Cabaret

Interview with
Ute Lemper

by Jonathan Frank

For my last cabaret interview here on Talkin' Broadway, it is only fitting that I end with a bang by interviewing one of my favorite performers. One of the most powerful and eclectic performers around, Ute Lemper got her start, ironically enough, performing in the Viennese production of Cats, where she alternated between the roles of Grizabella and Bombalurina. (An even more astonishing mental image is the concept of Ute playing the title character in a Berlin production of Peter Pan shortly thereafter.) Given her long-time association with the music of Kurt Weill and the cabaret world of the Weimar Republic, it is no surprise that her career-making role was the part of Sally Bowles in the Paris production of Cabaret (for which she won the Molière award). Most recently, she played Chicago's Velma Kelly both in London (for which she won the Olivier award) and on Broadway. Originally from Münster, Germany, Ute now resides on Manhattan's Upper West Side and is currently making the East Side's Café Carlyle her secondary home [see Jonathan's review of Ute Lemper's current show].

Ute LemperJonathan Frank:  Given the bad weather we had, how did your show go this weekend?

Ute Lemper:  It actually went fine. At first I thought that nobody was going to show up, since we had tons of cancellations thanks to the snow storm. But we ended up having tons of walk-ins and we were packed for the first show. It was a great atmosphere and I obviously made lots of snow shoveling jokes (laughs). I'm having a great time at the Carlyle - I feel quite at home there. I'm having a hard time, though, doing the same thing every night ... I'm not made for that - for continuous repetition of the same repertoire. So we're starting to juggle song order around, put in new material, and exchange numbers.

JF:   That means I'll have to come again towards the end of your run to see the changes.

UL:   You have to come and see one of my Thursday night shows at least, since I perform a completely different show those nights - I do an evening devoted strictly to the songs of Kurt Weill.

JF:  Is this a remounting of a previous show?

UL:  Not really. I haven't done something like this for at least ten years. I used to do recitals devoted to Kurt Weill in the early years of my career: the late '80s/early '90s. But I have not done something like this for a very long time. I call the show A Walk On The Weill Side and I start at the end of World War I, when Weill came to Berlin in 1918, and explore what happened to Germany in those early post-war years, as well as talk about his education, his collaborations, his first compositions and his first meeting with Bertolt Brecht. Then I look at the way he dealt with his humiliations at the hands of the Nazis, his subsequent years as an exile in France, and his compositions while there. And, finally, I look at his American compositions. So it's a very specific evening dedicated to his life and his incredible journey through various times and threats.

JF:  Sounds wonderful, especially since it sounds like you will be touching on some of his more obscure songs. Last year I saw a choral concert at Lincoln Center devoted to Weill's music and they did some material I had never heard before, including a choral number in Hebrew ... the name of which escapes me, but it was the equivalent of a Jewish mass.

UL:   I know what piece you are talking about: The Eternal Road. He wrote it when he came to the United States and it was a history of the Jewish people. It was a massive piece of theater; it was five hours long and Max Reinhard directed it. It was much too overwhelming for audiences and people didn't like it, but I imagine excerpts from it would be exciting.

JF:  I need to see if it was ever fully recorded.

UL:  The year 2000 saw a big Kurt Weill celebration here in New York as it was his centennial year as well as marking the 50th anniversary of his death. I know that during the centennial celebration, John Mauceri, who was the conductor for my two Kurt Weill albums, researched The Eternal Road and performed the whole show at the Brooklyn Academy, so maybe it was recorded. [It wasn't then, but in 2003 a highlights disc was recorded by Milken Archive of American Jewish Music .]

JF:  Why do you identify with the songs of Kurt Weill so strongly?

UL:  His material was the beginning for me as a performer; it is my root repertoire. When I was seventeen and still in high school I did a big summer seminar in Salzburg, Austria. It was six weeks long, which was the extent of summer vacations from school in Germany at the time, and in it I learned all about Weill's compositions and was set on fire by them, especially his German repertoire as I barely spoke English at the time. It was just so fresh and revolutionary, provocative, full of spirit, aggressive and powerful, as were the characters he created with Brecht. I just loved it.

