Zeppelin: the man, the machine, the musical | Music | DW | 29.05.2017
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Zeppelin: the man, the machine, the musical

A new musical inspired by the life of the Graf von Zeppelin looks at the man behind the flying airship and the fatal Hindenburg disaster of 1937. Here we look at the machine and its colorful history.

The dream of flight seems to be as old as mankind itself. Yet it wasn't until the turn of the 20th century that inventors were able to get their feet off the ground. While the Wright Brothers were running and leaping with wings in North Carolina, USA, the Graf von Zeppelin was working to make airship flight a reality on Germany's Lake Constance.

The man: Graf von Zeppelin

In Germany, Count Zeppelin has become something of a legend. A military man who grew up near Lake Constance, the nobleman spent time in several countries during his military career - including the US, working as an observer during the Civil War. His love for travel and new experiences ignited his ambition to build the world's first passenger blimp. In 1898, he founded an organization dedicated to the advancement of airship travel.

In 1900, he and dozens of others attempted the first launch of an airship - and succeeded in getting something a few meters off the ground. Zeppelin persisted despite drawing the attention of disbelievers. Kaiser Wilhelm II is said to have called him the "fool from Lake Constance," and the "dumbest man in Germany."

A fiery accident in 1908 which could have been a setback became the launching pad to success, as it drew a six-million-mark donation that funded increased innovation.

By the start of World War I, zeppelins were in common use, at least for military purposes.

The rigid airship consisted of an aluminum structural framework wrapped in tarp-like canvas material and made of gas bags, filled with gas lighter than air to lift the structure. Helium was often used, as well as hydrogen.

By the time Count Zeppelin died in 1917, the airships were used in bombing raids for the German military and Kaiser Wilhelm II had eaten his words. He declared that Zeppelin, thanks to the airship named after him, was "the greatest German of the century."

Zeppelin Museum in Friedrichsafen (Photo: DW/C. Tenz)

At its height, airship travel was widely promoted as the luxurious way to see the world

Hindenburg: the machine

After his death, Zeppelin's successor Hugo Eckener saw the airship company blossom. Passenger airships became a reality and zeppelins were soon competing for the business of wealthy patrons eager to make a transatlantic crossing without the delays of a slower-moving cruise liner. The Graf Zeppelin took flight in 1928 and ferried passengers over 590 times. Shortly after, the Hindenburg took to the skies. Airship travel seemed to be the way of the future. Even the Empire State Building, the tallest in New York at the time of its construction in 1931, was created with a zeppelin docking station in mind.

That dream came crashing back to earth after a fatal accident in 1937, when the Hindenburg caught fire on descent before plummeting to earth in Lakehurst, New Jersey. The Graf Zeppelin airship returned to Germany from its trip to Brazil and though the technology continues to be put to use, passenger airship travel ended.

placard advertising Zeppelin Das Musical (Photo: Gallissas)

"Zeppelin: The Musical" is in search of the right stage setting

Zeppelin: the musical

The Hindenburg disaster as well as the unique biography and can-do attitude of its namesake inspired Schlager rock musician and record producer Ralph Siegel to create a musical based on the Zeppelin, appropriately named, "Zeppelin: das Musical."

Still in pre-production, the musical is to feature a cast of 18 characters taking the stage for two and a half hours. A reading of the work, previewing its music and songs, will be first held in Berlin on May 29. 

Perhaps best known for his contributions to the Eurovision Song Contest, Siegel has registered over 2,000 songs with the German music agency. He's brought author Hans Dieter Schreeb on board to create the manuscript. This will be Siegel's seventh musical; all of the songs in "Zeppelin" are created for the musical.


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