Falling in love again

Thirty years ago, singer and musical theatre star Ute Lemper shared a three-hour telephone call with film legend Marlene Dietrich.

The call inspired Lemper’s latest one-woman show, Rendezvous with Marlene, which Lemper is bringing to London. Cary Gee asked her what prompted her telephone call and what fans can expect from her new show

“I was in Paris, in 1998, playing Sally Bowles in Cabaret. Dietrich was 87 years old. I was 24. The newspapers at the time wrote that I was the ‘new Marlene’. I called her to apologise for the comparison to this legend.”

Why did she feel the need to apologise?

“I didn’t have to. But I felt so humbled. I just wanted to express my admiration and tell her how she had inspired generations of women, and to thank her for the political and moral courage she had shown during the war. So I called her, not really expecting an answer. Months later her spies in the theatre business tracked me down, she called me and we had a long conversation about a lot of things.”

But that was 30 years ago. Why write the show now?

“I kept the conversation in a secret compartment of my heart, only accessing it sporadically over the intervening decades until last year I thought: ‘I’m now old enough, I’ve been through so many rollercoasters myself. Like her I’m an ex-pat living in New York, with an international career. I’ve had so much craziness, adventure and sadness in my life I thought maybe now I can finally access part of this woman’s depth, her life and sorrow.”

It must have been a rather surreal experience, chatting to an old lady she had never met before but knew so much about.

‘Yes. When we spoke she was in the very last chapter of her life. She was completely isolated. She hadn’t seen her daughter for a long time, after she’d written a nasty biography. She talked about her incredible love for the poet Rilke. She told me she just wanted to talk.

“I was curious but careful not to ask too many questions. The conversation was more of a monologue! Most important was the emotional transparency she had. Obviously she was very old, and old people are often very uncensored in their remarks. She was very bitter, melancholic and incredibly sentimental about Germany and her broken relationship with her home country.”

ask Ute, who has lived in New York for many years, how her own relationship with Germany is.

“It’s very good now. I’ve just performed this show in all the big cities in Germany, including Berlin of course, which was the most meaningful place to perform. The piece really goes into her relationship with her home, but also talks about nationalism, the Nazis, extremism.

“When she was buried in Berlin in ’92 that was the moment I was playing her part in The Blue Angel. She died ten days before our opening night. A celebration of her life was planned, which we then had to cancel because neo-Nazis threatened to disrupt the performance. This was after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and Nazis were on the rise again after the loss of their identity. It was an incredible cycle of events, that at this very moment I was playing her role, in Berlin.”

I suggest that Ute, who has performed many of Marlene’s most famous stage roles, and sung many of the songs Marlene helped to make famous, must feel more than the usual connection to the role she is inhabiting?

“I am going back and forth into her skin throughout the show. I am being Marlene, and then again I am Ute, telling her story, and then again being Marlene. There are great physical numbers. We go through her time at the Blue Angel, then her great Hollywood years. There are songs by Cole Porter, Harold Arlen and Friedrich Hollaender, a great Jewish immigrant from Berlin. We go on the road with Marlene and Burt Bacharach. She was on the road with Burt for fifteen years after Hollywood decided that, at the age of 50, she was too old to be in movies anymore. It’s just a really great retrospective, a very personal homage from me, telling her story in a time warp.”

I’m interested to know how this modern-day gay icon feels about playing an original gay icon, and indeed what, in Ute’s opinion, makes a good gay icon.

She pauses to consider the question. I’m worried I might have offended her. But no.

“It’s a person of strength, emancipation, independence, seduction. At the same time masculine and feminine. It’s a person of the future basically. A person of courage, outside traditional laws and conventions of gender attraction.

“That’s the thing about Marlene. She appeared at a time when women were not allowed to have the last word. She was progressive, completely emancipated, she was not afraid to say what she thought. Ever. She thought like a boss, and acted like a lady. She was masculine in her style. She was bisexual. She had male and female lovers. She was in an open marriage, a free spirit. Completely polygamous. Insatiable!”

Of the many aspects of Dietrich’s life Ute explores in Rendezvous, is there one she admires above all others?

“That she stood up to Hitler and fought for the Americans. She had to deal with incredible pain, hurt and dilemma. She remained an outcast in Germany many years after the war. She said that the Nazis continued to cast long shadows. Because of them Germany rejected her. This was the most heart-breaking thing for Marlene. Everything else she regarded as natural emancipation. She was one of the first people to rise above normal gender definitions. She broke all those traditions.”

It almost sounds like Lemper has been waiting her whole life to play Marlene.

“I am the one holding up her banner, and telling her stories. The continuation of her voice. I make sure her stories are heard again in the new millennium. I would say I’m the most authentic person to show people again who she was.”

How does Ute hope audiences will feel after seeing her show?

‘Audiences will be intrigued, they will enjoy the musical performances, but above all they will be touched. I’ve performed the show in three languages (German, French, English) and when it gets to the most heart-breaking parts of her story you can hear a pin drop. Audiences everywhere react pretty much the same way but of course in Germany it’s especially touching. They are liberating themselves from the shadow of the Nazis.”

Ute has long been recognized as one of the greatest interpreters of song, particularly those from her native Germany. Does she actually prefer to sing other people’s songs, rather than her own?

“I love presenting songs in Marlene’s style. Her instrument was very limited. I start out as Marlene in a very simplistic way, but then I go into Ute. There’s a constant back and forth between Marlene and Ute. I always take a step further interpreting her songs in my own way.”

Would Marlene herself have enjoyed Ute’s take on her life?

“I think she would appreciate it, knowing that I was holding up her torch.”

London is almost sold out. But there is some good news for people unlucky enough not to have a ticket to the show. Ute is already planning to return to London in the autumn, to perform the show at a bigger venue. And if you can’t wait that long to eavesdrop on her conversation with Marlene, she is currently putting the finishing touches to a CD featuring 20 of the best songs from the show.

Rendezvous with Marlene is at the Arcola Theatre., London 14-19 May and then tours Europe. Go to www.utelemper.com