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Cheapskate: Stephen, the King (István, a Király)

Communism is fundamentally about rationing.

Rock opera is fundamentally about excess. Therefore, it seems like a Communist rock opera would be a contradiction in terms, perhaps the basis of a Yakov Smirnoff joke. (“In Russia, our rock stars also have outrageous demands in their contracts. One band insisted on a plate full of turnips and a flushable toilet!”)

But in the early 1980s, musicians from Communist Hungary wrote a grand, Western-style rock opera about King Stephen I (“István” in Hungarian) and his accession to the throne. In 1984, a live performance in Budapest was captured on film, and now that performance is available on YouTube with English subtitles. (More on those subtitles later.)

I had kinda sorta heard of King Stephen before I saw this film, in part because I was raised Catholic and in part because I played a lot of Crusader Kings II. Before Stephen’s eleventh-century reign, the Hungarians were mostly nomadic pagans. (You can tell they’re descended from nomads because the Hungarian language isn’t related to the language of any of its neighboring countries.) Stephen adopted Catholicism and established a Western-style feudal monarchy, earning a sainthood for his troubles.

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Yeah. Subtitles.

The movie’s opening crawl contains historical background, which would seem to be unnecessary for a Hungarian audience as this guy is their national patron saint, and rolls over the overture Beethoven wrote for an opera about King Stephen that he never finished. (For ten points, without searching the Web, can you name the only opera Beethoven ever finished?)

This is also our first look at the English subtitles, and they’re, well, they’re trying as hard as they can. Usually, the subtitles will be sufficient to give an English-speaking audience the general idea of what’s going on, but you should expect to pause the film now and then to parse some of the more confusing captions. Nevertheless, thanks to whoever added these captions, as they’re better than nothing.

Next come the credits, and boy, do I hope you like credits, because you’re in for a lot of them. Namely, seven minutes and twenty-five seconds worth, all superimposed over various shots of the Hungarian crown jewels. (The cross on top of the Hungarian crown is crooked. I’m in no position to complain, what with my country represented by a cracked bell.) The interminable credits nearly exhausted my patience before the movie even began. Maybe they just wanted to use as much of Beethoven’s work as they could.

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Just in case the prologue didn’t tell you what the movie’s about, this guy’s here to tell you again.

After the seven minutes and twenty-five seconds of credits come to an end, a guy who took his fashion advice from former Iowa football coach Hayden Fry appears to set the theme of the film. As his silhouette is superimposed upon flashing scenes of conflicts and beaches (beaches? in landlocked Hungary?), he sings about saving the world.

HAYDEN FRY GUY: For somebody has to rewrite the old tales tomorrow / Oh tell, who would you elect? / For somebody has to redeem this world tomorrow / Tell, who you would elect?

It’s a major key, pop-type song with a big chorus, and is disappointing for a first number. This wouldn’t have earned more than two points at Eurovision. It will, however, teach you the Hungarian phrase for “help me” (which sounds like “shaggy chedeck”), because it repeats the phrase for about twenty times at the end.

And then… dry ice fog! Galloping guitar! Shadows of praying dudes! Chants of “Veni Sancto Spiritus!” Now, if you don’t have the same tolerance for musical pomposity that I do—and my tolerance is pretty high, given that I listen to Therion—you might roll your eyes at this scene, but I was pleased as punch that the production finally got some energy.

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King Stephen, our hero.

The praying dudes are here to officiate at the wedding between Stephen and a blonde woman. (Actually, the subtitles don’t tell you that this is Stephen, but I will.) They transition into a flute-heavy duet that reminded me a bit of a Carpenters song.

STEPHEN: Grant it well / That your intention / Let you have a country here / And I entrust my life to you

From the wedding, we go to a comic relief song, performed by some guys who make silly faces and who are accompanied by synthesized versions of comedy instruments like detuned pianos and kazoos. The content of the song isn’t really important, although I’m sure it was hilarious in Hungarian. What is important is that it’s the first example of one of the cinematographer’s favorite tricks: freeze-framing and then fading to a slightly different scene. It’s a very 80s effect. I suspect it’s there to cover up the edits made to the live show to compress it to movie length—Wikipedia tells me the rock opera is in four acts, and this movie is only an hour and a half long.

