Although she starred on Broadway in Ghetto and was a top fixture on the New York cabaret scene in the seventies and eighties, Schneider's greatest successes have been achieved in Europe, primarily in Germany and Austria. Perhaps best known for her gold hit recording "Rock 'N Roll Gypsy," Schneider has also become one of the top draws in German theatre. She triumphed there as Sally Bowles in a production of Kander and Ebb's Cabaret and eventually landed the lead role of faded silent-screen star Norma Desmond in the German premiere production of Sunset Boulevard. If you've heard that cast recording — just listen to her sensational renditions of "Nur ein Blick" ("With One Look") and "Als hätten wir uns nie Goodbye gesagt" ("As If We Never Said Goodbye") on the Polydor release — you'll understand why this New York-born actress snared one of the most coveted roles on the German stage. Schneider also played three sold-out summers of another Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, Evita, at the Bad Hersfeld Summer Festival, and she has become of the finest interpreters of Kurt Weill (check out her flawless CD, "A Walk on the Weill Side"). Earlier this week, I had the chance to chat with the actress, who has an easy laugh, and whose home base is now in France. That conversation follows.
Question: I'm curious, how did your theatre career in Germany begin?
Helen Schneider: It was really a quirk of fate. When I made my first album for RCA in the United States, a producer here in Germany liked it and found me and brought me to Germany in 1976. For me, it was out of the blue, and I performed in a television show, a regional television show . . . the man who was essentially the Johnny Carson of Germany, for lack of a better description. . . . It was really more like our old Kraft musical, a variety show, everybody watched it kind of thing. Anyway, he saw that and then invited me to do his show, and then RCA Germany decided to pay attention, and it kind of all tumbled for me from there.
Q: Which RCA album was that?
HS: "So Close."
Q: I love some of the songs , especially "So Close" and "Let It Be Now," on those early albums.
HS: Oh, thank you.
Q: Was it your desire originally to be a pop singer?
HS: I have a very odd background that somehow seemed very logical to me the way it all developed, but it seemed very difficult to follow from the outside. I'm a trained classical pianist. And, then at 17 I left home [in New York]. I seemed to be headed to some kind of a professional career in piano. Then, somehow, I keyed into the tail end of the Woodstock generation and decided that blues and rock and that whole world had much more to do with the soul, which for someone like me, I guess it did, and I left home with a blues band to the hills of New England. And, I worked there with the band. We really played in every dive from, I don't know, New York to Maine for six, seven years. And I finally went back to New York, and I worked in a place called Trudy Hellers. It is now a pizza parlor [laughs]. It was the corner of Sixth Avenue and Ninth Street. It was also a dive but a rather well-known dive, and I worked for Trudy for four or five months, and I was picked up there by Jerry Weintraub who said, "Well, get her hair cut, and get her some clothes and get rid of the blues, and let's see what we have!" That's how it all kind of [started] — how my first album ["So Close"] got made. Q: What singers influenced you at that time?
HS: Oh, I don't know, so many. All the blues ladies influenced me at the time, all the blues men, I sang all the blues men's songs. But I come out of a classic background . . . every time I turned around, I was influenced by somebody else.
Q: Is there anyone today you particularly admire?
HS: Oh, I admire so many people. . . . I could tell you that there's been nobody and maybe never will be like Maria Callas and maybe there was nobody like Debbie Harry [laughs]. I learned my blues from Bessie Smith, and I learned through, almost chronologically went forward until I finally understood what Ella Fitzgerald was about. . . . A good singer is a good singer is a good singer.
Q: One of your solo shows salutes the work of Stephen Sondheim. How would you describe his work, and what does his work mean to you?
HS: I don't think in the English language, I mean as far as I know — I guess it's possible someone amazing exists but as far as I know — there is no one who is his peer. I think that his command of the language and the wedding of the music to the lyrics is really just unbelievable, and he satisfies my needs musically . . . . I did an evening of Kurt Weill and Sondheim together because, I think, that in our modern age these two people almost single-handedly, in their eras, changed our expectations of musical theatre and brought forward a kind of gray world — you know, this is not really musicals as we knew it, but neither is it opera. Kurt Weill started it with Bertolt Brecht here in Europe. They believed that if you didn't entertain the people, they didn't listen. So no matter what kind of message you had or how clever you thought you were . . . . if you weren't accessible, it was a hopeless situation. And, then he brought that same concept to America and brought authors into the musical theatre world who had never really addressed musical theatre before, people like Paul Green or Langston Hughes, Maxwell Anderson. And I think Sondheim in his world has done the same thing and has again reexamined our expectations and what you can expect to see on what is called the Broadway stage, and I think they are remarkable and wonderful.
