Ute Lemper: Chicago Is Her Kind of Town

Ute Lemper: Chicago Is Her Kind of Town Leapin’ Lemper! Just look at the way the (producing) Weisslers solved the problem of how to fill that Carlsbad Cavern-size cavity in Chicago, replacing their Broadway Velma with their London Velma -- at absolutely no loss in attitude or award: Bebe Neuwirth’s Tony-winning insolence dovetailed into Ute Lemper’s Olivier-winning haughtiness. The transition was so smooth there was barely a bleep on the screen (or stage). Despite the differences in countries, cultures and hair color, Velma remains the man-killing, headline-grabbing wanton she always was-- although, Lemper allows, the result is reached differently.

Ute Lemper in Chicago.
Ute Lemper in Chicago. (Photo by Photo by Catherine Ashmore)

Leapin’ Lemper! Just look at the way the (producing) Weisslers solved the problem of how to fill that Carlsbad Cavern-size cavity in Chicago, replacing their Broadway Velma with their London Velma -- at absolutely no loss in attitude or award: Bebe Neuwirth’s Tony-winning insolence dovetailed into Ute Lemper’s Olivier-winning haughtiness. The transition was so smooth there was barely a bleep on the screen (or stage). Despite the differences in countries, cultures and hair color, Velma remains the man-killing, headline-grabbing wanton she always was-- although, Lemper allows, the result is reached differently.

"Bebe was completely fantastic, and, believe me, it’s not easy to follow in her footsteps," she admits right off, getting odious comparisons under the carpet as soon as possible. “It was safer in London. I just did my thing, and there was nobody I was compared to. Here, people might object -- 'this blonde woman comes on, who is she?' -- but I don’t think about it very much. It’s just different because we’re different."

While Velma takes the stand in Chicago, it’s no accident she’s dragging a chair -- an homage to Dietrich, with whom Lemper is strongly associated in concerts and recordings -- so it’s no surprise she plays this prop like a harp. "She has," said London’s John Walsh, "a uniquely sexy relationship with chairs, whether sitting on them with her legs spread wide apart or stretching across them in supine languor." But he doesn’t press the Dietrich parallel; rather, "It’s more like Greta Garbo has walked on to the stage... and proceeded to impersonate Josephine Baker’s debut at the Folies Bergere."

That Dietrich allusion could also have been Bob Fosse’s way of connecting Chicago with his earlier Kander & Ebb -- the film of Cabaret -- contrasting the moral decadence of The Windy City in the twenties with that of Berlin at the same time. It’s an epoch Lemper specializes in via albums that celebrate songwriters of Germany’s pre-Nazi Weimar Republic (Kurt Weill, Friedrich Hollaender, et al.). She was planning a sequel to her best-selling "Berlin Cabaret Songs," but now that she’s an American citizen (newly relocated to Central Park West with two kids, one hubby and one nanny), she’s amending that to "American Cabaret Songs" of the same vintage (Sophie Tucker, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Ethel Waters).

Lemper got to Chicago from two kinds of cabarets: the show and the medium. She was doing a gig at The Supper Club when her American agent got her an audition to replace Ann Reinking as Roxie Hart. "Walter Bobbie, the director, said I was more of a Velma and would I like to open the show as her in London. Then I didn’t see him for half a year, till we met at the first rehearsal in London. It was incredible. I hadn’t done a musical since Cabaret in Paris ten years earlier, and that got me the Moliere Award." Yes, she saw Broadway’s current Cabaret and loved it. "I was tempted to audition for it the next day." She’s experiencing similar tugs around town from other shows she did -- Cats (Vienna), Peter Pan (Berlin), The Seven Deadly Sins (Stuttgart) -- but for six months she’ll cool her spiked heels in Chicago.