After high school, I went to drama school and kept going back to the Kurt Weill repertoire. After I got out of drama school - I was twenty or twenty-one - I conceived for myself a recital of Weill's music that I would perform in gymnasiums. People would be sitting on benches and I would be performing in my leather pants, a t-shirt and no make up. I would just go out there and sing the songs in order to educate the people about what happened to Kurt Weill as a German Jewish composer during the days of the Weimar Republic and how he was treated by the Nazis. I used to read quotes from the Nazi papers that trashed Weill's music, his character and personality, calling him a monkey and a Negro, and all these other racist remarks that were heaped upon the Jews during that time.

I took this to be a mission for my life - to bring this information to a different generation of Germans. Because my generation - I was born in 1963 - we, obviously grew up with a good education about what happened under Hitler, but not on a personal level of grief. It was treated as 'history' and even though it was close history, it was just something that wasn't spoken about too deeply with parents or teachers, because you would stump them with questions about 'responsibility' or 'collective guilt' - about being a soldier in the war and knowledge about what was happening to the Jews. There were all these questions but somehow a vacuum of answers.

As a result, I read as much as I could about this time. My identity as a German was really twisted and sorrowful as I didn't know how to deal with it. For example, during my first trip to America in the early '80s, I would meet a young man at a café and we would start talking ... hooking up a little. He would say, "You have an accent ... where do you come from?" I would say, "Germany" and that was the end of the discussion. People were brought up with very simplistic visions on both sides of the ocean. For him, as an American Jewish man, it was the simplistic vision that all Germans are bad. For me, it was a vision that my parents didn't know what was happening, end of story. These were two simplistic ways to get out of a very complicated situation. So for me, reiterating Kurt Weill's fate as well as his fabulous compositions, was a mission to help clarify the simplistic visions.

JF:  You've performed his works in concert and have recorded a number of his songs and shows. Have you ever wanted to perform in one of his shows on stage, such as Lady In The Dark or The Threepenny Opera?

UL:  To tell you the truth, I started recording all the works of Weill very early in my career and after I did that, I wanted to move on. I reached the point where I wanted to explore other music: the whole Berlin cabaret universe that didn't involve Weill, the French repertoire ... Plus, I didn't want to get stuck in a production for half a year and only play that one part. I was never that much intrigued by that, and whenever I slipped into a musical part where I had to play the same thing night after night, it was very difficult for me to handle.

JF:  You like the variety that cabaret or concert offers.

UL:  Yes, I like to be able to change material on a whim and play with a far larger scale of personalities in the songs, from comedic, to dark, to angry to philosophical ... I like to have a far larger arc of expression.

JF:  How did you discover the songs from the Weimar Era of cabaret?

UL:  I was under contract with Universal/Decca in London since 1985 and recorded two Kurt Weill albums for them, plus a recording of The Seven Deadly Sins, which I will be performing, by the way, at the Brooklyn Academy on March 26th. [More information here]. At the time, classical music labels were still booming and they wanted to record the entire catalogue of 'degenerate music' - the music that was banned by the Nazis. So, in addition to classical works, like those by Schoenberg and Goldberg, they did a double CD of Berlin Cabaret songs from the Weimar Republic - basically the world of the musical Cabaret. We fished out from the archives hundreds of songs, many of which had never been recorded, and chose eighteen of the best. They were incredible to sing, as the songs are highly political and satirical.

JF:  I'm amazed that you were able to find music for those songs, considering how much was destroyed by the Nazis during that era.

UL:  We had an excellent researcher, Michael Haas.

JF:  You performed a concert based on the Berlin Cabaret Songs CD in Jerusalem. How was the material received there?

UL:  It was an incredible experience: I felt at home because everybody spoke German (laughs)! In 1989 you still had a lot of direct immigrants from Germany and Austria who at least spoke Yiddish and could understand German. That generation probably doesn't exist now, but it was amazing how at ease it was. It felt wonderful. Later on I was invited to perform a Kurt Weill evening with the Israel Philharmonic in Tel Aviv.

JF:  The Berlin Cabaret Songs CD is remarkable in that you recorded two versions of it: one in the original German and the other with English translations. Did you do the translations yourself?