Q: Moving on to a different composer, what was the Sunset Boulevard experience like?
HS: Oh, it was unbelievable. It was a challenge for me beyond belief. . .
Q: How did the casting come about?
HS: I was asked in and declined actually a few times because I thought that, I don't know, I thought it wasn't for me.
Q: Well, you’re actually one of the youngest Normas. . .
HS: Yeah, and then [director] Trevor [Nunn] and the folks here sent me to New York to see it and brought me here anyway, and I met Trevor and I did an audition, so to speak, . . . and I liked him very, very much, and I fell in love with the piece.
Q: What do you think of the character of Norma Desmond?
HS: I think she's one of the most complex, amazing figures certainly in theatre, never mind musical theatre. She's operatic in scope . . . . she's interesting. I never seemed to get tired of finding new things. I had a wonderful cast, which enabled me to really kind of explore the character over the two years, and it grew and it changed within the context of the direction, but it was a wonderful, wonderful experience for me, and it was my first experience operating in that much of the German language because when I first came to Germany, I did not speak German. And, I didn't speak German or work in it until 1987 when Helmut Bauman at the Theater des Westens invited me to do Sally Bowles. The deal was that he would send me to Berlitz in New York, and that began my work in the German language, which [is] quite a language [laughs]. . . . I think that it worked very well in German. The character was so wonderful for the German language because she's so dramatic and tragic, and the language is wordier. The man who adapted it is named Michael Kunze, who is remarkable. I think he will be a legend in adaptation. He created an incredible adaptation, really incredible — the words he put in Norma's mouth were astonishing. I just really enjoyed it. Like I said, it was difficult; it was quite a challenge for me, but I loved doing it.
Q: You also did one of my favorite musicals there as well, Evita.
HS: Same adapter actually.
Q: So, that was in German, too?
HS: Yes, that was in German also.
Q: Was the production the original Hal Prince staging?
HS: No — I was asked if I was interested in doing Evita for [the Bad Hersfeld Summer Festival] . . . . They periodically do musicals, but musicals different from the norm. They asked me about it, and I had never played Eva Peron, and it's certainly another remarkable figure, but playing the thousand and second Evita didn't interest me at all, frankly, and I said that, and they told me to bring my dream director and let's talk. So, I brought a man from Vienna, a remarkable director [named Hans Gratzer]. Hans is one of those amazing people because as experimental as he is, he has a great understanding of tradition. I've worked a great deal with him since Evita. We did an abstract, scaled down, black-and white Evita that was, I don't know, kind of amazing. No sets, no dancing . . . Well, there was movement. It was structured, it was formalized. The ruin that it was done in, it’s a 1,600 seat venue, it has stone walls. It's an ancient Roman Abbey . . . with these incredible arches, it's just an amazing place in the mountains of Germany, and so it's quasi open air. And the set was this stone, which was so amazing, and staircases, massive staircases and some long tables. It's rustic up there, so there's no modern staging, which meant that the non-set that did exist, which was some chairs and a table, were moved by eight men dressed as Eva's bodyguards. The only thing that's state of the art was the lighting in that place. So it was amazing. I mean the music was the original music—we did a lot of work on it and restructured a few things, but it was an interesting production. And we ran it for three years, three summers — we sold out three summers which was kind of wonderful.
Q: Does any video tape of that exist?
HS: There is some footage, but it's mostly archival footage.
Q: How about an audio recording?
Q: That's too bad.
HS: Yeah, sometimes I think so, but sometimes, honestly, I don’t know, I always have mixed feelings about stuff like that. I really love live theatre, whether it's concerts or live theatre, and one of the things that I think is so magical about it is that it's live, and something happens in the air. I don’t know what it is, and I'm convinced even in this ruin there were spirits in there, and I don't say it too often, but there's something electrical that happens between an audience and a cast in a live performance that does not always translate, in fact, never does. You can only get some inkling or souvenir to take away, but something happens that just can't be recorded — audio or visual — and sometimes I like knowing that and just carrying that memory that was more real than anything that could be recorded.
Q: Tell me a little bit about your newest one-woman show, A Voice and a Piano. How did that come about?