The next singer, a brunette lady, performs amidst burning barrels in some sort of industrial hellscape. She’s Stephen’s cousin, the daughter of his Uncle Koppány. Koppány is pagan, and Brunette (I’m sure she has a name, but it isn’t in the captions) is Christian. The tension is tearing her family apart, and Brunette gets a haunting song about forgiveness and peace. Come to think of it, everything Brunette sings is haunting: she’s being dubbed by Márta Sebestyén, a folk-rock singer with a very distinctive voice. You might recognize her from the soundtrack to The English Patient.

Her song is interrupted (there are a lot of interrupted songs in this movie) by a messenger from her father, who bursts in with a torch and with fringe on the back of his vest, and starts shouting about Koppány.

TORCH GUY: He bigger lord than the God / Koppány will be the suzerain soon!

And then Torch Guy puts the “rock” in “rock opera” with…

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Wooooooooo!

…A stage dive into a crowd of Koppány’s supporters, who carry him off amidst the kind of frolicking you see from ballet dancers who are trying to look tough! And as the song continues—the main point of it being that Christianity is a foreign faith and God ought to speak Hungarian—the supporters demonstrate some truly bizarre choreography, which I will attempt to replicate in text form:

DANCERS: [Clap overhead, kick left hand with left foot, clap twice, turn left, roll hands]

It looks like they’re trying to do heavy metal boot-scooting, and adds a silly dimension to what is otherwise a pretty good hard rock song.

The next scene starts with priests entering to the sounds of a driving guitar rhythm and a synth… a synth… English horn, maybe? Bagpipe chanter? It’s appropriate for the occasion, though, because the priests are carrying the casket of Géza, Stephen’s father. As the priest performs the rites, the people chant the Kyrie while slowly standing and raising their arms over their heads, like the least creative possible choreography for Godspell.

Stephen gets a song about uncertainty, which has an unremarkable piano-plinking accompaniment, but which shows off Stephen’s range as a tenor.

STEPHEN: Here lies before me my good father / His soul is track of the stars above already / The land now abandoned, this folk had a wise man / And I do not know it yet, what he could

And then Koppány storms the funeral and interrupts with a song of his own!

KOPPÁNY: Stop Stephen! / Tell me, what you think about yourself!?! / You are weak yet, blows out all winds

The point of this song is that traditionally, the crown of the Hungarians passed to the oldest member of the family upon the king’s death, but among the Christians, the eldest son gets the crown. Under the former system, Koppány is king: under the latter, Stephen is. Koppány’s supporters continue their fabulous choreography by throwing their arms over each other’s shoulders and forming a goddamn lateral kickline.

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The Communist equivalent of the Radio City Rockettes.

A brief digression on costuming. So far, we’ve seen main characters on Stephen’s side in relatively modern, simple garments. Robes and so forth. Koppány and his messengers are decked out in furs like Conan the Barbarian. Unfortunately, the background characters on both sides both wear modern dress. It’s tough for Koppány’s gang to look like menacing pagans when they’re wearing polo shirts.

As the Christians and the pagans face off, the pagans jump around wildly while chanting Koppány’s name, while the Christians stand in neat rows and pump their fists in their air in synch. This choreography is simple, but it gets the point across: Stephen represents order and modernity, Koppány represents chaos and primitivism. And you know what other political movement was big on presenting itself as orderly and modern? That’s right, Communism! But this isn’t straightforward Communist propaganda, as I’ll explain later.

It’s been said that musicals are like porn in that it’s almost impossible to keep advancing the plot during the scenes the audience really wants to see, and that’s quite evident in the next few songs, which are OK but which keep the plot running in place. First, Stephen’s wife sings a song that’s probably called “Give peace my lord” because she sings it about ten thousand times while parading uphill. It’s got a loud, ponderous bass line, like if Black Sabbath suddenly started performing with a church choir.