UL:  No. A fabulous translator named Jeremy Lawrence did them. He's an actor/performer himself who was just in Five by Tenn at Manhattan Theater Club.

JF:  The album is one of my favorites and I put it on the other day. It's more than a little frightening how many of the songs on that CD are relevant today.

UL:  Yes: so many of those songs still resonate, like "Life's a Swindle." And "Münchhausen," which is a centerpiece in my show at The Carlyle, is just breathtakingly relevant given its treatment of social rights and how they are being compromised.

JF:  Plus there are gay rights anthems on the CD, like "The Lavender Song" or "Maskulinum-Femininum."

UL:  Yes ... but I feel much better singing those songs at Joe's Pub than at the Carlyle. (laughs)

JF:  You do get around in this town. I tried to see you at The Bottom Line a few years ago but the show was sold out.

UL:  Oh, I loved that space. It's too bad that it closed. It was bigger than Joe's Pub but had such a great intimate downtown vibe to it.

JF:  You are an incredibly eclectic performer. Your material ranges from German protest songs, to Kander and Ebb and Sondheim, to contemporary pop writers like Nick Cave, Tom Waits and Elvis Costello ...

UL:  They all build on top of each other. The Weill and Berlin songs were my root repertoire. That led to my exploration of the French chanson universe while I was living in France, and then I went to London and started performing minimalist music by Michael Nyman [who wrote the music for Peter Greenaway's Propero's Books, which featured Ute as Cerces]. And when I moved to New York I started exploring contemporary songwriters like Tom Waits, Nick Cave and Elvis Costello. In Blood and Feathers, I do a 'moon medley' that features songs by Joni Mitchell, Tom Waits and Sting - songs I have always wanted to sing but thought it would be silly to do so since they would be 'covers.' But to put them in a medley with a certain symbolism linking them together - the moon and temptation - then I could do them.

JF:  Does the cabaret scene still exist in Berlin?

UL:  Yes, it does. There was a big renaissance after the fall of the Wall - after 1989. Suddenly all these clubs sprang up like mushrooms in both the East and the West. But it wasn't like what Americans think of as cabaret: there were acrobats, vertical rope performers, belly dancers, political satirists, singers, clowns, pantomimes, jugglers - just like how it was in the '20s. Unfortunately, it became a commercial item for about ten years and is running down right now.

JF:  So none of this 'cabaret as therapy or autobiography' type of show that is so prevalent in American cabaret?

UL:  Oh no! That is the American model, isn't it? People telling anecdotes from their lives, saying what happened backstage in that show, how the costume ripped during this number or the scenery fell on her neck ... no. (laughs) That's not how I do it, I'm afraid ... I take a much more European approach: much more concept oriented. Although in Blood and Feathers I do an homage to Fred Ebb, which I hadn't thought of doing until I was doing an interview with Playbill and the guy playfully asked me if I was going to do one, given my successes with Cabaret and Chicago and Fred Ebb's recent death. He teased me, but I thought it was a brilliant idea.

JF:  And it was. The way you combine works by Piaf and Weill to act as counterpoint and commentary on the Kander and Ebb songs that they inspired ... it was an incredible way to end the show.

UL:  Thank you. I wouldn't have done it at Joe's Pub, but since The Carlyle is more mainstream, and since the audiences there will come in knowing those two shows by heart, it seemed like the right place to do it. I always love singing those songs, especially "Cabaret," since it is such an upbeat, 'fuck-you' song. It's such an existentialistic song! The funny thing is, though, I had to send my boyfriend to Colony Records to get the songbook! (laughs)

JF:  How was Cabaret staged in Paris?

UL:  [Director] Jérôme Savary staged it very provocatively. Sally Bowles was certainly a prostitute as well as a nightclub singer in the production - I was only wearing a g-string at times on stage! And during the scene where the Nazis take over the club, there were these immensely large flags with Swastikas on them ... the whole curtain for the show was a Swastika at one point. And the girls all had Swastikas on their butts. It was quite a provocative production for 1987, which is why it won all the theater awards that it did: it was almost like an Oliver Stone movie as it was over the top in provocation. It was very exciting to be hit in the head with it.