HS: Unfortunately, I'm old enough to have been asked to do some version of a retrospective [laughs]. . . . I don’t know if you have any of the rock records I've made here, but a couple of them were big successes for me. They went back to my blues years and brought them forward, and it's very hard rock and blues, and I was the "Rock 'N Roll Gypsy." Probably, if you asked most anyone in Germany, most would know me from those years unless they were involved in theatre. So, I came from there and then evolved into what I have done know, and all the theatre work and concerts. People were always asking me whether it was possible to put them together, and I could never justify it. And, finally, it was Hans actually. He said, "Just free associate. Just sit down and write, and see what happens, and put whatever music that seems to make sense to you, just add it." That's kind of what I did, and it worked, at least it seems to be working. We're still on tour with it in Germany. I do free associate. It's somewhat illogical. It’s a theatrical piece, and the premise is that I have arrived late for a sound check, a sound and light check for a theatrical concert in the evening, and nobody is there and nothing is working and the stage is set for a 20-piece orchestra, and there is no piano — and what am I supposed to do? In my nervousness — and I do it with Bruce Coyle, he's the piano of A Voice and a Piano — and I start trying to sing a little, and there's nothing working. And, I then start to talk. The audience, ostensibly for me — and they play along wonderfully — is just people milling around like they usually do for sound checks. And, I start just talking about myself, and I start talking about the past and each memory always ends in song, whether it takes it forward or backward; I remove chairs, so it’s a kind of deconstruction. . . . It's really fun, and by the end of the first act, of course, the sound guys show back up, the big mic is working, the stage is empty, and I say, "Let me just change really quick and we can come back on, we can really rehearse a bit with the lights, and anybody who wants to stay is welcome." The first half goes from blues, and a lot of it is a cappella, through Dylan songs, through theatre stuff, some of it is linked up by Sondheim material because it helps to tell my story. The second act is exclusively the theatre pieces that I became known for in Germany. It’s lit, and I'm costumed, and the piano's in the middle of the stage, and, you know, it’s the show.
Q: Have you ever done this show in New York?
HS: No, and I do have it in English and in German [laughs]. I would love to [though], I think it’s a really fun show, and I think it’s a big stretch. It's very entertaining, it's very funny.
Q: So what's coming up for you in Europe?
HS: Well, I'm still out with A Voice and a Piano, which is on record. It's a highlights record [Preiser Records]. Some of the stories are too long, I thought, for record, so it's been reduced. . . . German television is [also] televising it, shooting it for television [in] September — we're going into the Frankfurt area to do that. Then I have a couple of interesting projects. I just worked with a trio at the Jazz Open in Stuttgart. I've done a lot of dabbling in, although I'm certainly not a jazz singer, but I've done some work in the jazz idiom. It looks like we'll be doing some touring with this trio. . . . Then I also am working on a project with Dennis Russell Davis and a chamber orchestra on Charles Ives' song catalog, which is another huge challenge. That probably won't happen for a year . . . [but] I think it's going to really be an exciting project.
Q: So, it sounds like you're busy!
HS: You know, my life changes with a phone call. I do television work in Germany also — those are the telephone calls that can change [your life] — guest spots and miniseries and things like that.
Q: One final question: When people hear the name Helen Schneider what would you like them to think?
HS: Oh, I don’t know. I would like them to think that I’m a wonderful singer with some kind of integrity.
