last day of a whirlwind package tour of Europe. Hopelessly in love with a young woman traveling in the group, Erik feels alone and a loser.
The tourists, arriving at the museum just before closing time, are given a rushed introduction to the "Freudiana" -- Freud's study with its famous couch, antiquities, pictures and books, all faithfully reproduced on the stage -- and a brief exposition of Freud's case histories. But the hapless hero is accidentally locked inside as the group hurriedly departs. He falls asleep on the couch. Yes, Erik dreams.
The Greek, Egyptian and primitive sculptures lined atop Freud's desk grow larger than life, lurching into jazz dance movements as colored lights flash and smoke fills the set. Erik -- like Alice in Wonderland joining in group therapy -- meets up with the patients who provided Freud with his seminal case studies: Little Hans, Dora, the Rat Man and the Wolf Man. Jean-Martin Charcot, a French hypnotist whose work fascinated Freud, also puts in an appearance.
This being popular entertainment as well as a Freudian odyssey, there is the requisite sexy number as Erik finds himself encircled by blondes in black tights and stiletto heels, all resembling the traveling companion with whom he has become obsessed. Renewed clouds of smoke billowing off dry ice in the wings usher in the refrain, "The answers await in the darkness of childhood."
Parental confrontation ensues, accompanied by lasers, with Erik's mother singing "No One Can Love You Better Than Me." Mom then stands by as Erik strangles Dad. The murderous dream ends, and Erik awakens on the couch a reborn man to perform the finale, a recognition that the key to life lies within oneself.
"We do not want to demonstrate psychoanalytic treatment but simply ... to bring people nearer to the idea," said the musical's Vienna stage director, Peter Weck. "This is not a didactic play, rather an attempt to visually portray a fantasy and dream world."
"I felt that in the nature of Freud as a cultural phenomenon what of course would be written would be about ourselves," said Brolly, "about human beings. And if we could successfully build a link to the audience, that would be very rewarding, because we would reach out to a large number of people both in an entertaining way and in a way that would provoke some thought about ourselves."
"Freudiana" has already provoked discussion within Vienna's small psychoanalytic community. "The idea is not fundamentally a bad one ... to bring the public closer to the idea that there is a subconscious and that it is possible to correct things in our lives through psychoanalysis and therapy," said Marianne Sprenger-Kremser, vice chairman of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society, which was dissolved by the Nazis and revived after World War II.
In her view, Freud has yet to receive due recognition in the place where he devised his ideas about human behavior, and high resistance to them persists here. "I would hope that justice will be done to the uniqueness and greatness of Freud's work, but I secretly doubt it," Sprenger-Kremser said of the musical.
It is likely to raise the number of visitors to the other Freud museum, operating in his former Vienna apartment at Berggasse 19, which seeks to preserve the memory of Freud in the city he was forced to flee. The Austrian government, during the 50th anniversary two years ago of the country's takeover by Germany, put Freud's image on its 50-schilling bank note. In 1985, municipal authorities named a small park near Berggasse after him.
As for how Freud might analyze "Freudiana," there is his evaluation of a loftier musical work that also opened in Vienna, Mozart's "Magic Flute," recalled by biographer Ernest Jones: "Some of the arias are wonderfully beautiful, but the whole thing rather drags, without any really individual melodies. The action is very stupid, the libretto quite crazy."