After making a name for herself playing Sally Bowles in a French production of Cabaret in 1987, singer-actress Ute Lemper was encouraged to make an album featuring songs from that show and other pop and Broadway tunes. The CD was called Life is a Cabaret. Since then she’s proven herself to be one of the most daring and innovative singers of her generation. Tomorrow night she will present Last Tango In Berlin, an overview of her diverse career, at the Wallis Annenberg Theatre in Beverly Hills.
“I wander off through time and my life and how music and culture identified me,” she says of the show. “It is a concert that represents the core of my musical journey. A lot of people went from Berlin to Paris to New York. It is my journey, too, but in a post-war time. It could be a journey of continent to continent and culture to culture but staying truthful to the root of who I am.”
The show features songs by Kurt Weill, Jacques Brel, Astor Piazzolla, and some of Lemper’s own compositions. “Hopefully it can touch some kind of dimensions of truth,” Lemper says. “You could touch some kind of deeper understanding in the audience with this material. I’m interested in digging into life and its losses and solitudes and failures and impossibility to understand this complicated and long journey.”
Lemper includes a special section in her show that recognizes the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. “Many composers made it out of Germany, but there were a huge number that didn’t,” she says. “There was a [concentration] camp for the cultural elite, and composers were encouraged to keep writing to show off that the Nazis had a humane camp. There was unbelievable creativity in those years—a huge number of works created. But everyone there was sent to Auschwitz to be killed. Most of it is in Yiddish. The stories are completely, unbelievably heartbreaking. Some of them reflect the suffering, the slaughter of children, and the horrors of the camp. Others were entertaining as they were asked to write material to entertain the audiences and the Nazis who came to the show.”
In addition to appearing in Cabaret, Lemper appeared on Broadway in the long-running revival of Chicago in 1998 as Velma. Theatre music has always been close to her heart. On her 1995 recording, City of Strangers, Lemper included her reliably eclectic mix of songs. Amongst them were four songs by Stephen Sondheim. On her rendition of “Losing My Mind” from Follies, she genuinely sounds like she’s about to lose her mind. “My music director came in from Paris and he wrote these crazy arrangements,” she reveals. “We were invited to Sondheim’s house, and we played “Ladies Who Lunch,” and he almost fell off his chair. He was so shocked by this arrangement. We didn’t know if it was for good or bad.” She lets out a huge laugh. “Sondheim is such a fantastic writer who is, like no one else, able to combine dialogue and words with music kind of in a European manner. I like the universe of chord changes, and harmonics. They are completely in my pocket.”
When asked about that first record,Life Is a Cabaret, and her thoughts on her career since its release, Lemper becomes a bit philosophical. “In one way it does seems like yesterday because things happen so quickly and time passes so rapidly,” she says. “Yet the fire that I carried in myself is still the same fire I have today. I really enjoy what I’m doing and feel completely free and young at heart. I’m in a timeless, ageless zone with me and my body. I don’t care how many wrinkles I have on my face. The only thing I don’t have is a big future in front of me. I’m very grateful and privileged to have thirty years of experience. Anything could have happened. Life is a carousel rather than a cabaret. It’s a fucking roller coaster.”