Preview: Ute Lemper’s Rendezvous with Marlene
By: Paulanne Simmons
August 22, 2019: This September, internationally renowned singer and actress Ute Lemper will perform her solo show, Rendezvous with Marlene, five nights at The York Theatre. But the beginnings of that show go back thirty years. The story includes Lemper’s fascination with the music of the Weimar Republic and her admiration for one of its greatest composers, Kurt Weill.
In 1987, Lemper’s portrayal of Sally Bowles in the original Paris production of Cabaret had already earned her the Molière Award (the French equivalent of the Tony Awards) for Best Newcomer. But after her album Ute Lemper Sings Kurt Weill became a huge success, her career took a dramatic turn.
“This was during the Cold War and two years before the fall of the Berlin wall,” Lemper says. “Thoughts of World War II were still alive, but at the same time Germans were looking toward the future. They needed and wanted to look back and see a more progressive time.”
Soon, Lemper was spending much more of her time on tour. One of her most “unbelievable moments” on tour came when she appeared in Tel-Aviv, before an appreciative and enthusiastic audience that included Holocaust survivors, many of whom were German speakers who remembered Kurt Weill and the Weimer Republic.
Eventually, thanks to the album, people began calling Lemper “the new Marlene Dietrich.” Lemper found this so embarrassing she wrote Dietrich a letter of apology. After receiving the letter, Dietrich, who at the time was living in Paris as a recluse, called her by phone. Their conversation lasted three hours.
It took thirty years for Lemper to have the maturity to “truly empathize” with Dietrich. But eventually, that “long, intense phone call” (plus a bit of research) became the basis for her Rendezvous with Marlene, which Lemper calls a play with music.
Lemper found Dietrich somewhat “sad and bitter.” During World War II, Dietrich, who had refused to make films for the Third Reich, became an American citizen, sold war bonds and entertained American troops. In 1960, when she returned to Germany on a concert tour many people called her “traitor.”
According to Lemper, Dietrich not only talked about the “complicated story” of her life; she also revealed a few secrets. Thus, Lemper was able to “go into Marlene’s brain” exploring not only her career but also her personal life, through both dialogue and Dietrich’s iconic songs, from Berlin cabaret to Bacharach collaborations.
But Rendezvous with Marlene is, in many ways, as much Lemper’s story as it is Dietrich’s. Lemper regards bringing back the music of Berlin cabaret as her personal mission. She considers this effort even more important these days as right-wing populist governments threaten democracy in the United States and abroad.
Lemper believes the seeds the Nazis sewed in the last century are sprouting today in these governments. But she also hopes Dietrich can provide us with a role model of moral courage.
“Marlene Dietrich is not only contemporary,” Lemper says. “She’s a woman of the future. She was bisexual and gender challenging. She had an open marriage. She took a moral stand.”
Rendezvous with Marlene runs September 18 – 22 at The York Theatre Company at Saint Peter’s (entrance on East 54th Street, just east of Lexington Avenue), www.yorktheatre.org.