This is followed by some folk singers with a fiddle singing about the glorious Hungarian nation. They’re trying to impress Stephen’s mother. Mom is a real battle-ax: when a messenger comes from Koppány, requesting her hand in marriage, Mom goes shouty and has him executed.

After a comic relief song about how Koppány can’t read and has lousy table manners, Stephen starts praying that God will relieve him of the burden of fighting his uncle. This song is pleasant but unremarkable. His mother joins in to urge him to take out Koppány.

MOM: You have to win the lands and you have to win with it at the castles / You need everybody who onto the throne waits for you

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This is 1000 AD. What nobleman hasn’t killed his own uncle?

Whenever Mom gets a song, it ends with her calling for someone’s death, and it’s represented musically by building chaotic swirling strings and brass that remind me of the introduction to the Ghostbusters theme.

The crowd is now ready to declare Stephen their king. They break out in his personal chant, which you can do along with them: pump your right fist over your head and say “Ist,” then do the same thing with an open palm and say “Ván.” The whole thing starts to look like a monster arena rock show, with a screaming crowd and a cheesy number that could have come off a Loverboy album. Of course, I loved it. The priests fit Stephen with… I can’t tell what it is. A belt, maybe? I hope it’s a championship belt and the position of King of the Magyars will be forever decided through professional wrestling. There’s even a neat effect where the dry ice fog forms the shape of a cross.

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Your father’s sword. He wanted you to have it, when you were old enough.

Mellotron flutes underscore the seriousness as Stephen performs yet another song about the burdens of leadership. This one reminds me of a Styx ballad, complete with Hammond organ and people… waltzing? Yep, the background dancers are waltzing. This choreography never stops finding ways to baffle me.

Stephen’s wife arrives to turn the song into a duet, and they do that thing where she sings a different set of lyrics (about how great God is) while Stephen re-sings the first verse. This song doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know, but it does make it painfully obvious that Stephen’s wife is being dubbed. She’s barely opening her mouth, even when she’s supposed to be singing forte.

When this song wraps up, Koppány makes his triumphant return, and just in time, because I was yearning for more 80s hard rock. RROW-RROW-chicka-chika-RROW-RROW-chicka-chicka-RROW-RROW-chicka-chicka-RROW-RROW-RROW-RROW!

KOPPÁNY: I do not ask it to you, till when we endure it our fate / We could be new Hungarian conquerors / I ask only so much, expected for the answer: / Let us be prisoners or free?

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They don’t really want Koppány to sing this. They’re just mocking him.

Koppány challenges his followers to regain their birthright, and they respond in a triumphant chorus. The dance number for this looks like the craziest sock hop you ever saw, with men twirling their dates 50s style, and even a hand jive! (Kneel, slap thighs twice, clap overhead twice, slap thighs twice, bend down to the right, slap ground with right hand, bend down to the left, slap ground with left hand.)

Remember how I said Stephen represents Communism and Koppány represents the past? Well, here’s where it starts getting subversive. The film pokes a little fun at Koppány for being backward, but Koppány’s a sympathetic character. He’s afraid that his cultural heritage will be destroyed and the Hungarians will find themselves slaves to Rome. I can only imagine that Hungarian audiences drew the parallel between the potential of Papal domination in 1000 and the reality of Soviet domination in 1983.

Koppány becomes even more appealing as a role model when his bevy of gorgeous wives arrive to sing a song with a bit of a Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young feel to it about boiling their beds. This is the first time I lost my composure laughing: Koppány’s got the wind blowing in his hair and it reminded me of a romance novel cover. (Do they make romance novels about barbarians?) Anyway, the song is otherwise pointless, as none of the wives appear again.

A goofy arpeggio signals the return of the comic relief guys, who are already sick of Stephen and suggest that power has gone to his head. Maybe Koppány ought to take out Stephen through poisoning, or assassination by wild boar? Koppány decides not to do this because he can’t get Stephen’s Spymaster to join the plot and so his odds of success are only 33%—er, because Koppány doesn’t sneak around like a coward. He wants a fight.