The French have their own issues with the occupation and collaboration with the Nazis, and the way they delivered the Jews to the Nazis ... they have their own aspect of guilt. And for the French to see this production ... it was very terrible to see and a lot of people had to leave, especially those who had lived through the years of Nazi occupation.

JF:  Are you working on any new albums?

UL:   I'm currently working on an album of original songs by me. Last September I performed a show of original material at Le Jazz Au Bar for two weeks. It got such a great response, which was thrilling as I wasn't sure if people would like my songs or not.

JF:  What style of music is it?

UL:  It's political, contemporary music: very groovy, beautiful mellow chords, some complicated compositions, some very straightforward, some simple love songs, some songs about September 11th ... a very contemporary album. The song "Blood and Feathers" is going to be on it as well.

JF:  I'm glad you're recording it as it is a beautiful number.

Are you doing any more work on the show Nomad?

UL:  No. It was a very expensive show. It was directed by Robert Carsen and created for the Chatelet Theatre in Paris and they could not even bring it on the road! It was an enormous show with an orchestra, dancers, huge scenery ... I took the best songs from that show and have been using them in my repertoire though! (laughs)

It was very serious and dealt with various situations of human oppression as it was about a woman in exile. It started with the fall of the Berlin Wall and then went back in time to World War II with all these Hanns Eisler songs that were very anti-war/pro-human rights. Then it went through the whole Hebrew/Arabic conflict. I even sang a few songs in Russian ... one was an a cappella love song sung by a Latvian woman in a gulag, which was a fabulous number. It was a very overwhelming and theatrical piece to do.

JF:  Did it get recorded at all?

UL:  They tried to record it for DVD but the lighting was so low that it didn't come out the way that they wanted.

JF:  You started out as a dancer - you even had a ballet created for you by Maurice Bejart [entitled "La Mort Subite"] in 1990. And you did the "Hot Honey Rag" every night while you were in Chicago on Broadway and in London. Do you still dance?

UL:   I'm not lusting to go back into it, but I do keep in shape! I still do my dance training every day in my living room, which is a great way to stay limber and strong.

JF:  Do you have a desire to return to the theater anytime soon?

UL:  Actually, I've been approached to play Jenny in an upcoming production of The Threepenny Opera. But Jenny doesn't get to sing "Pirate Jenny!" It's a song for Polly, who is the young and innocent character. Lotte Lenya got to do it in later productions after she begged to do it, but this production would give "Pirate Jenny" and "Barbara Song" and all those great songs back to Polly, and Jenny would just get "Solomonsong" and one other number ... so I'm not sure if I really want to do it! (laughs) I would rather do my Kurt Weill evenings in which I get to do whatever songs I want to sing - including the men's numbers!

JF:  Ever think about doing some of Brecht's non-musical works? Such as Mother Courage?

UL:  I don't know ... I'm not sure how I would be performing it in English. I would have to think about it. Manhattan Theater Club asked me to audition for a play they are putting up: A Picasso. It's a two person play. But I can't do it! It opens in April and I'm booked until the late fall doing concerts and I can't break those contracts. I don't know how actors do it. They get a call to audition for something that starts in a month ... my life is booked through 2006 right now! (laughs) I would need to be bought out of these contracts, which would only work for a movie not a play.

JF:  Speaking of movies ... my first exposure to you was via Robert Altman's Prêt A Porter.

UL:  (laughs) And I was definitely exposing myself in that film!

JF:  Do you have any desire to do more films?

UL:  I would love to. Right now, though, my priority is to record my album.

JF:  When is the hoped for release date?

UL:  Hopefully we'll finish recording it in May/June so we can release it in the late fall.

JF:   And then what?

UL:  There might be a live CD in the works that would contain material from a concert I did in Central Park and at the Monterey Jazz Festival. Also, they are looking at recording the show at The Carlyle.

JF:  Great! I will look forward to hearing it all. And to revisit The Carlyle for Weill and Blood & Feathers.

UL:  Thank you.


Ute Lemper performs Blood & Feathers Tuesdays through Saturdays at The Café Carlyle (76th and Madison Avenue) through February 26th (except on Thursday nights, when she will perform A Walk On The Weill Side). For more information visit www.thecarlyle.com or call 212-570-7189. For more information on Ute, visit her website: www.utelemper.com.


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