IN OTHER DIVA NEWS OF THE WEEK: Two-time Tony Award winner Bernadette Peters will join co-stars Tammy Blanchard and John Dossett to sign copies of the new "Gypsy" recording, which will be released on Angel Records Aug. 19. The signing will be held that day at FYE (at Sixth Avenue and 52nd Street) from 12:30 PM - 3 PM. . . . Lauren Kennedy, Jason Robert Brown and the Caucasian Rhythm Kings will perform two concerts at The Supper Club in September. On Sept. 1 and 8, Brown, Kennedy and the Kings will perform in the King Kong Room at the famed Manhattan club; show time is 8:30 PM (doors open at 7:30 PM). Tickets for the concerts are priced at $25 (cash) and a $15 food/drink minimum (credit cards accepted). Call (212) 921-1904 for reservations. The Supper Club is located at 240 West 47th Street. . . . Kennedy and Brown will also reteam for a concert version of Brown's The Last Five Years on Nov. 8 as part of the fall 2003 CooperArts series. Kennedy will portray the role of Cathy — the struggling actress — that she created in the workshop and subsequent staging at Illinois' Northlight Theatre. Brown will portray the successful novelist Jamie, created in Illinois and later played Off-Broadway by Norbert Leo Butz. The 7:30 PM concert will be held at the Great Hall at Cooper Union, located in Manhattan at Seventh Street and Third Avenue. Tickets are priced at $20 (general admission) and $15 (students and seniors, available at the door only) and will go on sale Sept. 8 through Ticket Central; call (212) 279 4200. . . . Broadway belter Linda Eder will release her newest CD on Angel Records Sept. 3. "Storybook" features an eclectic mix of pop, big band and Broadway tunes as well as a non-traditional French aria entitled "Vole Mon Age." The 15-track disc includes six previously unreleased tracks as well as seven that have been remixed and reorchestrated. Song titles include "One Bad Habit," "Is This Anyway To Fall In Love," "Till You Come Back To Me," "Where Are You Now," "The Man That Got Away,""If He Never Said Hello," "Smile," "When I Look In Your Eyes," "All The Way," "Storybook," "I Don't Remember," "When I Look At You," "Bridge Over Troubled Water," "Let Him Fly" and "Vole Mon Age." . . . . And, finally, congratulations to Carol Burnett, who is among the select group who will receive the Kennedy Center Honors of 2003. Joining Burnett for the 26th Annual Kennedy Center Honors are director Mike Nichols, musician James Brown, singer Loretta Lynn and violinist Itzhak Perlman. The 2003 Honorees will be saluted in a gala performance at the Kennedy Center's Opera House Dec. 7. President and Mrs. Bush will receive the Honorees at the White House prior to the performance. The evening — which will be filmed for TV broadcast — will air on CBS-TV in December 2003. Kennedy Center Chairman James A. Johnson said, "For the unique and extremely valuable contributions they have made to the cultural life of our nation, we honor one of the most influential musicians of the last 50 years, a nationally treasured icon of television comedy, a singer whose name is synonymous with the heartbreak and joy of country music, an extraordinary director whose career has been equally brilliant in the theater and on film, and a classical superstar of unsurpassed artistic achievement."
Liz Callaway in Concert:
Aug. 29-30 at the Stockbridge Cabaret in Stockbridge, MA
Oct. 11 with the Binghamton Philharmonic Pops in Binghamton, NY
Oct. 20 at the 14th Annual New York Cabaret Convention in New York, NY
Jan. 31, 2004 in Sibling Revelry in Boston, MA
Feb. 8, 2004 in Sibling Revelry in Riverfront, IL
May 1, 2004 in Sibling Revelry in Orono, ME
May 8, 2004 in Sibling Revelry in Purchase, NY
Barbara Cook in Concert:
Sept. 7-8 at the Ravinia Festival in Chicago, IL
Sept. 13 at the Tulsa Opera House in Tulsa, OK
Sept. 20 in Bethlehem, PA; concert with Marilyn Horne
Oct. 3 at Symphony Hall in Boston, MA; concert with Marilyn Horne
Nov. 22 at Carnegie Hall in New York, NY
Patti LuPone in Concert:
Aug. 22-23 in Passion at the Ravinia Festival in Highland Park, IL
Oct. 25 at Symphony Hall in Boston, MA (“Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda”)
Nov. 7-9 with the Houston Symphony ("Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda")
Jan. 23, 2004 at the Eissey Campus Theatre in Palm Beach Gardens, FL
Jan. 24, 2004 at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, FL
Feb. 27-29, 2004 at the Myerhoff Hall in Baltimore, MD
March 12, 2004 at the New Jersey PAC in Newark, NJ
March 13 at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, NJ
Karen Mason in Concert:
Aug. 8 at the Gala Opening of the Chicago Theater Festival in Chicago, IL
Aug. 15-16 at Odette's in New Hope, PA
Aug. 18 at the King Kong Room in New York, NY
Oct. 4 with the Chicagoland Pops Orchestra at the Rosemont Theatre in Rosemont, IL
Oct. 18 at the Emelin Theater in NY
Nov. 15 at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, NJ
Christiane Noll in Concert
Aug. 28 San Diego, CA with San Diego Symphony
Aug. 29 San Diego, CA with San Diego Symphony
Aug. 30 San Diego, CA with San Diego Symphony
Oct. 11 Chattanooga, TN with Don Pippin
Dec. 31 Des Moines, IA with Des Moines Symphony & Brad Little
Well, that’s all for now. Happy diva-watching!