A shaman arrives on a crutch (because the actor is missing his left leg). The shaman tells Koppány that Stephen is tougher than he looks, and Koppány’s song about God speaking Hungarian gets a brief reprise.

Then the rhythm guitar kicks up, and I started bouncing in my seat. I started laughing again, because the extras immediately started hopping, too. This is the shaman’s song in which he calls for the aid of the old gods, and it’s a great arena-rock rouser, complete with jets of fire!

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“I am the god of hellfire, and I bring you…”

CHORUS: Let the light of the sun give light / Let the light of the moon give completeness / Let the colour of water give forgiveness / The stars let him give brightness / Give, give, give!

Okay, so the lyrics make it sound like something you’d chant at a retreat in Sedona, but trust me, this is a catchy rock song. It fades out into discordant swirls, as Koppány’s daughter reveals she’s seen an omen: Koppány is going to lose the fight. Her part sounds like a Yes song. Koppány replies in rock form (as he is wont to do), saying it’s too late to change his mind.

Koppány mentions that Stephen has a team of German knights with him. Given that Stephen represents Communism, I think Hungarian audiences of the 80s would associate Stephen’s German mercenaries with the Soviet army: particularly, with the Soviet army that invaded to put down a nationalist revolt in 1956. The guy who took power as a result of that 1956 invasion, János Kádár, was still in charge in 1983. The opera’s authors, Levente Szörényi and János Bródy, deserve credit for creating a work where the country’s president is compared to a national hero, while still implying that the opponents he killed might have had some good ideas.

Cut to Stephen, who’s going to make one last attempt to avoid a fight. He loves his uncle and is willing to let him have the throne, provided that Koppány does what’s best for the nation and converts to Catholicism.

STEPHEN: All roads drive into Rome, or into the decay.

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No, Koppány doesn‘t take the deal.

It’s now time for the shaman to get the pagans fired up for the fight, which he accomplishes through building chords, galloping synth, and LASERS! (Maybe they’ll shine the lasers in the eyes of those German knights.) The film starts superimposing footage of future Hungarian heroes, as the shaman tells his followers that if they score a victory in this battle, someday Lajos Kossuth will be victorious. Kossuth came within a hair’s breadth of establishing an independent, democratic Hungary in 1848. (As a consolation prize, he had a county in Iowa named after him.) This is one of the great what-ifs of Hungarian history, and having the doomed pagans invoke Kossuth’s name would make them even more sympathetic. Think of it as Harold II telling his troops at Hastings that if he defeats William the About-To-Be-Conqueror, Henry V will live to a ripe old age and the Allies will march into Berlin in 1914.

And now I’m regretting all the life choices that have made me unable to write a rock opera about the Norman conquest of England.

There’s no actual battle scene. Koppány’s supporters mosh around the stage until Stephen’s men arrive, marching in neat rows, and the pagans flee. The Loverboy-type song reprises to symbolize Stephen’s victory, the shaman plants his sword, and then silence. Another balladeer arrives with a Jethro Tull-sounding song about living in peace and mourning the dead, which is, I think, the best of the ballads in the film. Even through the lousy subtitles, I can tell that the lyrics are very well-written. The balladeer helps the shaman limp away.

Then the priests return and we go into disco beat mode as Veni Sancto Spiritus reprises. But it doesn’t last long, as we cut to… the cast party?

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That’s a wrap!

This is Stephen’s victory celebration, and we have a loungy, jaunty tune as everybody starts asking Stephen for favors.

STEPHEN’S MOM: Well distribute it between them apart with a baggy hand Koppány’s goods! / Yours this huge, beautiful country, and they the faithful / Well distribute it between them apart how his borders should be defended!

Stephen gets sick of it and flips the table, chewing everyone out to the same tune.

STEPHEN: Good-for-nothing men, buggers, soulless maids, profit-seeking! / You hide in the fights and vision you intrude before each other

But the guest of honor flipping out is no reason to stop the party, so Stephen just leaves. He encounters Koppány’s daughter, who sings a folk song asking for forgiveness, and asking if she can take her father’s body for burial. Stephen almost agrees when his mom storms in, going apeshit, with the same musical accompaniment she gets every time she condemns someone.

