Ute Lemper moves like a dancer. As she gracefully folds herself into a chair, one can almost see attention and intellect snap to order. The multifaceted artist was raised in Munster, Germany, by music-loving parents. She successively took dance, voice, and briefly, piano lessons. “I can only find my emotions reflected in this universe called music.”
Like many teenagers, Lemper turned up the volume on her record player and sang along. Her choices featured Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Barbra Streisand, Stevie Wonder, and Joni Mitchell. Apartment neighbors pounded in objection. Lemper, an admitted libertine, looks mischievous when she tells me this. “No German vocalists?” I ask. “There was a cultural vacuum in the 60s and 70s. Music was superficial, easy listening.” The burgeoning performer also fronted several jazz/rock bands.
At 22, while at Max Reinhardt Drama School in Vienna, she was cast in Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Cats. Repetition and physical exertion took a toll. Neither the familial cast, nor perhaps the show itself, was all it might be. The city was as uncomfortably conservative as her hometown.
Awareness rose of Marlene Dietrich, at the time derived solely from films like Destry Rides Again and Blue Angel, “which looked old and not interesting.” She thought of Dietrich as a Hollywood star, was impressed by her acting, but found vocal phrasing “quirky.”
The role of Peter Pan took Lemper to Berlin, a shift she describes as her “wake-up call. “The incredible arts scene united creative people on both sides of the Wall …This was the community that later started demonstrations in the street, helping people think about a possible alternate future.” She marched with Montagsdemonstrationen (The Monday Demonstrations), peaceful protests against the government that swelled to hundreds, finally impelling take down of the Wall.
Encouraged by mentor Jurgen Knieper (who went on to compose the score of Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire), Lemper put together a solo evening of Kurt Weill. She deep-dove into research, appalled to discover a history of WWII Germany glossed over at school.
“No other strong repertoire in German existed at the time,” she says. “These were fascinating rebellion songs with fresh spirit illuminating untraditional, exotic characters; songs with an anti-establishment message questioning authority and political mechanism. It was my responsibility to confront and discuss the past, expressing empathy for this victim of Nazi Germany who then built a new life and career in a completely different culture.” Lemper is political and a humanitarian. Sotto voce becomes emphatic, passionate, outraged.
Dear friend Volder Sckloendorff (Oscar winning filmmaker of The Tin Drum), who was “floating around in the Hollywood scene,” took Lemper to meet Billy Wilder. “Immediately Billy said in German, You look nothing like Marlene Dietrich!” She laughs. “Marlene, she cooked chicken soup for me; she put her apron on and cleaned my house!” Lemper says imitating Wilder. “Dietrich is famous for having a putzfimmel = craziness for cleaning,” she tells me. A no nonsense dame, she would then light up, drink, and tell risque stories.
Cabaret (John Kander/Fred Ebb) took Lemper to Paris. Many French citizens hadn’t reconciled what they knew of the war. When Nazis invaded the onstage Kit Kat Klub, giant flags unfurled. Some of the audience apparently fled in distress. Recalling the moment, Lemper deeply inhales. I can almost hear the thwack as flags hit the floor! Reviews of her Sally Bowles were outstanding; she won the Moliere Award. Newspapers called her a young Marlene Dietrich.
Instead of being thrilled, she felt headlines were frivolous. “Comparisons were a compliment to me, but inappropriate,” she says. “Just because of the fact I was a young German coming up, it was not enough to compare me to a legend.” Not only did Lemper want to be judged on her own professional merits, but she knew about Dietrich’s behavior during the war and admired her immensely.
Dietrich housed refugees, created a fund with Billy Wilder to help dissidents escape, personally provided financial support, performed in USO tours close to the front, and is said to have sold more U.S. War Bonds than any other star. In 1939, she renounced German citizenship. (Dietrich herself said she did what she could under the circumstances.) Lemper felt a kinship with the icon’s outspoken political convictions and perhaps pride in a fellow German woman’s behavior.
By then an often bedridden hermit, Dietrich was living in Paris. Lemper wrote her an abashed letter of respect. DIETRICH TELEPHONED. The two women had a three hour conversation with the star breaking off, perhaps to have a drink or two, then later, much to Lemper’s surprise, calling back. She was, I’m told, controlled yet garrulous, unwilling to answer direct questions, but addressing a wide variety of subjects – particularly what happened in Germany, her feelings about songs and the story of estranged daughter Maria.
Around this time, Lemper recorded an album of Weill music that had been banned by the Nazis who called it “ Degenerate Music.” It was hugely popular everywhere except Germany. Her cover photo elicited comparisons with Dietrich.
Six days after her death in Paris, Dietrich’s specter rose again with Lemper’s opening night in a Berlin theater production of The Blue Angel, the film that made Dietrich a star in 1928. The script and director, alas, were terrible. Nine years later, Lemper headlined an enormous Berlin celebration of Dietrich’s Centennial, the first time since the war the icon was acknowledged and saluted in her native country.
Through extensive travel, more than 30 CDs, films, solo concerts, musical collaborations, songwriting, and shows, two marriages and four children, Lemper has been compared to Dietrich again and again.
About a year and a half ago, the artist received three different scripts in which she would be cast as Dietrich. She didn’t like any of them but tells me she was finally provoked to write her own show. “Now I understand the complexity and wildness of her persona and her narcissism,” she says. “She was a hedonist, hungry for people, attention, love, with an exuberant personality.”
Do you share similarities?” I ask. “There are aspects. But I’m actually scheu, as we say in German, a little timid, a little solitary,” she says. “I never go out or to parties. On stage is my living room. On stage is life through the eye of a needle, you concentrate and focus on essential moments. There I have permission to be egocentric…I can relate very much to the earthy part of her, though. Not that I’m a very good cook, but I’m into the family and community thing.” She pauses, “and living truthfully.”
Rendezvous With Marlene offers dialogue between Lemper and Dietrich based on actual conversation, loosely follows their tandem careers, shares anecdotes, and presents famous songs from Berlin Kabaret to Burt Bacharach collaborations in English, French, German, and one in Yiddish. The artist’s intention is to channel rather than imitate the icon. Holding Dietrich in high esteem, Ute Lemper is nonetheless, like the honoree, her own formidable woman. One is likely to feel the trenchant presence of two onstage at The York Theater.
Opening Photo Credits
Left: Brigitte Dummer
Right: David Andrako
All photos courtesy of the performer
Rendezvous With Marlene
619 Lexington Avenue – Enter at 54th Street
September 18-22, 2019