STEPHEN’S MOM: We quarter Koppány’s body / And we pin it up onto our castles / Let this be for the rebels sign waving forever!

I wonder if Mom is supposed to represent the Soviet leadership who pressured the Hungarian government to crack down on dissidents.

Stephen’s obviously torn. He doesn’t want to be so brutal to the defeated, but he thinks his supporters will rebel unless he cracks down on the losers. His despair is symbolized by a reprise of his “why me?” song, superimposed over an image of him double-facepalming. His wife joins in, asking for God to fill her heart with love.

So naturally, he does what the real Stephen did… he quarters Koppány. Koppány’s body is brought in on a sheet, which is torn in four pieces, and an ominous minor key version of Stephen’s song plays.

The priests return, carrying the Hungarian crown, and we get the only spoken dialogue at the coronation ceremony. Stephen voices over about wanting to be a great king, and as he’s crowned, we pan away from the stage, over the crowd, and to the skyline of Budapest, where fireworks are exploding over the Danube. The end.

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But, my Lord, if you could scale back the fog a bit, that would be great.

The test of any musical is the music, and I was thoroughly impressed by the songs in this production. (Pause for boos.) I ended up putting six of them in my iTunes playlist: “Áldozatunk fogadjátok” (the shaman’s first song); “Géza fejedelem temetése” (King Géza’s funeral march); “Szállj fel szabad madár” (Koppány’s free bird song); “Töltsd el szívünk, fényesség” (the priests’ entrance music); “Véres karat hoztam” (the shaman’s second song); and “Fejedelmünk, István” (the Loverboy-type song).

Of course, I generally like music from the late 70s and early 80s, so if you’re not so keen on the bands I mentioned in this review, you might not like this show as much as I did. On the other hand, if you prefer more modern productions, now that you know the plot, you can check out one of the other productions of this show that are available without subtitles on Youtube: there are versions from 1990, 2013, and 2015.

I asked for a second opinion from somebody who knows what she’s talking about. Here’s a capsule review from The Diva from Musical Hell:

It’s not easy to follow if you don’t know what’s going on—I think I was two thirds of the way through the movie before I realized the girl with the really nasal voice was supposed to be Koppány’s daughter. But it’s still an interesting movie. I think the best way to describe it would be a kind of Eastern Orthodox version of Jesus Christ, Superstar: there’s the mixing of classical and contemporary elements, an open-air setting dotted with ruins and scaffolding, and the early music video “we’re still playing around with the editing tools” feel to the filming style. And the singing is mostly decent—I did kind of like the guy who played Koppány, who comes off kind of like a heavy metal Khal Drogo. There are some very effective moments, like when screaming throngs surround István like the second coming of the Beatles, and some that are kind of off-putting, like the way the chorus tends to march around with their hands in the air. I mean, I get that’s probably a folk-dance thing, but it still has this weird dystopian vibe to it. Overall, if you like musicals that put contemporary spins on historical subjects (Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Spring Awakening, Hamilton) this might interest you. You should probably read the Wikipedia synopsis first, though.

What Works:
• The music effectively complements the story. Each character’s songs reveal their personality and motivations, and are pretty catchy to boot.
• The conflict is excellent. Depending on your point of view, you could view either Stephen or Koppány as the hero, and the theme of modern internationalism vs. traditional nationalism is still relevant today. (Maybe 2015’s Stephen represents the European Union?)
• The choreography is goofy, but it’s lovably goofy.

What Doesn’t:
• The subtitles are very poor. It’s almost easier to work from a plot synopsis, as Diva mentioned.
• The camera effects may have been state-of-the-art in 1984 behind the Iron Curtain, but today they’re disconcerting and lame.
• The nightmarishly long credits sequence nearly convinced me not to watch the movie.

Watch It If:
You’re curious about central European history. You’re ready to rock out with your Soviet Bloc out.

About the author

Patrick Alexander